The American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting last week featured a plenary panel with an unusual speaker: comedian Aziz Ansari. Ansari just released a book that he co-wrote with sociologist Eric Klinenberg titled “Modern Romance.” The panel, by the same name, featured a psychologist working within the academy, a biological anthropologist working for Match.com, Christian Rudder from OkCupid, and of course, Ansari and Klinenberg. This was truly an inter/nondisciplinary panel striving for public engagement. I was excited and intrigued. The panel is archived here.
This panel seemingly had all of the elements that make for great public scholarhship. Yet somehow, it felt empty, cheap, and at times offensive. Or as I appreciatively retweeted:
My discomfort and disappointment with this panel got me thinking about how public scholarship should look. As a person who co-edits an academic(ish) blog, this concern is dear to me. It is also a key issue of contemporary intellectualism. It is increasingly easy to disseminate and find information. Publishing is no longer bound by slow and paywalled peer-review journals. Finally, we have an opportunity to talk, listen, share, and reflect on the ideas about which we are so passionate. But how do we do this well? I suggest two guiding rules: rigor and accommodation.
Be rigorous. Social science is like a super power that lets you see what others take for granted and imagine alternate configurations of reality. Common sense comes under question and is often revealed as nonsensical. Public scholarship therefore maintains both the opportunity and responsibility to push boundaries and challenge predominant ways of thinking. The ASA panel missed this opportunity and in doing so, shirked their responsibility.
First of all the panel, like Ansari and Klinenberg’s book, was titled “Modern Romance.” When drafting my Master’s thesis, the people supervising the work taught me that “modern” did not mean what I thought it meant. Modernism is a particular historical moment brought forth during the industrial revolution. Without going too far into it, scholars continue to debate if we have moved past modernism, and if so, what characterizes this new era, and in turn, what we should call it. Labeling the contemporary era “modern” is therefore an argument in and of itself, one that reveals a set of underlying assumptions that differ from those of postmodernism, poststructuralism, liquid modernity etc. My thesis advisors told me to use “contemporary” instead. It means “now” and is a far less value-laden way of representing the current time period. I got no indication that the ASA panelists held strong to the theoretical underpinnings of modernism vis-à-vis other historical designations. Modernism, therefore, was misused. Just as once I misused it in the first draft of my Master’s thesis. This seems like a nitpicky point, and admittedly it is, but it matters. Public engagement entails opening dialogue between those with different kinds and levels of intellectual capital. This means that discourse can operate at multiple levels. The public scholar can communicate something broad to the larger citizenry, while communicating a more nuanced point to insiders. Moreover, how scholars speak becomes a form of training. If we say modern, then the citizens engaged in discourse with us will also say modern, thereby cultivating imprecision and perhaps even generating confusion.
The second (and larger) issue was with the tenor of the panel as a whole. About halfway through, I shot off this tweet:
These panelists had an opportunity to offer new ways of thinking about love, romance, and family. Instead, they maintained heterosexual, monogamous, procreative, marriage relationships at the center of their discussion. Leaving aside a few cringe-worthy statements from Ansari, the panel as a whole presumed that marriage was the ultimate goal for those using dating apps, even if users wished to employ them for casual hookups in the meanwhile. The biological anthropologist made evolutionary arguments about procreation, and concluded that changes in romantic connections represented “slow love” in which marriage was the “finale” rather than the beginning. In this vein, they all talked about increases in cohabitation through the lens of declining marriage rates, rather than a reconfiguration of kinship ties and life course trajectories. In an exciting historical moment of dynamic cultural change, the panelists’ take on romance was painfully linear.
Rather than rigorous, lazy language choices and linear heteronormative logic kept the panel safely inside mainstream ways of thinking.
The flip side of rigor is accommodation. To engage the public is not to mansplain things to them, but to offer the fruits of academic training in an accessible way while taking seriously the counterpoints, hesitations, and misunderstandings this may entail. Tangibly, this means intellectuals should use language that is as simple as possible while remaining precise; it means exercising patience when lay-publics espouse ideas or use language that seems outdated or even offensive; it means remaining open to viewpoints rooted in lived experience rather than scientific study or high theory; it means remaining flexible while maintaining intellectual integrity. As an audience, members of the crowd at ASA failed to strike this balance. Instead, it became a weird dichotomy between fanenbying and hyper-pretentious pushback. As I noted earlier, the panelists were heteronormative to a fault. The panel itself was therefore something of an intellectual sacrifice, as were the wholesale endorsements coming from the crowd. Those who engaged the panel critically, however, often did so without accommodation. They censured panelists in the pretentious language of insiders complete with conference-tropes such as “troubled by,” “problematic,” and “this isn’t so much a question as it is a comment.”
This all came to a head when the first person to ask a question took about five minutes to use all of the conference tropes I just mentioned. Ansari replied: “ It’s clear that you have some issues, and I also have an issue. You just said ‘this isn’t really a question it’s a comment,’ but you’re standing in the Q&A line!!” The crowd erupted. Ansari said something we have all wanted to say to long-winded commentators. He identified and called out a truly poor habit within the academy. However, the person who Ansari shut down was making a valid point, only she did so in a way that was unaccommodating. Because of this, the cheering felt uncomfortable for me. The cheers invalidated the commentator’s points and in doing so, endorsed the panelists’ message, a message which really, deserved a harsh critique.
I appreciate that ASA made the move towards public scholarship, and I appreciate that public scholarship is difficult. This is why I’m pushing them—pushing us—to think about how public scholarship can/should look in practice. A simple starting place is to engage with rigor and accommodation. Maintain intellectual standards while meeting publics where they are.
I’m interested to hear other people’s thoughts on the panel and/or public scholarship more generally.
Jenny Davis practices public scholarship regularly on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis
 Google tells me fanenby is the gender neutral way to say “fangirl/fanboy” (enby for the NB of non-binary)