For the last few months, I’ve had a draft post sitting in my dashboard listing all the words and phrases I’d like to see banished from the English language. At the top—jockeying for the #1 slot with “yummy,” “closure” and “it’s all good”—is “public intellectual.”
I used to like the phrase; it once even expressed an aspiration of mine. But in the years since Russell Jacoby wrote his polemic against the retreat of intellectuals to the ivory tower, it’s been overworked as a term of abuse.
What was originally intended as a materialist analysis of the relationship between politics, economics, and culture—Jacoby’s aim was to analyze how real changes in the economy and polity were driving intellectuals from the public square—has become little more than a rotten old chestnut that lazy journalists, pundits, and reviewers keep in their back pocket for whenever they’re short of copy. Got nothing to say? Nothing on your mind? Not to worry: here’s a beating-a-dead-horse-piece-that-writes-itself about the jargony academic who writes only for her peers in specialized journals that only a handful of people read.
To wit, Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s New York Times:
SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.
Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.
But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.
Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).
I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!
Those are the bookends of Kristof’s piece. In between come the usual volumes of complaint: too much jargon, too much math, too much peer review, too much left politics. Plus a few dubious qualifications (economists aren’t so bad, says Kristof, because they’re Republican-friendly…and, I guess, not jargony, math-y, or peer-review-y) and horror stories that turn out to be neither horrible nor even stories.
Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage has already filleted the column, citing a bunch of counter-examples from political science, which is usually held up, along with literary theory, as Exhibit A of this problem.
But we also have all of us—sociologists, philosophers, historians, economists, literary critics, as well as political scientists—who write at Crooked Timber, which is often read and cited by the mainstream media. There’s Lawyers, Guns, and Money: judging by their comments thread, they have a large and devoted audience of non-academics. My cohort of close friends from graduate school write articles for newspapers and magazines all the time—or important research for think tanks that gets picked up by the mainstream media—and books that are widely reviewed in the mainstream media. (And what am I? Chopped liver?) Kristof need only open the pages of the Nation, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the Boston Review, The American Conservative, Dissent, The American Prospect—even the newspaper for which he writes: today’s Times features three opinion columns and posts by academics—to see that our public outlets are well populated by professors.
And these are just the established academics. If you look at the graduate level, the picture is even more interesting.
When I think of my favorite writers these days—the people from whom I learn the most and whose articles and posts I await most eagerly—I think of Seth Ackerman, Peter Frase, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Lili Loofbourow, Aaron Bady, Freddie de Boer, LD Burnett, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Adam Goodman, Matthijs Krul, Amy Schiller, Charles Petersen, Tom Meaney…I could go on. For a long time.
(And though Belle Waring has long since ceased to be a grad student, can someone at Book Forum or Salon or somewhere get this woman a gig? We’re talking major talent here.)
Whenever I read these folks, I have to remind myself that they’re still in grad school (or just a few months out). I sometimes think they’re way smarter than we ever were when we were in grad school. But that’s not really true. It’s simply that they’re more used to writing for public audiences—and are thus better equipped to communicate ideas in intelligible, stylish prose—than we were.
When I was in grad school, my friends and I would dream of writing essays and articles for the common reader. I remember when one of our cohort—Diane Simon—broke into The Nation with a book review (of Nadine Gordimer?) We were totally envious. And awestruck. Getting into that world seemed impossible, unless you were Gordon Wood sauntering into the New York Review of Books after having transformed your field.
The reason it seemed so difficult is that it was. There just weren’t that many outlets for that kind of writing. None of us had any contacts. More important, aside from, maybe, a local alternative weekly, there were no baby steps to take on our way to writing for those outlets. There really was no way to get from here—working on seminar papers or dissertation proposals—to there: writing brilliant essays under mastheads that once featured names like Edmund Wilson and Hannah Arendt.
I remember all too well writing an essay in the mid 1990s that I wanted to publish in one of those magazines. When I looked around, all I could see was The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Review, that kind of thing. I sent it everywhere, and got nowhere.
Today, it’s different. You’ve got blogs, Tumblr, Twitter, and all those little magazines of politics and culture that we’re constantly reading about in the New York Times: Jacobin, The New Inquiry, the Los Angeles Review of Books, n+1, and more, which frequently feature the work of graduate students.
Now there are all kinds of problems with this new literary economy of grad student freelancers. And from talking to graduate students today (as well as junior faculty), I’m well aware that the pressure to publish in academic venues—and counter-pressure not to publish in public venues—is all too real. Worse, in fact, than when I was in grad school. Because the job market has gotten so much worse. I often wonder and worry about the job prospects of the grad students I’ve mentioned above. Are future employers going to take a pass on them simply because they’ve written as brilliantly and edgily as they have?
Back to Kristof: Even from the limited point of view of what he’s talking about—where have all the public intellectuals gone?—he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
So what is he really talking about, then?
You begin to get a clue of what he’s really talking about, then, by noticing two of the people he approvingly cites and quotes in his critique of academia: Anne-Marie Slaughter and Jill Lepore.
Kristof holds up both women—one the former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, the other the holder of an endowed chair at Harvard—as examples of publicly engaged scholars. In addition to their academic posts, Slaughter was Obama’s Director of Policy Planning at the State Department (George Kennan’s position, once upon a time) and a frequent voice on the front pages of every major newspaper; Lepore is an immensely prolific and widely read staff writer at The New Yorker.
(Incidentally, as an editor pointed out on Facebook, Slaughter and Lepore, along with Will McCants, who Kristof also cites approvingly, are all published by Princeton University Press. So much for academic presses churning out “soporifics.”)
Now I happen to know Jill rather well. She and I first met in the summer of 1991, when she was looking for a housemate and I was looking for a temporary place to stay. I moved in for a time—one of our other housemates was Mary Renda, who would go on to write a kick-ass book on the US invasion and occupation of Haiti, which it would behoove a trigger-happy Kristof to read—and later got in on the ground floor of her dissertation. She’s a truly gifted historian.
But there are a lot of gifted historians. And only so many slots for them at The New Yorker.
The problem here is not that scholars don’t aspire to write for The New Yorker. It’s that it’s a rather selective place. Kristof says that Lepore “is an exception to everything said here.” She is, but not in the way he thinks. Or for the reasons he thinks.
If you’re flying so high up in the air—Kristof tends to look down on most situations from 30,000 feet above sea level—you’re not going to see much of anything. And Kristof doesn’t. He only reads The New Yorker, and then complains that everyone doesn’t write for The New Yorker. He doesn’t see the many men and women who are in fact writing for public audiences. Nor does he see the gatekeepers—even in our new age of blogs and little magazines—that prevent supply from meeting demand.
And to the extent that he’s right about the problem of academics publishing for other academics he doesn’t identify its real causes:
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
Not really. The problem here isn’t that typically American conceit of “culture” v. nonconformist rebel. It’s the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It’s the job market. It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism. Jacoby understood the material sources of the problem he diagnosed. Kristof doesn’t.
But the material dimensions of Kristof’s oversight (or lack of sight) go even deeper. When we criticize Kristof or other academics-don’t-write-for-the-public-spouting journalists, we tend to do what I’ve just done here: We point to all the academics we know who are writing in well established venues and places and cry, “Look at them! Look at me!”
But there’s an entire economy of unsung writers with PhDs who are in a far worse position: Though they want to write, and sometimes do, for a public audience, they don’t have a standing gig the way I or The Monkey Cagers do. They’re getting by on I don’t know what. And while most of the people I mentioned above, including many of the graduate students, are getting their work into fairly mid- to high-level places, these folks aren’t. Certainly not in high enough places to pay the bills or to supplement whatever it is they’re doing to get by.
Take Yasmin Nair. Yasmin’s a writer in Chicago, with a PhD from Purdue. She’s also an activist. She’s impatient, she sees things the rest of us don’t see, she’s intemperate, she’s impossible, she’s endearing, and she’s unbelievably funny. Think Pauline Kael, only way more political. (Actually, Freddie deBoer did a pretty damn good job describing her work, so read Freddie.) She’s got two essays that I think are, as pieces of prose, brilliant: “Gay Marriage Hurts My Breasts” and “Why Is America Turning to Shit?“
In my ideal world, Robert Silvers would reach down from his Olympian heights and snatch up Yasmin to write about or review, well, anything. (Didn’t that kind of happen to Kael with The New Yorker?) But that’s not going to happen.
And that not happening doesn’t even begin to describe the real challenges facing a writer like Nair. Somehow she’s got to pay the bills. But unlike professors like myself or even graduate students who’ve got fellowships or TA positions (and happen to be lucky enough to live in places with a low cost of living), at least for the time being, Yasmin doesn’t have a steady-paying gig.
This isn’t just an issue of precarity or justice; it’s intimately related to the Kristofs of this world bleating “Where have all the public intellectuals gone?” Yasmin is a public intellectual (there, I said it). But without the kinds of supports the rest of us currently have or will have in the future, her pieces in The Awl or In These Times or on her blog—which is how the rest of us academics make our beginnings in the public writing world—can’t give her the lift she needs to get her work up in the air where it belongs. Because she’s always got something else, here on the ground, on her mind: namely, how to pay the rent.
And she’s not alone. Anthony Galluzzo has a PhD in English from UCLA. He’s also been adjuncting—first at West Point, now at CUNY—for years. He’s written a mess of academic articles. Two years ago he wrote an article in Jacobin that I thought was pure genius. It was called “Sarah Lawrence, With Guns,” and it was about his experience teaching English at West Point. That’s a topic that another English professor at West Point has written about, but Anthony’s treatment has the virtue of being coruscating, funny, ironic, honest, and not boosterish. Like Mary Renda’s book, the kind of writing Kristof could profit from.
When Anthony’s piece came out, I thought to myself, “This is the beginning for him.” But it hasn’t been. Because he’s been adjuncting around the clock, sometimes without getting paid on time, and worrying about other things. Like…how to pay the rent.
I had to smile at Kristof’s nod to publish or perish. Most working academics would give anything to be confronted with that dilemma. The vast majority can’t even think of publishing; they’re too busy teaching four, five, courses a semester. As adjuncts, as community college professors, at CUNY and virtually everywhere else.
I don’t ever expect Kristof to look to the material sources of this problem; that would require him to raise the sorts of questions about contemporary capitalism that journalists of his ilk are not inclined—or paid—to raise.
But Kristof’s a fellow who likes to save the world. So maybe this is something he can do. Instead of writing about the end of public intellectuals, why not devote a column a month to unsung writers who need to be sung? Why not head over to the “Sunday Reading” at The New Inquiry, which features all the greatest writing on the internets for that week? Why not write about the Anthony Galuzzo’s and Yasmin Nair’s who deserve to be read: not as a matter of justice but for the sake of the culture? Who knows? He might even learn something.
(Special thanks to Aaron Bady for reading a draft of this post and contributing some much needed additions.)
I mentioned Boston Review in my post. But as a friend reminded me, they deserve a special shout-out. Because not only do they regularly introduce and publish academics like myself—one of my earliest and IMHO most important pieces was chosen and championed by Josh Cohen, the magazine’s editor—but they often solicit work from graduate students like Lili or Aaron and non-academically employed PhDs. So if you’ve got that gem of a piece and are wondering where to send it, send it to Boston Review.
Also, I should have said this in the piece, but this line—”He only reads The New Yorker, and then complains that everyone doesn’t write for The New Yorker.”—was something Aaron Bady wrote to me in an email. I should have quoted it and credited to it to him in the post. My apologies.