Infernal Machine   /   March 4, 2014

Who Should Professors Write For?

Brianne Alcala

Two weeks ago Nicholas Kristof proved yet again that it isn't news until The New York Times prints it. In his weekly column, Kristof lamented university professors' self-imposed irrelevance:

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.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

And the primary reason for the gap between scholars and this public that Kristof says they should be writing for: an academic culture "that glorifies arcane unintelligibility," rewards hyper-specialization, and revels in jargon. Kristof was particularly perplexed that academics continued their cloistered ways when they

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.

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

The reactions from academics across disciplines was swift, mocking, and exasperated. It turns out that professors are writing for all kinds of audiences and in a variety of forms. (Check out these blogs, for instance, on political science, medieval book history, and current events for a taste.) And, in case you hadn't heard, it's rather difficult to place a piece in the New Yorker or The New York Times, Kristof's idea of a public medium.

In addition to these responses by professors, a number of journalists who once aspired to become academics wrote about the frustrations that drove them to leave academia in pursuit of a broader audience. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo described a pivotal conversation with his faculty advisor, the historian Gordon S. Wood, at Brown:

Once when I was trying to figure out what I was doing I headed up to Wood's office to discuss it with him. Wood was generous and kind and always encouraging to me but rather distant as an advisor. At one point in our conversation, he laid it on the line. "You need to decide whether you'll be satisfied with writing for an audience of two or maybe three hundred people."

Clearly, the correct answer to this was "yes." And as Wood said it, then and now I have the sense he thought posing it in this way would get me back on track with a focus on the scholarly community we were a part of. But hearing it so starkly, in my mind my response was something more like, "Holy Crap, no way! That's definitely nowhere near enough people. And worse yet, I know some of those people. And I definitely don't want to write for them."

So Marshall left the academy for a career in journalism to write about "the great issues of the day" and extricate himself from the intellectual and cultural constraints of thinking and writing as an academic. Marshall decided to leave the academy because the incentive structure–what gets you published, what gets you tenured, what gets you promoted–was "geared against engagement with the world outside of academics." If a professor writes for a blog, publishes in a non-peer-reviewed journal (the New Yorker or The New York Times, for example) or gives a public lecture for the local historical society, she doesn't get credit for any of it; that is, in the logic of academic advancement, those outward-facing engagements won't help her life as an academic. Academics write for academics.

Another aspiring-academic-turned-journalist, Joshua Rothman at the New Yorker, expanded on this academic system that produces such bad writing and half-developed intellects and contrasted it to journalism. Both journalism and academia are undergoing broad transformations, but they're going in different directions, according to Rothman. Cultural forces are pushing journalism toward populism and accessibility, as new digital technologies continue to lower the barriers for entry. Anybody can publish and everybody can be a journalist. And established journalists, and established media, have to work hard to make their voices heard amidst a cacophony of blogs, tweets, and web sites. In academia, however, these same forces of cultural and technological change are pushing the in the opposite direction, "toward insularity."

As in journalism, good jobs are scarce—but, unlike in journalism, professors are their own audience. This means that, since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees). Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.

It won’t do any good, in short, to ask professors to become more populist. Academic writing and research may be knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish—but that’s because academia has become that way, too. Today’s academic work, excellent though it may be, is the product of a shrinking system. It’s a tightly-packed, super-competitive jungle in there. [..] If academic writing is to become expansive again, academia will probably have to expand first.

The knotty insularity of academic writing is not new, however, and neither are the complaints about its irrelevance.  This is not just another nothing-new-under-the-sun observation, however. The sharp differences between scholarly and popular forms of writing first crystalized at another moment of technological change.

Between 1770 and 1800 in Germany, the number of printed titles increased 150 percent. Many intellectuals and scholars celebrated the increased availability of print as a promise of Enlightenment. More print, they reasoned, meant greater access to it and, thus, greater access to knowledge. Print would inform, cultivate, and enlighten. But, as print continued to expand, others began to doubt the promises of print. A lot of what was printed didn't really look like knowledge. It looked more like re-circulated opinions or just plain nonsense. But this was just the question: in a world of easily accessible information, how could you tell what was real knowledge and what was junk? How could you filter out all the dross that modern print produced?

One solution was to start writing in a different language, one not so easily commodified and circulated. This was the route that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant chose.

Kant, a professor at the University of Königsberg in the furthest reaches of Prussia, was by no means a bestselling author, but he began his career writing relatively accessible texts in philosophy that were characterized by a free, open style, prone to imaginative digressions. But with the publication of his landmark Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, all that changed. The first reviewers wondered want had happened to the imminently readable Kant. They dismissed the Critique's obtuse, impenetrable language as a cover for bad thinking. It was “incomprehensible to the greatest part of the reading public”; it hovered “in the clouds.”  Another reviewer went even further and decried Kant's technical, jargon-filled language as the real philosophical issue. True knowledge, as he put it, should be "popular," true to experience, and accessible to a broad reading public.


Kant was not impressed. In the introduction to the second edition of the Critique, he confronted his critics by refuting their entire premise. Real philosophy didn't need to be popular. In fact, the pursuit of popularity and a broad public was philosophy's problem. Not only did he not regret writing the Critique in a more popular language, he wished he had written it in a more "armour-like" fashion. He wished that he had made it more impenetrable than it already was. But why? Why all the philosophical jargon and technical arguments? Why couldn't Kant just write in clear, engaging prose?

For Kant, his contemporaries wrote in an easily accessible style not out of philosophical or ethical high-mindedness but out of a desire to sell books. They knew as well as he did that the modern print market had little patience for rigorous, complicated arguments. As the market had expanded over the course of the eighteenth century, so too had its audiences. It no longer catered to a few learned scholars but to an ever-expanding and increasingly diverse public interested more in opinions and memes, not original, complex ideas.

Kant chose to write in a self-consciously "scholastic" style, then, not only because he thought his subject required it, but because he wanted to distinguish his work from what he considered the mindless, commodified books of the popular press.

Kant's dilemma crystalized the growing divide between scholarly and popular kinds of writing.   For many of Kant's Enlightenment contemporaries, the technological change that the proliferation of print represented carried with it an obvious imperative: all knowledge should be shared broadly. But for others, such as Kant, the imperative to share and write for an ever-expanding public raised a number of concerns. First, just because there print was more widely available did not mean that everything that was printed was of good quality. There was a lot of junk, and as yet little sense as to how to filter through it all to find what was actually worth reading. Second, new knowledge meant more specialized knowledge. In order to advance knowledge, scholars had to dig deeper and make ever finer distinctions. All those arcane details that Kant's critics dismissed as superfluous were necessary if Kant was going to move beyond his philosophical predecessors. Kant didn't engage in complex, highly technical discussions of Leibniz's concept of space or Hume's skepticism for the hell of it.  Technical and narrowly focused arguments were the price he, or his readers, had to pay for new knowledge. And he rightly observed that this type of scholarly knowledge conflicted with the imperative to make knowledge widely available, to popularize it. And it certainly did not jibe with the demands of the modern print market.

In response to these two conflicting pressures, to advance knowledge and popularize it, Kant drew a sharp distinction between scholarly and popular knowledge. However technical his philosophy got, he always insisted that knowledge was ultimately practical and oriented towards the world. He simply thought that his critics had gotten it backwards. They demanded popularity on the front end, but Kant insisted that popularity was something that should only be pursued after the hard, rigorous work of the scholar had been finished. "Popularity," he wrote, should never be the "beginning of science." Knowledge should be shared more broadly, beyond the guild of scholars, only after it had been generated. If there were no actual knowledge, then there would be nothing to disseminate, nothing to popularize. Kant called the one scholastic knowledge and the other world knowledge.

Our own confusions about the proper language and audience for academics echo Kant's sharp division between the popular and the scholarly. The problem with the academic system, however, is not simply its specialized, highly technical languages. In world of increasing complexity, knowledge is advanced through specialization and its technical forms. As knowledge becomes more complex, so too do the concepts and the languages we use to make explain it and expand upon it. Kant distinguished scholarly and popular work so that knowledge could advance, but he never considered scholarly work to be an end in itself. It was always oriented, if not subordinated, to a broader ends.

Kant embraced the distinction between the academic and popular audiences and writing as essential to a particular kind of thinking.  The question we might ask ourselves today is whether that simple dichotomy holds true in our digital moment. It may be that the newer media are dissolving the distinctions in surprising and productive ways.