And another thing…

In case you missed it—and you might have if you aren’t in US academia—Nicholas Kristof wrote a NYT blog about the alleged disengagement of America’s professors, especially those in Political Science and International Relations.  Since then, there have been multiple replies and responses to his opinion about the state of the professoriate in the US. I wasn’t going to respond until I read Kristoff’s reply to the replies and realized this dialogue should continue. In the spirit of his call to action, as Claire Potter wrote in her letter to Kristof, I will add my two cents from the frontline in the brave new world of neoliberal postsecondary education.  I have blogged on many of the issues before so I won’t rehash what I’ve gone on record saying previously or spend too much time on what others have written already.

To sum up, Kristof writes in “Dear Professors, We Need You” that most professors are smart, but are irrelevant, arcane, willfully unintelligible, and disdainful of  non-academic audiences. In short, we hide behind our walls when we could be doing SO MUCH MORE.

To begin, I want to say, “I hear you, man.” I appreciate your sincerity and belief in the academic’s role in society.  You are right in your concern that there is a recurring sentiment of anti-intellectual feelings in politics.  Progressive intellectuals should be more active, yes. You are right that jargon sucks and willfully obscuring ideas through pretentious language is counter-productive.

But let me add to the story here. Accessibility of university research to the “average” American is not just blocked by vagueness, jargon, and an increasingly quantitative focus (by this I assume you mean a continued support of positivist approaches), but also by mega publishing companies that firewall and charge exorbitant amounts of money for the regular reader to access our work. Often this is research funded by public money and yet is inaccessible to the public through no fault of the professor. The publishing companies are profiting from the charges, not the authors and, to add insult to injury, we are required to publish in these journals by this “publish or perish tenure process” you call out. Or, in my case, I publish to even have a shot at permanent employment. I am part of a group–Occupy IR Theory–that is fighting this constriction of our scholarly output.  We want our word to be accessed by wider audiences and to have debates in the public sphere, but we are blocked by for profit publishing companies who own our work.  We are forced to “sell” our work to keep our jobs or get jobs in academia.  To chime in with Mr. Vouten: We are right here, Mr. Kristoff.   Many academics are forging ahead with Internet publishing and alternative presses in order for our voices to be heard. While I am first to line to echo your frustration on willful jargon in Political Science, it is a piece of a larger problem that you identify solely with individual academics not pulling their weight in the public arena.

There is also the matter of punching your weight in the public arena.  You don’t acknowledge the plight of many recent PhDs.  Jobs are down by 40%, there’s no work in the private sector either, and many are in tenuous and exploited positions.  I can’t believe you haven’t read these statistics. This elephant in the room is the reality of finding and keeping employment in academia. Most young scholars are spending their time applying for food stamps, working in horrible conditions for low pay, and spending hours and hours applying for jobs that we don’t get. Doesn’t leave much room for engagement, but many of us do anyway. It’s a labor of love. Adjunct, visiting, tenure track, tenured professors all know that it is not uncommon to spend 60-80 hours a week teaching, doing service to our university, advising students, researching, and writing. We work more than full-time jobs. In some cases for those in adjunct positions, as Miya Tokumitsu writes in the Jacobin, they provide high-skilled labor for low wages because the “do what you love” ideology is so embedded in academia. Tokumitsu also stresses that this helps to explain why (and this will resonate with you, Mr. Kristof) the tenured and “proudly left leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts.”

This leads to another conclusion: Quite frankly, some academics are better placed to engage and support public engagement than others. Perhaps you, and others who are well placed, can secure a place for others to speak? This means using your privilege and then stepping back to let those marginalized by the system have a go. In short, yes, academics often marginalize ourselves, but some of us have more help in our disenfranchisement from public intellectuality than others. Some aren’t “cloistered like monks,” but exploited like peasants, to use your metaphor.

Okay, so what is this public intellectual anyway? You write that “over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.” This brings me to another point. Unless employed at an R-1 university, professors are also teachers. Is this not public engagement? To be honest, I spend most of my time teaching, grading, and responding to the students in my classes and not writing my jargon-y, esoteric, and specialized research.  I am also active in my community. I organize for primary and secondary education reform and organize talks and films that are open to the public.

You also assume that it is a good idea for professors to be involved in policy. This sometimes goes badly.  I am hoping to see another blog about the role of academics in justifying slavery, colonialism, and in economic departments, wanton destruction of national and international economies by spreading belief in factually incorrect and harmful ideologies like free market capitalism, austerity, and trickle-down economics. These professor/consultants earn fortunes hocking weak theory and bad public policy. This doesn’t even address the revolving door in politics.  Who is allowed to speak to policy makers? Corporations, ex-CEOs, and lobbyists, that’s who.  Maybe that problem should be debated, too. Dear Corporations, we don’t need you.

Just some food for thought.  I think any of these academics below (and there are many more listed in Corey’s response), warrant a guest blog in the NYT to address these issues with you in more depth.  What do you say? Maybe Anne-Marie Slaughter or the Brookings Institute can find some space for adjuncts who would like to be heard?

The responses have been varied and productive.  I will list some of the links here:

Nick Voeten’s reply from the Washington Post  “Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here.”

Corey Robin reply “Look Who Nick Kristoff’s Saving Now”

Claire Potter on the Tenure Radical “A Letter From a Public Intellectual”

Mischiefs of Faction “Nicolas Kristof still doesn’t get it”


9 thoughts on “And another thing…

  1. I think you’re right–something about the modifier “public” that is part of the problem. It assumes that there is such a thing as a distinction between public and private. We all know that this distinction is specious. Just like pointing out that the “personal is political” I think it is good to remember that the very ability to impose that distinction is about POWER and who has it. It falls apart quickly if we ask “What is a private intellectual?”


  2. There is also the problem of hubris, right? By thinking we can “do something” about the world we also presume to understand what is wrong in the first place. We are all inextricably connected to the world and we are often part of the problem, too. This means that debate, hospitality, and the ability to respond to complexity gently and with care are very important. That, and a willingness to look at the structures that create the problems and not just responses to symptoms of larger issues. I always fall back on my modified ethics of care in these situations. We may not be able to “fix” things, but we can care about the people/things affected. This is what I tell my students anyway.


  3. … that or the answer is “write a poem” or “explore your feelings,” which seem equally, let’s say, “active-inactivity”


  4. what about folks like Noami Shock-doctrine Klein and co.
    I always think of Rorty telling the tale of a student who goes to her liberal/humanities prof. and says ok you taught me to care about these issues now what can I do to make a difference and the prof. has nothing concrete to say…


  5. Stef, I’m glad you wrote this, and I wonder if this is not becoming a more global issue all the time, provided the following assumption is true-ish — that neoliberalism snuffs-out just about every/any public intellectual and for those public intellectuals that are left (as I say in a review of Latour’s Politics of Nature), “scientists become hired guns to do some politician’s dirty work” (
    I also wonder to what extent the public “want” public intellectuals, meaning, is this also a supply-demand problem? Or, is this a definitional problem? For example, without a shred of irony, I would say that Steven Colbert appears to be something of a public intellectual or (idiots) like Dr. Phil. I guess a major issue is how much the word “public” transforms or modifies what we should expect out of the word “intellectual.”


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