Academics as Public Intellectuals: A Conversation with Professors M. Cathleen Kaveny and Heather Cox Richardson
M. Cathleen Kaveny
Heather Cox Richardson
DATE: Tuesday, September 28, 2021
TIME: 6 - 7 pm
LOCATION: McGuinn Hall 521
On September 28th, the Boisi Center hosted a graduate student dinner event, “Academics as Public Intellectuals: A Conversation with Professors M. Cathleen Kaveny and Heather Cox Richardson.” Mark Massa, S.J., facilitated the conversation with the two professors/public intellectuals and more than thirty graduate students representing J.D. and Ph.D. students and candidates from the history, political science, and theology departments.
Massa began the conversation by asking the relationship between their lives as academics and as public intellectuals. Kaveny said that she considers herself primarily as an academic. It was only after having a passion for a particular topic and encountering something that someone got wrong or that angered her that she took her teaching role beyond the classroom. Richardson agreed, noting that she is a teacher, and her blog, the Substack entitled, “Letters from an American,” has the same teaching goal but with a different audience. She later added that she writes for the blog every night after watching the news and talking with others all day. She writes at the earliest possible time each evening, though sometimes quite late—she finished the post the night prior to our event at 4:00am!
Massa asked Kaveny and Richardson whether they are comfortable being called public intellectuals. Kaveny said she did not mind as long as it is defined literally—she is an intellectual offering her services in a public forum. She does not want to be confused with a journalist or op-ed columnist, and she maintains the distinction by only intervening when she feels she has something to offer from her expertise. Richardson was apathetic about the title, thinking it sounds more like a job description for an old, white man spouting his opinion on various matters. She thinks of herself primarily as a teacher and historian, though technology is changing the look of those roles.
When asked whether they saw themselves venturing into the public forum while they were in graduate school and when their lives entered that sphere, Kaveny noted that her move to the broader audience happened organically—she wrote a piece for Commonweal that connected Buffy the Vampire Slayer to theology, which turned into a regular column. But once she began writing for that audience, she was challenged with discerning what she could assume they knew or what needed to be explained within the limited word count allotted to her. Richardson said that she sees that “part of being in the world is being in the world”—one is always explaining their career, so although the scale is different, there has always been a “public” aspect to her work (especially when she wrote for a children’s magazine).
They both acknowledged drawbacks. For Kaveny, she feels scattered by the many interventions she is asked to make and rarely has the opportunity to “linger” on a particular question. Richardson considers the blog “very tiring,” but the silver lining is that when one is forced to write 1200 words per day, they will become a good writer. Other drawbacks include angry emails and even death threats (in Richardson’s case). But one makes the necessary adjustments to protect themselves and their work.
Questions from the graduate students included how each of the professors deals with blowback against their contributions, how they view non-specialist or non-academic, anti-intellectual voices amplified by the internet, and how our particular moment in history impacts the value of public intellectuals.