In Clueless in Academe, Gerald Graff argues that academic culture suffers from a debilitating, often self-induced opacity that makes it difficult for anyone outside colleges and universities to understand—or even care—what it is scholars and teachers do. This charge was not new when Graff made it in 2003, of course, and it sadly remains relevant today. Most recently, Ian Bogost has flogged the humanities for being too insular and isolated from public life. “The humanities needs more courage and more contact with the world,” Bogost writes—a declaration that could probably be extended to the sciences as well.
These points were driven home for me the other day when I tried to explain my job to another parent in my son’s preschool co-op. Sure, it’s easy to describe—and understand—the practice of teaching, but what about all that other stuff I do on my job? The meetings, the writing, the advising, the planning, the research, the collaboration, the exchanges, the committees, the recommendations, and so on? And come to think of it, my teaching actually isn’t all that easy to explain. Post-print fiction? Videogames? Wha?
And then—it’s quite possible, I realize, that perhaps I haven’t even done a good job explaining what it is I do to my own colleagues. How many of them really know what I teach? How many know the nuts and bolts of my current research? Sure, there are course catalog descriptions and my own 2-minute blurb about my research. But neither capture the complexity of what my teaching and intellectual life entails. And it works both ways; I may know who teaches ENGL 354, but do I really know how she shapes the class? Do I really know what research question is gnawing at my longtime office mate?
Academia isn’t opaque simply to those outside of it; each of us forms impenetrable fortresses of our own professional solitude.
So my question is, how do you make your work visible? How do you explain to people both inside and outside of your institution what you do and why it’s important? When your ophthalmologist asks about your work, what do you do? When the stranger in the seat next to you on the plane asks about the stack of papers you’re grading, what do you say? When your mother asks why you go to so many conferences, what’s your answer? How do make your intellectual and professional labor less opaque?
I’m not talking about the book you’ve published as a physical manifestation of your work (though it is that). I’m talking about more modest means. More accessible methods. More tactical ways.
How do you make your work visible?