Student in the Grad Computer Lab at Harvard University.(c) Steve Dunwell
In the 1990s the philosopher and Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton ran an annual Bad Writing contest in order to highlight turgid academic prose. If the contest were still around, this passage from The American Political Science Review might be a winner:
For a body of n members, in which there exists a group large enough and willing to pass a motion, let the members vote randomly and declare the motion passed when the mth member has voted for it, where m “yes” votes are required for passage. Define as the pivot the member in the mth position and note that there are n! (read “n factorial,” that is 1 · 2 · … · n) such random orderings of n voters (that is, the permutations of a, b, · · · , n). Then define the power, p, of a member, i, thus: pi = ti/n!, where ti is the number of times i is pivot.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out, this is the kind of writing that has estranged the reading public from academia. A generation ago, political scientists were public intellectuals. We wrote lucid prose. We spoke to the issues of the day. We advised President John F. Kennedy. But now all we care about is math, jargon and one another.
There’s one problem with what I’ve just said. That passage from The American Political Science Review appeared in 1962, the second year of the Kennedy administration.
Jargon has been the bane of academic life since there’s been academic life. Just read Immanuel Kant. Or Thomas Hobbes, who complained that the academic writing of his day was “nothing else … but insignificant trains of strange and barbarous words.” But if scholarly journals still feature specialists writing for specialists, more academics are writing for the public than ever before. When they’re not, it has less to do with the perversity of their preferences than the precariousness of their profession.
Academics used to face a hard choice between writing for sequestered journals that few people read and newspapers and magazines that are hard to break into. Now we have a third option: the blogs and Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook accounts of the social media world.
In my first year out of graduate school, I wrote an article in The American Political Science Review about the politics of fear. I can count on my hand the number of people outside academia who have read it. Not because it’s abstruse or irrelevant but because it’s cloistered behind journal paywalls that only academics can easily scale.
Now I have a blog, where I write about political theory, McCarthyism and bathroom breaks. As many as 20,000 people read my posts — in a single day. Thousands of my colleagues are doing the same thing, many with even bigger readerships. Group blogs such as Crooked Timber and Lawyers, Guns and Money offer platforms to political scientists, economists, sociologists, literary critics, historians and philosophers, and judging by the comments they attract, they are read by a great many nonacademics.
Writers and academics who fret over the fate of public intellectuals are myopically focused on the writing habits of a rapidly disappearing elite.
Traditional gatekeepers are starting to pay attention. The Washington Post now hosts two blogs, The Monkey Cage and The Volokh Conspiracy, in which political scientists and legal scholars distill the most recent scholarship for readers interested in politics and the law. The New York Times hosts a blog about philosophy. Earlier this month, a dialogue about atheism between two professional philosophers attracted nearly a thousand comments. One of the most important voices at MSNBC is Tulane political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry, who hosts a weekend show that focuses on issues seldom discussed in the media and regularly features other political scientists, such as NYU’s Cristina Beltran and Columbia’s Dorian Warren — critically, all scholars of color.
At the graduate level, the picture is more interesting. Once, I could barely wait for the next issue of The New York Review of Books to read the latest by senior historian Gordon Wood. Now I can’t wait for the next post of LD Burnett at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History blog. A young scholar working on a dissertation about the culture wars of the 1980s, Burnett regularly fills us in on her latest archival discoveries or simply tells us what’s on her mind. Like last month, when she asked why critic and political activist Mary McCarthy doesn’t make more of an appearance in standard intellectual histories of 20th century America. McCarthy’s stature among New York intellectuals used to be uncontested. So coveted was her perch that she once sniffed at writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag, “I hear you’re the new me.” So why not some more love for McCarthy from intellectual historians, Burnett wondered. It’s a good question; I’ve been sitting with it ever since.
My weekends used to be reserved for the Sunday book reviews. Not anymore. Now I head straight for Sunday Reading at the website of The New Inquiry, a little magazine started by a bunch of 20-somethings in New York. Sunday Reading is the brainchild of Aaron Bady, until recently a grad student in English at Berkeley. Bady — now with the assistance of a team of grad students and young faculty —scours the Internet for writers such as Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociology grad student at Emory who blogs about racial inequality, higher education and the social sciences. As soon as I read her, I was hooked. Others apparently were too: Cottom got a regular column at Slate.
Over at Jacobin, another little magazine in New York (started by an undergraduate), I’ve been getting whiplash watching the tennis match between Seth Ackerman, a history grad student at Cornell, and Peter Frase, a sociology grad student at the City University of New York. For the last few years, Ackerman and Frase have been debating how the left should approach work in America. Equalize its burdens, improve it, decrease it or abolish it outright? Since I was an undergraduate, I’ve rolled my eyes at this type of speculation. But reading Ackerman and Frase, I suddenly feel this is a question jaded academics like me need to be asking.
At their best, intellectuals do more than package their research into digestible bits for policymakers or the public. They force us to think beyond the limits of the day, to ask the questions no one is asking. They are an invitation to imaginative excess and political trespass. Academic experts in the mainstream media reassure us with their authority; young intellectuals in the little magazines arrest us with their divinations.
It may be, however, that the economics that make little magazines and blogs possible also make them unsustainable. Many of these outlets rely on the volunteer or nearly free labor of writers and grad students or middle-aged professors like me. The former live cheaply and pay their rent with a precarious passel of odd jobs, fellowships and university teaching; the latter have tenure.
But grad students graduate, 20-somethings make families, and rents go up. Struggling writers in 1954 could flee to tenured positions in academia; their counterparts in 2014 will find no such refuge. Nearly three-quarters of all instructional staff at colleges and universities today are not on the tenure track. They’re insecure, contingent workers, an army of cheap and casual labor that make the universities go. While young writers can afford to do the kind of intellectual journalism we see at the little magazines, older adjuncts teaching five classes can’t.
Writers and academics who fret over the fate of public intellectuals may think they are debating vital questions of the culture. But their discussions are myopically focused on the writing habits of a rapidly disappearing elite. The vast majority of potential public intellectuals do not belong to the academic 1 percent. They are not forsaking the snappy op-ed for the arcane article. They are not navigating the shoals of publish or perish. They’re grading.