17 February 2014

"Turgid prose." Seriously.

So that's what "turgid" means
New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wants academics to step up their game when it comes to public debates and 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...
...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!
...A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose.
I think Kristoff's heart is in the right place. To his credit, he cites academics who do mix it up in the public sphere like his colleague Paul Krugman, and he gives a nod to the notion that tenure requires peer-reviewed publications and not op-eds or cable interviews.  Further, on Twitter he's linking to some of the many responses and criticisms he's received on blogs and social media from academics. I'm partial to the responses by Drs. Paige Brown, Janet Stemwedel, Laura Tanenbaum, and Amy Freid and Luisa S. Deprez.

Kristof spends a lot of time criticizing the density of peer-reviewed journal articles as inaccessible to the community of people whose idea of a big word is "delicatessen."  But Kristof should know better. Academics are writing to their audience just as Kristof is writing to his.  Most academics use different language when they know their audience is different, just as Kristof does.

I think Kristof misses two important points.  First, Kristof complains about the aloofness of academia but works in an industry (i.e., punditry) that too often rewards stupidity. Let's face it - our most "popular" pundits say incredibly stupid things on a regular basis. If there's anything worse than anti-intellectualism, it may be pseudo-intellectualism.

It's not entirely their fault.  Smart people may go months without having anything really smart and original to say. Of course, if you have to file your column or go on one of the cable talks tomorrow, you just say what comes to mind.

Honestly, Kristof might want to spend less time criticizing academics he doesn't know and more time convincing the pundits he does know to stop talking long enough to have an original thought.

Second and more importantly, promoting academic or scientific work to a "lay" audience is really, really hard. It's a full-time job. Engaging elite members of the media to reach their audience is even harder at times.  I'd like to know how many emails and phone calls Kristof didn't respond to today.

Kristof hasn't shared much on how we solve that problem, but I'm going to give it a try at ScienceOnline 2014. I'm facilitating a discussion called "Healthy Online Promotion" and I'll be in a room full of academics who want to participate in public debates and share their work with people outside of academia.  I hope Kristof and anyone interested will follow the #scioSelfPR hashtag during the session on Thursday, February 27 between 4pm and 5pm ET and offer their thoughts.

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