Tuesday, 4 February 2014

We need more academic engagement in the public sphere

When I got wind of news that a scholarly association had "attempted to regulate the blogging activities of some of its members" my mind returned as if linked by a rubber strap to a social-media-for-scientists conference I attended two-and-a-half years ago in Brisbane which resulted in a magazine story. The problem, I knew, wasn't that academics blog too much, but rather precisely the opposite, leaving the public sphere unleavened by their insights and knowledge in far too many cases.

And then I thought about a podcast I had watched that was produced by La Trobe University in Melbourne that deals with two late-Republican-Rome personalities - the statesman and orator Cicero and the poet Catullus - and how excited I had been, which had caused me to suggest establishing "Uni TV" where content focusing on what academics are doing could be aired with even greater frequency than it is now. Love David Attenborough? There must be dozens - even hundreds - of researchers and teachers who know even more than he does. Love Simon Schama? Why not get to hear from the people who write the texts he relies on to make his splendid programs?

I can see how there might be objections though. For example, yesterday I saw a tweet that someone who was curating a conference put out, that went like this "Graham - journos reporting on climate change have been pulled in to the politicization of science reporting #asc14." And I replied: "Funny how some people think that in the public sphere you can separate things from politics #asc14." Because however much researchers might want to avoid the entanglement of the ideas they handle with the messy business of politics - and with the sock puppets who often deal in it - that's just the way things roll in the public sphere. Democracy relies on the free flow of ideas via the media - including social media - and in fact we have special laws in Australia to make sure that this happens. Not only that but you can make a case for deeming any institution that cannot be spoken about publicly unconstitutional.

And of course there are precedents. One of the wonderful things about The Conversation - where the article that started this blogpost was published - is that it functions as a filter between academia and the public sphere. You have a roomful of skilled editors who are talking with hundreds of specialists in universities around the country. Together, these two groups of people pump out dozens of new articles every day covering topical issues. How far this paradigm could be taken is anyone's guess, but I'm betting that there would be demand for Uni TV in the community, and by centralising resources it could be done economically. You might not even need TV spectrum to do it: just load everything online and let the links get shared. Andrew Jaspan, if you are reading this you are welcome to contact me at any time to talk about setting up Uni TV. I think it's a great idea.

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