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Doctoral student dispatches, Part 1

By February 24, 2014 2 Comments

Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed piece, “Professors, We Need You!,” struck a chord with me last week. I deeply respect Kristof’s work, and I’ve written here before (and again) about the book he and his wife Sheryl WuDunn wrote, Half the Sky: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. I heard him speak to a packed ballroom here at Vanderbilt last spring and I was awed by his ability to inform, inspire, and motivate his audience. So his words last week, part lament and part critique of the way academic minds are operating outside the public sphere, have stayed with me.

Here are some excerpts that reflect the gist of his perspective:

“…it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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!” 

I’ve been in a PhD program for 18 months now, and I have to admit that Kristof’s observations seem spot-on. As I try to envision where this season of my life might lead me vocationally, I am consistently troubled by how much the academic pressures around me seem to be at odds with other commitments I hold. I certainly don’t want to paint all academics with one brush, and I have plenty of examples in my own family of professors who are passionate about teaching and engaging wider audiences. But from where I sit right now I witness all too many instances of what Kristof describes, and I worry about how I can resist the academic tides that aim to convince me to measure my worth by what is on my C.V.

Well, more about this in two weeks. If this wasn’t enough fodder for one day, might I suggest playing with the Academic Sentence Generator, whose random outputs I find to be quite indistinguishable from the kind of talk—excuse me, discourse, I hear and read daily. 

In the meantime, what are your thoughts about Kristof’s opinion?





  • Gretchen Schoon Tanis says:

    Providentially enough I read this blog post and Jim Brownson's blog around the same time. He is a fine example of using his academic and theological intelligence to bless the greater masses through his New Testament Greek translations and understandings using the weekly lectionary passages. What a great resource and through the vehicle a low brow blog – gasp!

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on Kristof"s column, which I agree was thought provoking. As one who completed his Ph. D. program a long time ago and has been engaged in and with academia for a long time, I found it to be less nuanced than I would have liked. Since my field is in the sciences, I may have a somewhat different perspective as well since Kristof seems largely concerned with political science, economics, and their close relatives. Two comments:

    In academic research, we deal with complex issues and we seek to explore the complexity in all its dimensions. As a scientist, I look for ways to take the complex and find clarity. This is messy work and doesn't always (hardly ever?) reduce to simple solutions. In order to discuss my work with colleagues, I need to write articles that are complex and detailed, and not very comprehensible to the uninitiated. I don't think I need to apologize for this; in fact, it is necessary for us to progress in our understanding of the issues that we study because writing induces clarity itself and written documents provide opportunity for critique. I use the analogy of the medieval guilds with my graduate students; they are progressing from apprentice to journeyman status. And part of that progression is mastering the craft, including both concepts and language, arcane as that might be.

    We do owe it to society (for a number of reasons) to try to explain as clearly as we can what we have learned about the world. But, because we value clarity, we cannot and should not reduce our understanding to soundbites that oversimplify and create misunderstanding in the process. The media and blogs are full of writing that does just this. To take a current example, depending to whom you listen, the Keystone pipeline is either the greatest potential disaster of our times or a grand solution to the world's energy needs. A careful analysis will tell you that it is neither, but lies somewhere in between (no surprise there). So, how do I communicate the complexity of such issues and what I know to a public that is largely interested in 140 character messages and simple black and white assessments lacking the graytones of reality? Again, this is not to say that I should not try to communicate with the broader society, but to acknowledge that it is a lot harder than Kristof makes it out to be!

    I look forward to your next post and perhaps we can have a bit more dialogue. Best wishes on your studies and don't give up yet!

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