Do I Dare Disturb the Public? Academics and the Vocation of Journalism

The past few weeks I’ve been following the many journalists and bloggers who’ve had a sudden affinity for debating the scarcity and shortcomings of academics in the public sphere. From the spark of a single tweet or article, ideas often spread like wildfire in digital media. After Nick Kristof wrote his February 15 New York Times column lamenting a scholarly culture “that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience” and summoning academics that “cloister [them]selves like medieval monks” in ivory towers, the floodgates opened to a flurry of backlash and critical commentary.

Daniel Drezner’s response provided a well-versed breakdown of why, in his own field of political science and foreign affairs, each of the dominant professions – “academics, Beltway types, and money folks” – persistently underperform since they rarely muster the humility to learn from each other’s relative strengths. Joshua Rothman picked up on the question of style; an expansion of university enrolment to diversify the enterprise, he thinks, could help mitigate the tendency of academic writing to be “knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish”. Samuel Goldman interjected that if making academics more “relevant” means encouraging them to be mouthpieces of our new “ruling class”, the public is perhaps better off without them. But it’s Corey Robin who struck the greatest chord with me. Robin writes well, and he writes about others that write well. So he told the story of that “entire economy of unsung writers with PhDs”, talented to the brim, who simply aren’t landing salaried positions at the prominent publications or media outlets that can pay the bills or supplement whatever meager subsistence gets them by. It’s this last point to which I’ll return.

A conversation about the civic role of scholars has rekindled, hearkening back to the question of the “public intellectual” which arose from seminal pieces like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar”, and at the height of 1960s activism with Noam Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, and later with Edward Said’s “Representations of the Intellectual”. It’s a conversation that this publication, King’s Review, is keen to join. We’ve had an ongoing editorial mission to flesh these ideas out further, at least since our interview with Cornel West on this precise topic last May.

I bring up King’s Review also because we, like numerous other relatively unknown publications, are hungry for compelling content that cross-pollinates ideas and concepts from the academy with multiple “publics”: artists, literati, business leaders, government officials and those not represented by political and cultural elites. If we are to be honest and constructively self-critical, KR’s output often falls short of our ambitions, partially because it’s proven so difficult to attract steady content. “Content is king”, goes the marketing slogan of Bill Gates and innumerable internet advertisers. But unlike those publications I’ve linked to above, KR beckons its authors mostly from the community of graduate students and young Fellows, given its institutional setting in King’s College, Cambridge. This means our commissioning editors know a thing or two about the oft-arduous task of pressing young academics to write “for the public”.

So why is it so difficult to coax budding scholars to be more “relevant”? When Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt recently visited Cambridge’s Politics department and spoke to a large group of PhD students, he advised us not to publish journalism or blogs. He advised us to stick with scholarly journals, at least for now, lest we might be judged disfavorably when applying for academic jobs later on. Walt was sincerely and honestly reflecting the current incentive structure that Kristof and others bemoan. “Publish-or-perish” applies to publishing in scholarly journals alone, even while the formal rigidity and sluggishness of most academic journals makes them, by many assessments, the “dinosaurs of academia” in the digital age.

It may surprise the older generation of scholars, however, that none of the many grad students we’ve talked to are consciously preempting any projected retribution for the crime of blogging by disengaging and cloistering themselves in the academy. This just doesn’t factor into the social calculus of most nascent academics. Unsurprisingly, a significant number aspire to actively engage the public on the issues they’ve chosen to spend countless hours researching, whether veteran professors approve or not.

So why is it often difficult to secure a steady stream of public-oriented writing from graduate students and young academics who are otherwise keen to garner any attention they can get?

The immensity and rapidity of journalistic output today is unprecedented. Rivalry is rampant and competition fierce to be the first to tell the story, to have exclusive access to the source. The vocation of writing well for the public is itself highly underappreciated. It’s rather remarkable how some (obviously not most) journalists and bloggers still continue to write such impressive, sometimes moving, pieces under these conditions. Consider Max Weber’s sobering reflection on the vocation of journalism, circa 1918:

Not everyone realises that to write a really good piece of journalism is at least as demanding intellectually as the achievement of any scholar. …This is particularly true when we recollect that it has to be written on the spot, to order, and that it must create an immediate effect, even though it is produced under completely different conditions from that of scholarly research. …It is generally overlooked that a journalist’s actual responsibility is far greater than the scholar’s.

When we ask scholars to be more “relevant” as “public intellectuals”, we’re asking them to employ the adroit literary skill and rare social aptitude of our best journalists. It is not enough to tout specialized knowledge without a profound sensitivity to what works and what specific knowledge or perspective is needed at any given time. When you begin to feel what that might mean you comprehend the harm inflicted on intellectual culture every time a salaried blogger chatters incessantly with little of value to say. You develop a distaste for unprincipled puff pieces written in the spirit of careerism. You grow averse to those laconic, click-baiting listicles made-to-order for the “content is king” folks who want their advertising dollars. And one could go on in vain, but none of this really tells you anything about what you can do about it.

It seems to me a chief virtue of young academics is that they’re unusually aware of their own faults and shortcomings in achieving the ideals that they set for themselves. Vanity hasn’t yet consumed them fully. If they’ve been well-trained, then they’ve been trained to be eminently self-critical. This doesn’t legitimate withdrawal from public life. It only means that the academics we’ve encountered that sit down hours on end attempting to translate turgid scholarship and write quality freelance journalism put their heart into it. A lot of this material is never released publically, not from lack of confidence, but from critical self-awareness. In the interim, current events don’t slow down for more nuanced scholarly perspective. By the time the young academic is ready to release the product of her toils, a handful of other salaried journalists more rich with time have already beaten her to it.

The journalism profession continues to undergo fundamental changes, but one thing has remained fairly constant: there are too few journalists producing too much content. A great many gifted writers, as Corey Robin points out, are unsung in the swarm of endless, disorienting tabs of material, and it is only the few with gilded platforms that have any significant public impact. Those syndicated columnists with impact have their own publish-or-perish mandate and, like our politicians, often refuse to admit to mistakes. Publications of “academic journalism” like King’s Review seek to remediate this issue, along with the other legitimate, albeit somewhat misguided criticisms that Kristof and others have raised. But we won’t interject in the public conversation with regurgitations of what’s already out there, or a half-baked farrago of mismatched ideas that doesn’t do justice to the matter at hand. It is partially for that reason that too few know about the unsung writers with ambition, and too few solitary academics will take the leap away from the insular purlieus of the establishment to write among us. And why should they? Why chime in if it falls on deaf ears? At least a scholarly article in an academic journal might help pave the hall to your future job in the academy.

“A lot of my friends have gotten excellent jobs and some others are in jail”, Hemingway wrote in his December 1934 Esquire column.

But none of this will help the writer as a writer unless he finds something new to add to human knowledge while he is writing … Write about what you know and write truly and tell them all where they can place it … You must be prepared to work always without applause” … [and if it] “is truly written and reading it over you see that this is so you can let the boys yip and the noise will have that pleasant sound coyotes make on a very cold night when they are out in the snow and you are in your own cabin that you have built or paid for with your work.

A lot of talented folks don’t write for applause. But a great many young academics are among the coyotes, far from the security of a self-made cabin. In Weber’s parlance, our young academics work for the public in terms of conviction, but not from the public when it comes to remunerative recognition. To change that dynamic, there first needs to be a greater appreciation of the exceptional difficulty of producing quality journalism and investigative reporting, as well as the necessity of a scholarly respect for cumulative knowledge, history, nuance and self-critique in that process. If it’s a matter to pursue in earnest, we respectfully invite those syndicated columnists to read us and link to us, perhaps even fund us, as well as our allies at other small publications with similar aspirations. Few will land an excellent job, and some might even go to jail, but knowing this and writing anyway is knowing that less is sometimes more.



Ryan Rafaty completed his PhD in Politics and International Studies at King's College, Cambridge in 2016. He currently lives in the US, where he writes on energy policy and climate change.