Patricia Nelson Limerick: Says there are many ways to be a public intellectual





[Patricia Nelson Limerick is a professor of history and the chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado at Boulder.]

I am sitting at a desk behind a nameplate that identifies me as "Dr. Patricia Limerick, Marriage Counselor." I am looking earnestly into a camera lens, and from time to time, an attentive person darts in to restore my makeup or tame my hair.

When the sound setting and the camera angle are right, I say my lines as convincingly as I can: "I may not know your name, but I do know one pretty private thing about you. You have been involved in a tempestuous relationship, pursuing a mad romance . . . with fossil fuels." The Center of the American West, which I chair at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is making a documentary, the first enterprise (that we have ever heard of) to take literally the familiar metaphor of "America's love affair with petroleum" and put it to work to make a therapeutic case for moving on to a new, more lasting and gratifying relationship with energy efficiency and renewables.

Careerwise, such moments of improbability and adventure have become my norm. A collateral benefit is this: It is hard for me to remember why other academics choose to feel marginalized in American life.

Come on in, the water's fine!, I would like to say to graduate students and assistant professors. There is certainly plenty of room in this pool. In the early 21st century, there is no limit or constraint on the desire of public constituencies to profit from the perspective of a university-based historian.

Even better, the usual lament of the humanities -- "There is plenty of money to support work in science and engineering, but very little to support work in the humanities" -- proves to be accurate only if you define "work in the humanities" in the narrowest and most conventional way. If, by that phrase, you mean only individualistic research, directed at arcane topics detached from real-world needs and written in inaccessible and insular jargon, there is indeed very limited money.

But for a humanities professor willing to take up applied work, sources of money are unexpectedly abundant. There is no need for humanities professors to waste any more time envying the resources available to scientists and engineers. Instead, you can offer to play Virgil to their Dante, guiding them through the inferno of cultural anxieties, laypeople's misunderstandings, and political landmines....

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