U.S. Intellectual History Blog

#BLKTwitterstorians And the Pursuit of Intellectual Communities

Yesterday I was privileged to be commentator for the monthly “#Blktwitterstorians” discussion. This hashtag was invented with the idea of getting together various African American professors on Twitter to discuss issues of particular importance to African Americans in the academy and in the profession of history. Created by graduate students Aleia Brown and Joshua Crutchfield, #Blktwitterstorians has served as an online space to debate issues of particular import to African American scholars—as well as those who study the African American experience, regardless of race. Not surprisingly, the issues debated every on the first Saturday of every month are often reflections of larger issues in the academy. June’s topic—the question of the role of African American historians as potential “public intellectuals”—is one of interest to the readers of this blog. Yet the larger questions being dealt with, most notably the future of the academy and the lack of job or, for that matter, intellectual security within the academy, link to issues that have become both hot topics across academia and on this blog in recent weeks.

The questions of academic freedom raised in recent days here were reflected in yesterday’s Twitter conversation about black historians and their relationship to black public intellectuals. The discussion raised concerns about both the obligation of African Americans in the academy to speak up for issues of particular concern to the African American community in current political and intellectual discourse, as well as whether or not there still exists an effective public space in which to have such a conversation. Of course we should acknowledge up front (as was stated yesterday) that there is no monolithic African American community. Nor can this conversation be divorced from questions of both academic freedom and the pressures on colleges and universities being brought to bear by state legislatures. While there has been considerable discussion of Steve Salaita in recent days, the example of Saida Grundy, her comments on Twitter, and her job security at Boston University, were at the heart of yesterday’s #Blktwitterstorians discussion.

While there were far too many wonderful points made in the Twitter discussion to be effectively summarized here (it’ll be Storified later and the link above will give a good sampling of how it went), it was plain to the participants that the questions of African American historians venturing out into public intellectual discourse could not be separated from other issues in the academy. For instance, how willing will academics be, regardless of race, gender, or field of study, to take on tough questions—and provide potentially unpalatable answers—if their arguments have the potential to cost them the gaining of tenure? Further, how can African American scholars, many of whom embrace the venerable tradition of scholar-activist (far different from public intellectual), continue to do so in a changed educational climate? The presence of African Americans at Predominantly White Institutions—or PWIs—at numbers never seen before means both greater access to resources than at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and greater questions of responsibility to give back, in some form or fashion, to African American communities through intellectual argumentation, the production of both scholarly and non-scholarly work, and potential work on behalf of organizations dedicated to fighting for civil and human rights.

The problems facing the academy today present problems for the creation of public intellectuals down the road. At the same time, during the #Blktwitterstorians discussion many of us also agreed that the Internet presented new opportunities for the nurturing of budding academics, as well as a way for academics to interact with non-academic members of the, broadly speaking, African American community. Places such as our comments section come to mind—a place where mostly academics interact (which is very important), but also offers the potential for curious non-academics to come and talk to us as well. Yes, there’s the problem of worrying about how inflammatory tweets will be received—an issue both Salaita and Grundy have learned about in difficult fashion. But social media and the Internet also offer the potential for greater engagement with other academics and with non-academics, curious about what we do and hungry for knowledge.

Above all, however, it is time to consider the future of both academia and the idea of the public intellectual. Now, I grant that even defining public intellectual is difficult. But it is also difficult for me to accept, for example, that comedians are some of our most prominent example of public intellectuals today. And when it comes to the hard, but absolutely necessary, debates we’re having about the present and future of the academy (buttressed by understanding the past of the academy as accurately as possible) it should be recognized that in many ways we’re also debating the future of the public sphere. Without a strong, vibrant academic system in the United States, the creation of public intellectuals will be curtailed in some way. It is impossible to dream of people such as Noam Chomsky or Cornel West gaining public stature without beginning their work within the academy.

Unless, of course, we create alternate homes for knowledge creation. This has been a concern for African American academics for a long time and led, for example, to the creation of the Institute of the Black World in the 1970s. Of course, even those places were filled with men and women from the academy—many of whom still worked within the academy even as the IBW struggled to stay open. Such institutions cannot replace the academy, but they can offer other places of engagement and scholarship.

Ultimately, I believe that the questions raised during the #Blktwitterstorians online discussion are a reminder of the worry many academics have about the future of the humanities, the academy, and intellectual discourse. Off the blog, I have also had to think harder about these questions as a participant in the Graduate Civic Scholars Program here at South Carolina. The idea of linking some of my scholarship to community engagement intrigues me, and it is one that has shaped my academic career to this point. As a young scholar attempting to figure out a place in an academy undergoing the stress of change, however, I do not know what the future holds for myself or my colleagues also going through doctoral programs.

In a way that is comforting. The academy has faced times of crisis before, and has endured. Yet even saying “academy,” like saying “African American communities” or “public sphere,” obscures more than what it reveals. Issues at Wisconsin worry me, but also too does the financial stress of a venerable institution like Howard. Academic scandals involving the African American Studies program at the University of North Carolina trouble me greatly—but so does the push radically alter the teaching loads in the same state. But the good news is that we do have places like this blog, or Twitter, or conferences where we can discuss and debate these issues.

It may be that thinking about public intellectuals is the mistake. Instead, as Martha Jones points out in her fantastic final essay for an AAIHS round table on Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, it’s more important to think about individuals as being part of an intellectual community. The same, I would add, should go for ourselves. The intellectual communities we belong to must give us strength in trying times. I know that the existence of this blog, of AAIHS, of #Twitterstorians, and #Blktwitterstorians has done that for me. Community building alone will not solve the problems of the academy. But, I believe, they will aid in finding the answers to those problems.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert, this is a terrific piece, and I found the hashtagged discussion that I followed (an incomplete slice, I know) a really exciting example of how intellecting-in-public might take advantage of social media.

    I wonder if I might invite you to write further about Twitter as a form (and a corporate entity and for many geographically disparate people, a lifeline). This is a selfish request: I am busy trying to figure out what to say, historically, about Twitter in relation to a few writing projects I am working on. I wonder if we should be in more dialogue with sociologists and cultural studies folks who study digital media and networks? I wonder, too, if there are meaningful historical statements that can be made (at this comparatively early stage) about the kind of knowledge production that happens in Twitter versus Facebook versus blogs like this?

    • Thanks for the kind words. And I think you’re right about the importance of social media and the web to current intellectual discourse.

      But we do also need to be in greater dialogue with sociologists, cultural studies scholars, and members of other fields (mass communication/journalism comes to mind) about how these relatively new forms of media have an impact on current intellectual discourse. And while something like this would be very, VERY recent history, we do need to lay the groundwork for future historians, who no doubt will have to consider the internet the same way historians of earlier eras consider, say, print culture or radio.

      One more thing: we do need to be cognizant of the fact that many Americans, if they follow intellectual debates at all, may still do so through “Traditional” media forms. I’ll give you an example: my dad doesn’t have a Twitter account or read The New Republic, but one day he asked me about the Cornel West/MED controversy. I didn’t ask him how he knew about it, but I assumed he probably heard about it through African American radio–or may have seen a stray story about it online one day. But we do need to acknowledge the limits of the internet, as well as its importance, to current intellectual discourse.

      I’ll definitely try to come back to this question in a future post. For now, though, I have to say that I’m intrigued by what future historians will say about online phenomena such as “Black Twitter” or “Twitterstorians”–the attempt to create different online communities based around a variety of shared identities.

  2. Great stuff Robert. I’ll try to embrace your optimism as I’m heading into the job market.

    • Heh thanks! I think most of my colleagues here at South Carolina would laugh at any suggestion of me having optimism, but it’s something we need every once in a while. It is balanced by a need to recognize that, yes, the academy is in trouble on a variety of fronts, but now is as good a time as any to imagine new versions of the academy. That includes community-building.

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