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February 2nd, 2018 6:24:38 am

Scaling the Ivory Tower: Creating Dialogic Encounters between the Public and Universities

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Proposal submitted for PPJ New Engaged Scholars Digital Pilot Program
Scaling the Ivory Tower: Creating Dialogic Encounters between the Public and UniversitiesWith the public increasingly bearing the costs of Higher Education (HE) through taxation, it seems morally appropriate that the ‘results’ of academic labour should be made publicly available, and more importantly, accessible. The image of universities as ‘ivory towers’ keeping their knowledge to themselves in a self-perpetuating cycle of obscurity and irrelevance (to the public)[1]may seem archaic, but research outputs from universities are rarely conveyed to members of the general public. Where current research is made publicly available, this is largely confined to the empirical sciences, and the results are often misinterpreted and sensationalised in the press – advocacy of the VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) model of learning styles is a prime example of this (Revell, 2005). As I will argue, it is morally incumbent upon academics to make their research more publicly available and accessible, but the general public must also renew their interest in Higher Education and reclaim responsibility for its pursuits. Here, I will consider the interactions between universities and the general public in relation to the work of the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber.I will explore the possibilities for genuine dialogue between universities and the general public, discussing whether the public should be interested in HE because they are supporting its costs, or whether their role transcends the merely economic. If the public are interested in the ‘research outputs’ of universities, then academics are almost duty-bound to make their research easily accessible, but this should entail more than publishing articles in open access journals. In an era when funding for arts and humanities programs is shrinking and such disciplines are forced to defend their usefulness (see Nussbaum, 2012), could an increase in the public visibility of research nullify concerns over the value of certain (non-empirical) subjects?
I will draw some connections between the modes of dialogue evinced in Buber’s work (1947/2002) – genuine dialogue, technical dialogue, and monologue disguised as dialogue – and the ‘dialogue’ characteristic of the interactions between universities and the general public. As Buber describes (1947/2002), ‘technical dialogue’ is that which is conducted for, and limited to, a particular purpose. The other is not recognised as a ‘Thou’ but as an ‘It’, as someone who can be used as a means to an end. There is no reciprocity in such dialogue, and as Buber writes, ‘the concern is only with what is communicated and not with the partners in the dialogue themselves’ (1947/2002, loc.164).
Monologue that is disguised as dialogue, the third of Buber’s modes, is even less inclusive of the other. What appears to be a conversation is in fact nothing more than mere ‘speechifying’, whereby nothing of import is communicated between the parties, and they are speaking to themselves as much as to the other (Buber, 1999, p.79). For academics dedicated to ‘public engagement’, there is a danger that making their research accessible may reduce their interactions with the public to the realm of ‘technical dialogue’, or even monologue, as linking such activity to ‘research impact’ inevitably turns public engagement into yet another tick-box exercise in the marketised Higher Education sector.
Whilst all three forms of dialogue are necessary to human life, it is only by engaging in genuine dialogue with the other that a mutual relation of
Scaling the Ivory Tower: Creating Dialogic Encounters between the Public and Universities
Claire Skea
 I-Thou can be established (Buber, 1947/2002, 1970). If the public only considers Higher Education in terms of published league tables and statistics, as epitomised by measurable and observable research outputs, then HE itself becomes an ‘It’ rather than a ‘Thou’, and the relationship is debased (Buber, 1970). The ‘I-It’ – characterised by ‘technical dialogue’ or monologue – is an experience which is merely goal-directed, and others are seen as objects to be utilised towards a particular end. In contrast, the ‘I-Thou’ is a relationship of mutuality, reciprocity, and trust established when ‘I’ recognise the other as a ‘Thou’; this relation is not goal-directed or instrumental, but is the basis of all ethical human encounter (Buber, 1970). The ‘I-Thou’ is arguably a richer relationship, characterised by ‘genuine’ rather than ‘technical’ dialogue, but Buber highlights that both are important realms of human life. As he explains, ‘without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human’ (1970, p.86).The possibilities for genuine dialogue and establishing an ‘I-Thou’ relationship between universities and the general public will be investigated here through the medium of film, and specifically in relation to Jan Švankmajer’s short Dimensions of Dialogue (1982). The philosophical import of Švankmajer’s work has already been highlighted (Rudrum, 2005); what I wish to focus on here is the way in which genuine dialogue seems to almost necessitate confrontation with the other. The film is made up of three separate dialogues, in the first, the audience sees heads made up of everyday objects – one of kitchen utensils, the other of food – confront each other as if they are in dialogue. One head consumes the other, chews it up, and the raw materials are reconstituted into a new head. The utensil-head now confronts a head made up of items of stationery, one consumes the other and the process of mastication and expulsion is repeated (Rudrum, 2005). Each time a different head is formed from the chaotic consumption of one by the other. In the end, the heads begin to look more human but each new head that is produced looks exactly the same as the one that consumed it.Genuine dialogue, coming face-to-face with the other, may indeed be ‘haunted by the threat of aggression’ (Rudrum, 2005, p.118) but it is only by encountering otherness that an I-Thou relationship may be established, whereby mutuality and responsibility come to replace the transactional I-It (Buber, 1970). In making academic research publicly accessible, the interactions between universities and the public could be reduced to little more than ‘technical dialogue’ or mere ‘speechifying’ (Buber, 1999, p.79). The possibility for genuine dialogue between these parties is only to be realised in acknowledging the otherness of the other; this may involve confrontation and the risk of violence, but it is central to a vision of HE as personally transformative and edifying. The scaling of the ivory tower is a mutual endeavour, and recognising one’s responsibility for the other is the first step towards reclaiming responsibility for Higher Education.[1] For an example of this see Mulholland (2015).ReferencesBuber, M., (1947/2002), Between Man and Man, trans. R. Gregor-Smith, [Kindle] London: Routledge. Available at:
Scaling the Ivory Tower: Creating Dialogic Encounters between the Public and Universities
Claire Skea
 [Accessed 13/12/2017].Buber, M., (1970), I and Thou, trans. W. Kauffman, [Kindle] New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Available at:[Accessed 13/12/2017].Buber, M., (1999), ‘Elements of the Interhuman’, pp.72-89 inBuber Agassi, J. Ed. (1999), Martin Buber on Psychology and Psychotherapy: Essays, Letters, and Dialogue, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.Mulholland, J., (2015), ‘Academics: forget about public engagement, stay in your ivory towers’, The Guardian Higher Education Network, Available at: [Accessed 30/12/17].Nussbaum, M.C., (2012), Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Revell, P., (2005), ‘Schools: Each to their own’, The Guardian, Available at:[Accessed 30/12/17].Rudrum, D., (2005), ‘Silent Dialogue: Philosophising with Jan Švankmajer’, pp.114-133, in Read, R., and Goodenough, J., (2005), Film as Philosophy: Essays in Cinema After Wittgenstein and Cavell, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Švankmajer, J., (1982), Dimensions of Dialogue [Možnosti Dialogu], Available at: [Accessed 20/03/17]. 




Skea (2018)




Andrea Walsh
February 02, 2018 at 5:54 pm

Welcome to the New Engaged Scholars Program, Claire! We're excited for this excellent project's development. 

Katina Fontes
February 07, 2018 at 6:32 pm

Claire - So excited to be collaborating with you in this program! From a quick review of your proposal, I already see overlap in our work. I eagerly await the opportunity to read more of your work.

Kurt Milberger

February 20, 2018 at 10:42 am

Hi Claire,

Such an interesting proposal, which obviously fits well with
the PPJ project. I’m looking forward to seeing how you articulate the value of
Buber’s work for a public audience.

Wondering if you would enjoy Samuel Johnson’s essay “On the
Character and Duty of an Academick.” It’s hard to come by online, but John
Sitter has an excellent account of it in this article:">
Especially pages 22-23.

Also excited to see you’ll be considering multiple media with
your discussion of the Švankmajer films. One really pertinent question your proposal
raises seems to me whether traditional academic forms of communication (the
essay, the presentation, etc.) are even suited to the task you describe?
Perhaps you’ll find your contribution to the program moving away from the
text-based essay as you consider the consequences of realizing that “the possibility
for genuine dialogue . . . is only to be realized in acknowledging the
otherness of the other.” Welcome aboard!

Kurt Milberger

February 20, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Sorry for the broken link. Perhaps this one will work?

Claire Skea

February 23, 2018 at 4:59 am

Thanks for your insightful comments here. I agree that there is a tension here in writing about dialogue, and that traditional academic ways of communicating knowledge may be inadequate for creating genuine dialogic encounters. In pursuing this work, and in aiming to make my writing more publicly accessible over the course of the NES program, I hope to make some headway in this respect - taking into account that the PPJ is not your traditional scholarly venue. 

I look forward to discussing these ideas with your further!

erin glass

February 20, 2018 at 8:35 pm

Hi Claire, 

Thanks for sharing this fantastic piece! I too am very interested in the university's approaches to interacting with the public and share your concern that these engagements are not quite yet where they could be! Your application of Martin Buber's modes of dialogue is a brilliant way to help the field of scholarly communication reflect when and where its efforts for "open" or "public" scholarship are genuinely meaningful and when they are simply another "tick box" exercise or, in my new favorite phrase, "monologue disguised as dialogue." I would love to see this piece developed (or future pieces) to provide concrete examples of what might constitute "genuine dialogue" between the university and publics or how universities and publics might determine this for themselves. What sort of challenges do you foresee in such a venture and how might they be overcome? Do you think there would be motivation on the part of researchers, and likewise, on the part of different publics? How would publishing and promotion practices need to change to allow room for this work? Would students (undergrad to Ph.D.) have any role in this dialogue?  Looking forward to more work from you on this very important topic! 

Claire Skea

February 23, 2018 at 5:10 am

Hi Erin,

Many thanks for your considered feedback. I would like to discuss some concrete examples of what genuine dialogue between universities and the public might consist of, but Buber does see room for genuine dialogue within technical dialogue and even monologue, so it wouldn't be a case of some revolution in academic labour. 

I think researchers are motivated to engage with the public, particularly in doing public/community philosophy, and the challenge as I see it is simply in knowing how to engage in this dialogue. The practices of publishing and promotion is where this may be problematic, as it would require a rethinking of what we mean by research 'impact'. As for the role of students in this dialogue, I would imagine they are somewhere between the two - mediating between academia and the general public. Your questions will definitely help me in developing this piece further, so thanks again! 

Jacqueline Alvarez
February 21, 2018 at 1:30 pm

This is a very interesting paper about the importance of transparency. Having a dialogue, between the public and HE seems rights, not only for a measure of accountability but to foster the relationship between community and education. The divide between intellectuals and the community ought to be disintegrated and the community ought to be able to participate in decisions that effect the community.

Claire Skea

February 23, 2018 at 5:14 am

Thanks for your comments Jacki, I would agree that the community should be able to be more involved in HE but I think the vision of universities as impenetrable 'ivory towers' still complicates this. You're right that it should be a case of almost 'nothing about us without us', and so in developing this piece I shall explore how these divisions have arisen in the first place.  

Kathleen Fitzpatrick

March 02, 2018 at 7:49 am

Hi Claire. I am quite excited about your proposal -- it's a subject I've been thinking a fair bit about lately. I particularly like the idea from Shaw that we should be focused on conversation rather than dissemination. What I'm curious about at this point -- and I think it's connected to Erin's point above -- is how we can begin to develop conversations that the publics around us want or need to have, rather than always starting from our own interests. Too many attempts at public engagement start with us marching in with our own work and saying "engage with us!" -- and then winding up surprised or hurt when the engagement doesn't follow. I'll look forward to seeing how your project develops!