The emergence of the academic entrepreneur (blog by Emiel Martens)

Last month, from 16-30 September 2014, I attended the 9th Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival in Port of Spain, the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago on the northwest coast of the Caribbean island of Trinidad. I participated in this annual celebration of films from and about the Caribbean and its diaspora in two capacities: as academic researcher and industry partner (the latter as director of non-profit film organization Caribbean Creativity). My dual lens, zooming both out and in, is part of my desperate attempt to bridge the gap between the world of academia and the world of practice.


As a researcher at the KITLV, I usually position myself in the field of media studies and Caribbean media studies in particular. Traditionally, most work within this field has focused on textual analysis, i.e. the interpretation of the meanings of mass media texts such as feature films, television programs and video games. Although both production research and audience research have over the years  become important strands within media studies, scholars still too often look at media texts in isolation, without taking into account (or even having knowledge about) their producers and consumers, the people who actually create and negotiate the meanings of the media (and the world in general).

We almost cannot escape the image of the fusty academic ensconced in his ivory tower, explaining the world while at the same time avoiding that very same world. Of course, the ivory tower effect is not unique to media studies, but cuts across all academic disciplines. For example, my brother, who is a corporate lawyer, sometimes by pure chance stumbles upon a journal article by a law scholar discussing a case he has handled. Never has such a scholar approached him for his side of the story and never has it, according to my brother, resulted in a spot-on article. On the rare occasions that the fusty academic does descend from his ivory tower to interact with the world around him, it is usually to visit libraries, to attend conferences, to consult peers, to meet publishers, to convince reviewers, or to teach students (although the fusty academic does not like to teach either, as he does not want – or does not know how to – come down to the level of the students). Still, on all these occasions he remains safely within the comforts of the academic world.

However, any academic who would like to think of himself as a committed intellectual (despite the fact that the term ‘intellectual’ is in itself already quite highbrow), should try to reach out to the general public, to communicate on an understandable level and to make a difference in the practical world. According to prominent postcolonial scholar Homi K. Bhabha, a ‘committed intellectual’ (it is his term) abolishes the division between theory and politics and uses the act of writing to take a position dedicated to effect social change. I would like to suggest that the act of writing not only refers to academic writing but also, and maybe even more so, to popular writing, since this type of writing usually reaches larger audiences and encourages greater social action. While many academics still look down on popular writing, mainly because it is seen as less complete and nuanced, I consider doing a blog like this one, or any other form of public communication (including print, radio, television, video and online), as of vital importance for the modern committed intellectual (2.0?).

I even want to take it one step further (3.0?) and argue for the academic as a committed entrepreneur, an academic who not only engages with the stakeholders in the practical world but is a stakeholder in that world himself. Business consultant Isaiah Hankel asserts that ‘the modern professor is not just [or should not just be] an academic intellectual but also an entrepreneur’ (not least because the comforts of the academic world are so quickly coming to an end). According to Hankel, the academic may be

an entrepreneur who spends the morning wearing a pair of Google Glasses (…) [after which] he’ll submit (…) a draft of his next New York Times bestseller to his editors. He’ll attend a regional industry conference next month on the way to giving a TED Talk and appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Although I do not have a pair of Google Glasses, New York Times bestseller, TED Talk presentation or Oprah Winfrey appearance as yet, I consider my journey as an academic entrepreneur as a productive path to close the gaps between the academic and the practical. There are still many rivers to cross, but building bridges seems to be the way forward. At least for me. Oprah here I come!

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