Academic or public intellectual?

This is the kind of blog post I would do to explore ideas as part of a thesis or book chapter, journal article, etc. Linking is very helpful because you can always go back to these websites and writing a blog post can assist you with recording your thoughts in relation to these sources at a particular time. I would call this type of post ‘research exploration/generation’ or ‘academic engagement’. For me, I’m not too interested in researching this at the moment, it is an idea that I am parking for later. Also notice that I have inserted ‘Continue reading…’ to avoid an overly long, visually uninteresting post. Note how images are referenced and linked to original image locations on the web.


I was reading Noam Chomsky and the Public Intellectual in Turbulent Times which cites Terry Eagleton’s definition of how academics are different from public intellectuals:


Julio Cortázar, Argentine author and intellectual 1967 (Source: WikiMedia Commons.) This image is in the public domain because the copyright of this photograph, registered in Argentina, has expired.

Intellectuals are not only different from academics, but almost the opposite of them. Academics usually plough through a narrow disciplinary patch, whereas intellectuals …roam ambitiously from one discipline to another. Academics are interested in ideas, whereas intellectuals seek to bring ideas to an entire culture….Anger and academia do not usually go together, except perhaps when it comes to low pay, whereas anger and intellectuals do. Above all, academics are conscious of the difficult, untidy, nuanced nature of things, while intellectuals take sides. … in all the most pressing political conflicts which confront us, someone is going to have to win and someone to lose. It is this, not a duff ear for nuance and subtlety, which marks them out from the liberal.

Yesterday I taught a interactive session for part-time lecturers and postgraduate students on evaluating their digital footprints and strategies for creating a stronger academic presence online. In academia today, how one is represented online to the public has become increasingly important. Firstly, you need to be ‘findable’ and secondly, a good online reputation with clear and actively marketed research outputs can increase your citations, and thereby, impact factor.

I feel that how I use social media as an academic makes me a public intellectual. While Eagleton is using this distinction to his own political ends, I don’t think he could predict the blurring of boundaries that was to come. I share my research and resources publicly and embrace OERs. I have created one for OpenUCT (available here) and will continue to do so in the future. Also think about ‘rockstar’ model MOOCs which feature high-profile lecturers: they are no longer hidden away in the ivory towers of universities.  Does Eagleton’s distinction work in the online public sphere? I think not.

Paula Orlando’s blog post Revisting Richard Posner’s Decline of the Public Intellectuals Thesis also presents an interesting view. My feeling is that how public intellectualism is taking shape is different today, and there are different dynamics at play. The same can be said for Higher Education. Regarding the online more specifically, we probably still find academic overspecialization and niches forming around particular online communities. Is it that since 2003, the rise in social media has possibly caused an increase in public intellectualism in some areas? Some interesting thoughts to ponder…


Terry Eagleton, “The Last Jewish Intellectual,” New Statesman, March 29, 2004; Edward Said’s notion of traveling theory can be found in Edward W. Said, “Traveling Theory,” in The Edward Said Reader, edited by Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin (New York: Vintage, 2007), pp. 195-217.

Posner, R. A. (2003). Public intellectuals: a study of decline: with a new preface and epilogue: Harvard Univ Pr. , pages 1-17.

Related blog post:

Practicing Enlightenment: Public Intellectualism and a New Vision for Transforming the Public Sphere by Sara Volle




2 thoughts on “Academic or public intellectual?

  1. Thanks Nicola, interesting topic.

    However, I am more inclined to agree with the original quote. I certainly don’t think that academics promoting themselves on social media makes them public intellectuals. I think that misses the point that being a ‘public intellectual’ in some kind of meaningful way has a lot more to do with passion, scope and ability, as well as making deeply intellectual matters accessible in a way that affects people’s lives, than simply being ‘in public’.

    Contrasting your (pragmatic?) view with Eagleton’s ‘political ends’ is also, in my opinion, problematic. In the end, if you think you’re not being political then in terms of power you’re probably just taking sides with the status quo…

    • Thanks for your comment:)

      I would definitely go back and read the original texts. I found the distinction interesting and wondered how it applied to what some academics do online. If I were to appropriate these terms for my own academic argument in a more serious format such as an article or presentation, I would need to be very clear about how I would be using these in comparison to Eagleton who perhaps did not take the online public sphere into account.

      I think a lot of it depends on the fields academics are working in and whether or not they are playing a wider advocacy role in the public. For example, at UCT I would say that Pierre De Vos (Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance who teaches in the area of Constitutional Law – more about him here) is definitely both. He is very active online, has his own blog, is a Mail & Guardian thought leader, and is often on the news. He writes about social and political issues in post-apartheid SA and is called upon to talk about issues related to human rights and the constitution.

      I don’t think I qualify as a public intellectual, but if I was more active in relation to say advocating games in schools and child-centred game design, perhaps I could be. Only the future can tell.

      Note to new bloggers: publish comments that present opposing views and respond to them. Sometimes such responses encourage you to stretch your thinking (such as in the above) and get discussion going. Thanks again anonymous:)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s