Serendipity, redux

I sympathize with pleas like this one for academics to resist the pressures of the impact agenda. Serendipity clearly is a factor in achieving influence, and no doubt there are many historical examples of academic work that has achieved significant impact without its progenitors having any intention of doing so.

But is it not the case that serendipity is the only factor, and I question whether it is even the most important one. A fellow field-oriented philosopher, Paul B. Thompson, describes his style of philosophizing as “occasional,” inspired by the practice of occasional poetry. Creativity is often an occasional phenomenon, and there is a great deal of serendipity to when, where, and how such occasions arise. But it is equally true that rising to those occasions requires preparation, attentiveness to the possibility of a fruitful occasions arising, and not only the kind of serendipity that we call being in the right place at the right time – or, in the case of academics, having produced the right thing for the right future time.

Thinking through how academics should respond to neoliberal governance regimes and demands for impact is important. But it’s easy to confuse calls for accountability with an impossible demand for predictive accuracy. I do not see why the following point should be interpreted as sufficient reason to believe that one would have greater impact remaining inside the academy than venturing outside of it:

I see the value in recovering colonial writers who are not readily remembered. But I realise that the public could think the authors I study are unread for a reason. To them, knowing how white men published poems in 1790s Bombay seems irrelevant.

I could explain that my research builds on themes that are important to our modern society, such as the possibilities or failures of cross-cultural dialogue, the relationship between corporations and social communities and the sharp tongue of satire in political discourse.

But as a scholar, I can’t predict which, if any, of these themes will be influential in the coming decades. Engaging the public is important, but we should not assume that what will be integral to future society is the same as what can be made popular or immediately understandable now.

If there is equal uncertainty about what will be impactful on both sides of the ivory tower, then what reason is there for eschewing efforts to be public scholars, to try cultivating broader audiences, or to translate the value of academic work into other societal ‘languages’? People outside of the academy may not be interested in your work, after all. But, also, they just might be.