Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is It OK to be a Public Intellectual?

Nick Kristof's column the other day about the lack of interaction between Academia and the public sure ruffled some feathers.  That's probably partly due to long list of provocative quotes in the column, including the following:

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.

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.

All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public

Political science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis

Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.
On the whole, I agree with Kristof.  Faculty aren't expected, encouraged, or rewarded for communicating with the public.  Which, I think, is a big problem (as you could probably guess given that I'm spending my time writing here).  I've written in the past that about the personal experience I've had with this, and I continue to dislike the degree to which academics are discouraged from interacting with the public.

It's easy to go off on tangential arguments here about who should write what when and for how long, but let's not miss what I think is the largest problem here: the active discouragement.  There are plenty of good reasons that academics should strive to be "public intellectuals," but I don't think we should expect every Professor out there to spend oodles of time reaching out to the public, nor do I think it should be a tenure requirement to do so.  But I do think academics should be rewarded for doing so.  At the very least, it shouldn't be seen as a negative for one to use his/her time this way.  I cringe every time I hear somebody gasp at the time an academic is wasting writing for a popular audience.

One of the few counter-examples to this trend is is Rick Hess's edu-scholar rankings, which seem to receive more attention each year -- this year I noticed press releases from quite a few schools touting the number of Professors in their college who'd made the list.  Overall, though, interaction with the public is still largely discouraged.

I do think the responses from academics were interesting, though.  These include Daniel Willingham, who writes that communicating applications of research isn't the job of most professors and should often be left to others with different skill sets; Corey Robin, who writes that quite a few Professors blog and write in the popular press and that many grad students aspire to do so, echoing Erik Voeten, who runs down a list of ways in which different Professors communicate with the public.

I think these are all fair points.  Not all faculty need to be out in the public sphere, and pure academic research certainly has value.  But, again, none address the degree to which faculty are actively discouraged from communicating with the public.  The fact that some people do so anyway doesn't change that fact.  Nor does the fact that many grad students want to communicate with the public, since the problem here isn't lack of desire but, rather, lack of opportunity.

And I think the argument that there are outlets within academia to communicate is rather shaky.  Voeten, for example, points to the journal Perspectives on Politics as the new vehicle for Political scientists to communicate with the public (which Kristof omits), so I decided to check it out.  Here's an excerpt from the first abstract I read from the current issue:

In an effort to bring empirical clarity and epistemological standards to what has been a deeply-charged, partisan, and frequently anecdotal debate, we use multiple specialized regression approaches to examine factors associated with both the proposal and adoption of restrictive voter access legislation from 2006–2011 . . . Further, we situate these policies within developments in social welfare and criminal justice policy that collectively reduce electoral access among the socially marginalized.

Sorry, but that's academic-speak.  That is not how one communicates with the public.  People don't say "empirical clarity" or "multiple specialized regression approaches" or "situate these policies within" in everyday life.  So I remain unconvinced that many journals speak directly to the public.

Or maybe this just proves Willingham right: many Profs simply don't have the skills to communicate with the public.  I have to admit, though, that his argument just brings to mind the scene in Office Space where Tom Smykowski explains that the company needs his people skills to communicate between the engineers and the customers:

All kidding aside, though, I think the issue merits serious consideration by everybody involved in academia.  All can (I hope) agree that more research needs to be translated to practice, but this could happen in any number of ways.  Maybe academic journals should publish more readable (i.e. ~10 page jargon-free) essays for the public to read.  Maybe public outreach should count in tenure reviews.  Maybe some Professors should be classified as "public intellectuals" and have different expectations.  Or we could try any number of other ideas.  But I don't think that denying the problem exists will get us anywhere.

Ultimately, we need to find a way to make it okay for people to be public intellectuals if they wish to do so.

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