One evening, a long time ago, I opened my front door to find a teacher from the school in which I ‘d just enrolled my son. After an initial introduction she launched into a spiel about the English classes that the school was running for parents. It was clear she wanted to me come. When I politely said I wasn’t interested, she proceeded to go through the whole lot again. But agonizingly slowly. Of course I interrupted before she got all the way through and told her that I was born in Australia as were three generations before me and I was also in education. She was horrendously embarrassed. The very well-intentioned school had simply checked my son’s surname (Polish) and made the assumption that this was also me. In reality, his Polish father also had a university education and was working as a journalist at the time. So there were incorrect assumptions on multiple levels.
Why do I tell this story now? Well, because I get a bit alarmed at some of the assumptions that might get made about who the public is that we are now expected to write for and talk with.
Reading some of the advice on offer might cause some to think that we are only to write in the first person, in the active voice, using words of two syllables. This is fine if we are writing for The Daily Mail, which of course, we may very well want to do. However there are some publics for whom this is highly inappropriate.
But let me be clear here before I go on. I’m not endorsing writing – or talking – which is in love with its own cleverness. Nor am I suggesting that any old writing/talking is OK and we ought not to work hard to make sure that we communicate what we want to say. All of us in the academy need to keep working on how we can write and speak well.
BUT I do want to say that how this actually ends up in a text or a conversation or a key-note is absolutely dependent on who we are talking with and writing for. We can’t just assume that people will or – as in the story with which I started – assume that they won’t know what we are saying.
One of the consequences of the democratization of higher education, and the growth of the alt-ac career, is that there are now lots of people in all kinds of places and positions who have read what we in the academy have read, are interested in at least some of the same things, and are quite capable of using the same kind of language.
Just last week I was at a conference listening to an eminent artist and a senior gallery staff member discussing Felix Guattari’s ‘ecosophy’. Now I hadn’t read the specific book in question and neither had a number of other people in the audience so we all had to have it explained to us. The conversation between the two people ranged over a fair bit of what might be called ‘high theory’ and most people in the audience, in which academics were in a minority, seemed to keep up.
This audience was a public. But it was a pretty specific little public and it certainly expected a particular kind of engagement. It is one of the publics that I try to work with – and I have to work to keep up with its members. (Now heading off to find the Guattari in question.) If I write for them, I have to write well, but also in the genre and language that they expect – that is, absolutely not The Daily Mail. I have to talk enough of the language of this specific community to get a hearing.
And not long before I’d talked with some parents at an inner city school about the arts programme that their kids were doing. While they used pretty straight forward language, what they had to say was also insightful and interesting. I couldn’t assume that just because they had been badly served by their own schooling that they weren’t bright, lively and informed. They also were a public.
It seems to me that we must avoid at all costs any kind of implication that public engagement means that there is some kind of homogenous public out there for whom we have to behave uniformly. And we must avoid any implied view that the public is a them, a not us.
Recognizing the diversity of publics and our place within them, and as one of them, means that there are some fundamental questions we must ask ourselves before we start composing a letter, article, or conversation:
• Who is the public for whom I am writing?
• What do they read and talk about and how? What does this have in common with what I do?
• How can I find out what they expect from me?
• How can I communicate clearly and well what I want to say in ways that meet both their expectations and their interests?
And I think that we really need to be open to a further question:
• What might I learn from this public?