Why the Call to “Uncloister” Ourselves Leaves Us Frustrated

In his Sunday column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof proposes that academics, professors have been accomplices in their own “marginalization” from American life and public intellectualism. He boldly states that there are fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago. But where is his basis or evidence for this statement?

“SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.” - Nicholas Kristof

Russell Jacoby has defined public intellectuals as "writers and thinkers who address a general and educated audience," a quote which I pulled from an online article that Kristof himself links to. But the author of that article herself writes about the death of a world where academics write only for other academics, and the rise of self-publishing academics who write “more words for less money than ever before: They are self-publishing and tweeting and blogging and MOOC-ing.” The same article that Kristof links to in making his point is inherently against his point. Jill Lepore writes about the rise of tenure evaluations based on internet “hits,” the decline of newspapers and online culture that values opinion and personality over research and reporting. [And, might I add, her piece is much more compelling].

The point is that Kristof’s short op-ed is in many senses misleading and mired in the past. It also ignores key issues, including a decline in specialized (science) reporting in mainstream media outlets. Every day, more academics, both PhD students and professors, are joining social media outlets, posting their lectures online (like I’ve been doing for my social media course), hosting Reddit AMAs, blogging about their own research as well as wider issues (take our own SciLogs.com, Scientific American Blogs or The Conversation - a new journalism project featuring content from academics - as wonderful examples). I would argue that actually, more academics are directly communicating with various public audiences, via the web, than ever before in our history.

It’s not that Kristof’s call for more academics to be engaged in public discourse is wrong – it’s absolutely right. But the way he does it not only frustrates those of us already engaging, but I’d argue might even discourage others. He is very negative in his “call to action,” so to speak.

Which leads to my next biggest problem with this op-ed. Kristof spends time setting up the problem, but not much time suggesting solutions. His only suggested routes for academic engagement with the “real world” include Twitter, Facebook, blogs and online lectures. Great – the things that a growing number of academics are already doing. But we need to talk about so much more.

For one, a growing number of scientists and journalists alike recognize that blogs and social media are simply NOT replacing great, investigative science journalism for a range of different audiences. Every academic who read this op-ed could run to join Twitter and start a blog, which would be AWESOME, but would that really improve the science & research information landscape for lay audiences? By itself, probably not.

Second, it’s not just about academics translating their research to real-world settings through their own digital media silos. It’s about forging more inter-disciplinary relationships, between different fields of science, between academic research and journalism, between academics and communicators on all levels, between digital innovators and research publishers. The specialization of research tracks is not in itself a bad thing! Many of us are learning more about the world by delving deep into a particular niche. But very important to bridging research and real-world impact is forging relationships between these different areas of specialty research, and the internet and social media are doing a tremendous job helping this happen by serendipitously bringing researchers and communicators in different fields together in online spaces.

Third, the type of public engagement Kristof calls for requires training inside and outside of academic programs. Workshops and various programs for teaching scientists how to communicate effectively with both lay audiences and the press, and for teaching journalistic standards and practices to scientists wanting to write, are popping up everywhere.

I don’t know where Kristof gets his claim that academia is fostering a culture “that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” Yes, this has happened in the past and continues to happen now in some programs. But Kristof writes these lines in a time when the NSF and other science grant funders are placing increasing importance on science communication and public impact of research. (Matt Shipman @ShipLives, science reporter and PIO at NCState can attest more to this fact.) And yes, while many older academics still disdain real-world experience, I expect that this trend as we speak is toward increased importance of the same in many academic programs.

So in short, while I agree absolutely that more academics should communicate their research in the public sphere, I think it’s vital that we acknowledge those superb academic communicators who are already doing so, and work on addressing some of the larger issues at play in the mass communication of science and research.