If you’re reading this, you know the American West has an Edge, but you may not know it has a Center. From that Center, Patricia Nelson Limerick writes about how to be a public scholar.

  • Face up to the fact that your own convictions may not be the final word in human wisdom….
  • … keep your hypotheses in a limber state; do not leap to conclusions; resist the common human habit of celebrating the evidence that supports your pre-existing point of view, while dismissing the evidence that invites you to question your assumptions.
  • If you can find a way of making your case without angering your audience, getting their backs up, and making them defensive, by all means, choose that approach. Direct verbal combat is fun and self-satisfying but rarely productive….

All of this sounds very sensible, as the very sensible Timothy Burke says.

Now, here are some guidelines given me by an editor of op-eds:

  • [Op-ed] pieces … prove a thesis. That thesis is almost always able to be phrased as: “Conventional wisdom says X. But X is wrong. Here’s why.”…
  • Usually the first sentence of the second graf is something to the effect of “But this [conventional] analysis has it all wrong.”…
  • In the case of possible objections to your argument, you … knock them down….
  • [P]ieces [end] with a punchy and argumentative last sentence.

Do these bulleted lists sound compatible? I think they do not. So at least implicitly, Patricia Nelson Limerick’s model of how to be a public scholar must include “do not write op-eds.”

Indeed, the traditional model of writing commentary is not the model of public intellection she proposes; she has in mind “applied work,” or “Stand[ing] before an audience of federal employees, environmental advocates, county commissioners, state legislators, utility managers, or urban and regional planners. Hav[ing] those people look earnestly and expectantly at you, radiating the faith that a university-based historian will be able to say something that will be useful to them in their lives and careers.”

Limerick’s model of public scholarship entails becoming part of the process on which intellectuals normally remark; it’s antithetical to the critical role traditionally played by public intellectuals. This is—not to push a metaphor too far, but—a very “Center” kind of idea, and not an “Edge” one at all.

Op-eds, and op-ed discourse, are (as Michael Bérubé noted here) not the only game in town for your public scholar and there’s a lot to hate about them; blogdom offers more open-ended ways of engaging a non-scholarly public. But blogging too is more “Edge” than “Center,” more in keeping with the traditional role of intellectual.