If, as Nicholas Kristof wrote last week, academia has truly been trying “to wall itself off from the world,” that barricade must have a special crack for him, as his column was roundly and swiftly rejected by its subjects. To Kristof’s mind, academics are among the smartest thinkers around, but they’ve ensured their own marginalization by writing obtusely and rejecting the exposure offered by the internet, particularly social media. While he offers some thoughts on structural factors within academia that contribute to this state of affairs, he seems largely to fault academics themselves for a failure to engage.
You can read thorough responses to Kristof from political scientist Corey Robin, “tenured radical” Claire Potter, and the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, among many others. The New Yorker also wades in, with a Page Turner post that asks “Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?” There, Joshua Rothman concludes that there’s not much use asking 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.
That closing thought is where Matthew Pratt Guterl begins, in a post that uses the publication history of his own Jospehine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe to side firmly with those committed to complexity, even if today’s reading market wants things simple.
But here is a deeper truth: our publics also care less and less about the nuanced, complex, and ironic subjects that are increasingly relevant at this exact moment. Or, at least, they care less about what academics think about these subjects. One half of the reading public prefers to have their middle-school children learn about Paul Revere from Rush Limbaugh, and would rather read Bill O’Reilly’s take on religion in contemporary culture. The other half has a very limited appetite for anything other than straightforward biographies, simple-minded foreign policy broadsides, or Malcolm Gladwell/David Brooks style pop sociology. Oprah Winfrey may have made serious fiction culturally important again, but, still, far more people know the ways of Jack Reacher than have read a single word written by Jesmyn Ward. The Guggenheim museums claim 3 million visitors annually, roughly 1.5 million less than the average viewership of a single episode of Real Housewives of Atlanta, and while I find extraordinary intellectual richness in the life of NeNe Leakes (and teach about it often) most of those who write about the show aim straight for the id.
This disinterest in subtlety and complexity and hard thinking changes the publishing context for our work.