Are Academics Their Own Worst Enemies?

On Sunday the New York Times published Nicholas Kristof’s plea for academics to become more involved in public discourse. As one might suspect, within hours academics who participate in public discourse and outreach protested the message, pointing to themselves and fellow professionals (including people who have written for the Times) as providing examples that challenged Kristof’s plea (it might be pointed out that one of the reasons academics jumped all over this argument is because they are linked to each other by social media).

I’m not going to engage those responses (many of which are predictable). Rather, let’s return to some of Kristof’s observations and assess them.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

This is absolutely true. Kristoff quotes a source that confirms my personal experience:

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

Again, that rings true in my experience, although during my time at Barrett, The Honors College, my colleagues grasp far more readily what I do and appreciate it (that Barrett emphasizing teaching makes this ironic, but then my colleagues are rather impressive in their command of a broad range of interests). However, I was chided last year by my home unit’s evaluation committee for not producing more monographs and scholarly articles (this rested in part upon a rather bad misreading of my materials, but also reflected a willingness to disregard what I actually did and to dismiss the audience I reached). Given my productivity over the past several decades, I dismissed this assessment, just as I used to counter complaints from members of my home unit that I was able to publish so much because I had a ready audience (as if that were a crime!) by observing that such an assessment failed to grapple with the quality of what I was writing (no one among my colleagues has ever risen to take on that challenge).

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

This may go too far, for the university presses with which I’ve worked in history show an interest in reaching a larger public. More to the point, however, is both what’s valued and what’s dismissed. The tenure process in history rewards candidates who publish a focused monograph and a series of articles in various scholarly journals, although my experience suggests that few of one’s colleagues at one’s own institution actually read what others write (and thus they all too often rest their evaluation upon assessments provided by external reviewers or look to other ways to measure the quality of scholarship while evading an opportunity to engage the content of that scholarship). So, for example, a journal’s acceptance rate is sometimes cited as a sign of whether an article that’s published constitutes worthwhile scholarship.

However, many of the responses to Kristof’s commentary missed the point. Did he actually mischaracterize how the academic world functions? Did he not cite history as one discipline that had exceptions that test the rule?

As someone who engages with the public all the time, in real places and virtual spaces, using a number of media, I don’t feel slighted or forgotten by Kristof’s observations. In some ways, I feel vindicated.


6 thoughts on “Are Academics Their Own Worst Enemies?

  1. Bob Nelson February 18, 2014 / 4:49 pm

    Just what more are you, Ethan Rafuse, James McPherson and others supposed to do? Write more books or monographs? Create additional blogs to “become more involved in public discourse?” Maybe start a new history channel on PBS? You’re all tilting at windmills. I watch each and every video that Al Mackey posts on his blog including your presentation at Messa Community College on Lincoln. For every historical piece I watch, a hundred million watch “Dancing with the Stars,” “American Idol,” “The Voice,” the Winter Olympics, and professional sports.

    I am taken back to the 1960s when Chet Huntley spoke at North Central College. He was concerned with the “dumbing down of America” and that television would become the “vast wasteland” predicted. Chet, you were right. We have now gotten there. But to expect college history professors to “do something about it” at this late time is simply silly.

  2. sabers8th February 18, 2014 / 5:40 pm

    Reblogged this on 9 Months for the Union and commented:
    An interesting take on academia… I did not read the original article, but I will now due to my impending return to graduate school…

  3. Patrick Young February 19, 2014 / 5:20 am

    A colleague at Hofstra Law School told me that while much of the focus for tenure track law professors is on publication in a law journals, only 15% of those articles are ever cited in judicial opinions and only 15% more are cited by other journal articles. In other words, 85% have no impact on the real world and 70% are virtually ignored. Yet these are major determinants of the course a legal academic career takes.

  4. msb February 19, 2014 / 11:02 am

    You’re right, problems in the profession limit its usefulness in the public sphere. I remember that in MacPherson’s first collection of essays, he recorded criticism of “Battle cry of freedom” as being to accessible to be scholarly
    Of course, one gets ahead in a professional group by using language following practices that the leaders approve. But some of academe’s language seems deliberately impenetrable and boring.

  5. Tony February 19, 2014 / 11:10 am

    Immediately thought of you when I saw the article, and thought about forwarding you the link. But figured you had already read the article or 50 different people were about to send you the link at the same time 🙂

  6. gregdehler February 20, 2014 / 7:40 am

    Why isn’t teaching considered public engagement? The overwhelming majority of students in the classroom are not going to pursue a phd or academic career. As a part-time community college instructor I feel very involved with a non-academic audience, one that is curious about the world and asks many questions about the past and present.

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