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Are academics cloistered?

posted by Wei Zhu

Recently, The New York Times published an article by Nicholas Kristof that lamented how academics, cloistered like medieval monks, have retreated from the public policy arena. Kristof cites a few institutional reasons for this phenomenon, including the decline in humanities funding, but also critiques academics for marginalizing themselves. The column has, unsurprisingly, triggered a debate among academics, policy-makers, and journalists about the merits of Kristof’s arguments, as well as potential causes and solutions. Some are sympathetic to Kristof’s points, but note the occupational, political, and structural factors that incentivize academic work that is not always accessible to non-academics. One such response comes from Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics who contributes frequently to a variety of media outlets. Having interacted with “Beltway types and money folks” throughout his career, he writes:

For example, in my career the piece of research that has had the greatest impact in Washington was an article that argued China’s ownership of U.S. debt did not and would not translate into political leverage. This argument seemed very counterintuitive to D.C. insiders, who insisted that this was a serious problem and that Beijing’s debt holdings “gives the Chinese de facto veto power” over U.S. policymaking. It seemed manifestly obvious to my international political economy colleagues, however. I wrote that article to get the ear of policymakers, and I succeeded in that task. Among my academic colleagues, I’ve received fainter praise. That article did not develop a new theory or uncover a new hypothesis; it merely confirmed what most scholars already believed. This kind of research isn’t seen as “cutting edge” – the kiss of death in the academy. Because it rests on settled wisdom, it would be hard for me to claim the argument as my innovation. So the incentive for junior faculty to perform this kind of scholarship is still pretty minimal.

Drezner, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, is in the curious position of having his CEO agree with Kristof’s thesis, tweeting that academic articles are often “opaque, abstract, incremental, dull”a characterization seemingly shared by the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas, who calls much of the work of university departments irrelevant. But Drezner is one of the many academics who are arguably more engaged publicly than they previously would have been, thanks to the increasing number of ways to reach a wider public audience via the Internet. However, academia’s view of writing on the web has been complicated; Drezner, for one, has touched on this topic many times before, and it is a relationship that is still sometimes tense. As Joshua Rothman explains at The New Yorker, the Internet has not changed the processes of academic research and writing in the same ways that it has changed journalism:

It may be that being a journalist makes it unusually hard for Kristof to see what’s going on in academia. That’s because journalism, which is in the midst of its own transformation, is moving in a populist direction. There are more writers than ever before, writing for more outlets, including on their own blogs, Web sites, and Twitter streams. The pressure on established journalists is to generate traffic. New and clever forms of content are springing up all the time—GIFs, videos, “interactives,” and so on. Dissenters may publish op-eds encouraging journalists to abandon their “culture of populism” and write fewer listicles, but changes in the culture of journalism are, at best, only a part of the story. Just as important, if not more so, are economic and technological developments having to do with subscription models, revenue streams, apps, and devices.

In academia, by contrast, all the forces are pushing things the other way, toward insularity. As in journalism, good jobs are scarce—but, unlike in journalism, professors are their own audience. This means that, since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees). Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.

Over at The Washington Post, Erik Voeten, a professor of government, takes a stronger stance by emphatically refuting Kristof’s argument, with the headline: “Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!“:

I think that Kristof means well, and there is surely something to the general themes he touches upon. I am not saying that all is well in the land of pol-sci academia. Yet, the piece is just a merciless exercise in stereotyping. It’s like saying that op-ed writers just get their stories from cab drivers and pay little or no attention to facts. There are hundreds of academic political scientists whose research is far from irrelevant and who seek to communicate their insights to the general public via blogs, social media, op-eds, online lectures and so on. They are easier to find than ever before. Indeed The New York Times just found one to help fill the void of Nate Silver’s departure. I am with Steve Saideman that political scientists are now probably engaging the public more than ever.

Voeten writes from the “The Monkey Cage,” a blog started in 2007 by a group of academics with the explicit mission of publicizing academic research and indulging in their own non-academic interests. The site has been successful in doing so, and its move to The Washington Post last year only serves to further increase and broaden its audience. Writing at “Crooked Timber,” another such academic blog, Corey Rubin, a professor of political science, builds further on Voeten’s critique, and notes that Kristof’s understanding of “public engagement” is rather specific:

So what is he really talking about, then? You begin to get a clue of what he’s really talking about, then, by noticing two of the people he approvingly cites and quotes in his critique of academia: Anne-Marie Slaughter and Jill Lepore.

Kristof holds up both women—one the former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, the other the holder of an endowed chair at Harvard—as examples of publicly engaged scholars. In addition to their academic posts, Slaughter was Obama’s Director of Policy Planning at the State Department (George Kennan’s position, once upon a time) and a frequent voice on the front pages of every major newspaper; Lepore is an immensely prolific and widely read staff writer at The New Yorker.

Beyond these two examples of public intellectuals, Kristof also harkens back to the Kennedy era in his follow-up pieces at The New York Times and on Facebook. He cites the administration’s “‘brain trust’ of Harvard faculty members,” and insists that “university professors were often vital public intellectuals who served off and on in government,” singling out former National Security Advisor McGeorge “Mac” Bundy as an example. Of course, as Samuel Goldman writes at The American Conservative, intellectuals like Bundy often moved between “Harvard Yard and Washington, usually without encountering many members of the public along the way.” In fact, some of the same medieval monks that Kristof deridesHildegard of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux, for examplewere arguably more “public” than the intellectuals from the Kennedy administration, wielding tremendous political and theological influence during their lifetimes and beyond. One issue with the narrative of the decline of the public intellectual is that it is difficult to define what, exactly, “public” means. News media is certainly not the only venue for public engagement; many scholars are, in fact, active on social mediawitness the rise of the #EngagedAcademics on Twitter (triggered by Kristof’s column). Moreover, overlooked in much of these discussions is perhaps the most important “public” for academics: students.

Kristof’s complaint is not particularly new—the charge that academia is a field divorced from the practices and concerns of the real world dates back at least to Aristophanes, who satirized Socrates and his ilk in the play The Clouds. It is true that some academics study topics and use language unfamiliar to the average person, but so do athletes, mechanics, and generals. (Sports, particularly baseball and basketball, is an interesting comparison, given the growing acceptance of analytics and quantitative data in understanding players and games among both teams and fans, which is due, in part, to academic work.) Academic journals and working papers remain the standard method of disseminating and publishing research, though their unwieldinessthe time it takes to process a paper, the costs of subscribing to a journalhas been increasingly recognized. The rise of the Internet has, however, diversified the ways people can engage with a wider audience, and academics are increasingly taking advantage of its new platforms, be it through a tweet or a post at a digital forum.

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3 Responses to “Are academics cloistered?”

  1. Westar Institute has been actively talking about public engagement since at least the 1980s in the field of religious studies. While not everyone will agree with the results of seminars sponsored by Westar, the scholars who have participated in those activities have made an active effort to engage with the public.

    We published a post recently that touches on some of the complicated results of building relationships between scholars and members of the public. In our case, because of the sensitive nature of the topic, it’s pretty common for the research of Fellows to complicate and challenge the beliefs and practices of faith (in fact, that happens all the time). So Fellows at these meetings with the public also find themselves needing to respond authentically to questions that more or less ask, “Is there any room for faith?”

    Here’s the blog, for anyone interested in hearing some responses: http://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/an-appeal-to-study-christian-origins/

  2. avatar Jenny Bergman says:

    As a soon-to-be graduate of Colgate University, a liberal arts university in rural upstate New York, I have perfected the art of joking about how, while I have received an excellent education, I am not really qualified to join the “real world.” At Colgate, I spend much of my time reading, discussing, and writing about these “opaque, abstract, incremental, and dull” academic articles. When I sit down to read a piece on virtuous tourism in sub-Saharan Africa, or social hierarchies in non-human primates, I can’t help but wonder about the practical implications. How will what I learn in my courses allow me to be a productive member of the public sphere, and will I be able to communicate my knowledge?

    This post centers on public policy, but I think it is of equal importance to address the public that public policy ultimately affects. As Zhu points out, a main aspect of the argument of the “decline of the public intellectual” has to do with what the actual definition of the public is. The definition of public depends heavily on context. At institutions of higher education, such as Colgate, the public the professors should be concerned about is their students. In order to convince students that the material they are learning is, in fact, accessible, professors must motivate them in a way that helps them realize that the task-related work they are doing will ultimately help them achieve something. This is known as path-goal theory, and is often applied to psychological studies of leadership. So, in non-psychological terms, it is to the benefit of an “intellectual” to be able show a member of the general public that what they are learning will result in immediate or future benefit.

    Zhu points out several times that the argument Kristoff is making is ultimately not a revolutionary one. However, not much time was spent on how this issue could potentially be rectified. The way in which social media and “the rise of the internet” could potentially be used to make academics appear to be less cloistered needs to be explored. Many colleges and universities, including Colgate, are starting to take part in a program called edX, a website that allows people from all over the world to take online courses from universities all over the world. While obviously not the same as face-to-face, in-class instruction, edX allows for interaction and conversation that would not otherwise happen. Platforms such as edX may be the key to solving the problem of “opaque, abstract, incremental, and dull” academia.

  3. avatar Camile Lorenzo says:

    My response to this post is similar to that of Erik Voeten’s. There is undeniably a perception that the humanities do not have hard-hitting relevance, and I only agree with this theory inasmuch as the implementation and dissemination of research findings is lacking. Voeten mentions that many academics aim to spread their findings through social media, blogs, and more casual outlets, which I believe to be an effective response. Academic research, unfortunately, is most accessible to other academics and their pupils, a severely limited audience. In reference to the title, the importance of academics is universal but their benefits and reach are cloistered. Still, it is understood that in the humantieis and liberal arts that most students will not become professors; as such they become a professor’s most important form of social media. In this sense, academia is only cloistered in the sense that not everyone has access to higher education. But, if one is to only take those students into account, then academics are highly publicly involved.
    Herein lies the issue; expand the public involvement of professors by removing the barrier of requisite privilege. In my opinion, Kristof’s criticisms are aimed in the wrong direction. Furthermore, the belief that academia is not “immanent” is laughable in the face of the many leaders and changers that are products of an education in the humanities. Perhaps there is an academic retreat from the realm of public policy, but in their place are products of these academics–their students. The impact of academia need not be immediate; if this were the case, we would have long eradicated the liberal arts. Zhu raises the important point that academic research is not always driven by public forces, an important consideration in the face of Kristof’s critique. As a product of a humanities education, I must protest, because the very point of my academic experience has been to critically connect interdisciplinary information. Also, in an education that places great importance on thoughtful citizenship, it is impossible to disengage my education (in sociology) from it’s public implications. The claim that research is not related to public policy is, in my opinion, a result of a myopic interpretation. The ongoing discourse that is academia is nothing if not concerned with societal ramifications. Research in the humanities is proven and disproven by experience, in the same spirit that public policy is.

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