What if intellectual innovation depends on community?
Our society relies on academic institutions not merely to educate a workforce, but to be places where people are devoted to think about what’s true, what’s good, what’s beautiful, and what’s just. As a plaque on Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin so eloquently puts it: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
Yet, cultural, political, and market pressures have contributed to a splintering or siloing of disciplinary divisions.
In contrast, in today’s STEM-obsessed climate, academics in the humanities often feel under siege. As enrollments dwindle, pressures intensify. Demand is higher than ever to produce new knowledge and insights. Yet, the resulting glut of published work makes it nearly impossible to keep up with scholarship outside of one’s own area of specialization.
Thought-provoking cross-disciplinary discussions are harder than ever to come by. Instead, intellectual isolation often seems the new norm. This is especially true for those at the lower rungs of the social and scholastic hierarchies that have traditionally dominated academic discourse.
The net-out is unfortunate in many ways, says Sean Larsen, an assistant professor of theology at Marquette University. He’s the editor in chief of Syndicate, an online platform that hosts symposia on recent works of interest in theology, philosophy, literary studies, and other areas in the humanities. With a focus on interdisciplinary intersections, it aims to reverse trends by building intellectual community and championing innovation.
“Intellectual innovation demands diverse thinking and open dialogue across the academic spectrum,” Larsen maintains. “The issues confronting our world, however, are developing at a speed that make it difficult to meaningfully respond within existing structures.”
Launched in 2014 as an experiment to build community among theologians, its scope soon broadened to include philosophy and then literary studies. Today it embraces all the humanities. With operational support from Templeton Religion Trust, Syndicate now convenes online engagement around recent books of interest by humanities scholars. Boundary-pushing academics, both established and emerging, are invited to share their responses in dialogue with the authors.
“Syndicate is an online space where academics can share their richest, deepest, and broadest insights into today’s most significant and ever-evolving topics, breathing new life into every discussion,” Larsen explains. “We believe it’s possible and necessary to create a space where topics can be openly discussed, questions can be raised, and disagreement can foster new paths of knowledge. This kind of progressive, creative, and cutting-edge thinking has real transformative power.”
For example, symposia have focused on book topics as diverse as Óscar Romero’s theological vision for liberation of the poor, racism in America, surrogate pregnancy, and boundaries and authority in Muslim and Christian schools.
Editors curate the symposia around significant works related to their respective fields. They then consult with the authors to identify potential respondents. Selected respondents write a reflective essay that explores the book’s central themes, raises questions, and makes connections to its broader significance. These are sent to the author, who responds individually. Finally, along with an editor’s introduction, the essays and responses are posted on the Syndicate website. There are built-in opportunities for further back-and-forth dialogue.
Typically, new symposia are posted weekly. Unlike social media, the managed format of Syndicate ensures that the dialogue is substantive and meets academic standards, while also supporting meaningful discussion.
An important aspect of Syndicate is its leveling effect, Larsen says. Intellectuals can engage with each other across distances throughout the year. There’s no incurring the costs of going to a conference or waiting out the time gaps of print media. What’s more, the format amplifies emerging voices by placing senior scholars, junior scholars, and graduate students in sustained and public interaction. Also notable is Syndicate’s commitment to overcoming social barriers. Women, people of color, and openly LGBTQ scholars have strong representation among both selected authors and respondents.
Of course, the main audience of Syndicate is humanities academics. But as a freely accessible public website, its reach is also broader. Teachers refer students to the site, Larsen reports, while scholars outside the humanities, clergy, and the general public are using it as a window into important works and issues. That non-elitist non-exclusivity has always been a goal.
“Public intellectual work is too important, especially in our moment, to be sidelined,” he contends. “The humanities have so much to offer as a knowledge-building endeavor. They’re a way of responding to some of the most significant challenges of today and tomorrow with well-informed thinking, values, and imagination.
“The hope and the dream of Syndicate is that democratic and elitist impulses can be fused by the charismatic power of authors who possess the intellectual, persuasive, and rhetorical power necessary to contribute to the pressing needs of the day in an intellectually generative way.”
At a time when many pundits say the humanities are in decline, it’s a big idea that promises the possibility of resilience, relevance, and staying power.