The fall semester at UT is always filled with visits from exciting guest speakers (we had a Supreme Court justice here just last week!), and this upcoming Thursday is no exception. The Chancellor's Honors Program will be hosting the "Third Annual Anne Mayhew Lecture Series," named after UT's very own Dr. Anne Mayhew, who was the first woman to serve as the chair of the Department of Economics ,and also served as the Dean of the Graduate School and the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. This year, the featured keynote speaker is Dr. Theda Skocpol, a well-respected author and professor at Harvard University.
Dr. Skocpol's name might not be familiar to most students at UT, but she is widely recognized in academic and political circles. Last year, she and another Harvard professor published a highly acclaimed book entitled "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism." Her next academic project will revolve around the successes and failures of the Obama administration. She is considered to be one of the top scholars in political science and historical sociology — she has written multiple books and articles on a wide range of topics, and she frequently gives lectures and participates on panels. In short, Dr. Skocpol is the epitome of a public intellectual — someone who can "bridge the gap" between the often inaccessible academic sphere and the public.
Being a public intellectual may not seem like a difficult task, but anyone who is acquainted with academia can understand the difficulties that arise when scholars try to explain or discuss their work with people unfamiliar with their topics. It is easy for academics to get caught up in the theories, methods, and jargons of their fields; it is just as easy for the general public to not understand these scholars' research or to feel condescended upon by these scholars. Making esoteric and detailed scholarly research accessible to the public is a skill that few possess, and Dr. Skocpol stands out among them. Her discussions of current political events in a compelling but academic manner make her research both appealing and comprehensible to the general public. Furthermore, her willingness to speak publicly about her research in forums outside of academia demonstrates the extent to which she serves as a public intellectual.
It is becoming increasingly important in today's world to make academic research accessible to the public. As scientific research becomes more detailed and complicated, as research in the social sciences delves into previously unexplored topics and the humanities explores new works of literature or art, it is more difficult than ever to distill complex research into something that the general public can understand and appreciate. And just because academic research is becoming more specialized and detailed does not mean it is any less relevant. The key for any academic is to take their research and apply it to a larger problem — global warming, understanding other people and cultures, expanding humanity's horizons. Sometimes it is difficult for an academic who has spent his or her career wrapped up in detailed research to articulate these connections in a meaningful way to the public, and that is why the public intellectual is so important.
I hope to see more academics make public intellectualism a priority in their research and overall careers. Academic researchers are undoubtedly the most qualified to discuss the methodology and results of their research, so the burden is on them to articulate these to the public. UT is fortunate to have the privilege of Dr. Skocpol's visit, for there is much she can teach about being a public intellectual.
— Sarah Russell is a senior in history. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.