Defining an "academic diaspora"

Do you have a graduate degree(s) and work in a cultural institution? Then you may be part of the academic diaspora.

My husband, an academic, and I often talk about academia vs. the rest of the world. But in the course of our conversations, it soon became apparent that there was a big category of working people that seemed to straddle the lines between these two, admittedly simplistic, divisions, especially in a place like Madison, Wisconsin: it’s the periacademic. And I happen to be one of them.

The periacademic or member of the academic diaspora (take your pick, we haven’t decided which term is best) has a Masters degree or even a Ph.D. and works in a library, historical society, art museum, or public broadcasting (ding ding ding! That’s me). They have the expertise and training of an academic in many cases but have, by choice or circumstance, ended up outside the ivory tower in some kind of bridge institution.  Many of the stereotypes of academia exist in the diaspora, too, particularly the insularity, ego, competitiveness over seemingly small stakes, and the know-it-alls.

The primary difference between the two, though, seems to be related to audience and the use of knowledge. The role of an academic is to create and disseminate knowledge, while the periacademic curates knowledge. Most of the knowledge created by an academic is for other academics and maybe their students. Some periacademics also create knowledge, but their primary role seems to be taking the information created by the academic and synthesizing, arranging, and packaging it into a form that is accessible and useful to the general public. So in public radio, where I work, for example, we create programs by assembling the academics or other spokespeople who can verbally communicate some segment of information. Historical societies and museums create exhibits and displays by arranging knowledge. And so on.

Despite a symbiotic and seemingly important relationship to each other, the academic and periacademic don’t always get along, unfortunately. In my training as a historian, the public historian, the person who works in a museum or some other public historical institution, was derided as lesser and not serious. But the periacademic is the direct conduit to the public that the academic often wants to reach but doesn’t necessarily know how. To use the hip science term, periacademia is translational, bringing information and research out of the lab and into the community for, hopefully, the benefit of all.

The academic diaspora seems to be particularly large in college towns. There’s a lot of people who want to engage with big ideas but do so in a way that’s more outwardly focused. As academic jobs become harder to come by, especially in the humanities, it seems that the diaspora will only get larger. I’m not sure where all these people will end up, particularly since the periacademic jobs tend to be financially perilous as well. Both play essential roles in knowledge creation, interpretation, and dissemination.


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