The (Ir)relevance of Academia? Academics Lash Back at Kristof for NYT Column

Posted on February 28, 2014 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

Has academia become a wasteland of intelligence? This is not the first time such an argument has been brought to light. A recent column by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times titled “Professors, We Need You!” has attracted a significant amount of attention from across the web over his argument that professors and the work they produce are becoming closed off from reality and do not have the practical impact they should.

Kristof points a lot of fingers in his op-ed, which has resulted in a lot of fingers pointing back at him. From claiming that professors have marginalized themselves to saying that academia is less accessible to the general public, not to mention blaming America for its “anti-intelectualism,” Kristof’s take on the ivory tower has received both support and criticism.

In the Washington Post, Erik Voeten argues that while Kristof has some valid points, the majority of his argument boils down to stereotyping a profession that is in the midst of trying to go beyond its walls. “There are hundreds of academic political scientists whose research is far from irrelevant and who seek to communicate their insights to the general public via blogs, social media, op-eds, online lectures and so on,” writes Voeten. “They are easier to find than ever before.”

One of Kristof’s points of contention is that professors are not able to filter their knowledge into the mainstream and general public in order to have a direct impact on day-to-day problem solving. He says academia continues to “wall itself off from the world.” One example he provides is the International Studies Association’s proposed ban on academic blogging amongst its members in order to maintain a “professional” tone.

But, as Voeten points out, the proposed ban drew mass criticism from academics the world over and resulted in a review of the proposal by the ISA president.

One movement gaining traction that Kristof misses out on, however, is the open-access movement’s push to take the pay wall chains off of scholarly work so that academic findings and research may be exposed to the public. The movement as a whole has seen both setbacks and victories over the past couple of years, but its central mission to remove the barrier that prevents the general public from accessing academia has stirred much needed debate recently.

One example of success on this front is Academia.edu, a platform launched in 2008 that aims to share academic research with the public by operating like a social networking website, which has reached a considerable amount of success given its short life. Academia.edu is not the only one of its kind either, as there are other websites that work towards the same goal, such as ResearchGate, Zotero, Google Scholar, and Mendeley. Aspects of the open-access movement and academic web portals like Academia.edu are strenuously attempting to overcome the bureaucracy of academic publishing, something Kristof addresses, which has seen little to no change in several decades.

Kristof also targets students attempting to climb the ranks in academia, saying “a basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.”

Corey Robin, a professor at Brooklyn College, counters this by saying that life as a Ph.D. student is a lot more complicated than a culture that abhors public impact. “The problem here is not that typically American conceit of 'culture' vs. nonconformist rebel. It’s the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It’s the job market.”

Laura Tanenbaum, in an article for Jacobin, and Jonathan Senchyne, in an article for Inside Higher Ed, also touch upon the points of restraint of valued time and finances. It is not only Ph.D. students that do not have the time or financing to be blogging constantly, writing op-eds, or working pro bono for organizations, it is the professors too. The cost of contributing to the conversation on changing education and molding the current university system to modern standards, which includes opening up the doors of the world’s ivory towers to the public, costs time and money.

“If the ‘we’ is the American public, then you have already got us as teachers, popular and specialist writers, activists and more,” Senchyne writes, referring to Kristof's use of "we" to reference the public's need for professors to contribute to society. “If the ‘we’ is pageview ad-metric revenue-hungry online content providers and writers, then that is another question. Do you really want us? And if we come to you, how much will it cost to get in?”

From a different perspective, Jerold Duquette does not quite come to Kristof’s defense but tries to open up his critics to the larger issue. Duguette says the op-ed “fails to account for the huge increase in media participation by professors in the last 10 to 15 years, but the guts of Kristof’s case are still salient and the underlying problem he hopes professors will help solve remains a problem.”

Duquette explains that critics like Voeten are perhaps too defensive about their contribution to the general public as academics, saying that the argument is not that there is no contribution but that perhaps there is not enough. “Just because academics are constantly being cited, quoted, and interviewed about politics, does not mean that they are actually reaching the intended audience—the public—in a way that is increasing civic knowledge, interest, and the productivity of public debate.”

Besides Kristof’s drive to have professors engage in society by spreading the wealth of academia to the masses, he also criticizes their language. “Academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose,” writes Kristof. “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.”

In The New Yorker, Josua Rothman makes his response clear and simple: “Academic writing is the way it is because it’s part of a system.” Just as Kristof’s argument is nothing new to those in academia, neither is the argument that academic writing is laced with complexity and difficult for the general public to consume. Rothman argues that the language of academic writing is so because it is often written for specialists in the field, which adds to Kristof’s claim that academia is a “culture of exclusivity.”

Rothman toes the line between Kristof’s plea for academics to enter the limelight and make their verses clear and the professors who responded online and tweeted with the hashtag #endangeredprofessor to prove their existence is not safeguarded from the public. He finds the middle ground by saying that professors are finding a voice in some aspects of public debate on important issues, but their language is not always easy to digest as it remains rooted in academia, for which he blames the system. Rothman says “the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal.”

As there are an overabundance of responses to Kristof’s column, Tadween has collected a roundup of debates below that range from the critical to the supportive (including a satirical piece from Karl Sharro).


Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!
By Erik Voeten (The Washington Post)

Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now
By Corey Robin (Corey Robin)

A Response to Nicholas Kristof
By Laura Tanenbaum (Jacobin)

Disrupting the Higher Ed Content Cycle
By Jonathan Senchyne (Inside Higher Ed)

Why is Academic Writing so Academic?
By Joshua Rothman (The New Yorker)

What Nick Kristof Doesn’t Get about the Ivory Tower
By Daniel W. Drezner (Politico)

Not Your Dad’s Academy
By Daniel W. Drezner (Foreign Policy)

Why Nicholas Kristof's Latest Column Stings So Much and Why He's Right
By Adam J. Hopeland (Huffington Post)

Are Academics Public Intellectuals? (And What Can We Do?)
By Robert Kelchen (Kelchen on Education)

Kristof is Right About Professors
By John Fear (The Way of Improvement Leads Home)

Roundup of Responses to Kristof’s Call for Professors in the Public Sphere
By Jessie Daniels (Just Publics @ 365)

An Open Letter to Nicholas Kristof
(Scholars Strategy Network)

Professors (Over)React to Kristof’s Plea
By Jarold Duguette (MassPoliticsProfs)

The New Public Intellectuals
By Matt Reed (Inside Higher Ed)

Where Have All the Public Intellectuals Gone?
By Samuel Goldman (The American Conservative)

Nicholas Kristof: Why Professors Suck!
By Karl Sharro (Karl reMarks)

The image is from the World Economic Forum and is licensed under Wikipedia Commons.

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