The insecure scholar: The Dawkins dilemma

The thought of becoming a public intellectual has many attractions but plenty of downsides, too

January 5, 2010

The kids are back at school, the holidays are over and I’m back at my computer trying to make something happen for me in 2010. I wrote in last week’s column how, while I was enjoying the downtime, part of it was spent in a state of anxiety about being unable to work on my future. Now that I’m finally in a position to get back in the game, motivating myself for another round of job and grant applications is proving difficult. Even if every application raises excitement and hope, the actual process of filling in forms is pure drudgery.

So while thinking up creative answers to inane questions, I find myself drifting off into a dream world that is preferable to the current excess of reality. Having time to think over the holidays, I found myself honing a fantasy that has been forming for years now: making my living as a public intellectual.

In my fantasy, I may or may not have some academic title, but most of my working life is spent writing books and articles for a broad, intelligent but not specifically academic readership. In my fantasy, I am not exactly famous, but I am well known and respected enough to receive commissions and invitations to write and speak, rather than having to seek them out. In my fantasy, I am not rich, but I earn a living equivalent to that of an academic without the grinding bureaucratic pressures of the contemporary university.

I freely admit this is a self-indulgent fantasy. The number of public intellectuals who earn a decent living as such is small, and those who do have usually achieved their status through years of Stakhanovite labour at the academic coalface. Richard Dawkins (whose life I envy even if I do not admire his work) did not suddenly leap from postgraduate to exalted public figure without much effort in between. It’s pretty naive to think I could jump from my current position of insecurity to the Reith Lectures without a lot of blood, sweat and grant applications.

Still, it isn’t completely unrealistic to think that a higher public profile might be within my grasp and that I could earn decent sums from writing for a non-academic readership. I occasionally get quoted as an “expert” in the media. I already earn pocket money writing for Times Higher Education anonymously and a few other publications and websites in my own name. With a few months’ effort, I could perhaps obtain commissions for some significant freelance writing projects. I could probably work up a proposal for a serious but non-academic non-fiction book that agents would be interested in, which might attract some kind of advance from a publisher.

It would be difficult to go down this road and still keep my academic career alive with conferences, journal articles, plus job and grant applications. To embark on what might be a new career but might easily come to nothing would represent quite a risk. I might not be able to return to academia if it didn’t work out.

In any case, I am aware that the limited public profile I have already and the writing gigs I have obtained all depend on the fact that I am an academic researcher. My doctorate, institutional affiliations and academic publications give me credibility – without them, I am just some bloke trying to make a living amid stiff competition.

At the moment I’m hedging my bets, trying to build up my public profile and writing, while at the same time working to build a future within the academy. But when the drudgery of job and grant applications becomes oppressive, it’s easy to be tempted to put my energies into the possibilities that my more glamorous fantasy career appears to afford. Should my efforts to get another academic post fail in the short to medium term, I may have little alternative but to try the public intellectual route. If that happens, we’ll see how long my fantasy career retains its charms.

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