The World’s Eye and the World’s Heart: How to be a Public Intellectual

eye quilt
Image source: York Heritage Quilters Guild Blog

At a time of political discord and increased activism on our campuses and in our communities, some of us may be seeking appropriate and productive ways to offer our professional perspectives as highly trained academics and educators. As a matter of fact, those of us academically prepared in the field of American literary and cultural studies have much to offer a society that is grappling with what it means (and has meant) to be an American, whose story matters, and who gets to control the narrative. Indeed, the American literature and American literary history we have spent years studying, researching, and teaching can provide remarkable and hopeful insight into this daunting political moment.

Our field birthed the original American public intellectuals Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who both lectured in the Lyceum movement and endeavored to make their ideas relevant and useful to the American public. Thoreau first lectured on “Civil Disobedience” and Walden to his Concord, Massachusetts friends and neighbors. Emerson’s 1837 “American Scholar” address tells us that the fully engaged American scholar is not sequestered from the public, but “breathes and lives on public illustrious thoughts.” The public intellectual, in Emerson’s view, is fully integrated into public life as “the world’s eye” and “the world’s heart.”

Although we may not see ourselves as public intellectuals in the distinguished tradition of Emerson and Thoreau or the more contemporary Stanley Fish, Claudia Rankine, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, many of us are probably already engaged in outreach, teaching, and other efforts as public intellectuals.

Public Outreach: The Service of the Public Good

john jaspers flag
Flag (1954) by John Jaspers

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a public intellectual as “[a]n intellectual who expresses views (esp. on popular topics) accessible to a general audience.” A recent article in AAUP’s Academe explains that “[p]ublic intellectuals communicate their research in ways that are accessible to the public and translatable to the needs of communities.” According to the article, public intellectuals “apply their disciplinary knowledge and expertise to the service of the public good.”

When asked why they engage in public intellectual outreach, a survey by Morrison & Tyson Communications found that faculty did so for the following reasons:

To improve public understanding of their areas of expertise.

To enhance the reputation of their institutions.

To enjoy talking with people who have an interest in their work.

          Source: Inside Higher Ed, Scholar as Public Intellectual, January 21, 2011

In a time of great suspicion of scholars and expert knowledge, our outreach as public intellectuals could lead to regaining the public’s trust of academic institutions and academia in general.

The Organic Intellectual : Aligning Your Personal and Professional Values

pussy pink
Pussy Pink Urchin (2017) by Wangechi Mutu

On my own campus in a small town in Texas, pubic intellectual outreach ranges from a music professor who conducts the local symphony orchestra; a political science professor who coordinates a program that trains student to write grants for local non-profit agencies during the summer; and a chemist who hosts a “Citizen Scientist” podcast with her husband. Many of my colleagues regularly give public lectures about their areas of academic expertise to local civic organizations, historical societies, and literary groups.

Other colleagues serve as board members for community non-profits that benefit from the specialized academic training of local faculty. A colleague and friend who teaches in Idaho has a women’s studies background that contributes to her work as a board member of the local YWCA women’s shelter.

Speaking of this friend, she recently wrote a guest post for PALS on her very successful Moby-Dick half marathon, a public outreach program organized by her students. Some of the most innovative and effective public intellectual outreach projects include students. Andrew D. Kaufman’s successful “Books Behind Bars” outreach class for students at the University of Virginia is another example.

Yet many colleagues bristle at the term “public intellectual” because it seems to reinforce the very elitism and hierarchy that we aim to diminish when we bring our knowledge into our communities. Antonio Gramsci’s notion of an “organic intellectual” blurs the boundary between the “sacred” ivy tower and the “profane” general public. According to Gramsci, “traditional” intellectuals replicate the elite class structure and hegemony of academia. By contrast, “organic” intellectuals are academics who come from and work on behalf of the people.

Today we might think of an organic intellectual as an academic whose intellectual, personal, and political values are authentically aligned and expressed through meaningful public outreach.

Writing for a General Audience


Writing for a general audience can take the form of opinion articles for local, regional, and national newspapers. Such articles might offer perspective on current events through the lens of our academic area of expertise. We are also qualified to write about issues facing higher education, as did my colleague in response to the proposed graduate student tax in the recently passed tax bill.

Scholars may feel unprepared to do this type of writing. When I drafted an opinion article on The Handmaid’s Tale and Texas politics, I was advised that what I saw as an already concise 1,000-word article had to be trimmed by an additional 350 words. I was also told (albeit gently) to adjust my vocabulary to the 7th-grade level. Although I had to adapt to this new writing format and style, it was gratifying to have my ideas about a timely issue published right away. Unlike the peer-reviewed academic articles I have published in scholarly volumes, I received feedback from my audience almost immediately. I continue to receive comments from members of the public who come across my article online.

There are any number of articles about writing for a general and popular audience, but one very useful resource is the OpEd Project. The goal of this organization is “to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world,” particularly those of women. To that end, the OpEd Project offers workshops on how to write for newspaper opinion pages, with strategies on how to pitch an idea and find a venue for publication. Their website has excellent advice on the format of an opinion article and what editors are looking for.

Activism and Pedagogy

Image Source: Edmond Historical Society and Museum

Many debate the role of activism as part of our scholarly identities. Yet these days we may find that even asking the essential questions at the heart of our field — the very questions that guide our research and teaching — can be a form of activism simply because these questions disrupt the status quo. Those of us with interdisciplinary commitments to fields such as gender and women’s studies, environmental studies, and critical race studies may find that activism is an organic extension of what we do in our research and in the classroom. Our own public outreach and activism is a way to model an intellectually engaged and active citizenship to our students.

The classroom itself may be considered a type of public intellectual outreach; ideally, our students will take and disseminate knowledge from our classes into the world as members of an informed and voting citizenry. Recent crowd-sourced syllabi such as #CharlestonSyllabus and #PostTrumpSyllabus exemplify the intersection of activism and pedagogy by constructively using expert knowledge to advance conversations about the most pressing issues of our time.

Pedagogical writing and scholarship, such as that offered through the Pedagogy and American Literary Studies site, is also an example of public outreach. In a time when many do not see the value of higher education, good teaching and its outcomes “must be made visible through artifacts that capture its richness and complexity.” Especially as the structure of the professoriate changes, we need more opportunities to substantively and transparently discuss our teaching and pedagogy as a means to move the broader professional and cultural conversation about teaching and student learning beyond outcomes-based assessment and “return on investment.”

Considerations and Questions

brain circles
Brain Circles by Marguerite Jay Gignoux

Even with the protections of academic freedom, scholars might want to be aware of the possible perils of public intellectual work, especially graduate students and contingent faculty members. Many academics may prefer to compartmentalize their professional research and teaching, their political commitments, and their personal values. And many may find that they simply do not have time to commit to public intellectual outreach.

However, many scholars have found public outreach to be a rewarding form of intellectual work. And it is a worthy and necessary endeavor. With so much at stake, our role as the eyes and hearts of our democracy has never been more crucial.

  1. Is there a better term for “public intellectual” than “public intellectual”?
  2. What can you do or are you already doing to align your intellectual, personal, and political commitments?
  3. What changes can we make in the profession to value, reward, and recognize public outreach?
  4. Have you been involved in any outreach projects as a public intellectual in your community?


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