Well, to be fair, I doubt he needs me specifically. I’m one of the many PhDs currently without an academic job. And since my PhD is in medieval studies, it’s not clear that he would want me even if I were a professor, although I could at the very least let him know that medieval monks were often active figures in their world, preserving and transmitting knowledge, producing art and literature, and serving as public intellectuals shaping the course of local and international political affairs (of course, not always for the better).
Still, I agree with Kristof’s broad strokes, that academics should be engaged in the world, that they should participate in public debates more, and that they should publish in venues likely to garner a wider readership than academic journals stuck behind prohibitively priced pay-walls.
So why does his column leave such a bad taste in my mouth?
Part of it is the complete lack of consistency. Right after he lambastes academics for relying on theoretical models that are incapable of predicting events of extraordinary unrest like the Arab Spring, he praises economics for its empiricism and rigor. Hah! Does Kristof not have any memory of 2008? Is he ignorant of the fact that many prominent economists actually argue that not only can economics as a field not accurately predict crises, but they also shouldn’t be expected to predict them? I think that’s idiotic, and fortunately many other economists do too. The fact of the matter is any prediction about future events has to be based on models created from data about past events, and when models fail to predict uprisings and crashes, the way forward is to gather more data about possible triggers, rethink old assumptions in light of new observations, and possess some measure of humility that allows you to recognize mistakes.
Another thing that bugs me is the way that Kristof demonizes quantitative data, and I say this as someone whose entire dissertation is about the subjective experience of reading early medieval poetry. Kristof takes specialization and quantitative data as signs that academics are marginalizing themselves and presents TED talks as a model of academic engagement. Ugh. It’s just such a false choice. You know what policy prescriptions, sociological debate, and economic forecasting would be without loads of quantitative data? Bullshit. Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of TED talks are. They perfectly epitomize the Malcolm Gladwell approach to academic research: willfully misconstrue other people’s research to create an engaging, counter-intuitive narrative that “makes you think” and has absolutely no basis in reality. Unfortunately this is the case with a lot of journalistic coverage of social science research, which leads to breathless reportage about the mysteries of humanity unlocked in studies in which only modest statistical effects are observed. This is nothing more than seductive misinformation.
The solution has to be finding a balance of substance and style. I don’t see why it’s a bad thing that academic writing can’t be understood by non-academics. An academic article on tenth century manuscripts will require an understanding of Latin palaeography, one on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle an understanding of partial differential equations and statistical mechanics. It takes years of learning to accumulate that knowledge, and really important work, such as a catalog of every manuscript in Anglo-Saxon England may make for quite dull reading material. But this isn’t the problem. The problem is the pursuit of academic publishing above all else. Academics of all kinds should take advantage of opportunities to address wider audiences about their work and to make the best insights of their fields accessible to people without specialized knowledge.
Part of this will require changing how academic work gets published. Most academic publishing in the humanities is so slow that the field is incapable of quickly responding to current issues and even when it does get published it sits behind pay-walls that ensure limited readership. Academics should take advantage of publication opportunities in newspapers, magazines, blogs, twitter, popular books, and everything else. But they should also expand the readership of academic work, not least because the number of people with PhDs and without institutional affiliations that give them access to the latest research is growing.
Another part of this will be reconceiving of the idea of service. When people talk about service, they usually mean the fairly narrow sense of serving on departmental and university committees as a part of their job or they may even include a larger sense of service to their field through the organization of conferences or serving on executive councils of academic societies. But service should include so much more, and I think it should especially include more than just doing more popular writing. Academics need to cultivate connections with their communities in more ways. We need to do a better job of outreach to high school students and local communities. We need to be willing to go to others and also hold public events that let them come to us. The walls of the academy shouldn’t be barricades but points of contact.
My own experiences have given me a somewhat idiosyncratic view of things. My dad is an animal science professor, and I grew up around the university. But the world of animal science is very different from other disciplines. For one thing, most academics have a clear sense of allegiance to a community of farmers outside the university. They publish academic research in journals that are every bit as difficult to read as in other fields, but they also typically produce research reports aimed at people in industry and people working on family farms. As the person responsible for proofreading multiple years of the Oklahoma State Animal Science research report, I can say that the degree of success people have in translating their research into accessible language varies, but the effort is there. And don’t even get me started on livestock shows as a form of high school outreach. Most major animal science departments have faculty members whose job is organizing these types of events. Extension and outreach are the first tab in the department webpage, even before research and teaching.
There is a mistaken sense that non-academic writing and outreach are great things for academics to pursue in their own time, as long as they don’t distract from research. But research should always go hand in hand with outreach.