Nervous Conditions

Nick Kristof’s call to cloistered, monastic faculty to come out and speak to wider publics has already been lambasted, dissected and critiqued by a wide range of academics.

My knee jerked pretty hard as well when I read it, for many of the same reasons that other writers have already articulated:

1) that many faculty are and have been speaking in public in a variety of ways for a long time;
2) that the “cloistered monks” trope is at best a tired one with roots in long-standing habits of American anti-intellectualism and at worst a specific nod to many present interests that would like to strip-mine higher education;
3) that academics who speak to larger publics, who synthesize and generalize knowledge, depend deeply on the work of specialists (who may or may not be equally involved in speaking to various publics);
4) that focusing this appeal on faculty and their temperaments is aiming the persuasive power of a columnist at the wrong target: the real issues are located in structures of promotion and tenure for tenure-track faculty and in the casualization of academic labor for the vast majority of teachers and researchers. Speaking to wider publics as an adjunct is both wholly unrewarded (as is any professional commitment or effort by an adjunct) and extraordinarily risky.

The third point is especially crucial: scholars who engage publics as experts are navigating across rich, deep, complex oceans of knowledge. Take away what Kristof disparages and the public scholar is just one more bullshitter in an endless desert of bullshit.

However, I was also struck a bit at the ferocity and intensity of the reaction by academics to Kristof, and worried about it for two reasons. The first is simply about rhetorical politics and the danger of appearing to protest too much. It’s fairly predictable that Kristof would smugly affirm that this reaction shows that he touched a sensitive spot and therefore must be right.

It doesn’t mean he’s right, but it does mean that he touched a sensitive spot. So the question worth thinking about more deeply is, “What makes this such a sore subject for faculty?” Kristof’s goad is something that academics themselves worry about quite a lot. Even before wistful speculation about the loss of “public intellectuals” became common fodder for conversation among academics in the 1990s, there were long-running discussions about whether professors owed something to wider publics, and if so, what it exactly it was that they owed: scholarship? teaching? engagement? The rise of digital media intensified and shifted this long-running conversation, and sharpened its stakes. The strategic challenge of public engagement for print-era scholars, especially on the left, was how to gain access to the carefully guarded fortresses of print capitalism or how to construct powerful alternative media outlets in a world where media technologies of production and circulation were scarce or expensive. Digital media allowed scholars to think instead about less visible processes that shaped access and attention, and about whether “the public sphere” was an obsolete, never-was or poisoned concept in the first place. Should a scholar seeking engagement speak instead with already-engaged audiences with an interest in the scholar’s particular expertise? Was engagement only meaningful in relationship to subcultures? Was an engaged scholar instead someone who listened to publics rather than spoke to them? What if engagement meant less a kind of synthesis or summary of long-form scholarship in an otherwise familiar print format and voice and more some kind of radically different way of speaking?

These are questions that many academics have been exploring and inhabiting for the last two decades, so in some sense, we shouldn’t necessarily begrudge a columnist asking something of the same questions. That is, if he bothered to ask them as questions and bothered to ask them in a way that didn’t use lazy tropes about the incomprehensibility of professorial writing.

The useful conversation that might be possible if our knees stopped jerking and a columnist like Kristof stopped playing to the peanut gallery centers on a point I’ve already raised: what permits an academic to perform a public role in a distinctive way? Kristof sees academics as “smart” people who can contribute their intelligence and insight to public discussions. But the problem is that the American public sphere has become a difficult place for some people to speak and be heard. Beyond the obvious issues with making a contribution to public conversations via digital media that are rife with bullying and often toxic levels of sexism and racism, there is an equally pressing problem with the capture of expertise by lobbyists and closed political institutions. Kristof ought to be familiar with that issue, considering the company he keeps at the Times op-ed page, but the very way he makes his call suggests how unconcerned he is about it. Who exactly wants “smart” academic input? And what kind? Does Kristof want to hear from anthropologists or historians about the issues he wants to confront? Judging from past behavior, no. Do policy-makers really want to hear from any expert whose thinking might disrupt or confound coming to solutions that are already inevitably going to be come to? What kinds of public and political action are actually open to the unexpected input of already-existing academic expertise, and might actually be transformed were it made available? The answer, I fear, is “not much, not many, not really”. Maybe the issue is with the “we” that thinks they need professors, not with the professors. Kristof might ask–using himself as a test–what exactly is dependent upon this input that he thinks is lacking. If what he means by accessibility is “I want professors who agree with what I already think, and I want them to say so clearly”, that’s very different than saying, “There’s something I don’t understand, something I can’t do, something beyond my knowledge”. The former is just hunting for a few more bits of costume jewelry to burnish the finery of the powerful. The latter would be a welcome invitation, but given that it starts with humility, don’t hold your breath.

This might bring us around to a real issue that’s worth taking seriously, past all the dramatics of the academic response to Kristof. If we react strongly, it isn’t just because he’s insulting. It is also because, without really intending to, he is genuinely raising a difficult problem. We already know that in an open-source, open-access, digital media, crowdsourcing world, op-ed columnists in print media are dispensible. The issue that troubles all academics, however they write, wherever they teach, is whether the same is true of expertise in general. We haven’t yet been able to imagine what the new circumstances governing the circulation of expertise might ultimately be. We aren’t going to get a good conversation going about that from Kristof’s prompt, but the time is coming soon where we had better do so or risk sounding just as out of touch with the reality around us.

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3 Responses to Nervous Conditions

  1. Barry says:

    Tim, my comment was eaten twice by this system; it’s getting frustrating.

    The reason for outrage was the Kristoff was lying, pure and simple.

  2. Jerry Hamrick says:

    “The issue that troubles all academics, however they write, wherever they teach, is whether the same is true of expertise in general.”

    I think that expertise will be more in demand than ever before. And I think that academics will make tremendous contributions in new ways to society because there will be several structures in place that will call on academics to give expert advice. Imagine a system, let’s call it the Hypothesis Evaluation System, that will be part of the legislative process. It will determine if the underlying hypothesis for a proposed legislative act will deliver the results it promises. Academics will be asked to give their assessment, and the legislators will act accordingly.

    The Athenians had such a process, and it was constantly in action.

    Anyhow, the “Nervous Conditions” post, along with a post by Krugman about Kristof and along with a couple of other responses has been fascinating reading for me.

    I agree that academics have created “rich, deep, complex oceans of knowledge” and we, the great unwashed have not taken advantage of that knowledge. That is our fault, not yours.

    We need to tell you what we want, and we need to make it worth your while to create and interpret it. But you can’t flinch. There will be policy consequences, but if we do it right you will be protected.

    But it is true that academics and the unwashed have also created vast oceans of blaming and naming and somebody has to go to work cleaning it all up. When your name is called, be ready.

  3. Art Deco says:

    Kristof fancies there is not enough verbiage emanating from such characters as Paul Krugman, Bradford deLong, Eric Loomis, PZ Myers, Brian Leiter, and Scott Lemieux.

    A line Peter deVries put in the mouth of one of his characters: “I’ve done quite a study of true feelings. Most of them deserve to be hidden”.

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