Nicholas Kristof is not very smart but sometimes he manages to find interesting issues to discuss. His latest column is titled “Professors, We Need You!”, and I agree with the title completely. Whoever you are, you need us. Whether we need you, is another question entirely. (This is a joke.)
After the good title, the column goes downhill. Kristof begins with a quote from some unintelligent administrator who is the perfect example of how stupid and out of touch overpaid academic bureaucrats are:
“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation.
If this creature had any thinking capacity whatsoever and had paid attention in at least 1 or 2 college courses, she would not have started generalizing like a silly Freshman recovering from a binge drinking session at a frat house. My discipline couldn’t become more “quantitative” even if it wanted, and narrow specialization is dead. We all have to teach a wide variety of courses across the entire discipline. I can only imagine the reaction I would have gotten had I declared during my job interviews that I was only prepared to teach courses on female Bildungsroman in Spain. No, scratch that. I cannot really imagine it.
The central claim of Kristof’s article demonstrates that quantification is sometimes sorely needed:
But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.
Until we have some numbers here, this is an absolutely meaningless claim. He “thinks” this, and somebody else “thinks” just the opposite. What is the point of airing these “thoughts” that are based on nothing but an overwrought attachment to the time when one was younger?
Of course, an article about academia would not be complete if the dead horse of jargon wasn’t dragged out into the sunlight to get a fresh round of pounding:
Academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals.
I’m applying for tenure this summer, and I can assure Kristof that “turgid prose” is not a tenure requirement. If you remove a few “vile freakazoids” from my blog posts, you will see the writing style I use for my research articles. I have many readers visit this blog, so my writing can’t be all that incomprehensible.
After several paragraphs of meaningless conclusions based on nothing in particular, Kristof finally manages to say something useful:
The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!
This is also a trend at several campuses right now where Boards of Trustees want to prevent professors from blogging. The reason why administrators do that is obvious: they are terrified of the possibility that professors will inform the world about all the ways in which they fleece students, making them pay for nothing. But the students and their parents aren’t pushing back against this, so I’m concluding that they want to get fleeced, which is, of course, their right.
The conclusion to the article is trying to say something that could be important but loses potency thanks to Kristof’s profound aversion to researching the subject he writes about:
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.
First of all, online courses are irrelevant here. I, for instance, am legally barred from offering my online courses to anybody but the students registered for these courses at my university. I can’t post the courses’ content on this blog, for instance. Facebook is just as irrelevant because nobody but my personal friends can read what I post there. Twitter is also problematic because it is very rare that an interesting idea could be packed into 140 characters or less. Twitter might have been mildly useful in the past, but I stopped reading my Twitter feed entirely about a year ago when I saw that most tweets had turned into a collection of hashtags.
So what is left? The answer is obvious: blogs. And if Kristof had done a couple of Google searches, he would have known that academics blog like they are getting paid to do so. Rare is an academic under the age of 50 who doesn’t have a blog. These blogs are not very widely read, however. The reasons, as I see them, are the following:
a) Academics want to write about their research because it’s just so damn fascinating. I have to make efforts not to publish tons of posts on Spain’s memory wars because I know people prefer to see posts on a wide variety of topics. But I understand those who can’t stop blogging about the research they love so much and the teaching they dig.
b) Just like everybody else, academics automatically see their intended audience as a group of their peers. Simply put, they keep writing for other academics because this is their reference group. And non-academic readers soon get bored of the discussions of the minutiae of academic life and leave.
c) Academics tend to be very polite people who are sensitive to the emotions of others. This is a great quality in RL but a huge problem for a blogger. Polite, careful, kind bloggers bore readers. Harsh, rude, insensitive, angry bloggers attract audiences. Of course, my blog, written in an unwaveringly polite, kind, and mild voice is an exception.
Are there any other reasons why academic blogs are less popular than they should be?