The Public Professor: Critical Intellectual Discourse in the Age of Social Media


The Public Professor: Critical Intellectual Discourse in the Age of Social Media (CLICK FOR VIDEO)

Professor Christian Christensen, Media & Communication Studies

Professorial Installation Talk

Uppsala University, Sweden (November 16, 2011)

In 1967, in a piece entitled The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Noam Chomsky wrote the following:

It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.

About one week from today my daughter will celebrate her second birthday. This means that she will be entering university – should she choose to go – in the year 2027. The title of my talk today is, “The Public Professor: Critical Intellectual Discourse in the Age of Social Media.” Part of my talk will be about what I see as the role of the university professor in a highly mediated environment, and in relation to what Noam Chomsky said about public intellectuals. But, it is also in part about my daughter, and the future of universities in what is rapidly becoming a highly commercialized academic environment.

As a media and communications scholar, many people take it for granted that I am able to communicate effectively in public fora. Communication to the public is not, of course, the central role of the communications scholar. We analyze and investigate various phenomena related to media and communications, but that does not necessarily mean that we are “good communicators” ourselves. In actual fact, this is probably one of the weaknesses of those of us who work in academia: that is, our inability to take the fascinating and critical ideas that we discuss in our journal articles and in our books, and translate them into what we might want to call, “popular language.”

In the academic world, the presentation of intellectual material in popular form is generally looked down upon.  I am educated in the United States, where the position of the “public intellectual” is significantly less defined (and respected) than it is here in Sweden and Europe. It is, I feel, a central duty for those of us working within academia to take the material that we do research on and to discuss it publicly, to make public – in some form and in some way – the knowledge that we have spent years gathering and shaping.

What does this issue – being a public professor – have to do with my daughter, and what does this have to do with social media?  I see these three issues as inter-linked. One of the things that I am most worried about in relation to my daughter starting university in 2027 is whether or not the university will come to exist in a form that we recognize today. What I mean by this is: a space within contemporary society not entirely dictated by commercial interests and considerations. It is one of the things that I am grateful for: that, as an employee of a university, at least to some extent, I work within a space where my thinking can be divorced from purely profit-making and commercial considerations.

Spaces such as these are becoming increasingly rare in contemporary society. The media, urban spaces, politics are all zones where the communication that we encounter (from text to visuals to speech) are soaked in the logic of the commercial. We are surrounded by advertising, from the moment we wake up in the morning, to the time we spend walking on the streets, to the very logos that we wear on our bodies in the form of clothing. Our media systems are almost exclusively commercial, and even countries with a history of public service broadcasting have seen that  history slowly erased, replaced with a commercialized reality.

As capitalism continues its march forward, there exists a drive to locate new elements of our existence that have yet to be turned into products to be bought and sold. Even our personal experiences have become fair game. The social media site Facebook essentially commodifies various elements of our private life: our thoughts, our pictures, our likes, our dislikes, our families, our friendships.

However, I do believe that social media – and I recognize that the very term “social media” is problematic – provide opportunities. I do not wish to stand here and sound like a techo-phobe or neo-Luddite,  and one of the positive byproducts of the development of the internet, digital technologies and social media has been the ability of what we might wish to call “ordinary citizens” to  make their voices heard. Now, again, let me say that this ability has been vastly overblown by the mainstream media. The vast majority of bloggers, videos on YouTube, postings to Facebook and tweets on Twitter, fall into digital black-holes, never to be seen or heard by the billions of users around the globe.

But, I myself have a blog. I use Facebook. I use Twitter. This is because opportunities do exist. Recent events in north Africa and the global Occupy Wall Street movement have shown that digital technologies can be utilized by ordinary citizens – those not wealthy or privileged enough to own a newspaper or  television station – for the greater good. Digital media use is not the ONLY factor in these cases, but it is A factor that cannot simply be dismissed. In the same way I would argue that academics, those of us employed as public sector workers, should make the most of these technologies in order to spread the information that we gather. To spread the research, the knowledge, the critical thinking that we have spent years and years cultivating.

Universities have become increasingly commodified: universities in the UK charge students tuition fees, and we in Sweden have begun to charge international students tuition fees, things that have been done in my own country, the United States,  for a number of years. Commodification was, for a long period, seen as anathema to higher education in Europe, but, as time as gone by, we have seen the increasing commodification of university life. In the same way, departments that are considered to be “unprofitable” – in other words, they do not have large numbers of students, or do not produce “cutting edge” research that attracts the interest of outside financers – simply begin to disappear. Language departments, and niche intellectual areas of inquiry struggle financially, and are therefore not “of value” to universities.

If we look forward to 2027, when my daughter will begin at university, then it is critical to ask if the departments that I have just discussed actually exist? Will the majority of universities, for example, have a French department? Will universities and their leaders be willing to stand up and defend the existence of departments that are, in fact, vital symbols of what a university SHOULD be in a modern society. That is: a space, a bastion for free thinking outside of market constraints and outside of market logic.

What will the 2027 university look like? To return back to social media and technology, I would hope that university faculty will be much more willing and able to spread information from inside to outside of the university walls. We exist in a privileged world. Of course university work is difficult. Getting a Ph.D. is hard. Many people do not understand this, and are amused by the suggestion that academics do hard work. Academia is hard, and especially so if you want to be a serious scholar.

What I mean by privilege is the degree of freedom I have within my working life: a degree that I can quite confidently say is not matched in most other areas of labor.  When I enter the classroom, I am given permission to discuss what I feel is important – from an intellectual and disciplinary standpoint – for students to know, and to do so in a manner of my choosing (within reasonable bounds, of course).  I am also able to pursue research fairly freely. Of course, there are constraints within external funding, theoretical paradigms and publishing practice, but, in large part, my decisions regarding the topics I will research, what I write and how I write are essentially my own. In this way, academia is a very, very rare environment.  It is a place where critical thinking is at least given a chance to develop, and it is one of the few places where critical thinking is actually encouraged.

While we often hear about the virtues of critical thinking in various segments of society, real critical thinking involves the questioning of power, the questioning of authority, the questioning of what we might broadly call “common sense” ideas. The questioning of these areas is not something that usually goes hand-in-hand with profit-making ventures, or the maintenance of status quo power. The open questioning of authority simply does not lend itself well to closed structures: be they political, corporate or theological. On the contrary, the recognition and acceptance of authority is the cornerstone of these types of structures. Despite the many problems that we see within academia (from the aforementioned dominance of certain paradigms to restrictive publishing and financing models), the university world is one which should depend upon the questioning of authority: be it authority in the form of theory, intellectual positions, but also the hierarchies of power within society in general.

It is the role of academic, as I see it, to take the things that we take for granted and to ask: Why? Whose interests are best served in taking these things for granted? Are the benefits spread equally throughout society via our commonsense ideas? If not, how might we remedy this imbalance? These are the intellectual points of departure that made universities such crucial centers for dissenting intellectual opinions in relation to issues as varied as equal rights for women, for minorities, and for the working classes; and a wide variety of anti-war movements from Viet Nam to Iraq.

To return again to social media and technology. Traditionally, academics have published their work in academic journals and books, given lectures to classes and seminars, and presented papers to conferences. I am by no means a proponent of eliminating peer-review and rigorous oversight. On the contrary. However, the increasingly commodified way in which we publish our material, in particular the ways in which journals take free labor – paid for, in fact, by universities – and convert this labor into large profits, should make us consider some alternative venues for publication and public discourse. We should attempt to take advantage of the public channels available to us, in addition to the increasing number of open-access journals.

When my daughter enters university in 2027, I hope that the intellectual stimulation that I have been able to participate in might be made available to a broader population.  As you have noted by now, my talk today has not been about my current research, but it is, nevertheless, linked to my work. I simply wished to take this opportunity, during my installation speech, to  restate my hope that when my daughter enters university in 16 years that there will be many public professors, and that critical intellectual discourse, whether it be distributed by social media, or whatever form of communication is the norm at that time, is widespread and accepted.

Our society, as it become more and more commodified, is in dire need of open critical discussion about the underlying nature of that society, and the potential impacts of commodification upon socio-political structures. We need only look to the political systems in the US and Europe to see the detrimental impact of commodification upon the democratic process . The same is even more true in relation to the media systems in these two regions of the world.  While entertainment is an important element of our daily life, we are also in need of open, critical information and debate. If the media, or other institutions of society, cannot or will not provide us with such debate, then, at least in part in 2027, it is my hope that the university and its employees will contribute to a broader critical intellectual discourse, and to do so through  any and all technological means necessary.

Let me conclude with another quote from Chomsky, written 45 years ago, but as relevant today as it was then:

Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.


About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

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