Everyone has gotten their knickers in a bunch over a NY Times op-ed by Nicholas Kristof, a guy with over 9,000 Pulitzers, a Pulitzer-winning spouse, and three children—undoubtedly future Pulitzer Prize winners—who enjoy correcting their father’s Japanese and Chinese.
Fortunately (?) my lack of grammatically exacting Sinophone children allows me to be awake after midnight writing this while consuming a 3.6 oz. box of Junior Caramels and continuing to never, ever win a Pulitzer Prize. 
Kristof’s argument is that we no longer have “public intellectuals” in the U.S. partly because of the country’s disdain for intellectuals, and partly because intellectuals (i.e. – academics) have walled themselves off from the public. I am inclined to agree with both of Kristof’s points, with the caveat that the intellectuals Kristof describes comprise only 20-25% of academics: a subset of faculty who are generally monied, come from monied families, and enjoy tenure at prestigious R1 and/or Ivy League Universities. These intellectuals probably don’t engage any more with the “public” (meaning what, exactly? — but that’s a question for another post) than the average wealthy person does—not because they are intellectuals per se, but because wealthy people do not spend a lot of time mingling with the great, unwashed masses. In other words, the phenomenon Kristof is describing may well be rooted in class dynamics as opposed to professional ones.
A number of academics have responded to Kristof, including Corey Robin (who delves artfully into the class issues at play); Laura Tanenbaum (who delivers Kristof the written equivalent of a smack upside the head); and David Perry (who steers the conversation in a new direction by asking “How do we make public engagement count?”).
Last fall I had a long conversation with a Dean who noted that she would be delighted to count public engagement as a factor in tenure/promotion decisions. At her university, however, faculty make these decisions, so faculty have to take the lead in crafting standards (perhaps through organizations such as the American Historical Association, Modern Language Association, and their ilk).
I have no idea how to make that work, especially at an R1 school. The structures there are entirely based around peer reviewed formal publications and grants. Does a “well-read” (whatever that means) blog equal a conference presentation? Do 6 op-eds for national media equal a lower tier journal article? What about local op-eds for local papers, something we should all be doing (as it’s easier to get published). Does it just nebulously count as a marker for “impact?” How would you count public engagement in your field and institution? (original emphasis)
Notice that the question Perry poses is not: “How can academics be (or become) more engaged with the public?” It is instead: “How can public engagement ‘count’?” By “count,” of course, Perry does not mean “to the public.” He means “to academics, academic institutions, and academic administrators.” As much as I enjoy the fresh perspective Perry introduces, I remain dismayed by the focus of his concern—a focus shared (to varying extents) by other academics in recent discussions on Twitter.
The first thing that comes to mind for me when I read “How would you ‘count’ public engagement?” is this Onion article. Oh, and this one. Also, this one. With all due respect—because I am quite fond of many of you who participated in the Twitterthon, and I do appreciate that you’re at least trying to talk about public engagement—you are DOING IT WRONG.
The moment “public engagement” becomes not about engaging the public but rather about padding your own CV, it ceases to become public engagement. It becomes, as an administrator might say, “an impactful metric of academic presence in the community,” or whatever the hottest new corporate jargon is these days.  But really, it just becomes about your CV. And your tenure process. And how to make it “count” to the MLA and the AHA and the Dean and the Assistant Dean and the Assistants to the Dean and Assistants to the Assistant Dean (and their assistants?), and to the Committee For Determining Which Things Count in Academia, and so on.
Public engagement—genuine, meaningful public engagement—does not work that way. True public engagement is like the voluntary extension of courtesy: you do it not because it “counts” in the sense that you will receive some sort of external reward for it, but because it’s both a fundamentally decent thing to do and an ethically (or politically) important thing to do. The way I see it, superficial CV-padding “public engagement” is worse than simply walling oneself off and ignoring “the public” altogether. Engage with “the public” because you want to; otherwise, please close your office door and concentrate on tasks that you already know will “count” towards your tenure file. Or do both—but don’t cheapen real public engagement by trying to get your Dean wax lyrical about how “impactful” it is while passing out cookies and doodling shining glitter stars and unicorns in the margins of your tenure file.
Perry goes on to identify one of the major barriers preventing public engagement among academics—namely, academics themselves:
Some academics are in fact snobs. I have received many reflexive “compliments” about my public work that are dripping with snobbery, assumptions that I am not “serious,” and other condescensions. And look how I introduce myself as a public writer. I note that I already have tenure, that I have a “real book” with a “real university press,” on the way, and then I talk about my writing. It’s a defensive posture. (emphasis mine)
We’ve all come across individuals like those Perry describes. It saddens me to read that Perry has had his “non-academic” work belittled and put down by so-called “colleagues,” that this work has been denigrated and devalued to such an extent that Perry instinctively assumes a “defensive posture” whenever he broaches the topic of public engagement—a form of engagement that, within academia, does not “count.”
Perhaps it is to my advantage that I write more or less from the margins of academia. Yes, I am employed by a prestigious institution—and I’m certainly grateful for my job—but no, I am not tenured (or even tenure-track), nor do I have any “real books” published by any “real university presses,” nor do I have a Pulitzer. Nor do I care.
I am a member of “the public” and I am engaged with “the public” because I want to be. I refuse to allow anyone—colleague or not—to shame me for being an active participant in dialogues with my fellow citizens outside of the pristine and privileged walls of the ivory tower. That shame does not belong to me or to any other academic who, like Perry, is truly engaged with “the public.” In fact, it belongs to those who are doing the shaming, so let me call you out here and now: shame on you for disengaging from the public, and shame on you for disparaging your colleagues who wish to participate fully and joyfully in “public life.”
Public engagement—genuine public engagement—already counts. It counts more than any line on a CV and more than any scrap of paper in a tenure file. I do not seek or need the validation of any academic colleagues to know that this is true. It makes no difference to me whether my public engagement “counts” in the world of academia. I don’t want it measured and weighed and (degraded and) translated into some quantifiable corporate metric that can be used to extrapolate hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions. If academia chooses to acknowledge the value of public engagement, wonderful. If not, it’s academia’s loss.
What (if anything) we do outside the Academy should count “only” in the sense that it somehow improves the lives of our fellow citizens. In the end, that’s all that matters. Pretty “impactful” idea, huh?
1 – I didn’t eat them last night and also didn’t finish this post. It’s now Friday evening and I still have candy but, alas, no Pulitzer.
2 – The phrase “impactful metric of academic presence in the community” does not actually mean anything. Deans everywhere, take note.