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Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

Building knowledge, training new scientists, sharing a world.

Professors, we need you to do more!

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…though we can't be bothered to notice all the work you're already doing, to acknowledge the ways in which the explicit and implicit conditions of your employment make it extremely difficult to do it, or the ways in which other cultural forces, including the pronouncements of New York Times columnists, make the "more" we're exhorting you to do harder by alienating the public you're meant to help from both "academics" and "intellectuals".

In his column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof asserts that most university professors "just don't matter in today's great debates," claiming that instead of stepping up to be public intellectuals, academics have marginalized themselves.

Despite what you may have heard in the school-yard or the op-ed pages, most of us who become university professors (even in philosophy) don't do so to cloister ourselves from the real world and its cares. We do not become academics to sideline ourselves from public debates nor to marginalize ourselves.

So, as you might guess, I have a few things to say to Mr. Kristof here.

Among other things, Kristof wants professors to do more to engage the public. He writes:

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.

A quick examination of the work landscape of a professor might shed some light on this slowness.

Our work responsibilities -- and the activities on which we are evaluated for retention, tenure, and promotion -- can generally be broken into three categories:

  • Research, the building of new knowledge in a discipline as recognized by peers in that discipline (e.g., via peer-review on the way to publication in a scholarly journal).
  • Teaching, the transmission of knowledge in a discipline (including strategies for building more knowledge) to students, whether those majoring in the discipline or studying it at the graduate level in order to become knowledge-builders themselves, or others taking courses to support their general education.
  • Service, generally cast as service to the discipline or service to the university, which often amounts to committee work, journal editing, and the like.

Research -- the knowledge-building that academics do -- is something Kristof casts as problematic:

academics seeking tenure must encode their insights [from research] into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

This ignores the academics who strive to write clearly and accessibly even when writing for an audience of their peers (not to mention the efforts of peer-reviewers to encourage more clear and accessible writing from the authors whose manuscripts they review). It also ignores the significant number of academics involved in efforts to bring the knowledge they build from behind the paywalls of closed-access journals to the public.

And, it ignores that the current structures of retention, tenure, and promotion, of hiring, of grant-awarding, keep score with metrics like impact factors that entrench the primacy of a conversation in the pages of peer-reviewed journals while making other conversations objectively worthless -- at least from the point of view of the evaluation on which one's academic career flourishes or founders.

A bit earlier in the column, Kristof includes a quote from Middle East specialist Will McCants that makes this point:

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.

Yet even as Kristof notes that those trying to rebel against the reward system built in to the tenure process "are too often crushed or driven away," he seems to miss the point that exhorting academics to rebel against it anyway sounds like bad advice.

This is especially true in a world where academics lucky enough to have tenure-track jobs are keenly aware of the "excess PhDs" caught in the eternal cycle of postdoctoral appointments or conscripted in the army of adjuncts. Verily, there are throngs of people with the education, the intelligence, and the skills to be public intellectuals but who are scraping by on low pay, oppressively long hours, and the kind of deep uncertainty that comes with a job that is "temporary" by design.

If the public needs professors to be sharing their knowledge more directly, Nicholas Kristof, please explain how professors can do so without paying a high professional price? Where are the additional hours in the academic day for the "public intellectual" labor you want them to do (since they will still be expected to participate fully in the knowledge-building and discourse within their disciplinary community)? How will you encourage more professors to step up after the first wave taking your marching orders is denied tenure, or denied grants, or collapses from exhaustion?

More explicit professional recognition -- professional credit -- for academics engaging with the public would be a good thing. But to make it happen in a sustainable way, you need a plan. And getting buy-in from the administrators who shape and enforce the current systems of professional rewards and punishments makes more sense than exhorting the professors subject to that system to ignore the punishments they're likely to face -- especially at a moment when there are throngs of new and seasoned Ph.D.s available to replace the professors who run afoul of the system as it stands.

Kristof doesn't say much about teaching in his column, though this is arguably a place where academics regularly do outreach to the segment of the public that shows up in the classroom. Given how few undergraduates go on to be academics themselves, this opportunity for engagement can be significant. Increasingly, though, we university teachers are micromanaged and "assessed" by administrators and committees in response to free-floating anxiety about educational quality and pressure to bring "No Child Left Behind"-style oversight and high-stakes testing to higher ed. Does this increase our ability to put knowledge and insights from our discipline into real-world contexts that matter to our students -- that help them broaden their understanding of the challenges that face us individually and collectively, and of different disciplinary strategies for facing them, not just to serve their future employers' goals, but to serve their own? In my experience, it does not.

Again, if Kristof wants better engagement between academics and the public -- which, presumably, includes the students who show up in the classroom and will, in their post-college lives, be part of the public -- he might get better results by casting some light on the forces that derail engagement in college teaching.

Despite all these challenges, the fact is that many academics are already engaging the public. However, Nicholas Kristof seems not to have noticed this. He writes:

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.

The academics who have been regularly engaging with the public on Facebook and Twitter and G+ and YouTube and blogs and podcasts -- many of us for years -- would beg to differ with this assessment. Check out the #EngagedAcademics hashtag for a sampling of the response.

As well, there are academics writing for mass-circulation publications, whether online or in dead-tree form, working at science festivals and science fairs, going into elementary and secondary school classrooms, hosting or participating in local events like Café Scientifique or Socrates Café, going on radio or TV programs, writing letters to the editors of their local papers, going to town council and school board meetings.

Either all of this sort of engagement is invisible to Nicholas Kristof, or he thinks it doesn't really count towards the work of being a public intellectual.

I wonder if this is because Kristof has in mind public intellectuals who have a huge reach and an immediate impact. If so, it would be good to ask who controls the microphone and why the academics from whom Kristof wants more aren't invited to use it. It should be noted here that the New York Times, where Kristof has a regular column, is a pretty big microphone.

Also, it's worth asking whether there's good (empirical) reason to believe that one-to-many communication by academics who do have access to a big microphone is a better way to serve the needs of the public than smaller-scale communications (some of them one-to-one) in which academics are not just professing their knowledge to members of the public but also actually listening to them to find out what they want to know and what they care about? Given what seems to be a persistent attitude of suspicion and alienation from "intellectuals" among members of the public, engagement on a human level strikes me as likely to feel less manipulative -- and to be less manipulative.

Maybe Nicholas Kristof has a plan to dispel the public's reflexive distrust of academics. If so, I trust he'll lay it out in a column in the not-so-distant future.

I don't think Kristof is wrong that the public could benefit from engagement with professors, but asserting that we need more while ignoring the conditions that discourage such engagement -- and while ignoring the work of the many academics who are engaging the public -- is not particularly helpful. Moreover, it seems to put the burden on professors to step up and do more while losing sight of the fact that engagement requires active participation on both sides.

Professors cannot proclaim what they know and assume that the public will automatically absorb that knowledge and, armed with it, act according. It would be somewhat horrifying (for academics and the public alike) if engagement worked that way.

Academics and members of the public are sharing a world. Having various kinds of reliable knowledge about the world is good, as is sharing that knowledge and putting it into useful context, but this is never enough to determine just what we should do with that knowledge. We need to work out, together, our shared interests and goals.

Academics must be part of this discussion, but if other members of the public aren't willing to engage, it probably doesn't matter if more professors come to the table.

* * * * *

It should go without saying, but I will say it here anyway, that there are plenty of people who are not professors or academics engaging the public in meaningful ways that should make us recognize them as "public intellectuals" too. My focus here has been on professors since they are the focus of Kristof's column.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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