Devoney Looser

Professor of English at Arizona State University

The Making of a Public Intellectual

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 Image: ASU Department of English, Creative Common

"Public intellectual" is neither an employment category nor a phrase that lends itself well to introducing yourself.

"What do you do?"

"I’m a public intellectual."

It sounds ridiculous. Anyone who makes that statement out loud ought to offer it up with a wink. I like to imagine delivering the line as Groucho Marx, raising an eyebrow and flicking a cigar.

Academics are intellectuals. Being among the 2 percent of the population with a Ph.D. — or on your way to one — means you deserve the label. But public intellectual? How do you know if you are one or should want to be one? I wasn’t sure how to answer those questions myself until this year.

I mark my becoming a public intellectual to the first time I did something to impress my tween-teen sons. I was interviewed on CNN about Jane Austen when the Bank of England placed her image on its 10-pound note on the bicentenary of her death, July 18th. The kids had been blasé about my new book, The Making of Jane Austen — even shrugging off its fun three-minute video trailer, which features me on roller skates talking about Austen. (My sons have seen me on roller skates for years, so skating is particularly unimpressive in our household.)

But seeing me on television as an Austen expert?

Overnight, one son went from talking about "that dumb author you write on that no one cares about" to asking for a copy of the Manga version of Emma. Sometimes a public intellectual reaches new audiences in her own home. No doubt I could have chosen an easier path to wowing my children, such as creating a winning fantasy football team, but talking Austen beyond academe had also become a professional goal for me.

Austen lends herself to it, as both a classic and popular author. I wanted to get my book out there beyond a scholarly audience because it has original information about how her posthumous celebrity was formed by pop-culture innovators and popular audiences. It seemed an obvious fit: new material for new readers. The CNN appearance was hard evidence that the work I’d put into becoming an Austen expert had paid off.

How did I end up talking about my book on CNN? It was a combination of things, including working to become media-savvy, as well as being findable, available, and lucky. You can’t predict whether or not good fortune will come your way, but you can work on the other things. I’m still working on them. That goes far beyond writing a good book, trying to get it reviewed, having a website, or being on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — although I did all of those things. It also involves learning new entrepreneurial and communication skills and seeking out help from media and research experts.

I share the view that more academics need to embrace the public-intellectual role. It’s good for our careers and it’s good for our institutions and disciplines, not to mention the public. Skeptics remain, as some faculty members hang on tenaciously to the notion that speaking exclusively to the fewest, smartest people is evidence of thinking the deepest, best thoughts.

Britain is doing more than we are to try to change such habits. Its Research Excellence Framework (whatever else you might think of it) requires evidence of research impact, including public impact. Other schemes, like the BBC’s New Generation Thinkers program, seek to train early career academics in radio work. Here in the United States, the NEH-funded Object Lessons Workshop offers another model for training writers. There are outstanding periodicals, like the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Conversation, that publish academics’ writings for wide audiences.

These initiatives and opportunities are needed because becoming a public intellectual is like learning a new job. It takes time and effort. You have to practice how to pitch projects in short, pithy, colorful emails. You have to show that you’re building a track record for producing a new kind of work, probably at a rung of prestige just below the one you’re seeking to crack. You have to find a new set of like-minded colleagues, mentors, readers, and contacts — people who have already done, or who can facilitate, the kind of work you want to do next.

I didn’t learn how to do all of that entirely on my own. I was fortunate to receive significant support from my institution, Arizona State University. Its Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development produced the book trailer. And the media-relations department gave me media training, including a mock TV interview. Staff members videotaped me and then gave feedback on everything from the length of my answers to my posture and my verbal and nonverbal tics. I learned I had a tendency to peer bug-eyed into the camera without blinking, which made my eyes burn after about 30 seconds, then caused me to blink excessively. That was a simple fix.

Absent that kind of training, you could DIY this exercise with a camera, a chair, and some trusted colleagues. In fact, I’m starting to include media training like this in the graduate seminars I teach, so that students won’t have to say, "No one taught me this in graduate school."

After you increase your media savvy, you’ll want to up your game by being more visible and findable. Start with an exercise: Try to think like a news producer. Let’s say you need an expert for a quote, a sound bite, or a video clip. How do you find one? You go to your contacts. You ask someone who knows someone. You cold call a college or university, or search its web-based list of experts. Maybe you go to ExpertFinder or SheSource. Maybe you’re really stuck so you Google the subject area and the word "expert" or "professor," or try your luck on Twitter.

After that thought experiment, your job is to start thinking about how to make yourself into the person whose name comes up. Of course it involves continuing to produce fine scholarship. But it also means finding ways to make your scholarship, and you, more publicly findable.

Once they find you, newsmakers want to know they can trust you. They want a soundbite-length quote, an engaging radio interview, or an appealing video clip. Professors are notorious for bungling interviews by going on too long or immediately and annoyingly questioning the terms of the question.

If newsmakers are in a hurry — and who isn’t — they want to find print, audio, or video clips of you already doing what they are about to ask you to do. My book trailer helped me to be found. (I didn’t even know what a book trailer was a year ago, before my talented publicist at the Johns Hopkins University Press suggested that I create one.) A shout-out here to the professor with the giant marlin on top of his speeding car whose book trailer on extreme sea life inspired me to greater goofiness.

Even without a production budget, you can start producing short print, audio, and video clips about your work. Your college or university may have a radio station or a TV channel. Ask them what assistance is available for promoting the results of your research. Pitch something, and convince them it’s in their interest to produce it, too.

Being findable is one thing. Being available is another. If you’re just starting out, consider reaching out first to local or specialized media to pitch story ideas. Develop cordial relationships with those journalists and editors. Establish a reputation for replying quickly. Respond to messages promptly and unfailingly, especially if you have expertise at a newsworthy moment.

I missed an opportunity for an interview because it came to me via Twitter messages, and I never checked those. (Now I do.) I have a friend who works in radio. She says her producer-boss asks one question when vetting a source: "Will she pick up?" One mistake I made in mid-July during the Austen hot news-cycle moment was failing to set an automatic email reply message giving out my cell-phone number.

That’s why my ending up on CNN also involved good luck. The email requesting an interview came to my inbox three hours before I was needed on air. Because I was out of the country, I received it in the middle of the night. I just happened to be up and wired from the previous day’s Austen celebrations. I ended up doing CNN’s required sound check in my pajamas at 4 a.m., because I was so dazed that I mistakenly thought they wanted only my voice.

I did the live video interview at 6 a.m., with my sons asleep in a room a few feet away in our hotel suite. I desperately hoped they would not wake up, shout, or charge into the frame, demanding to know why I was droning on about Pride and Prejudice at dawn. Fortunately, they slept. After the interview, a friend in Doha wrote to tell me he’d just seen me on TV. It blew my mind to think about people in Qatar listening to my words about Jane Austen.

Then, moments before I was about to pass out from exhaustion, CNN’s request for a second interview came in. That invitation felt even better than the first, because it told me they were pleased with my performance and words.

As long as being a public intellectual means teaching others about things I care about deeply — across borders and to numbers of people it would otherwise be impossible to reach — you bet I’ll continue to look for opportunities. But perhaps the sentiment that best applies here is "How quick come the reasons for approving what we like."

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