Are Academics Their Own Worst Enemies?

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jgoodguy

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Are Academics Their Own Worst Enemies? | Crossroads

On Sunday the New York Times published Nicholas Kristof’s plea for academics to become more involved in public discourse. As one might suspect, within hours academics who participate in public discourse and outreach protested the message, pointing to themselves and fellow professionals (including people who have written for the Times) as providing examples that challenged Kristof’s plea (it might be pointed out that one of the reasons academics jumped all over this argument is because they are linked to each other by social media).
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”
A related problem is that 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 — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.
 

John Hartwell

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Could have been written 30 years ago ... or 50 ... or 100! There's really nothing new here. There have always been academics who write only for each other. But often, that's where the really important new revelations come from. "Popular" history has always been a different thing altogether ... there's no reason to reject either.
 

jgoodguy

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Could have been written 30 years ago ... or 50 ... or 100! There's really nothing new here. There have always been academics who write only for each other. But often, that's where the really important new revelations come from. "Popular" history has always been a different thing altogether ... there's no reason to reject either.
The complaints may go back to ancient times.
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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On the one hand, "academics" (which I would say is a group with extremely fuzzy lines) do tend to use language unfamiliar to the average person and refer to sources with which the average person is unfamiliar... but so do auto mechanics, plumbers, athletes, and virtually every person who specializes in a particular field or job. They use the words that best communicate the specific information that they're using. An ordnance expert is not going to say "cannon" when they are referring specifically to a howitzer, because the difference in words means something... no matter that the general public will always say "cannon" when they see any big piece of ordnance.

And I think it's generally fashionable in our society to look down upon "academics," as if anyone can speak with equal authority simply because they happen to have an opinion, somehow believing that their equal right to hold an opinion makes that opinion of equal value to everyone else's... when it doesn't.
 

godofredus

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As ever complaints. On the one hand, Academics (I capitalize as an ideal from Plato) are never involved in the day-to-day realities and have no understanding of the real world - see Aristophanes.
And when they do,they are rebuked by others saying they should be doing real work. See the discussion between then President of Harvard, Larry Summers, and then University Professor, Cornel West.
In CivilWarTalk I can think of plenty of civil war academics who got involved in the real world.
Maybe that is a characteristic unique to Civil War Academics.
 

huskerblitz

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On the one hand, "academics" (which I would say is a group with extremely fuzzy lines) do tend to use language unfamiliar to the average person and refer to sources with which the average person is unfamiliar... but so do auto mechanics, plumbers, athletes, and virtually every person who specializes in a particular field or job. They use the words that best communicate the specific information that they're using. An ordnance expert is not going to say "cannon" when they are referring specifically to a howitzer, because the difference in words means something... no matter that the general public will always say "cannon" when they see any big piece of ordnance.

And I think it's generally fashionable in our society to look down upon "academics," as if anyone can speak with equal authority simply because they happen to have an opinion, somehow believing that their equal right to hold an opinion makes that opinion of equal value to everyone else's... when it doesn't.
This is true. This is also a tripping point for students when they encounter technical vocabulary in most subjects and one of the hardest to overcome because they use the words so infrequently. Your example is exactly to that point. People that are in that field everyday want specific verbage, like your howitzer vs. cannon usage. But most people are not going to be that familiar with those terms. I think that tends to be biggest drawback between more of a merging between academics and the rest of the world. Well, that and a lot of academics tend to be anal about using the absolute right term or reference.
 
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Sgtredleg

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The Academia can be their worst enemy when it comes to disseminating information to the general public. All for the reasons as stated above. When it comes to History, which is a passion of mine, I find that the academic mentality is essential for a proper and detailed understanding of our past. That said, I also see the general public is often intimidated and bored by a discourse of pure facts and analysis offered by an academic source.
Over the years I have found my niche in a scenario of this sort. I am a Park Ranger and Certified Interpreter. When it comes to presenting History to a typical park visitor, out with the kids and enjoying the day, I find I can best capture there interest by "painting a canvas" if you will. I present an oral "picture" of the events being discussed. I include the minutia of everyday life of said participants and their experiences while prompting the audience for pre-disclosed snippets of information. All is presented at an "edgy" pace adjusted to the audiences level of understanding. These and other techniques usually keep the audience engaged and actively thinking.
The Academia have completed the difficult and tedious analysis of the ever growing historical data out there. My hats off for their efforts. They provide the core for my interpretive work. After a thorough study of these facts, we Interpreters must dispense that knowledge and insight to the general public in an accurate, interesting and enticing manner. We must reach their soul in a way that fires their sense of exploration.
This skill is not reserved for Park Rangers only. I think Reenactors, Teachers and History buffs amongst others use these methods and others to "get the word out" to their audience.
So thanks to Academia for the providing the "raw material". Pass us the baton and we Interpreters will do our part and carry it to the finish line.
 
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K Hale

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“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” --Isaac Asimov
 

Nathanb1

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Great discussion! I tend to be one of those "analyst" people, just because of my weird background. As a county Extension Agent, I used the information and research generated by those academics--sometimes I participated in the studies, some were my own, but by and large I was the daily recipient and disseminator of what we continually reminded the public was "research-based information."

The frustration, I believe, comes about when academia runs smack up against our plethora of amateurs who find something interesting and totally overlook all the basic background information they need to have acquired to fully understand the topic. If you don't understand the big picture--and the need to start with a thesis and test it, rather than a full-blown treatise....well, things get mighty snarled mighty fast.

In the history realm, there are those who study the science of history--and those who study the events and sociology of events. The science can be completely re-created, tested, and confirmed. The other is only verifiable with an appropriate number of solid "proofs" and corroborations. (Just believing it's so isn't enough. Yelling louder than the other folks isn't proof, either.)

I get really, really preachy here sometimes. Forgive me. I'm indebted to those academics who taught me what quality of research is...and we're lucky to be surrounded by many who wouldn't classify themselves as such, but, frankly, are the epitome of what an academic should be.
 
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rbasin

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I like the details. My favorite history class:

Definition of historiography (n)
Bing Dictionary
  • his·to·ri·og·ra·phy
  • [ hi stàwree óggrəfee ]
  1. methods of historical research: the principles, theories, or methods of historical research or writing
  2. writing of history: the writing of history based on scholarly disciplines such as the analysis and evaluation of source materials
  3. available data on historical topic: the existing findings and interpretations relating to a particular historical topic
 

Diana9

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The old saying goes: "Book Smart, Common Sense Dumb."
The people who actually fought the American Revolution weren't inspired by academics, or the "great minds of the Enlightenment," they were motivated by a corset maker who wrote "Common Sense." Hence, it seems in keeping with the American tradition to be skeptical of academics.
 
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rbasin

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The people who actually fought the American Revolution weren't inspired by academics, or the "great minds of the Enlightenment," they were motivated by a corset maker who wrote "Common Sense." Hence, it seems in keeping with the American tradition to be skeptical of academics.
That's awful.
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” --Isaac Asimov
As usual, Asimov anticipated a thought I had and said it far better than I could. :laugh:
 

Pat Young

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I am Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hostra University, but also a full-time practicing lawyer. A colleague at Hofstra Law School told me that while much of the focus for tenure track law professors is on publication in a law journals, only 15% of those articles are ever cited in judicial opinions and only 15% more are cited by other journal articles. In other words, 85% have no impact on the real world and 70% are virtually ignored. Yet these are major determinants of the course a legal academic career takes. Presentations to the public, even to other lawyers, are pretty much ignored or disparaged in the academic rewards system.
 
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rbasin

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I am Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hostra University, but also a full-time practicing lawyer. A colleague at Hofstra Law School told me that while much of the focus for tenure track law professors is on publication in a law journals, only 15% of those articles are ever cited in judicial opinions and only 15% more are cited by other journal articles. In other words, 85% have no impact on the real world and 70% are virtually ignored. Yet these are major determinants of the course a legal academic career takes. Presentations to the public, even to other lawyers, are pretty much ignored or disparaged in the academic rewards system.
True, but they are being written! And that's the point. What if that article that never gets read or cited on its own merit helps another person in his thought process?
 

Nathanb1

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I like the details. My favorite history class:

Definition of historiography (n)
Bing Dictionary
  • his·to·ri·og·ra·phy
  • [ hi stàwree óggrəfee ]
  1. methods of historical research: the principles, theories, or methods of historical research or writing
  2. writing of history: the writing of history based on scholarly disciplines such as the analysis and evaluation of source materials
  3. available data on historical topic: the existing findings and interpretations relating to a particular historical topic
My favorite grad class!
 
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