A post-retirement career as a public academic meets the moment’s need

Writing, speaking and advising offer the rewards of scholarly life without the constraints and contradictions of universities, says Harvey Graff

September 18, 2021
Writing a letter, illustrating op-ed by Harvey J Graff on being a public scholar after retirement
Source: iStock

When I retired in 2017 after more than four decades as a professor of English and history, I faced a dilemma.

The timing of departure derived in part from a series of broken commitments that left me unwilling to continue an active institutional connection. That did not preclude continuing relationships with colleagues, friends and former students, of course, but it did mean that my days of university teaching were well and truly over. What to do next?

It is a common problem. If teaching and learning is a vocation, it isn’t one that can simply be cast off once the necessity or opportunity to earn an income from it is gone. But my goals as a scholar had been largely fulfilled. My books are widely respected in their fields, and although another one is now under publishers’ review, I did not wish to continue scholarly writing.  

My new path emerged gradually. First, I needed a period of transition. But as I sat back and reflected, the public sphere went into a frenzy, with the Trump agenda, the Covid-19 pandemic and the election of 2020. And amid the chaos of the 6 January insurrection, the pieces of my future fell into place.

My career was spent at three public universities in three large cities, and I always engaged in a variety of extramural activities that are known as “public history” – or, less frequently, “public humanities”. These included advising historical societies and museums on exhibits, programming and written materials (such as brochures); assisting reporters with background and sources; and serving as an adviser, panellist and speaker for public radio and television. In my specialty areas, I occasionally advised public American and international agencies, too.

This work was rarely time-consuming, but it was a stimulating and fulfilling extension of my teaching and research. It also facilitated exciting new contacts and relationships. These experiences pointed the way to my new niche in the post-Trump era: to publicly present uncommon perspectives and alternative, often historical, contexts on contemporary issues.

I began by writing opinion essays and letters focused on national and state politics, particularly relating to the pandemic. Yet although I had published letters and what we used to call op-eds in newspapers and education outlets previously, I experienced a somewhat frustrating initiation into the modern world of publishing, where editors almost never acknowledge submissions and seldom communicate their decisions. I only discovered that some of my letters had been published when reading the paper or checking online: a grating experience for one socialised in academic practices.

Still, I persevered. I also expanded into broader topics, especially the state of the media and civics: issues such as right-wing attacks on voting rights and misrepresentations of critical race theory and what schools teach about race. None of these subjects was new to me, but writing for a general audience required refined communication skills (and my wife’s sharp editing). 

These activities flowed almost naturally into others. I systematically reached out to local and national journalists offering my historical counsel. Many ignored my emails; one responded that “research would interfere with my objectivity”. But others welcomed my contribution, and some have become friends. And as my “guest essays” and letters gained a wider audience, reporters and public radio stations began to contact me. 

National radio interviews and, especially, public forums are especially fulfilling after almost 50 years in classrooms. Although today’s audiences are virtual, it is stimulating to speak to largely self-selected and actively interested people, who typically respond with excellent questions and comments. Happily, there is nothing resembling RateMyProfessors, either! 

I also expanded my outreach to elected officials at the local, state and national levels, and to not-for-profit advocacy groups, especially those involved in education, city government, state issues and proposed legislation. Again, some ignored me, whereas others spoke with me, either in person or by telephone. The government officials educated me about their institutions’ operations while I provided background and alternative perspectives on major issues. The exchanges were typically rich and mutually rewarding. 

I increasingly recognised that I was refining the knowledge and skills that I had acquired and practised over my academic career, and I began to feel a discernible impact on opinion and policy. At the same time, I am well aware of the limits of my work. 

Some right-wing voices – and perhaps some more moderate ones – will question my right as a retired professor to speak out on political issues, even though I am drawing on my professional expertise. Some will label me “partisan”, even though I am not engaged as a representative of any party. Others will allege that I am violating the “terms” of “objectivity” and “traditional” professional standards, even though trained and experienced scholars have always combined professionalism and objectivity with responsible activism. I will not be swayed by any of them. And I would point out to them the right-wing scholars still affiliated with universities who do violate established standards for objectivity. The right-wing complaint is uninformed and contradictory at best, and hypocritical at worst. 

Going public is definitely an ongoing learning experience. So far, however, it has been a very satisfying retirement “career”. It offers the rewards of scholarly life without the constraints and contradictions of the university or narrowly defined professionalism. I recommend it more widely. The urgent challenges of our times demand it.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history at Ohio State University, where he was the first Ohio eminent scholar in literacy studies and founding director of literacy studies. He is the author of many books on social history.

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