Saturday, 17 December 2011

Giving back

I’ve been to two meetings organised by my University this week which have finally got me to start this blog. One was on measuring impact of my own work for the purposes of professional appraisal - at this stage fiddly and largely wishful thinking, I fear - and the other was on the wider duties of a ‘public intellectual’.

This page has an interesting and humbling discussion of public intellectuals, but I am not going to claim to be at any of Alan Lightman’s levels. However I am in receipt of public money for my PhD, so that gives me some sort of duty. Am I entirely fulfilling it by publishing the results of my work behind academic paywalls, and also doing my best to instil critical, imaginative and systematic thinking in our undergrads? In a world where undergrads pay nearly £30K for the a bachelor’s degree, are they really representative of the public? And is ‘critical, imaginative and systematic thinking’ really what Britain PLC could do with right now and in the future?

We ended up talking about three different types of ‘public’. First of all, undergraduates. The academics of all ages round the table were concerned to be good teachers: to communicate knowledge and ways of thinking, to their undergraduates in the most entertaining, clear and memorable way possible. Our university has a track record of innovative teaching, so these may not be your standard academic in this regard.

Secondly, the ‘wider public’. Here’s a super example of what a colleague of mine is doing to give back to this group. Thank goodness we don’t need to rely on newspapers and TV channels to give us a voice these days, but can make what our professional knowledge directly available, unfiltered by what the producer thinks the public can deal with. (Another post coming on that, promise!). On the other hand, the multiplicity of media channels out there now means that it’s difficult to reach more than a fraction of readers or viewers with whichever method you choose. However, the tools are there, but I don’t think many academics have taken them up. Reaching out was also seen as a way of improving our teaching skills for undergraduates.  However at present, this sort of activity is not clearly rewarded professionally, though this may change with the new REF.

Thirdly, and this was where people were frustrated, policymakers. This is where it gets philosophical, and political. What is the purpose of an education: to generate inquiring minds, or generate productive employees? Does the answer differ depending on what proportion of the population is supposed to go to university? If undergraduates are paying for their education, how does this change our duty to provide what they think they need versus what we think they need? And most importantly, where is our forum for talking about these questions with the people who decide them?

Reaching out to these publics must in my opinion be part of the duties of any ‘public intellectual’. However at present in the UK, I’m not sure how to reach the third. What do you think?

PS This is my summary of discussions at that meeting - I’m not claiming others necessarily saw it the same way.