Why aren’t there more academics writing for popular publications?

Every so often someone comes up with the oh-so-original idea that academics should be more engaged with the public and tries to drench the internet in that lovely sentiment. Most recently, it was an article in the Guardian titled, and I’m not making this up, “Academics: leave your ivory towers and pitch your work to the media”. Most of these articles have a similar message: if we stuffy academics would, for just a moment, give up our polysyllabic technical terms and our three hundred page monographs for the snappy, ‘plain English’ style of the popular press, everyone would win. We (the academics) would get the credit and attention we deserve for our work. The public would get more sophisticated, cutting-edge work to read. Media outlets would have quality content to share with the world. Win. Win. Win. Right? Well… sort of.

I run a blog dedicated to sharing my academic day job with a wider audience (although you wouldn’t know it judging by my past few months of neglect), so I am sympathetic to this idea for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s obvious that in some ways the favored genres of academics, the peer-reviewed research article or the scholarly monograph, can be needlessly inaccessible to nonspecialists. Scholarly publications are often literally inaccessible in the sense that they are far too expensive for anyone except university libraries (although a hat tip to the open access movement). It’s not unusual for scholarly books to cost over $100, and accessing a single peer-reviewed journal article will often cost you $30 or more. In contrast, popular media, especially on the internet, are free or relatively quite affordable.

Second, research articles often contain what appear to the nonspecialist reader to be mountains of minutiae and frivolous jargon. While this stereotype is based in some objectionable ignorance, behind the caricature of academic writing is a request for access to scholars’ ideas from people who find their writing opaque. I find this a reasonable request given that it’s possible to write in a manner that helps the uninitiated understand academic knowledge (think introductory textbooks or the many academics who already write for popular audiences), and that many academics’ work is subsidized by the public. Thus, it’s not unreasonable for nonspecialist readers to ask that scholars produce works with their needs and interests in mind: discussions of research that avoid terminology unknown to them (or at least provide definitions) and seek to relate that work to people’s experiences.

However, implicit in these calls for academics to be engaged with the public via popular media are assumptions about how academics’ flaws as people are to blame for their apparent unwillingness to cater to the expectation of internet media outlets that always need more content. These assumptions seem to be based in stereotypes about academics who just aren’t in touch with ‘the real world’ and who just can’t communicate with ‘real people’. These stereotypes are so pervasive that we academics often buy into them. Consider, for example, this quote by Stephanie Coontz (an academic) from the Guardian article written by Kristal Bent Zook (also an academic):

You talk to academics who love these big words … they nod and agree and recapitulate the same three- and four-syllable words and very abstract, complicated phrases”, she says. “It’s not until you force them to explain it in plain English that you realise they don’t even understand it.

Academics then are popularly understood to be people who can’t help but be bad communicators. Some versions of this popular explanation suggest that academics are not really interested in genuine communication; they’re just uttering fancy words for the same reasons people wear designer clothes. Another more palatable explanation is that academics just don’t know how to communicate with people who are not also specialists.

The first explanation I think has little merit. Certainly academics benefit from the status bestowed upon them because of their language, but that language, I would argue, is functional and meaningful for communication among specialists. The second explanation I find has greater merit in that academics spend very little time preparing themselves to communicate with nonspecialists. Our training is nearly exclusively focused on how to communicate with other specialists. I’m of the opinion that we would benefit from greater preparation for communicating with nonspecialists. Ideally, this would sharpen our writing for such audiences, and it might even help our teaching.

Nonetheless, even lack of experience or training in communicating with nonspecialists doesn’t fully explain why academics are not lining up to write for publications like the Guardian. Before I can address the other, deeper issues at play here, it’s important to realize that academics (at least US-based ones), as a labor force, can be divided into two general categories: tenured faculty and everyone else. The position of tenured faculty member bestows two important benefits: reasonable financial security (not that most are really raking it in or anything) and job-related protections of their sometimes unpopular opinions. In other words, tenure protects tenured faculty from losing their jobs even when their opinions anger powerful people. In theory, such protections give those academics lucky enough to have them the space to pursue and communicate unpopular but nonetheless valuable ideas.

Most everyone else — the vast majority of people we might refer to as “academics” : the graduate students, the adjunct and contract faculty, and even the assistant professors vying for tenure — would like to have tenure, if they plan to remain in academia. Until they have it, they have few job-related protections from the consequences of disseminating unpopular opinions, and many of them lack financial security. To get tenure, they’ll have to impress their tenured colleagues with their sophisticated scholarship, and reassure administrators that they aren’t a liability. When I read these calls for academics to write for nonspecialists, I get the sense that they have tenured faculty members in mind, but the vast majority of academics are not tenured. For all academics, dedicating time and resources to writing for nonspecialists lacks real incentives, and, for those without tenure, it could also be a threat to their careers and livelihoods.

Let’s start with the obvious issue: the money you can earn through occasional free-lance writing. Being paid at all is not guaranteed. If you are paid, you’re likely to work on a low per-article rate (e.g., $100), which when divided by the number of hours you spend pitching the piece, writing, and editing (not to mention if you have to do extra research, which I almost always have to do) is likely to end up being a poor hourly rate. For graduate students and adjunct faculty who may be desperately looking for career-relevant ways to supplement their incomes, freelance writing probably isn’t going to cut it. Hence, when publications like the Guardian appeal to noble sentiments of public intellectualism to inspire academics to submit more writing, I can’t help but think that what they’re really looking for is cheap labor.

Of course, popular media outlets’ wages are lavish next to academic publishers’. I’m shocked to hear when someone earns anything for an academic publication. Even getting a free copy of your own work nowadays is a luxury. Nonetheless, in the long run, academics know that they have a good likelihood of being rewarded in various ways for producing academic publications. The value of academic publishing is explicitly enshrined in advertisements for academic positions and tenure and promotion guidelines. Undoubtedly, there are benefits to publishing with popular venues as well, but they don’t seem to be serving as effective incentives probably because such work is not often given consistent, explicit value in things like job advertisements. Hopefully, we can succeed in reforming the academic hiring and tenure systems in ways that compel academics to produce more writing for nonspecialists.

The other side of this issue is that, despite whatever small incentives it does offer, writing for a popular audience is not free from negative consequences. The first is imposed by other academics. Academics writing for nonspecialist audiences can expect to have their work read by many of their fellow specialists. These people are naturally interested in what is being said to the public about their area of expertise, and many of them recognize that writing for nonspecialists is a different task than writing for other specialists, and that the act of writing for nonspecialists does not preclude the ability to write for specialists.

Nonetheless, there’s also a popular perception among some academics that work produced for nonspecialists is ‘dumbed down’, sometimes followed by the further assumption that the author lacks the knowledge, sophistication, research skills, dedication, etc. to produce ‘real scholarship’, which is roughly the same as assuming that a teacher teaches third grade because s/he doesn’t have a firm grasp of middle school subject matter. Sadly, it’s an easy assumption to make, especially if you’re not familiar with a writer’s scholarship, and it’s a potential threat especially for academics without tenure who need to impress their colleagues with the sophistication of their academic work. Greater attention to writing for nonspecialists in graduate schools and beyond may help to alleviate this.

The second area where negative consequences can accrue for academics writing for nonspecialists is in audience backlash. Some academics are largely spared the threat of conflict with nonspecialists; they’re able to simply don the mantel of expert, and that’s that. However, many social scientists study topics that nonspecialists are quite familiar with and have strong opinions about. This is mostly a good thing, since it results in public interest in the social sciences (including audiences for articles at venues like the Guardian), and nonspecialists can also offer new insights into topics and provide examples of phenomena that interest social scientists.

Nonetheless, even when scholarship on issues like politics, economics, race, gender, language, education, etc. is noncontroversial among specialists, it can be resented by some nonspecialists. This resentment and the resulting abuse can multiply when that scholarship is issued from a keyboard belonging to a woman or person of color.

The online abuse itself can be pretty maddening, even downright terrifying, but there’s an additional factor that I’m concerned with: institutional responses to internet outrage. Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued that, while universities are eager to cash in on the prestige of intellectuals with vast audiences, they are “woefully underprepared” when it comes to dealing “with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement” especially when it comes to grappling with the fact that “public scholarship means pissing people off”.

In the past year, there have been a few cases of universities punishing academics for riling up internet mobs by having the audacity to express controversial opinions, especially over Twitter (for example, Saida Grundy and Steven Salaita). Twitter, of course, is a different medium, where, for a variety of reasons (for example, responding to abuse, venting frustration, feeling that they’re speaking mainly to their “own team”), scholars may express themselves in ways that, especially when taken out of context, are likely to offend. Nonetheless, it’s far from inconceivable that producing internet content for nonspecialists, especially some of the more informal or personal genres promoted by internet media venues, could result in the same type of backlash.

Thus, unless university administrators are prepared to stand behind academics who become the targets of phony, over-hyped outrage over non-issues like social scientists’ alleged ‘reverse racism’, academics, especially nontenured ones, who write for nonspecialist audiences run the risk of angering the public and making themselves appear unattractive to university presidents and provosts, who would prefer to have fewer liabilities among their faculty.

Even in light of all of this, I think it’s important for academics to produce work that people of different backgrounds can access and engage with, but if we are truly dedicated to encouraging them to do so, then we have to actually address some of the ways in which our systems either fail to incentivize or, worse, punish academics writing for popular audiences. We academics need more training to engage more diverse audiences successfully. We need to foster a culture of respect for this type of work, and come to understand it not as a failure to do ‘real scholarship’ but as a valuable service in its own right. In doing so, we need to reform our tenure and hiring systems so that public scholarship is incentivized and rewarded.

Furthermore, media venues who would like to publish work from the large number of academics who lack the financial security of a tenure-track position should also be more prepared to compensate them for that work. Instead of publishing articles compelling academics to produce internet content by appealing to their dedication to The Truth or what not, venues would likely receive more submissions from academics if they advertised competitive rates of pay for freelance writers, or if they made greater effort to ensure that the difficult work of translating and presenting scholarship for nonspecialist audiences received adequate financial rewards.

Finally, if university administrators want the prestige that comes from academics who are minor internet celebrities, then they need to be ready to deal with the controversy that their ideas may generate and the many ways in which the public outrage monster may try to punish them for their views. Until we can produce some of these reforms, (nontenured) academics will rightfully continue to look at internet venues’ calls for them to submit their writing with suspicion.

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