Reflecting on this series as a public work

Part 7: A meta-conclusion to the Public Intellectuals series

This series has been the product of a five-month long discussion between myself and Cliff Lampe, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, as a culmination of my undergraduate education. We began with punditry but soon realized that — while it is an interesting topic — the type of pundits that were the most relevant to us were those who held doctoral degree and were, or used to be, academics. The more I looked at public intellectuals and heard about Cliff’s own experiences doing public-facing work, the more I realized that this was a scarcity issue where supply wasn’t meeting demand.

It’s hard to imagine that in the “Information Age” that there could be a dirth of any kind of information, but for current research — even important and relevant research — this is true. Media sometimes discusses it in very simple terms or with an opinionated slant, rather than discussing it in an unbiased, exploratory manner. We considered the idea that this was what the public demanded, but the TED talk study demonstrated that when the medium was accessible, popular audiences responded positively to academics.

This series has not just been an exploration of public intellectualism — it is a public work itself and has allowed me to experience first hand what it is like to discuss important research with broad audiences. Translational scholarship is not easy. I struggled with finding a way to discuss primary research in a way that wasn’t alienating to audiences either because it was too low-brow or high-level.

Then there was the task of making it interesting. Many research studies speak for themselves, but others are only interesting once the writer has made a compelling case for why one should read the work — often because it discusses an important issue or fills a gap in knowledge. Academics do this in a literature review; public intellectuals must be more creative.

In the interest of being interesting, I broke the discussion up into 2-minute blocks that were designed to be read in sequence without long breaks between like when one binges on an entire series of 20-minute episodes on Netflix. Cliff looked at the short posts and immediately discredited them simply because they were brief and thought two larger articles would be a better format to convey the material. Academics don’t believe in pandering to audiences, one of the reasons the stigma is so strong against public intellectuals even amongst self-aware academics.

It wasn’t easy to write both to get the point across in an informative, unbiased way and to keep readers engaged, but it was incredibly fulfilling. I enjoyed taking research studies that I had put in the time to understand into plain english so that any educated reader could easily process them. I liked taking a topic that I had been thinking about for almost half a year and presenting my thoughts for others to ponder and discuss. Of course, the Everest of any public work is to “Make A Difference” and that would be a great achievement, but the benefit of putting this series out into the world for others to think about was gratification enough.