Kristof on the academy

Nicholas hold-the-D Kristof’s column Professors: We Need You is currently one of the most emailed columns on the New York Times. As someone who just defended a political science dissertation it really hit a nerve, and not in the way he intended. I say that as someone who deliberately chose a policy relevant topic (anti-hunger policy in Brazil), has many criticisms of the academy, and is looking for non-academic jobs in part because of the appeal having a more immediate impact on policy. So I’m sympathetic to this kind of critique, but I just don’t feel like the column was very helpful. I have too many things to say about it, but I’ll try to limit it to a few and maybe follow up with more later.

I found it amusing to read Kristof’s piece right after reading an op-ed in The Oregonian by my friend Jules who chairs Pacific University’s Department of Politics and Government. There are many universities beyond the top elite research ones. One of my mentors at Willamette was on the city council while teaching three courses a semester. I could go on, but on Twitter Kristof’s response to the marshaling of counter examples was that “the exception proves the rule.”

There have been a good number of blog posts responding. Greg Weeks at UNC Charlotte has a good one here. Adam Isacson at WOLA posted a good comment, where he writes:

Kristof nailed a view of academia that’s pretty common in Washington. It can be summed up as: people who make policy are very busy people, and scholars in the nation’s university departments do not write for busy people.

I’ve been a fan Adam’s work since interning at IPS summer 2002. So I appreciate reading his perspective.

The professors at the place where I just finished my Ph.D. are some of the busiest people I’ve ever met. But the a key value of his insight is that if academics want to be read by different audiences they need to write for those different audiences. One of the most useful things about my three semesters tutoring undergrads and grad students at UNC’s Writing Center was getting writers to think about who would read a piece and how to be as clear as possible for that reader. (This would be a good place to add that in my experience I’ve had plenty of people within the academy working to make me a better writer–especially in terms of clarity–including the members of my committee, anonymous reviewers during the peer review process, and fellow tutors with whom I made appointments to work on my writing).

Yes, more universities should offer incentives for professors to write for general audiences, too. Yes, academics should work on being more clear and concise. However, some ideas and information have a certain minimal level of complexity and require a 10-20 page article or a book to explain, and if someone wants to understand them she or he will have to invest a certain amount of time. I guess I have a hard time sympathizing with someone working in a given policy area and not reading a few of the best, most accessible works by academics on that topic. Often a 200-page book or 20-page article represents the distillation of a decade of research. Thousands of hours of work to produce something that will only take 1-5 hours to read.

That leads to the topic of teaching undergraduates how to read academic texts and get what they need out of them, but this post is long enough so maybe I’ll follow up on that topic later.