Professors, We Need You (to speak out)

Ever since I entered my PhD program, I have tried to make it a point to be involved not just in the academic process, but academia as a whole. The internet, of course, makes this easy- I've found no shortage of blogs, Twitter feeds, and entire websites dedicated to the discussion of academia's present and future. A few common themes always emerge: the plight (and rise) of the adjunct, the grueling publishing paradigm, crazy grad school debt, and the difficulty of finding a tenure-track job upon graduation. All in all, academics like to talk about academia. So when New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof entered the conversation, with an article titled "Professors, We Need You!," no less, it sparked quite a debate among the online academic bubble. While much of the criticism is probably valid, and some of it is probably misguided, the fact that such disparity exists at all likely points to the very issues that Kristof discusses.

In graduate school, as with most insulated communities, there is a certain...flow to things; a language. When you're in it, especially if you're a full time student that's also a graduate research or teaching assistant, it can seem pretty all-encompassing. There's a certain way things are supposed to go, or at least that's what you're told on the outset. You connect with a few like-minded professors, you work on a journal article or two, and maybe a few of them even get published. You teach your first class, present your work at some conferences. You do all this, which is technically considered "extracurricular" but is essentially required, while dutifully completing the tasks that, you know, actually get you a degree. You pass your classes, you study for your qualifying exams, you write and defend your prospectus, you wade through your dissertation, and then you get to stand on a stage and get hooded, a ceremony which will look strange to anyone who doesn't know and care about you.

So it's a little disheartening to read that the majority of what you pour your time and energy on is seen as too disconnected from reality to even mean anything. Furthermore, that on top of the traditional academic responsibilities listed above, now we have to find ways to be extra marketable in a digital era, where, academics, like chefs in the 90s and 00s, have become akin to mini-celebrities. Your opinions have to be good, and to matter. Your Tweets have to get retweeted. You have to have an ongoing, lighthearted, intellectual feud with another academic mini-celebrity. You don't just get published in journals- you get cited. Hell, maybe you even get a TED Talk.

One of the first things you learn about academic writing, in most contexts, is to write like the reader has no idea what you're talking about. Don't be overly technical, don't use too much field-specific shorthand. Like a tree falling in the woods, does an academic's brilliance matter if no one reads it? Kristof's article seems to argue that the answer is no. Logically, in a world of a million distractions, it makes sense that even the most, well, academic of pursuits (academia itself) has to find ways to penetrate other bubbles if its relevance is supposed to stretch beyond self-congratulation. In my case, why dedicate my life to conflict studies if I don't feel that maybe, in some small way, it will matter to someone? That it might influence some policy that could change a life? Isn't that the point?

If so, are we doing it wrong? I guess that's the core question. Surely there's a middle ground between being an academic celebrity or an irrelevant but overeducated blowhard. Do we need to aspire to a large Twitter following or a New York Times bestseller for our work to matter? Considering that most academics, even a lot of great ones, will never do either (and shouldn't need to), how can academics respond to a world that seems to increasingly equate academia with elitism and being out of touch with reality? When the majority of the opinions floating around about serious issues are those of pundits and personalities rather than the people who spend their lives studying them with painstaking care, on whose shoulders does the failure of communication rest? And how do we fix it?