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 last 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.