Nyasha Junior on Public Intellectuals

This morning, I am very happy to include a guest post from Dr. Nyasha Junior, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the Howard University School of Divinity. I am very grateful to her for continuing our conversation! You can find Dr. Junior at nyashajunior.com, and her blog at No Extra Credit.

Public Intellectuals? A Guest post from Nyasha Junior

Be careful what you tweet.

A few weeks ago, I was tweeting along with others using the hashtag “ConfessYourUnpopularOpinion.” I don’t remember which unpopular opinions I was espousing that day. They probably were related to the glories of Nutella or the horror of sugar grits. I also tweeted this:


My colleague Bryan Bibb used that tweet as the lede for his post “What is the public for biblical scholarship? On Dominant and Counter Publics.

Bibb engages Michael Warner’s Publics and Counter Publics in discussing the role of biblical scholarship. Bibb regards biblical scholars as a “counter-public” and argues that biblical scholars should seek to engage the dominant public despite the difficulties involved in doing so.

No side-eye from me this time since I agree with Bibb. I seek to engage the dominant public in various ways. I am a biblical scholar with a blog. (I don’t consider it to be a biblioblog because I don’t focus on biblical studies). I write non-specialist articles for popular media, and I give workshops and lectures on topics relating to the Bible and its use in our society.

My tweet was not about engaging the dominant public but about calling oneself a public intellectual. To me, it seems pretentious. Some academics call themselves public intellectuals just because they are active on social media. For me, a public intellectual offers critical work, reflects on the relationship of that work to the wider society, and engages an audience beyond the academy. For example, scholars such as bell hooks and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. are public intellectuals. Doing the work of a public intellectual does not require identifying oneself as such. Furthermore, I have noticed an inverse relationship between your willingness to call yourself a public intellectual and your doing the work of a public intellectual.

I fear that too many of my students have the impression that being a public intellectual involves having one’s picture taken with a celebrity or appearing as a guest on an MSNBC talk show and offering commentary on anything in the news regardless of one’s scholarly expertise. The work of a public intellectual does not require a camera crew, a stylist, or a publicist.

By their fruits ye shall know them--not their Twitter bios.