A Conversation on Scholarship, Storytelling, and the Public Humanities

This edited email exchange developed from an informal discussion at the RCC on the role of the writer in communicating environmental issues. Many points of interest and contention emerged – so many, in fact, that RCC fellows are looking at how to discuss them in more detail. We hope that these initial contributions from Don, Cameron, Jenny, and Elin will give you a flavor of the current and future debates. 

pic_worsterDon Worster: We are all writers, it seems to me, and we all need to be concerned about improving the standards of good writing of many types. I resist the common distinction between “academics” and “writers.” There are so many kinds of writing that need to be done, and each kind should be done well. We cannot keep them hermetically sealed from each other, but we should respect differences in writing and strive to make all kinds of writing better.

My own kind of writing, I have no doubt, is “scholarly writing.” Telling stories and telling them well is an art that I appreciate. I read a lot of fiction. I do not see myself, however, as a storyteller primarily. I have no compelling interest in entertaining, being amusing, making fun of anybody, extolling anybody, or insisting on moral certitudes. Nor do I think a scholarly historian should merely give an account of past events, without analysis or explanation. Instead of putting more emphasis on storytelling, scholars should first learn to do better research, better analysis, and better explanation.

Like scientists, we scholars in the humanities should leave the entertainment and popular appeal to others. We should keep our emotions under control and largely private. That is how we serve the public, the taxpayers, and the universities that support us. In the end, it seems to me that, like Charles Darwin or the scientists involved in researching climate change, we can have a great (if long-term and often hard to trace) impact on public understanding. But we do so by teaching our students to respect scholarship and its rigorous demands, by speaking to other scholars much of the time in terms that the public may not find interesting or easy to follow, and – yes – by publishing in peer reviewed journals and presses much of the time.

Any popular writer who is not in the entertainment business to a great extent will find it difficult to eat. We can hope that popular writers offer more than entertainment, although sometimes entertainment is enough. But it is not, in my humble opinion, what the scholar in science or the humanities should primarily seek to offer. And if only ten outer serious-minded people read our scholarly writing, then that is enough – enough someday perhaps to change the way the world knows and thinks.

pic_muirCameron Muir: One weekend in February 2009, 173 people died as a consequence of bushfires in a village in rural Victoria, Australia. Among the dead were three young friends – Greg, Melanee and her brother Jaeson – who huddled together over a bathtub as the fire raged closer, after pleading for advice and help from their parents. At 6.18 pm Greg called his mother from his mobile phone. He told her, “We are in the bathroom together, Mum. I love you very much and I am dying. I want you to know we are okay together.” He was calm. There was a click on the phone and then nothing.

Reading about this event, I was struck by the courage and maturity of these 20 year-olds in the face of death. But a broader point about writing and academia subsequently emerged. In the aftermath of the devastation, representatives of the village wrote to an eminent Australian environmental historian and asked him to write a history of their village so they could understand what happened here and how they could rebuild, continue with their lives. To me this is a good model, and just one example, of public humanities.

But the university didn’t understand the project. It had so little knowledge of how to serve a community, to work in partnership with it, that the whole project almost shut down. The scholars who eventually wrote the book did so for the people of that village, for the Australians who live with fire, not for other academics – they didn’t hope that their knowledge would somehow trickle down. It will save lives.

If universities want to remain distant from society, to be aloof and “objective,” to treat people as objects of study rather than fellow citizens, then I don’t want to be a part of it.

I believe in the importance of scholarly research. I do it myself. But I also try to reach an audience beyond the academy. How do we engage with society, participate in a public conversation, when the university accounting system gives little recognition to civic engagement, to writing outside of peer reviewed journals, to giving lectures to the elderly in community halls, to helping towns devastated by bushfires understand what happened, the history of their place, and how they might rebuild?

Not everyone is interested in public humanities, and not everyone should have to be, but some are, and it should be easier, it should be supported by the university system.

???????????????????????????????Jenny Price: It’s hugely important that scholars conduct conversations among themselves – and by no means do all scholars need to address a broader public. I suspect we can all agree that’s true – but talking within academia requires communication, too. Scholars use three basic formats to communicate their hard-won insights – they teach, they write, and they give talks – and most graduate programs offer no training in any of the three. Why is communication less important than research and analysis in the basic skill set for how to be a scholar? If you didn’t teach your students how to do research and analysis, would your students be very good at them?

Cameron, Elin, I, and many others have established hybrid careers as folks who are trained as scholars and who use that training to engage a broader public. I doubt they see themselves as preachers or entertainers any more than I do. I’m hugely grateful for my academic training, as the foundation I draw on to engage environmental and other topics as productively as I can manage.

I think you can lament the lack of analytic rigor in popular writing – but to then say that scholars shouldn’t try to address those same audiences…well, who better?

pic_kelseyElin Kelsey: To participate meaningfully in academia, one is expected to be familiar with the ideas, publications, and scholars that have shaped particular fields, and the current debates or issues in which they are embroiled. The challenge, of course, is that what a field is or should be is a restless enterprise; it is contested and in constant flux.  An academic must recognize the foundations upon which a field has been defined, while pushing or dragging or tempting it to grow in new and innovative ways.

Conservation science, the field I work most closely with, was created as a crisis discipline. As Michael E. Soulé puts it, “Its relation to biology, particularly ecology, is analogous to that of surgery to physiology and war to political science. In crisis disciplines, one must act before knowing all the facts; crisis disciplines are thus a mixture of science and art, and their pursuit requires intuition as well as information.”

Yet acting hasn’t been the norm. The prominent journals of this field too often read like obituary pages. Page after page, year after year, they offer careful analyses of what once was and what is now lost.

For me, the question of the interplay between academic writing and popular writing, and my identity as a change agent, sits within the broad context of the Anthropocene. I find myself siding with scientists whose research findings have moved them to take action. Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have, like Rachel Carson, positioned themselves at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, war, and chemical contamination. In November 2012, Nature published a commentary encouraging scientists to “be arrested if necessary”, because climate change “is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence”.

I am heartened by early career conservation scientists who are no longer content to chronicle demise. Like Cameron, they find themselves caught between the norms of their field (in this case, to publish accounts of biodiversity loss) and their desire to use their scientific knowledge to solve the issues fueling the biodiversity crisis. I believe it is my role as an academic to strengthen the argument for why such a shift is required, and to share examples of what that shift actually looks like in my popular writing.


If you have any thoughts on this subject, please leave a comment!


One Comment on “A Conversation on Scholarship, Storytelling, and the Public Humanities

  1. Pingback: Editing the Environment | Seeing the Woods

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