On Expertise and the Public Intellectual

According to the New York Times, I am one of the foremost experts on men crying in public (more on this below). How I came to be an “expert” in this subject has everything to do with how our culture interprets “expertise”—what counts and what doesn’t, how we signal it, and the scenarios in which it does or does not get questioned. Expertise goes to the heart of the cultural status of the public intellectual, and conflicting definitions of expertise help determine who we turn to when we need help thinking about a significant public event or issue.

What makes someone a public intellectual? Certainly the degree;  the cultural capital in the mere fact of having a PhD matters.  Even in this time of attacks on the humanities and on academia in general, there is an aura of expertise that surrounds the PhD, and the title of Professor, an aura that still has considerable power. But having a PhD doesn’t allow anyone to comment on just anything, of course. They have to have specific knowledge. How specific is a complicated question, though, especially for those of us who study the past.  Does knowing a lot about how and why men cried in the nineteenth century really qualify me to comment on 21st century male tears?  To push beyond the limitations of specific bodies of knowledge, then, many public intellectuals claim expertise that is based on interpretive or analytic methods. In other words, because we know how to analyze texts, cultural forms, historical phenomena, from the past, we know how to do so in the present.

Then there’s the most cynical view of what makes for expertise, which we might call the “performative” model. That is,  merely claiming to be a public intellectual makes you one. Once you’ve been invited to comment on something, and do so competently, you will be asked to do so again. University PR offices purport to operate on the “possessing specific knowledge” principle when they create “faculty expert” web pages to encourage reporters to contact faculty members on specific topics. Frankly, though, I suspect that they mostly operate on the “performative” model, steering media inquiries to people who have previously demonstrated competency in punditry. And such offices seem mostly to ignore methodological or discipline-specific expertise. If they want someone to comment on the Presidency, it matters little whether the person is a presidential historian or a political scientist or a constitutional law professor, so long as they can “perform” well in an interview.


Now to the issue of my expertise on men crying. In 1999, I co-edited (with Mary Chapman of the University of British Columbia) a book titled Sentimental Men: Masculinity and the Politics of Affect in American Culture. Though the book’s title may have implied an historical scope that included the present, in fact the topics of the essays in Sentimental Men ranged from the late seventeenth century to the late nineteenth.  The only moment in the whole book that commented on the (then) present was a brief opening section of our introduction, which was hooked on a Time magazine story that had listed the times the first President Bush had been known to cry. (To our surprise, he had done so fairly often. Recall that this was long before any of us had noticed John Boehner).

Otherwise the book itself made few, if any, claims to offer insight into the present. My own contribution was about a now-obscure branch of the temperance movement in the 1840s, which tried to reform drunkards by getting hundreds of them together to cry over the horrible things they had done while under the influence, and about the even more obscure novel that Walt Whitman wrote about this movement, Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate. The expertise displayed here, in short, was very historically specific.

Much to my surprise, this book quickly made me a go-to commentator whenever a man wept in public. The Clinton years were almost over by the time Sentimental Men came out; otherwise I probably would have been called on a lot more often. But there were still plenty of men crying and people wanting expert commentary on them. I was interviewed extensively, for instance, by a downstate Illinois newspaper writing about a local football coach who had broken down in tears. Probably most prominently, I was quoted in a New York Times article about how New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani could get away with crying in public after 9/11.

How did I become this publicly intellectual expert on crying?  Obviously I was seen as having knowledge-based expertise on something, and was asked to comment about it. But where did the perception of my knowledge-based expertise come from? None of the stories mentioned that I was an English professor, that much of my own work was on literature, or that the analysis in Sentimental Men stopped before 1900. Perhaps the small-town newspaper that quoted me valued my methodological expertise, believing that because I knew how to analyze male tears in novels and in social history, I was qualified to comment about a football coach who cried. And yet, the methodological expertise leaned on by these newspapers doesn’t look like anything anyone in academia would recognize. Indeed, in some of these articles, I sounded more like a sociologist or psychologist than like a literary historian, because my comments were detached from both cultural and historical context and made into statements about masculine tears in general.

This points to one wide chasm between the journalistic understanding of scholarly expertise and the understanding held in academia. Many scholars—perhaps especially those of us in the humanities—act as if our knowledge is constrained by both disciplinary and historical specificity. Having literary knowledge about temperance fiction in the 19th century would not in itself qualify me to write a peer-reviewed scholarly article about weeping mayors in 2001, and yet that knowledge apparently qualified me to comment in a prominent newspaper on Giuliani’s tears. The public—or at least some media outlets—seemed quite willing to view my expertise as more expansive than I had ever claimed it was.


Last Fall, when the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, its members discovered that the public and the media were not always so open to efforts to expand the boundaries of scholars’ areas of expertise. What makes the public response to the ASA’s vote an interesting example of what I’m talking about here—regardless of one’s opinion of the politics, ethics, or wisdom of the ASA vote–is that many public critics of the ASA have depicted it as a group of scholars acting outside their spheres of knowledge. Many attacks on the ASA claimed that the organization lacked expertise to take a stance on international issues, asserting that its scholarship on the United States did not give it the requisite specific knowledge of the Middle East, or that the methods and concepts in American Studies could not or should not be applied in this context. Others went directly at the credentials of the scholars making the claims, with emphasis on the illegitimacy or irrelevance of three areas currently at the center of American Studies scholarship:  queer studies, ethnic studies, and indigenous studies. One especially unhinged piece in Forbes online took the form of an endless open letter to the administration at New York University detailing the horrifying scholarship that its scholars of American studies were doing, publication by publication, claiming to show not only that none of them had the proper expertise in the relevant area, but that the expertise, knowledge, research and publications they do is fundamentally illegitimate.  Rarely—not since the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s—have there been such vitriolic and sustained attacks on the legitimacy of academics’ efforts to act as public intellectuals.

Defenders of the ASA tried to respond by focusing on the merits of the position they had taken, but found themselves also having to argue on the grounds of expertise. They defended ASA members’ specific knowledge, of course, but more than the critics, they centered on interpretive  method. At a debate within my own institution’s American studies program, I leaned toward this latter approach. I gave a short talk to a group of faculty there that traced the emergence of a few keywords that I thought helped explain how the ASA ended up taking a stance on an issue like the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. I talked about how keywords like “empire” and “settler colonialism” led to comparative work on the US in relation to other imperial and settler-colonial states, as well as scholarly collaboration with intellectuals working in those contexts, including Palestine. I talked about the keyword “indigenous,” and how some of that comparative and collaborative work is taking place between Palestinian scholars and activists and their counterparts in Native American communities and scholars of indigeneity. And I talked about the keyword “transnational;” how the transnational turn in Americanist scholarship has led some scholars to focus on the extensive transnational and international connections between Israel and the United States, but also the transnational institutional developments such as the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at American University in Beirut. These keywords helped provide an institutional and intellectual context to help explain what—to some of my colleagues—was a simply bewildering action on the part of the ASA, as confusing as if a group of art historians had taken a stance on a debate in molecular biology.

So though I initially came prepared to the meeting to present expertise that took the form of concrete knowledge– mentioning members of the ASA’s national council who had taught in Beirut and Ramallah, who had spent time at CASAR, who had been on study tours in Palestine, who had done comparative scholarship—ultimately, my reliance on keywords such as “settler colonialism” and “indigenous” meant that I was placing more emphasis on methodological expertise. If we can analyze settler colonialism in a U.S. context, I argued, it is legitimate to transfer that analysis to another context that has been described as settler-colonial; the Israeli occupation. Those who have studied indigenous struggles for sovereignty in North America have something legitimate to say about similar struggles in southwest Asia. Those who have studied and participated in transnational political and cultural movements in and around the United States have legitimate insights about a movement—the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement—whose scope is by definition transnational, and which operates in a region where the United States has long had interests and involvement.


Whether you grant these claims of legitimacy depends in large part on how you define the forms of expertise on which they are based.  What specific knowledge are we allowed to transfer into another geographical or historical context? What interpretive methods are we permitted to translate from one field of study to another? My two examples seem to provide contrasting answers to these questions. The ASA boycott resolution prompted many in the mass media to police the boundaries of its members’ scholarly expertise.  In contrast, in my own brief career as an expert on weeping men, the public—or at least the media—ignored the limits of my specific knowledge and seemed more than willing to expand the boundaries of my methodological expertise.

Some of this contrast is certainly due to the differences between Middle East politics and the politics of gender and emotion. Venturing into the former is bound to produce more backlash than commenting on the latter. But I think the contrast also points to some confusion in our understanding of the role of the public intellectual.  Intellectual expertise is judged in the public sphere according to conventions of reportage, entertainment, and political capital that are very different from the standards of scholarly success and legitimacy. So it may matter less whether or not any of us are actually public intellectuals than whether we are able to play them on TV.

Glenn Hendler’s aim is true

Image Credit: J.S. Pughe, “A Prospect of Over-education,” chromolithograph, 1902




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