Porter Abbott on Teaching and the University (Page 6)
Professor H. Porter Abbott (Emeritus) discusses his 40+ years of experience teaching at UCSB.
Public Intellectuals and the Relationship Between a University and its Wider Community
Ryan Boyd: "Going on from that point, do you think that academics can be more prominent and more involved as public intellectuals. Again, talking maybe not to students, but to, say, the public in lectures about Beckett, [lectures] that aren't given to specialists [, but rather] to intelligent laypeople."
Porter Abbott: "Absolutely. As I said above, I think that a university has an obligation to share its wealth with more people than academics and students. That's part of the job of disseminating information. But it’s how we get information, too. There are some extremely smart people in the community, some smarter than almost anybody on the campus. They're there. So it's very important to talk with them, and not down to them. Someone said somewhere that we should add reaching-in to our outreach.
"Our department used to enjoy the company of a group called "The Friends of English." They were spread throughout the community, and among them were some very smart and well-read people. Each month one of us would make a presentation of his or her work, usually in one of the Friends’ houses. I thought that was great."
RB: "Is the fact that we do have less of a dialogue now with the world outside the university, is that just a question of funding, of getting money to set up a venue, or is it more of a philosophical change in how we think about what we do?"
PA: "There are many ways in which I think I could answer this. To begin with, I think a lot of people on this campus are deeply involved in the community. And there have always been many events on campus that draw local audiences (e.g.,the Rupe Dialogues). So if there is any decline of contact, I don’t think the availability of funding has anything to do with it.
"I should note here also how much interest there is out there in even the most Récherché precincts of literary study. At Beckett conferences, I’ve met people like accountants and retired real-estate agents who fly in from places like Arizona, simply because they are so keen to know more about this man’s work.
PA: "I had an exterminator come to the house once who guessed from my bookshelves that I might be an English professor. And when I confirmed this, he said, 'Oh, do you know the poetry of Laura Riding Jackson? I really like her work.' And this was a termite guy with a permanent cough from all the Chlordane he had to breathe every day. These people are all over the place.
“If it is nonetheless true that we are more than usually divided from the body politic these days, one cause lies in the way the nation itself is divided. This division has been enabled over much of the last decade by a skillful and insistent degradation of the term “liberal.” Even liberals these days flee the term. So the bastion of a “liberal” education gets crammed into a small concept, largely by people who don't know and don’t care to know about what we actually do. If to some extent we have collaborated with their agenda, it is only, as I mentioned earlier, because we have not fully lived up to the highest standard of liberalism.
Interview Date: February 18, 2008
Conducted by Ryan Boyd