>Ivory towers and the everyday

>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…?

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5 thoughts on “>Ivory towers and the everyday

  1. Galaxy 30/07/2006 / 7:47 am

    >I’d like to challenge the assertion that university researchers don’t communicate with/in the public sphere/media. In fact I think it’s a thesis topic in its own right, with lots of arduous content analysis counting how often academics comment in the media. An academic is always trotted out as an expert on the topic at hand, whether that be in documentaries or on current affairs/discussion programmes on television and radio. Isn’t that communication? Isn’t that openness and engagement? The academics I know are always being asked to comment in the mass media on something or other.

  2. dogpossum 30/07/2006 / 11:13 am

    >I feel your crankiness, Tseen, but I had a slightly different response (over here on my own blog). I wonder if the fact that I’d first heard Dawson commenting intelligently on telly stuff on the ABC affected the way I read her article? I’d actually been thinking that her research sounded interesting…I wonder if she’ll go to the multiculturalism conference, and if she did, if anyone’d talk to her?(btw, I enjoy reading your blog, and wish you’d write more on Academia 101!)

  3. Tseen 31/07/2006 / 1:07 am

    >Hi KirstyI’d agree that university researchers do communicate in the way you describe, and there are certainly a group of acas who are high profile and ‘regulars’ as expert commentators. I guess the thing with the format they’re often brought in to participate in is the un-conversational style; they’re not usually asked to be part of a discussion but wheeled in for a ‘statement’ and then they exit stage left… I know this isn’t always the way but it’s the style I’ve seen most often. I’m not disagreeing that many acas do actively seek wider fora for their work’s results/engagements. If anything, I think acas seek these conversations and are often thwarted by media who aren’t interested in non-sound-bitey stuff (see Mark D’s comments on the list – it’s a big, bad world out there in Packer-Murdoch land…). T.===========Hi Sam Man, do you know how freaky it is to discover people actually read this thing? 😉 I mostly think of it as an archive for stuff from my asian-australian lists, with my occasional rants and scattered ramblings thrown in just cos I can. Oh, hang on, that’s what blogging IS, eh? Re impressions of the author – yes, I have some, too. Mostly not amenable to e-transmission (not because of scandalousness, mostly because of administrative reasons…). I’m hardly unskeptical about aca language and the wankage that often goes on in the name of theoretical discussion. What gets me riled is when people disavow the mechanics of their field, and I do have issues with the expectation (as Felicity C. mentioned) that all academics should also endeavour to be public intellectuals. Off to read your entry. :)T.PS: Re Academia 101 – thank you! V. glad that you find it useful. Pls feel free to nudge me with topics. I’m feeling a tad uninspired. 😉

  4. Galaxy 31/07/2006 / 5:30 am

    >The other thing about Dawson’s comments is that they ignore the world of blogging, which is not surprising in the context of The Australian. There are lots of conversations and discussions going on between academics and non-academics in the chatty world of blogs. Okay, it’s not the consecrated arena of ABC Radio or the broadsheets (and I agree about the nature of those engagements), but there is so much working out of ideas and thoughts, and stoushes going on, that I think the claims made by Dawson are spurious or at least on their way to being so–but they certainly serve the Oz’s bizarre agenda.

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