I knew I was in trouble when I considered becoming a public intellectual. Maybe it was all those university seminars on media outreach, filled with useful tips on simplifying your ideas, staying on message, and targeting relevant audiences. Or, maybe it was the e-mails I receive, surprisingly frequently, from people across the country asking me obscure questions about Canadian history – wanting me to settle bar bets, peruse documents on family history, or suggest leads on anachronistic municipal policies in small towns more than 1,000 kilometres from my office on St. George Street. Or, maybe all the institutional buzz about knowledge production just rubbed off somehow, seeping into my mental bones like a cold rain in late fall.
And—no joking for one paragraph— there is that little matter of the moral obligations of privilege. I have the best job in the world, after all, with ample time to think, write, study, and engage in deep contemplation about issues I find interesting and important. Most of the time, no one tells me what that means—I just follow my intellectual nose where it takes me, and even the occasional gatekeepers I meet share my desire to probe the obscure.
So I’m hardly in a position to complain if I have to occasionally reach out to share my, er, expertise. The days of the ivory tower are over (if they ever existed), so we can’t just lean back in our desk chairs and churn out dense articles for submission to the Journal of Scholarly Studies that Four People Will Read. These are the days of shared authority, community outreach, and scholarly engagement with the public sphere.
But the utopian dreams of the public intellectual are bolder and broader. As an in-demand thinker, it’s not like I’d confine myself to subjects I know something about—not much public hay in that, after all, given my rather narrow and idiosyncratic interests in snackfood and Santa Claus. I know a lot about a small number of things but almost nothing about everything else, so I’ll need to convince myself that I have brilliant ideas on a wide range of subjects.
This perceptual leap, it turns out, is all too easy for anyone suffering Long-time Professor Syndrome (LPS), a condition characterized by an overwhelming sense that people would follow your every word even if you lacked the power to set final exams. I mean, my eight years of teaching adds up to well over 1,000 hours in front of a lecture hall. Think of it: a metric ton of time spent watching people write down what I say. Any psychologist will tell you —unless they have an academic job—that this is just not normal. Can anyone, under the same conditions, resist the idea that their thoughts are really, truly, and completely interesting?
By far the worst symptom of LPS is topic creep. I mean, it’s not like I stand in front of a class and talk about my area of expertise. I lecture on dozens of topics that I know almost nothing about, like Cold War diplomacy, the 18th century, or anything west of Hamilton. Everyone has the experience of that unanswerable student question, where you respond with the evasive, “Well, scholars still debate the answer to that one” or the elusive, “What do other people think of that?” when really the truthful answer would be, “Sadly, everything that I know about the War of 1812 is already in this lecture.” And this kind of teaching from ignorance, I assure you, is no occasional matter.
Yet students still write it down, write it down, and write it down. Heck, some even ask to record my lectures—surely a sign they want to hang off my every word, needing not just the content but my witty panache and clever turns of phrase and expression? Perhaps they will upload it to their Facebook page, spreading my special wisdom to their wide circle of e-friends and displaying their pride in being privy to some special knowledge that needs to be shared? Yes? No? Yes?
Well, no. How often I forget that my “audience” could care less what I think of pretty much everything, except insofar as I will test them on it. I live in constant denial of my co-dependent relationship with final exams. My thoughts are not really, truly, and completely interesting. LPS is an insidious master. I’m starting a support group. Any joiners?
Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto.