Academy's fame culture dissected

Symposium considers the 'mediagenic persona' of the public intellectual. Matthew Reisz reports

June 3, 2010

Academic stardom and the importance of charisma and notoriety in a world that puts so much stress on the impact of research were discussed at an event at the British Library.

Participants in the symposium, entitled The Public Intellectual: Feminism, Power, Celebrity, heard from Su Holmes, reader in television at the University of East Anglia, who argued that "academic culture has long been a fame culture, where salaries, promotions and prestige depend on being well known".

Conference organisers and publishers of edited collections always look for big names, even though the best chapters and presentations are often produced by "the equivalent of the talented supporting actor who barely gets credited", she said.

Speaking last week at the event organised by Roehampton University's Centre for Research in Gender and Sexuality, Dr Holmes acknowledged that academic "stardom" is less dominated by physical appearance than other forms of celebrity.

Yet it is nonetheless dogged by gender issues, since intelligence is often seen as unfeminine - and the comment "you don't look like an academic" is regarded as a compliment.

If the so-called "impact agenda" means "proving the value of your research to the outside world", Dr Holmes warned, academics may feel obliged to create "mediagenic personas" that are at odds with their duty to explore and qualify simplistic assumptions.

She recalled how the makers of a television documentary decided not to use her when she would not endorse the thesis of the show's title: I'll Do Anything to Get on TV.

Nina Power, senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University, said she was strongly in favour of "academics saying interesting, critical things in a broader sphere".

But she asked how such a public intellectual role could be quantified, and how crucial factors such as charisma or notoriety could possibly be measured.

"It is a function of people not knowing what 'impact' is, that creates a culture of permanent fear," Dr Power added.

Sarah Churchwell, senior lecturer in American studies at the University of East Anglia, took a more positive line.

"The impact agenda can be a friend, because it can give us avenues to say the things we really want to say," she said.

Arguing that "writing journalism that people read and pay attention to is more worthwhile than preaching to the academic choir", Dr Churchwell offered some practical tips.

"It is often a poor strategy to get angry and play up to the stereotype of the angry feminist," she suggested, adding that "divisive language is not necessarily the best way of conveying divisive ideas".

"There is a choice for academics in the media," she said. "You can compromise or you can keep silent."

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments