Watching the “telly dons”

The British media with their flair for nasty nicknames call them “telly dons” — quasi-celebrity academics and writers who work and publish in the high circles of top universities in the U.K. and the U.S., but also try to reach the general public by filming documentaries and appearing regularly on the TV circuit.

I first came across the term in the British paper The Telegraph discussing Simon Schama and his recent book Scribble, Scribble, Scribble and in a review of Alan Bennett‘s play The History Boys.

My first exposure to this mixed-media type of celebrity academic was in the 1980s with Carl Sagan’s famous Cosmos and James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed. (Unfortunately, the library no longer has the documentary version of that, but we do have Burke’s popular follow-up show and companion book, Connections.)

For an academic, there is always tension  between winning the respect of their peers through scholarly work and wanting to reach a wider audience. The best writers can and should do both, and some would suggest that this ability is a requirement for good research.  But it is interesting how such an attempt can be seen both inside and outside academic circles. If a writer is too popular, they’re accused of dumbing down their subject, considered attention-seeking bestseller types who just want to appear on Oprah or make bad jokes on The Daily Show. If they remain too aloof, they become the poster child for the “elitist intellectual” stereotype, separated from the real life issues of society.

Some of my favorite telly dons include:

Michael Wood and his various In Search of… history series

Niall Ferguson’s Ascent of Money             

Brian Greene‘s book The Fabric of the Cosmos and corresponding PBS series




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