Writing in and out of the Ivory Tower

A time out from the intrepid women I usually write about in this space to post about, well, me. And my life. And the life I would like to lead.

And about Nicholas Kristof and the recent furor he has raised about the need for more professors to engage in meaningful public dialogue about important issues.

In case you’re not familiar with this issue (others have a very different Facebook feed than mine!), Kristof’s column and blog post Carleton ivory towerlast Sunday entreated academics to become “public intellectuals” by dumping the complex language and statistical models that can be off-putting, paying attention to real world problems, and embracing public forums including social media.

Not surprisingly, there was quick blowback. In pieces with titles such as Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now, Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!, and What Nicholas Kristof gets wrong about public intellectuals, commentators responded with righteous indignation—much of it well-founded. They made several important points, including:

  • That there is a great deal of “public intellectualism” coming from academics. Kristof might just be looking in all the wrong (select and privileged) places.
  • That there is an increasing level of engagement with the public sphere as younger scholars come onto the scene. As Corey Robin explains, “It’s simply that they’re more used to writing for public audiences—and are thus better equipped to communicate ideas in intelligible, stylish prose—than we were.”
  • That the material conditions in academia often stand in the way of engaging with the public. Says Syreeta, “There are real-life economic interests that drive our intelligentsia towards publishing ‘gobbledygook…hidden in obscure journals,’ which are inextricably linked to a very power interest by said academics in securing full-time employment. People need jobs, my dude!”

I totally get this blowback. I’ve been an academic for pretty much all of my adult life. I’ve published a lot. I’ve directed more than 30 dissertations. I’ve edited key journals in the communication discipline. I’ve recruited graduate students and written untold letters of recommendation as they search for employment in an increasingly tenuous job market. I’ve sat on Dean’s advisory committees as decisions about tenure and promotion are debated.

And yet, I also have a great deal of sympathy with Kristof’s pleas for more intelligible writing and more engagement with interesting and important issues. This sympathy is a big reason for my moving away from academia and setting off as an untethered “writer” in the near future.

I see both sides. And, as is typical for me, I’d like to find space to engage in this dialogue more productively than the jab of “Professors, We need You!” and the counterpunch of “Look at Them! Look at Me!” So, a few thoughts.

As a journal editor, I can vouch for the turgidity of prose that fills our pages. Is this a function of academic training? Yes. Is this a function of reward systems? Yes. Is this a function of trying to sound as “smart” as everyone else you’re reading in the journals? Yes. I also know, though, that when given an opportunity, scholars embrace the opportunity to write in more accessible ways. So one modest suggestion is that gatekeepers in academic publishing loosen up. Perhaps the first step toward talking with the public in clear ways is to talk to each other in clear ways.

The tenure and promotion process is a mess—and that’s for scholars who are now lucky enough to be on the tenure track, an increasingly smaller proportion of the academy with the growing prevalence of contingent faculty. There’s way too much of the “I had to get tenure in THIS way, now it’s your turn” attitude. We need to find ways to value public scholarship and engagement along with more traditional categories of research. Yes, some institutions are doing this—but these models need to be shared and embraced.

Doing the kind of writing that Kristof wants to see is hard! The writing itself is a whole new thing for many academics. And even if the writing happens, getting it seen is challenging. I’d love to be viewed as a “public intellectual” in privileged and not-so-privileged outlets. At the moment, I’d just be happy to have more people follow my blog (shameless promotion! Click on the button in the upper right-hand corner!) or follow me on Twitter (shameless promotion! My handle is @kathyim59!). My point: this is incredibly difficult.

Finally, in the discussion of public dialogue vs. academic journals, we forget one of our most important audiences: students. For insight on this, I turn to my 20-year-old daughter. She’s wicked smart. She’s studying religion and women’s and gender studies at a phenomenal liberal arts college. She’s vitally interested in issues of social justice. And she’s totally turned off by a lot of academia. In a blog post written while attending a prestigious conference in The Netherlands as part of a study abroad program, she first describes a typical experience:

One of the lectures today was related to new materialism and (as usual) I had no earthly clue what that meant and nobody lecturing had bothered to define their terms. Therefore, during our small group breakout session, I decided to ask one of the lecturers how she would define this term with reference to her work. Her response was as follows: “Well my little plebian…” [okay, I’m extrapolating a little bit] “to define ‘new materialsm’ would be contradictory to precisely the concept this idea embodies.” She went on to drop some buzzwords (something along the lines of “epistemological … Deleuze … performativity … naturcultures … Foucault … ontological … Deleuze”).

My daughter does really well at her liberal arts college. She’s been told by many professors that she would thrive at any top grad school she applies to. But she’s not at all interested and plans to find an on-the-ground social justice job. Part of this is her desire to confront social problems head-on. But part of it is being totally turned off by academic gobbledygook. As she concludes in her blog post:

I have zero desire to join the ranks of the many feminist scholars I encountered this week who have talked down to me, defended their own theory at all costs, spent years sucking up to Rosi Braidotti, attacked a students’ ideas rather than engaging in productive conversation, and made young feminists feel stupid, misguided, and insignificant. Rather, I want to run as far away as possible. I refuse to ever find myself struggling to enter the Ivory Tower.

I’m thrilled that my daughter wants to do the important work of social justice. We need smart and engaged people like her confronting these problems where they are. But I’m also a bit ashamed that she’s not just running toward this work – she’s also running away from a profession I’ve loved for many years. Perhaps if we could all try to tamp down the institutional, professional, and personal forces that move us toward insular and unintelligible talk and writing, we can begin engaging all of our audiences in ways that matter.

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13 comments

  1. It seems one of the main reasons why it is difficult for academics to write the way Kristof wants them to is they have spend many years and hours focusing on a very limited subject matter. This specialization makes it very difficult for academics to discuss things in a public forum. Not only are the vocabularies between academics and the public very different but the narrowness of specialization often misses the broader public needs and goals. Younger academics who have grown up with social media and different requirements for promotion have an advantage over their older colleagues. Sadly the decline of tenured positions has forced this advantage-not a very good trade off.

    This doesn’t mean old academics can’t learn new writing tricks. When I first read Kristof’s article the person who came to mind was Paul Krugman. When Dr. Krugman first started blogging it was so wonkish, if you didn’t have a Masters in Economics, you were lost in the first paragraph. Thanks in large part to his wife who helped him edit and learn how to “talk to the public” he is accessible to a much larger audience and spends a lot of his time addressing issues of public interest.

    1. I agree that the language required in many disciplines is tough to translate to a general public – though (as Krugman aptly illustrates) it’s worth the effort. And I also agree that younger academics have an advantage on this front. The decline in tenured positions and rise of adjuncts is a result of lots of forces, of course, and the fact that these folks might be more social media savvy doesn’t help a lot when (1) most of this public scholarship pays nothing, and (2) there’s little time for it when you’re teaching many sections of courses – sometimes pieced together at multiple colleges and/or supplemented by whatever other work can be found. So, no, not a good trade-off.

  2. Brilliantly written, Kathy! I am proud to say my children (grown) and their spouses are very intelligent, not taken with the ivory tower, and social justice believers and doers. They will embody these values during the reminder of their lives. They are instilling social justice into their children….and so it goes. The best way – to mold our lived social justice values into our families.

  3. Jennifer Monahan · · Reply

    You make a great point Kathy. Its shaming to me as an academic that your daughter is being put off by pretentious words and turgid prose

    1. Yes, I know. She’s going to have a great life and career, that’s not my worry. But we have good ideas! We need to communicate them in ways that don’t turn people away.

  4. “For insight…I turn to my 20-year-old daughter. She’s wicked smart.”

  5. I’m sympathetic to the issue of more accessible writing but it remains the case that language is the primary tool of scholarship and sometimes that tool has to be crafted very specifically. Blogs like this one or my own (http://peaceandconflictpolitics.com/) are contributions to public scholarship.Those with very arcane language usually struggle to translated into more accessible language because language is the packaging that carries meaning and they do lose a little something. Still, many academics don’t use more accessible language because what they are saying loses impact. Many academics care more about the expression of an idea than its quality. Post-structuralism and critical theory really have less to say than the language used to say it. But language is more than just a carrier of meaning, as any good professor knows. It is a sociolinguistic marker that does construct other versions of reality.

  6. Great points, Kathy. I get teased by my nonacademic friends — I am blessed with quite a few of these — for writing about crystallization. For those who are unfamiliar with my work, crystallization is a way of understanding rigor and quality in research methods using ideas about how different types of writing and different modes of representation (such as poetry, film, performance) can work together with traditional research writing to enhance what we know about a topic.

    Any time our Wednesday morning coffee klatch has a new member, someone inevitably will say, “Laura, tell her what you write about, you know, that triangle crystal blah blah thing! Ha ha!” I always laugh because I’m a good sport and because I know these women care about me, but it still stings. It doesn’t sting because I think my work is gobbledygook, however. It stings because I am aware of the elitism of not only participating in a conversation about methodology that many of my friends can’t (and wouldn’t want to) participate in, but also because I’m not the least bit sorry for it. I don’t apologize or get defensive about this work because as we learned in Introduction to Public Speaking, the first rule of public speaking is to adapt to one’s audience. And I did. I write about crystallization for an audience of qualitative methodologists, and I LOVE it. It’s pretty geeky, I know. Really geeky even. YAY!

    Here’s what breaks my heart about your daughter’s story — snotty people being exclusionary. I’m not snotty to students or anyone else for that matter. I’m happy to explain my work in regular terms — I just did, see above — for beginners and those who don’t agree with me (which is most people). I seek to engage students when I attend conferences, not alienate them or make them feel less-than because they were confused. Sadly, I know academics who do seem to enjoy the power of elite academic discourse to exclude and shame others. But I know other academics who have blogs and seek to translate their work to the public, and I fully support that. I’d like to do more of it myself, actually, and I agree with all who have pointed out how hard it is to write well for public consumption.

    But I’d like to stand up for the right to have my geeky thing and love it. Other people who aren’t academics have their geeky things, and they aren’t termed elitist or gobbledygook-ish when they use their language. Consider this example: I know very little about football, cannot stand it’s pervasive violence, and have no intention of learning what a tight end is or defensive holding is, or any of that other stuff. But never have I heard the well developed, insider language of football termed elitist or exclusionary, despite its exclusion of me and other non-informed people from that very public discourse. And I have quite often had people (women and men) ridicule me for not understanding what football announcers are talking about. How is this different from me enjoying talking about postmodern methodological triangulation through qualitative crystallization? I don’t think it is.

    I suggest that problem is not academic prose per se but arrogant, unkind people.

    1. Laura – what a wonderful and thoughtful response. I so get what you’re saying about the importance of considering audience and the discomfort that can arise when we cross-audience conversations are difficult or uncomfortable. And, of course, I clearly understand the need for specialist language … though I must say that sometimes we ARE more opaque in our academic writing that we need to be. And I love your football talk analogy – specialized and exclusionary language comes in many guises.

      Couldn’t agree more that arrogant and unkind people are at the root of all of this. But, as you suggest, it wouldn’t hurt for all of us to be more aware of how varied our audiences might be and to try to connect as much as possible!

  7. Reblogged this on Long Canyon Lost and commented:
    In this blog, I’ve chronicled my search for the last person to see my brother alive, and in the process have talked about scholarly research versus “real world” writing, theory versus lived experience, and the seeming disconnect between academia and “real life.”

    Nicolas Kristof’s recent column in the New York Times took academics (and academia, sort of) to task for taking the “public” out of “public intellectual.” Communication scholar and writer Kathy Miller provides a measured, thoughtful response.

  8. So, you’re saying we should view academic research and writing as rhizomatic rather than arborescent (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980)? Just kidding! I appreciate your thoughtful response. As an academic who strives to reach multiple audiences through magazine articles and public performances, I appreciate the opportunities and challenges such “translation” offers.

  9. Thank you so much for this post. I am a biochemist who left a PhD program less than a year from receiving my degree. I left for many reasons, but one part of my decision was the environment. Unlike many of the graduate students and professors I had actually worked outside of academia, and I found this lack of real world experience to be to their detriment and produced a closed-mindedness I found intolerable. I think this insular life really impairs their ability to communicate their ideas to others who aren’t academics. Sometimes more words aren’t descriptive, they’re just more words. I look forward to reading future posts.

  10. […] Women and Work…Then and Now: “Writing in and Out of the Ivory Tower” by Kathy […]

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