I wrote something potentially (academically) dangerous earlier: “If a professor speaks and if nobody listens, did the professor speak?” I didn’t intend this as a condemnation of professors; quite the opposite, I hoped pull in the common adage, “If a tree falls in a forest …” to illustrate the disconnection between the so-called ivory tower and the so-called “real world.” What I have realized since I wrote those words is that the ivory tower is not a building, but a mindset, and that the “reality” of the real world is just as present in the academy as it is elsewhere. In other words, connections matter, performance matters: it’s a game. Master the jargon, learn the complex sentence structures, become familiar with all of the major and some of the obscure theorists: you’ll “succeed,” at least in the short term.
That’s not to say that scholars don’t have enlightening things to say to us. How wonderful is it that people study so many different, specialized things ? (I mean that seriously.) Their contributions to society are endless. So, it’s not so much what they have to say, or write, that I take issue with. Instead, it’s how these ideas are expressed, and to whom. There is definitely value in learning for the sake of learning, and I’m grateful for the people who have dedicated their working lives to doing just that.
Yet so often, when scholars learn and publish, an abundance of jargon and references prevents a layperson from understanding that writer’s argument even at its most fundamental level. Without these characteristics, though, an academic manuscript is doomed to interminable manuscript-ness. (I’ve come across one particularly exceptional exception to this: the work of bell hooks.) It is thus the prevailing attitude among humanities scholars—which I cynically characterize as having a disdain for practicality, an aversion to application, and a fear of “praxis” (of merging theory and practice)—that startles me.
What if there were a way to get academics and politicians to speak to each other? Might they agree to a conference under these conditions: the academics would have to get rid of their jargon and explain what they mean in an intellectual, but not specialized, vocabulary, and the politicians would have to explain their dilemmas and decisions to the academics.
I do not suggest this in order to criticize individuals, but rather to critique the system and cultural values that have led to separation (and, dare I say, ostracizing) of two of the arguably most influential professions. Would it be so terribly hard for academics to share their understanding of great authors, theorists, and methodologies with politicians?
Professors I have studied under in the past two years have argued persuasively about (and, in the Saidian sense, “for”*) the following: the perils of the criminalization of tribes in India, the difficulties of living with the intersectional oppressions of being both black and female, and the struggles of immigrants for rights and citizenship. Focusing on the way language functi ons in literature and culture, these scholars illuminate much about the way our societies and cultures operate and interact. Although the lay reader may not understand the methods behind such interpretations, should this reader necessarily be excluded from understanding the conclusions of such rigorous and productive studies? Precisely because the scholars themselves cannot become activists—one only has so much time, after all—the implications of their work, I believe, ought to be both understandable and applicable. If scholars cannot implement their own ideas, perhaps “ordinary” people ought to be able to?
As I complete my graduate studies in English, I am as in love with language as I ever was, yet I am distraught by the actual practice of literature in the academy. Perhaps these two comments represent my ambivalence about my beloved object of study: one friend exclaims, “Beauty will save the world!” while another one asks sheepishly, “What are you going to do with that?”
*By “for” in the “Saidian sense,” I refer to Edward Said’s essay, “Nationalism, Human Rights, and Interpretation,” an essay he ends with a discussion of the role of the intellectual in interpreting human rights crises. He explains that those who “interpret” should do so “for” rather than “about” freedom, which I “interpret” as having an approach that examines multiple sides of issues and opens up possibilities, ra ther than analyzing one side of the issue at the expense of not only the other side but also any possible resolution of conflict.