Academics in Public (belated response to Nicholas Kristof)

Last year, as I recounted in this Chronicle of Higher Education essay, I submitted a book manuscript to a publisher, turned in my tenure file, and started writing for public media. It happened by accident, driven by the unlikely medieval relevance of the surprise papal resignation and enabled by my friendship with Bruce Schneier. CNN and the Atlantic wanted medieval commentary briefly. Bruce helped me with my writing and gave me the needed contacts and the essays (and this blog) all followed.

Over the weekend, as all my online academic friends know, Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed on academia and public engagement. It relies heavily on stereotypes and people from Ivy Leagues and their ilk. It’s been widely critiqued, from Corey Robin’s long, detailed, analysis of the structural reasons that keep academics out of public discourse, to Laura Tennenbaum’s short, pithy, comment that perhaps teaching thousands of students might be a form of public service of equal merit to writing for the Times, to countless other short and long responses.

Because as Kristof well knows, lots of professors are online and engaged with each other, if not “the public,” as Kristof defines it. In fact, I sort of feel like he was trolling us, then enjoying retweeting the outrage (without actually learning anything from it).

The issue is that there is a real problem here. Academics do know a lot and are not encouraged or able to engage the public. But mostly I’d recommend reading the Robin piece, as it’s great and says so many of the points I would want to make. Adjunctification, the changing nature of the university, the pressures to publish, the people who WISH they had pressure to publish, and so forth – all of these are driving academics out of the public sphere far more than Kristof’s straw men and women.

Here are, however, a few key additions to the broader conversations that I think I can make.

One: When I started writing more regularly for CNN and The Atlantic, the first questions I would get (phrased delicately) are: Does it count? Does it pay? My answers – It sometimes pays, but not mostly. It definitely wouldn’t count if I was trying to count it for tenure or promotion.

 Last fall I had a long conversation with a Dean who noted that she would be delighted to count public engagement as a factor in tenure/promotion decisions. At her university, however, faculty make these decisions, so faculty have to take the lead in crafting standards (perhaps through organizations such as the American Historical Association, Modern Language Association, and their ilk).

I have no idea how to make that work, especially at an R1 school. The structures there are entirely based around peer reviewed formal publications and grants. Does a “well-read” (whatever that means) blog equal a conference presentation? Do 6 op-eds for national media equal a lower tier journal article? What about local op-eds for local papers, something we should all be doing (as it’s easier to get published). Does it just nebulously count as a marker for “impact?”  How would you count public engagement in your field and institution? I’d love to hear your ideas, no matter how vague or specific to your institution.

Two: In my Chronicle piece, I wrote this:

Meanwhile, the general public perceives faculty members as isolated from reality, holding cushy jobs, and uninterested in open communication. The public has little access to the broad diversity of knowledge, experience, and background inside higher education, because those academics who do achieve broader platforms generally come from only the most elite universities. Although many of those public intellectuals are brilliant writers and speakers, they represent only a tiny percentage of the expertise available in the academic world. That expertise lies not just in our subject fields but also in the habits of mind we bring to bear on countless other kinds of issues.

Here, as the mighty Bruce Holsinger noted, I was suggesting that academics at non-prestigious institutions (like mine) are an untapped resource. I want, in Holsinger’s words, “to democratize” the notion of the public intellectual. But there are few pathways available for people like me to reach larger audiences – I just happened to have a friend who is a world-renowned security expert, a writer, and a man willing to forward my essays to major editors. That’s random, and letting randomness determine whose voices gets heard leads … well, it leads to mostly white folks, mostly men, mostly from the Ivy Leagues, being the only voices in the room. Kristof’s column exemplifies this: He talks to LePore at Harvard, Slaughter at Princeton, McCants at the Brookings Institute, and Bremmer at Stanford.

Three: Some academics are in fact snobs. I have received many reflexive “compliments” about my public work that are dripping with snobbery, assumptions that I am not “serious,” and other condescensions. And look how I introduce myself as a public writer. I note that I already have tenure, that I have a “real book” with a “real university press,” on the way, and then I talk about my writing. It’s a defensive posture. In fact, my public writing has been great for my career. I’ve been invited to give both scholarly and non-scholarly talks at R1 universities as a result of my writing. I have nothing to complain about.

This is a fundamental problem with the prestige economy. I think it is is changing though as the younger generation is generally highly aware of the random forces at work that fling us through the job market (and the lie of meritocracy) and the more senior generation engages online. I’m very optimistic about this particular problem fading over time.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. Now weigh in on point one. incentives matter. Money matters. Tenure and promotion matters. How do we make public engagement count?

6 Replies to “Academics in Public (belated response to Nicholas Kristof)”

  1. Lisa Amor Petrov says:

    Yes! Snobbery in the academy is alive and well. Yes, the bureaucrats want to know where they can put checks in boxes.

    But I do think that Kristof's most basic point is actually spot on. The larger society needs more of us to engage publicly regarding public/social issues of importance. How that works out for us exactly, that is a different question.

    1. David Perry says:

      I agree. I mean, I am doing public writing obviously. I just think Kristof is clueless both about the reasons professors don't and how to make it possible.

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