Irrelevant or Engaged?

ConnectingDotsby Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

When Nicholas Kristof declaimed in his New York Times column that “Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates,” he, unsurprisingly, unleashed some backlash from the academic community. Kristof’s central argument—that the academy is too busy speaking to itself in coded jargon through peer-reviewed journals to speak to the culture at large—was criticized for failing to take notice of the mass of academics engaging the broader culture through social media.  While Kristof’s piece needlessly stereotypes academics as uninfluential and apathetic about their lack of cultural consequence, his overarching point is a plea to academics to engage further with the culture, as seen in the last line:  “So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks—we need you!”

Both sides of the conversation started by Kristof’s opinion piece seem to be in agreement about one crucial thing:  they want academics to communicate more with the culture.  They agree that there is a need for professors to take on a public role, to engage in practical, daily realities, both through public writing and action.

Interestingly, the exchange between Kristof and his critics about the relevancy of academics in the culture has thus far failed to mention one way in which professors already influence culture to a great degree:  teaching.  Kristof critic Corey Robin mentions teaching, but only as an obstacle—in the form of heavy course loads—to the work of public engagement.  And yet, through daily interaction with students, professors profoundly interact with, and even form, the broader culture.  Certainly, if they teach in a vacuum, professors may choose not to engage with students in their situated reality. But, especially if we take seriously the mission to educate the “whole person,” the work of teaching has the capacity to engage in the public sphere by “let[ting] the gritty reality of this world into [our] lives.”

Public engagement can take many forms, and classroom interaction is not the least of these.  Professors can shift course material from an insulated academic experience into an experience with relevance in the public realm of students’ lives by taking intentional steps.  This move toward engagement may be as simple as introducing space for critical reflection into the course.  By encouraging students to think, talk, and write about how the material of the course relates to their lives, professors guide students to connect the dots that make the academic material relevant to their public lives.  Patti Clayton provides some practical steps for effectively incorporating critical reflection into a course.

When possible and appropriate, professors may also have students engage in mandatory or extra-credit community work.  Getting students involved in real world situations may make them more attuned to the meanings inherent in the classroom content.  When I most recently taught “Advanced Strategies in Rhetoric and Research,” the course focused on studying the causes of and arguing for a solution to a social justice issue.  Students’ final project was to write a proposal for a local way to ameliorate the social justice issue they had researched all semester.  I included an extra credit option for students to put an aspect of their proposal into action.  Even though not all of the students chose to get involved in local activism, the possibility of their own involvement remained in the background as they thought and wrote about their social justice issue.  Rather than my telling them how rhetorical choices were relevant to social justice concerns, students began coming to class with stories of how they saw instances of injustices in their daily lives. They began weighing and debating issues of privilege and blame and considering what could be done to ameliorate the problems they witnessed daily.  They listened more carefully to the rhetorical choices made in each other’s arguments, and they thoughtfully crafted arguments of their own.  They energetically refined their research skills, fueled by a need to know that was, in turn, fueled by a need to act.

When students themselves are connecting the dots between what they learn in an academic setting and what they encounter in their lives outside the academy, they make the connection between monastic academic knowledge and the streets.

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