>There’s been a discussion on the Cultural Studies Association of Australia email list today about an article that appeared in the Australian. It was a piece that expressed disappointment in a conference that purported to be about “everyday multiculturalism.” The disappointment seemed to stem from the fact that the conference welcomed papers that addressed certain aspects of theory about the everyday. There was some snide commentary about big words and not using terms to which the layperson could relate.
I think the author of this article (found here) missed a crucial point: a conference about the everyday means it’s talking about the concept/idea/lived experience of the everyday. It doesn’t mean it takes place in everyday language or is meant to be relatable to everyday communications. It’s an academic conference. It’s a special animal in its own right. That said, and as one of the organisers of the conference said rather defensively (and justifiably, I think), participants in the conference aren’t just academics, and the assumption that only academics are interested in theoretical applications for everyday situations is deliberately misleading. It assumes a lowest common denominator of interest/engagement from those outside the academy, which is as elitist a perspective as the ones the author chooses to criticise.
The piece wasn’t quite an anti-intellectual rant, like the ones we see regularly in the Herald. I found it much more disturbing because it came from someone who is doing a PhD right now. Someone who knows the author came to her defence and said that (paraphrasing) “her heart was in the right place.” I couldn’t help an internal “Oh puh-lease!” at that because, if the intent of the author was to encourage academics to bridge public sphere and ivory tower arenas, publishing a lambasting of one’s colleagues’ initiatives in a conservative national newspaper is hardly the most constructive way to do it.
That said, I’d agree with most others who agree that there needs to be more connection and dialogue between university researchers and the public sphere/media. I don’t think, however, that this means university research must take place in ‘everyday’ language and be totally comprehensible to watchers of A Current Affair. We operate in a specialised environment with its own codes and language, and that’s the way it should be in any specialist field. The key is being able to shift between modes of communication: from making our research findings and questions pertinent and interesting to our peers at conferences or symposia, to being interviewed on mainstream radio or TV. It’s spurious for the author to be put off from submitting a paper to the conference because of the CFP’s supposedly “elite intellectual language.” Remember, this person’s supposedly doing a PhD. What’s a PhD if not an intellectual exercise? It irks me that people choose to enrol in what is by definition an elite undertaking, then try to distance themselves from what they (and the university) do: produce new knowledge or understanding. Yes, you tend to end up knowing more about particular areas than just about anyone else out there, hopefully in ‘real’ and theoretical terms, in context and with an awareness of how situations may develop or change. That’s the whole frickin’ point of scholarship.
I also had to curl my lip a little when the author went on about how academics ‘chose to remain above the fray’ and publish in obscure places and speaking only to other researchers. Has she even thought about the fact that most mainstream media outlets couldn’t be arsed about reporting nuanced or complex issues? They want the catchy sound bite, the controversial insult, the rallying scapegoating…exactly what the author delivers, in other words. Anyone who wants to talk about an issue (e.g. Cronulla riots, which is the example that is most salient here) in shades of grey rather than black and white (unfortunate, sorry) isn’t particularly welcome, I’d argue. Some run the risk of providing the catchy sound bite, then try to tease out the issues with more complexity later, only to find that their reasoned, more detailed comments are deleted.
I’m not saying that academia can’t do more to garner more engagement and participation in intellectual and political discussions. The author implies that just because the conference addresses a current issue (Cronulla) in ‘intellectual terms,’ it won’t find purchase in non-intellectual circles. In my (outrageously elitist, I’m sure) understanding, intellectualism isn’t the exclusive domain of those in universities. I don’t think those outside universities would appreciate being referred to as non-intellectual and, on a really basic level, doesn’t ‘being intellectual’ mean thinking about things and asking one’s own questions…?