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:

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.

Ahem.

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:

And I started to answer with just a few Twitter handles, and something in me snapped, and I replied:

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.

Throwback Thursday, starring a couple of photosynthesis researchers

"Yes, Nicole, I know what you did there."

I don’t play Throwback Thursday often, but apparently, when I do, Nicole supplies me with the picture.

The woman on the left, Elizabeth Gross, is the reason I have a PhD. In her role as chair of the Biophysics Program at Ohio State, she took a chance on a punk from Rose-Hulman who bugged the mess out of her (and even drove to Columbus on something of a lark on a Saturday to see what was there, and what could have been a 30-minute interview-type thing turned into a 3-hour conversation), and then, the moment the words “Brownian dynamics” were mentioned in casual conversation, bugged her some more during his first year until she let him into the lab, with no funding and a wild concept of a project. And patiently, through every conceivable TA appointment imaginable while the research was going on, she kept letting me bug her, and even started to bug me back a bit as she got seriously interested in the modeling herself. We worked out how plastocyanin and cytochrome f get together to do electron transfer, basically by taking every computer package written to model proteins and other macromolecules and forcing them to do what WE wanted to do, whether that was what they were designed to do or not. She had that “feeling for the organism” that Barbara McClintock wrote about – she understood how chloroplasts worked, and had a gut feeling for how proteins did chemistry, and 99% of the time, she was right.

And that’s before we get into her metaphors that were simply brain-bending. Those who live in tin houses should not throw can openers, though, so I won’t touch that with a 12-foot Norweigan.

The woman on the right, Nicole Vanderbush, was in my first group of students at Shorter. She was loudmouthed, obnoxious, kind of a punk herself – and insanely passionate about whatever she was passionate about at the moment. I have no idea what drew her to me, and I honestly wonder why I had confidence in her in those first days myself. All I know is, I have never had a student trust me so much, and who latched on to an idea so tightly. She took that very same Brownian dynamics problem and ran with it, got interested enough in the proteins to turn out a research project that could actually be presented somewhere (the only student I’ve ever had to take those steps, and I’ve been at this now for nearly a decade and a half), and landed at an REU at the University of Arkansas – as fate would have it, working for Dr. Gross’ first grad student, Dan Davis. That REU turned into her own PhD project, and Nicole became a better experimentalist than I could have ever dreamed of being. Now she’s at Shorter – and carries the title of Assistant Professor, the thought of which blows my mind daily.

The place where they are standing is the office space at Ohio State where I spent the better part of six years of my life. It is, I believe, cleaner in this picture than it ever was when I studied there.

One of the biggest regrets of my life is that there is not a picture of these two women, together with me. They represent two of the most important stages of my life.

And yes, if you knew these sweet people’s personalities, it is thoroughly appropriate that Nicole has broken out the bunny ears on Liz, and Liz just keeps grinning as if to say “yes, Nicole, I know what you did there.”


 

One other thing that it’s important to note.

These two, the two most important people in my career in science, are both women.

There are not many guys who can say that bit.

It is a bit of a quirk of fate (or providence?), when you think about it. The right person to guide me through the PhD, and the right first student for me to start through that path.

I don’t know what to make of that, except that I’ve found myself uncommonly sensitive to issues of women’s success in science, in the physical sciences especially, over the course of my life. It registered very early on that there were many people who had talents who simply let those talents go because there wasn’t someone there who would affirm those talents, and who would talk about the path to doing science as a profession being available to them.

Part of the conflict within me over the current state of academia, the current dearth of jobs out there for people with PhD’s even in the sciences, is that we still need to address the gender imbalance in those professions, and take maximum advantage of the talent available, instead of losing people on the path. That needs to happen even as the jobs available is dwindling and the political will to support academic science goes from slim to none.

I’ve become very passionate about health professions advising, because that’s another way to nurture those talents and put them to good societal use, and the jobs are there for those who complete those paths successfully (even as those paths involve residencies and other sorts of credentialing hoops). But that’s not a substitute for our best thinkers applying their thinking to basic science problems, trusting that the benefits to them personally will prove over the long run to be benefits to society as a whole. And it’s not a substitute for ensuring that our best thinkers are a diverse group, with diverse experiences that turn into diverse means of solving big problems.

I have no answers, but I have a set of values that I find important, and I have a host of people in my life who have informed those values. And at key points along that path, those people have been women.

I am incredibly, incredibly grateful for what I’ve inherited, and I need to be a good steward of that inheritance.

This is why I do what I do.