Why I (stupidly?) took Nick Kristof’s clickbait personally – or, where #EngagedAcademics came from
Let me make sure this additional waste of time is given the appropriate level of importance:
What academics need, when criticized by an op-ed columnist for not being public enough, is obviously a long bout of online naval gazing.
— Chanders (@Chanders) February 15, 2014
This is my navel gazing, then. It is long, and it is ranty. You have been warned.
For those new followers and the like who’ve never heard me tell this before: In my second or third year of grad school at Ohio State, sometime when I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a Christian and do biophysics and actually make some sense out of what I was doing for the rest of the universe, I had a conversation – I think on the old rec.music.christian USENET group, of all places – with a guy who became, over time, a dear ‘net friend. He said he was reading Mark Noll’s book Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and I should check it out.
I had never taken a single serious thought about the concept of an “evangelical mind”. At that time in my life, Noll’s argument was an absolute revelation. And although there aren’t many direct ways that Noll addresses this, I found an undercurrent in the argument of the failure – of scholars and of Christians doing scholarship in particular – to directly engage with the public and to communicate why scholarship was an important thing. “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” – so somebody get to work on building one, then.
As I’ve progressed in this career, what I’ve found is that this isn’t purely a Christian anti-intellectualism that I was encountering. It extends further into all corners of American life. There’s not much of an American mind, period. The work of the academic – particularly the work of the academic that leaves a research-one university like Ohio State and goes to work at places like Middle Georgia and Shorter and Virginia Intermont, or (to choose another example) gets the modern languages doctorate and has all sorts of trouble finding a job, taking adjunct and visiting positions all the while – is incredibly misunderstood and consistently mischaracterized. It’s taken as an article of faith that the PhD has the office, and simply sits in that office, thoughtfully smoking a pipe and then randomly writing fifty-cent words into an article that only four or five people in the world will understand.
The upward trajectory in college attendance, the political importance of the completion agenda, and the wholesale transformation of the college-attending population – away from the mythical meritocratic best and brightest and towards university genuinely for everyone – demands that the vast majority of people who hold doctorates and get jobs in higher education spend the majority of their time teaching the traditional collegiate canon to people who, two generations ago, would never have set foot on a college campus. It demands creativity, lucidity, and a ton of hard work. And for the job to be done well, it demands a capacity to engage – to communicate sophisticated ideas in a way that keeps students on board and opens up a path for them to become content experts as well, if they choose to do so.
And the reality I’ve found: when you do this well for the students, you open up the capacity to communicate with family and friends as well. You don’t merely become someone who is an imagined figure surrounded by deep thoughts in an office; you become “hey Mom, this is pearson, he’s the reason I survived physics” (or “he’s my insane physics prof,” which often means the same thing) or something of the sort. And that can go double when you get off the campus every now and again, and you talk astronomy with a bunch of middle schoolers (even though the thought of a biological physicist talking astronomy should frighten you), or you read a quiz bowl match for the high school kids and take extra time to hang with the team who just got blown out of the room, and as strange as it has become in my life, you become somebody people want to see come around, instead of this isolated person.
I am one guy, and I don’t pretend to be anything different. The marvel of falling into the rabbit hole of Twitter is finding this massive population of people who have their own ways of engaging with the public, of recognizing this hole between what the perception of academic life is and what academic life actually is for most of us in 2014, and who are working their heads off to accomplish that engagement. They might be super-important full professors at Duke, or department chairs at Union, or underrepresented minorities with newly minted PhD’s, or underrepresented minorities who are doing all sorts of important stuff while finishing that PhD. Those are just the examples that I come up with off the top of my head; you ask somebody else who’s fighting it like I’m fighting it, and they’ll have different examples of people who inspire them with the extent to which they’re engaging people outside of the normal audience of academia.
We should be hearing about these people. They should be championed, and they should be inspiring us to do more ourselves.
That is why I read this latest example of a white male privileged New York Times columnist being clueless and found myself launched into a Twitter rage. Here’s Kristof core take:
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”
Obviously, this isn’t true across the board at every academic institution; if it was, Wikipedia wouldn’t have nearly as many articles. </rimshot> And for crying out loud, there are a ton of us who do communicate with the masses. Why not get our take, instead of just writing the blanket condemnation of PhD program culture?
I did immediately get feedback from one of my fellow travelers, though, who immediately made clear to me that you can’t downplay the importance of that argument; in her PhD program, she got clear and strong pushback because she wanted to write publicly about her sphere of expertise, and she was told that it would be “wasting her time”. If that’s so tangible now, okay, fine, I understand that take.
It still assumes that all of academia is research-one schools. It still assumes that academics are those pipe-smoking, office-dwelling, masses-disdaining figures from another place. In other words – as the New York Times is so prone to do, when talking about higher education – it assumes that regional universities and state colleges don’t exist. It assumes that teaching-centered liberal arts colleges don’t exist. It assumes that most church-affiliated schools don’t exist. Good heavens, don’t even speak of the community colleges.
And it assumes that everyone who could possibly serve as a public intellectual is a FULLPROF or is on the path to FULLPROF status. Non-tenure-track instructors? Visiting professors? God forbid, adjuncts?
Oh, but if it wasn’t enough to be wrongheaded, Nick Kristof had to go to where I live:
Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.
Here is my Facebook page. You will note that I’ve been at this social media business since NOVEMBER 2005.
And – from DAY ONE – using those tools to engage with students. And, when the opportunity presented itself, using those tools to engage broadly with the public, too.
If anybody cares to share evidence of Nick Kristof being on social media before then, I’ll gladly eat that helping of crow. Maybe Nick Kristof really does get public engagement more than I do. Somehow, though, I doubt it.
Yes, I know that there are far worse injustices in the world that exist, even and especially tonight, than a bullcrap New York Times column. I also know that I’m not a small amount of privileged myself. I’m a white dude in academia. We have enough of those. We have MORE than enough of those.
But I recognized that responsibility very early on, too, and I hope you’ll find that the writings here and in the social media space reflect that, and I believe my work in the classroom and in public reflects that. If I’m done and the only people I’ve encouraged on into science and into professional fields are more white guys, I haven’t been successful with my work. I firmly believe science works better with diversity.
And ultimately, with much gratitude to all of you who have read through my navel-gazing, this is the point: I can’t possibly believe I’m alone in this. I’ve been in too many good meetings with people from across the Central Appalachians (with much love to the ACA) to believe that I’m alone in this. I’ve seen too much of the good work that my new Twitter-mates do to believe I’m alone in this. I’ve worked with too many partners in crime to believe I’m alone in this.
Charles Knight asked me this:
— Charles Knight (@Charlesknight) February 15, 2014
And I started to answer with just a few Twitter handles, and something in me snapped, and I replied:
— Chuck Pearson (@ShorterPearson) February 15, 2014
And that’s how this mess started.
One request, if I can make it: I think it’s a fair thing to keep the focus of an #EngagedAcademics hashtag on academics who engage well, not just with each other, but with the world around them, and especially on those who make efforts to make the language they use language that can engage the public, not their discipline. I don’t mean that they dumb their work down; I mean that they make their work understandable and accessible for the masses, while maintaining its rigor. (The primary reason I love reading Tressie McMillan Cottom isn’t the rigor of her sociology or the accessibility of her writing – it’s that they’re both there, together, in an authentic North Carolina African-American voice.) We should be saluting people who go that extra mile in outreach, and who do their part to take the caricature of the college professor and shatter it.
That, at the end of the day, is what I wish Nick Kristof would have done.
And finding examples isn’t so hard. After all, I found most of mine completely by accident.