Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now

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 FraseKeeanga-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’sThe 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.)

Update (4:30)

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.

Update (5:45)

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.


  1. s. wallerstein February 16, 2014 at 11:47 am | #

    Don’t waste your time on Kristof. This is a guy who, maybe a year ago, opened his blog to reader questions about poverty in Africa.

    Who was going to answer them?

    An African economist? An African sociologist? An African journalist? Maybe just someone poor from African, without any special credentials.

    No, Melissa Gates.

    That’s imperialism in a nutshell as well as an apology for the plutocracy.

  2. debmeier February 16, 2014 at 12:00 pm | #

    At the same time they push the young to take a rigorous ACADEMIC education!!

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. realthog February 16, 2014 at 12:01 pm | #

    Excellent points, excellently made. Kristof’s complaint reminds me of those who claim that the US public is so ignorant of the reality of climate change because those naughty climate scientists aren’t making enough of an effort to get out there in the public square and explain it all. As far as I can see, many of them are working as hard as they can to do exactly that, but they keep getting shouted down by morons like O’Reilly and Limbaugh.

    Say, why doesn’t the Times give a regular op-ed gig to someone like Michael Mann? That’d keep both me and Kristof happy!

    • Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a, The Enemy Combatant February 18, 2014 at 9:31 am | #

      That is a great observation and demonstrates Corey’s point: the corporate-media backed hollerings of O’Rile-Me and Lame-brain are perfect additional examples of marketplace intervention that disinclines the ability of worthwhlile thinkers breaking through, getting published and read — and therefore being able to, you know, pay da rent!

  4. Cate February 16, 2014 at 12:10 pm | #

    While there are myriad problems with Kristof’s argument, what I find most galling about the “public intellectual” is the presumption that writing columns is the sine qua non of social action. There are TONS of academics doing public and community service and extension work (personally, I think it’s part of my responsibility to fulfill the land-grant university mission). Kristof and the like wouldn’t count disseminating tick awareness information, moderating community meetings, having a q&a after a performance, designing elementary and middle-school enrichment programs, making public art, working with farmers on new technology or providing input to civil engineering projects as true “public intellectualism” because it’s too small scale. From the mighty heights of the New York Times, it can be hard to note modest things like community radio shows, guided nature walks, prison education programs or extended job training certification.

  5. robgehrke February 16, 2014 at 12:45 pm | #

    Kristof seems to have mistaken his own lack of curiosity for a general cultural problem; that is, “if I’m not reading it, that means it’s not there…” Many people do this, though. I do think he’s not wrong, though, how there is a tendency within some disciplines for writers to give themselves legitimacy by employing needlessly arcane jargon for the purpose of creating a kind of niche, or justifying their position as experts on a given subject. This ensures that only someone who has mastered the lexicon will participate in the discussion, and can be a way of shutting out a wider public. “Critical theory” is guilty of this, in my opinion. In other words, we can substitute eloquence, or complex wordplay, for insight.

    I’d also contest the limiting the definition of “intellectual” to someone who writes, or primarily deals with language. It’s just too narrow. There are many different ways of being an intellectual, and people exercise their minds on all sorts of endeavors, the results of which aren’t necessarily published in journals, books or blogs. I suppose, though, that in order to be “public,” it needs to be published somewhere, so…

  6. Amy Fried (@ASFried) February 16, 2014 at 12:50 pm | #

    Sure, there are plenty of academics doing engaged research and acting as public intellectuals. But that doesn’t disprove Kristof’s point, which is that most social science isn’t oriented that way and the proportion that is focused on public problems has declined from what it once was.

    I don’t know how anyone can reasonably find fault with that argument, as an entire movement in political science was focused on the tendency of the discipline to retreat from public concerns and to instead focus on academic theories.

    The difference in perspectives comes down to the time period considered and whether one’s looking at the disciplines as a whole or at individuals who are engaged, public intellectuals.

    • Benjamin David Steele February 16, 2014 at 2:19 pm | #

      There has never been any time in history when there were as many public intellectuals as right now. You can’t step a foot onto the internet without stubbing your toe on a public intellectual.

      Partly this is because there have never been so many educated people ever before in history. College degrees now are what high school degrees used to be. In particular, the young generation of academics, grad students and autodidacts have flooded the public forums of media.

      There are so many public intellectuals and so much public intellectual discussion that a person can’t even keep up with it all.

    • Nadoumko February 16, 2014 at 11:31 pm | #

      I agree with Amy. In terms of the humanities, Kristof’s article is out of date and misinformed. Yes, there was a tendency back in the 1990s for professors and grad students to clutter their prose with obtuse lit-crit jargon, but that went out of style long ago. On the other hand, he has a point with regard to the social sciences and political science in particular. This is a field that actively discourages its practitioners from specializing in any particular region. Detailed knowledge must be placed in a comparative context and must be deployed to justify a theoretical model, preferably expressed in quantitative terms. The problem is that these models turn out to be of little or no value in understanding the real world. But good luck launching a career if you don’t play by the rules.

  7. The Internet February 16, 2014 at 12:53 pm | #

    “Every time you use an apostrophe to make a word plural, a puppy dies.”

    –The Internet

  8. J. Otto Pohl February 16, 2014 at 2:01 pm | #

    Well compared to the New York Times US left-wing academic writers don’t have a very big audience. But, they have a huge audience compared to right-wing academics based in Africa such as myself. I count seven comments above me which is the total number of readers my blog has gotten in the last ten years. Maybe many of the people you list don’t have as large of an audience as you think they deserve. But, one thing that living in Asia and Africa has taught me is that there are always people worse off than you. So their audiences actually look huge to me. I would be happy if I could get just 12 regular readers for my blog. Something that I have systematically failed to do in the last decade.

    • s. wallerstein February 16, 2014 at 2:15 pm | #

      Link to your blog, please.

    • Benjamin David Steele February 16, 2014 at 2:26 pm | #

      Actually, it isn’t hard to get readers for a blog, if you want to put the effort into doing it.

      I write about intellectual things all the time, but I’m no one important (I don’t even have a college degree, just like to read a lot). I have more than a hundred followers and get more than a hundred hits every day. I wasn’t trying to become popular. I simply wrote in a way that some people enjoyed reading and I interacted with many other people in various discussion forums.

      To the degree you pay attention to what others are writing, others will pay attention to what you are writing. Comment on other people’s blogs. Link to your blog posts in comments. Write reviews on Amazon. Join discussion forums. Just participate.

      If you put yourself out there and what you are writing is high enough quality, the readers will come and they will return.

      • J. Otto Pohl February 16, 2014 at 2:31 pm | #

        Yes it is. I have done everything imaginable for the last ten years and never broken 12 readers.

      • Benjamin David Steele February 16, 2014 at 4:05 pm | #

        I’ve always been in favor of writing for your own enjoyment. That is how I got into writing. I do like feedback, but it isn’t necessary. I do have the sense the more you enjoy your own writing and the more you put into it the more likely others will appreciate it. Even if you only have a small number of readers, that might be fine if they shared your interests and style of writing. Niche writing serves a purpose, even when it is only a small niche.

  9. Yastreblyansky (@Yastreblyansky) February 16, 2014 at 2:07 pm | #

    But Corey, Corey, didn’t David Brooks just publish a plug for Michael Ignatieff’s new book, and isn’t Ignatieff, like, the most public intellectual evah?

  10. Ebenezer Scrooge February 16, 2014 at 2:28 pm | #

    There are also thousands of Ph.Ds. who have chosen to work for corporate America. Many of them have something to say that’s worth saying. But there is no such thing as the First Amendment for corporate trons. So they don’t say anything.
    Don’t cry for them as individuals. They’re generally getting paid pretty well–corporate America tends to treat its brain dogs okay. On tap, but not on top, and all that stuff. But they have a unique perspective, and can’t talk about it, which impoverishes us all.

  11. jonnybutter February 16, 2014 at 3:11 pm | #

    I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses.

    First of all, this statement is BS. Listen to that language: ‘I…deeply admire all the wisdom found..’. Sure you do, binky. You just admire the *hell* out of ALL that fabulous Wisdom lying around on campus. Substitute ‘I’m not a vulgarian, but…’. The idea that Kristoff is writing ‘in sorrow’ is ridiculous (his metier is self-satisfaction not sorrow).

    From the general reader’s POV (i.e. mine), we’re in a sort of golden age for academic-to-general audience interface. It’s not so great for the academics, of course, but Kristoff couldn’t be more wrong in his main point. There is so much good high-level work being published online just about every day that you can never even read it all.

    So why does he write crap like this, which is so obviously wrong? I think it’s because he has to justify his own place beyond The Gate, and the gatekeeping he himself does. If academia weren’t feckless and incapable of snappy TED-talk-type answers to big questions, then of what possible use to the world would Kristoff be?

  12. potterc2012 February 16, 2014 at 4:59 pm | #

    Like you Corey, I am one of those people who at least tries to write for a broader audience and I first read Kristoff’s article with a kind of “Oh, please…” response. It would have been nice if Kristoff had said, as you suggest, “Hey, I am going to open my column to one academic a week…send me your work!” instead of just acting as if we don’t exist because he’s never heard of us.

    That said, I think it would be useful for we academics to own it that there are many things in the academy other than labor conditions that work against smart people connecting with the intelligent non-academic reader. The pressure to write a certain way for tenure — which people but other academics have created this problem? Certainly not publishers or media outlets. Similarly, there is a fair amount of disdain in many departments for books written to a broad audience rather than to specialists; and there is pressure not to publish with non-academic presses because the editors reduce the number of citations as “unfriendly” to the average reader and make us look un-academic. I loved writing for Jacobin, and I loved it that the article got to so many people: and I can tell you right now that had I still been at Wesleyan, no one in history or the dean’s office or the provost’s office would have thought that “counted” as an achievement in my annual review. And Gordon Wood takes every chance he has to trash Jill Lepore for doing what she does. I sometimes wonder if anyone could get get promoted in a history department with a book like Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition today.

    Part of what success looks like in the academy today are people who have great careers and have written important books, but whose sentences, vocabulary and paragraph structure are often very hard going, even for those of us trained to read such work. It’s all theory, all the time, or deep critical readings of obscure performance artists who most certainly matter — but not to so very many people out of one’s field. We do need to also take into consideration that there is work that many of us think is very, very intelligent that looks like word salad to the vast majority of readers.

    I would argue that one of the problems with graduate school nowadays is that very few Ph.D. programs a) teach writing and b) teach students to switch voices for different audiences c) act tike talking to non-academics is at all important. Talk to anyone who edits for an op-ed page and they will tell how hard it often is to work with academics because they don’t fact check, they can’t or won’t write in short paragraphs, and they have difficulty making an argument in under 800 words. As the editor of a book series, and having served on several dozen search committees, I believe them. I have seen more horrible writing from more smart, well-educated people….well, I’ll stop.

    It’s true, as you say, that not everyone can write for the New Yorker, but it seems that nearly anyone *can* get a gig at Slate, the Huffington Post, and half a dozen other sites. So, although there are far fewer outlets for intellectual work than there were in the 1950s and 1960s, I’m not sure that access to mainstream publications is more of a problem than the problems we create for ourselves. Most of us who are writing for a broader public have to be autodidacts because there is nothing in a graduate humanities or social science program that encourages or teaches people to learn writing as a craft that has broader application than academic promotion.

    • jonnybutter February 16, 2014 at 5:40 pm | #

      The pressure to write a certain way for tenure — which people but other academics have created this problem?

      But isn’t that painting with too broad a term? We have to call people in the Dean’s or Provost’s office ‘academics’ precisely because they aren’t exactly scholars (or aren’t anymore). And the pressure to ‘write a certain way for tenure’ is at least partially a function of the economy of academia – how rarer and rarer job security, esp. tenure, is. AKA everybody up to their chins in poop, praying that no one makes a wave*

      Obscurantism is indeed a problem in the social sciences, but kind of a separate topic to Kristoff’s. It’s interesting that the biggest and most consequential offender of all – economics – is rarely called out, and not by someone like Kristoff. I bet we could name 3 or 4 famous economists he admires who are grand wizards of obscurantism. Didn’t they actually call Greenspan – a walloping failure – ‘the Wizard’?

      *metaphor not original to me

  13. 4jkb4ia February 16, 2014 at 9:25 pm | #

    Kristof doesn’t always write from 30,000 feet. This is the same person who offers to Win a Trip with Nick every year.
    Too easy to blame Nick Kristof for an MSM tendency. When Dylan Byers got into the tangle with TNC, he knew who a public intellectual was. If you have ascended to the level of having a column at the Times or being regularly published in the opinion section even on the web, you can be tempted to think of yourself as a public intellectual. But really you are a gatekeeper for which intellectuals can become public, and these people must speak in terms that journalists have learned to understand to pass that gate. I remember reading Dani Rodrik’s book because of Crooked Timber and understanding that the Lagrange multipliers were going to intimidate anyone who would recommend it to an ordinary reader. That is the gatekeepers’ fault.

  14. 4jkb4ia February 16, 2014 at 9:32 pm | #

    The Monkey Cage post was very well done.

  15. gvgray February 16, 2014 at 9:43 pm | #

    a public intellectual is somebody who can write for the ordinary guy. for example, philip rahv was a public intellectual. he wrote there were two kinds of american writers, the paleface and the redman. he provided an easy way to divide writers into the two categories.
    the examples corey gives, the woman who writes about shit and the guy who taught at west point, are not public intellectuals. they are good writers for people who have alot of time on their hands to read subjects well considered..
    but these writers don’t appeal to the ordinary guy. i would rather watch messi of barcelona than read 5000 words on shit. okay i could take a 1000 words, but get to the point goddamit..
    that said, there are lots of great public intellectuals who aren’t in academe, e.g.
    yves smith of naked capitalism, andrew bascevich, philip weiss of mondoweiss.
    what do these writers have in common? the same thing rahv did. a big idea. e.g. zionism is racism (weiss), the crappification of everything (smith).
    i.e they appeal to the ordinary guy who needs a straight shot, not all nuance.,

  16. TheAcademicPortal.com February 17, 2014 at 2:14 am | #

    Reblogged this on Blog of TheAcademicPortal.com.

  17. Nils February 17, 2014 at 6:11 am | #

    Corey I agree with everything you right here, of course. With that said, we should admit that the incentive structures at most universities, especially R01 universities, are set up to encourage scholars, and especially young scholars, to write for a mainly intramural audience. (I know that picking on political scientists here is cheap and easy, but what else explains the 7000 articles since 2010 that concern themselves with “voting models” — scholar.google.com/scholar?as_ylo=2010&q=%22voting+model%22&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5).

    I also think that the problem is not simply a matter of supply not being able to meet demand: The truth is, writing in a way that generate a lot of popular audience traffic is very difficult, and learning to do so well requires just as much concentrated specialization as it takes to do traditional academic research. This connects to and supports your point about neo liberalization of the University: given the scarcity of academic perches and the challenges of breaking into popular journalism, many young scholars rightly regard writing for non-scholarly audiences as a dangerous distraction. And, if you don’t even start trying before you make tenure, you’re unlikely to pick up the talent.

    The final point is a defense of scholarly writing: there’s are a great many scholarly works that simply can’t be done effectively at the 800-3000 word length, which is generally where popular writing lives. Yes, high level arguments can and should be made at that scale, but the carefully amassing, sifting, and weighing of evidence, which is what sets what we all do apart from mere bloviation, simply requires the unfolding of time on the page. To take just one example: I recently read Angus Burgin’s wonderful intellectual history of the Mt Pelerin Society. It’s scholarly in the best sense: 225 excellent pages of narrative, 60 more of apparatus. Could he have written 2500 snappy words on “How Hillary Clinton’s vast Rightwing conspiracy began in a Swiss mountain resort in 1947!” or similar clickbait? Sure, but it would fulfill, at best, a completely different role.

  18. ecoartlab February 17, 2014 at 9:45 am | #

    Thank you for writing this so I didn’t have to. Also, the idea that “the academy” is “not the real world” is such baloney. Twenty percent of the American population go to college. Academics are primarily educators of 1/5 of American adults. That all occurs in the “real” world.

  19. Frederick Poland (@FrederickPoland) February 17, 2014 at 12:17 pm | #

    Thanks for this piece, Corey, and for strongly challenging Kristof’s position in a number of spaces. One of the great ironies of the Kristof piece is his own elitism in implying that certain types of space matter more than others, as if being involved in the “great debates” of the New York Times and its bestsellers is worth more than the tens of thousands of “small debates” many of us passionately engage in. My academic writing (on East Asian literature and film during the Japanese empire) may indeed be somewhat jargon-y and difficult for the non-specialist. In part that is because I am a graduate student seeking my voice, and in part it is because we all gotta play the game to get into the positions where we have the security to publish less specialized academic work (perhaps this is more true for Area Studies than other disciplines).

    However, what I have learned through my academic research has fueled all kinds of other writing that I do in non-academic spaces. For instance, I frequently comment on and contribute to local news media in New Haven. A historical understanding of the shape of our present moment has led to my participation in meetings among parents and educators in New Haven Public Schools around the implementation of Common Core, and I have been quoted in recent newspaper articles giving my view of what is at stake in this debate, which I would absolutely call a “great debate.” There are also many other “debates” in New Haven that I have been publicly active in, from local elections to Yale’s relationship to the city of New Haven to GESO recognition.

    And I am just one person who is far from the most active or vocal among academics in New Haven! All of this activism and engagement in the “great debates” of our local community has an organic relationship with my academic work–both inform one another. It is impossible for me to separate the critical tools I have gained from participating in both simultaneously, as I’ve only come to truly understand many of the academic concepts I use through my engagement with people outside the academy, and many of the local issues that I have publicly espoused my opinion about or organized around are strongly informed by the skills I’ve gained through my academic work.

    Kristof ultimately makes the lazy–and dangerous–mistake of conflating who we are in the world with the jobs we perform in a workplace. He would do well to venture into the academy and learn a lesson or two about how we use different language for different strategic purposes in different spaces. Then, he would do well to go back out into the world and see how many academics live rich public lives outside of the confines of their disciplines, even if they don’t appear in the pages of the New York Times. For me, the New Haven Independent and New Haven Register, not to mention Facebook and Twitter, are just fine for the time being.

    • Robert February 23, 2014 at 2:12 pm | #

      “One of the great ironies of the Kristof piece is his own elitism in implying that certain types of space matter more than others, as if being involved in the “great debates” of the New York Times and its bestsellers is worth more than the tens of thousands of “small debates” many of us passionately engage in.”

      Maybe not as private, subjective experience, but surely haven’t a bigger audience increases the possible influence of your writing, and should be sought after insofar as one can clarify without simplifying.

  20. couchloc February 17, 2014 at 1:43 pm | #

    Are people aware of “The Stone,” which is a weekly column in the NY Times written by philosophy professors (and occasionally others) each week? The column has been running for over a year now and publishes articles for the public on such topics as Free Will, Political Philosophy, Feminism, NSA spying, and Education. And the articles are written by some of the leading academics in the field: Gutting, Nagel, Zizek, E.O. Wilson, Sokal, Sheffler, etc. There is clearly an effort by philosophers to reach out to the broader public. Guttings’ article last week had over 900 comments.


  21. mcmenguc February 17, 2014 at 3:10 pm | #

    Reblogged this on İSKEMLE.

  22. 21st Century Poet February 17, 2014 at 4:37 pm | #

    Reblogged this on 21st Century Theater.

  23. Cheryl Lemus February 17, 2014 at 5:22 pm | #

    Love this piece. Thank you for writing it. Since you mention so many scholars writing great things, I wanted to give shout out (if you don’t mind) to the blog Nursing Clio (nursingclio.org). We are some kick ass bloggers writing some kick ass pieces for the public. Now if only Kritsof left the Tower of the Times, maybe he would have noticed.

  24. Stephen Zielinski February 17, 2014 at 8:49 pm | #

    It’s not as though American society greatly values engaged writing to the degree needed that it will materially support most of those who wish to dedicate their lives to the practice. This point applies overwhelming to those left of the center of American public life. Right-leaning writers, on the other hand, can look towards finding a place in the many think tanks, magazines and other venues funded by the Schaifes and Kochs of the world. Some talent and orthodox opinions are requisites. The left, by its very nature, opposes this kind of social conformist attitude. There thus is a reason the little magazines are always little, blogging does not pay its way and edgy writing easily cuts the thin skin of most university administrators. Power-holders welcome disorder only when they are its authors or when it benefits them. They do not care much for being a target of critical scrutiny. Nor do they want to support disruptions to a normalized everyday life which treats them well.

    Being marginal may not be a virtue per se; it is, however, a fate engaged writers must embrace whenever they cannot find their place in the university or in the center of the public sphere.

  25. yancey tobias February 18, 2014 at 2:03 pm | #

    I think you proved Kristoff’s point 2 blog posts back with Clarance Thomas as Lacanian Artist—–The Jacques Lacan crowd is one or two deep.

  26. Roquentin February 18, 2014 at 5:25 pm | #

    I’ve thought about this post a little bit over the past couple of days. There’s a certain vanity that goes “if I can’t understand it in 5 minutes, it must be nonsense” and this is particularly common in the US. It’s not limited to people like Kristof, or even necessarily to the left or right. The recent public feud between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek clearly indicated that adheres to most of the worst prejudices towards the humanities. Personally, I think Chomsky has spent way too much time up at MIT and has absorbed the chauvinism of the sciences through osmosis. You hear this kind of argument all the time, but for my money it’s mostly just a smoke screen to cover up two things: sloth and fear. Not everything needs to be written for a total layman. There’s no shame in expecting your readers to bring a little background knowledge to the table before they start, or at least expecting them to Google a few authors and terms if they want to keep up. Then again, truth be told I’ve never liked Chomsky. He manages to alienate me even when I agree with him.

    I don’t really care about what Kristof thinks. I’ve never read him before and don’t intend to start now. As little love as I have for the university system, I can’t do anything but snicker at the suggestion that the New Yorker should be the ultimate arbiter of what is and isn’t important in the US. What would you expect someone like that to value? I can’t say his opinions surprise me much either way.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a, The Enemy Combatant February 19, 2014 at 8:27 am | #

      I offer only this in vigorous defense of the New Yorker: (1) Jane Mayer; (2) the cartoons.

      I say this as someone who has bottomless contempt for the (classist. racist, and neoliberalist) writings of Kristoff. I have read his missives. He and the Times’ David Brooks are of the same ilk. Looking down on the rest of humanity, they publicly scratch their bourgeois chins contemplating the inferiority of the non-elites of the world.

  27. awax1217 February 22, 2014 at 11:58 am | #

    I have met some very intelligent people who had the closed minds that would put ignorance as rational as apple pie with anchovies.

  28. chavisory February 22, 2014 at 1:39 pm | #

    So pleased to have stumbled on this post just as I was looking for new and interesting things to read on the internet. Looks like you’ve provided me with a wealth here.

  29. Fiona McQuarrie (@all_about_work) February 22, 2014 at 4:38 pm | #

    Kristof also ignores how his own industry contributes to academics’ alleged absence from public discourse: http://wp.me/s2ixlh-3453

  30. rtrube54 February 22, 2014 at 6:33 pm | #

    Corey, I do wonder why, if Kristof is so off the mark, that there was so much blowback? From what I saw of the comments there is the legitimate point that there are many academic public intellectuals and also that much of the arcane writing is simply what is required to publish and get hired. Yet I’ve also observed that in some disciplines the jargon seems to separate the “knowledge elite” from the hoi polloi–sometimes I wonder if it is even to conceal what they are up to–particularly in some fields like education. This often is accompanied by a contempt for the common man. In many academic departments professors don’t even know the name of the person who empties their garbage or cleans their toilets. My hunch is that Kristof touched a tender spot.

    • Corey Robin February 22, 2014 at 9:47 pm | #

      If the question is are there a significant bunch of academics at elite schools who are elitists, you’ll get no argument from me. Anyone following this blog knows what my answer to that question is. I don’t think that is the question Kristof was asking. He’s not interested in academics communicating with the masses. If he were, he’d focus on all the academics who work with labor unions, community groups, local churches and synagogues, and so forth. He’s interested in academics who engage in high-level policy work, influencing high level elite politics. And there is in fact a lot of that going on. And to the extent that there is not — i.e., climate change scientists tend to get cut out of the debate — it’s in part b/c journalists refuse to call bullshit on the climate change deniers. Anyway, I think the reason so many of us got pissed is that we are in fact doing the work that Kristof claims he wants to see — I for example write this blog, I’ve been writing for popular magazines and newspapers since I got out of grad school — and that he didn’t take the time to thoroughly investigate the very topic he was declaiming on.

      • rtrube54 February 22, 2014 at 9:58 pm | #

        Maybe Kristof has more in common with the academics than he thinks. He also writes for an audience and he may not be aware of how that shapes his writing. Keep up the good work–and I hope you get more recognition for it. And congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

    • Benjamin David Steele February 23, 2014 at 12:54 pm | #

      I agree with Robin’s assessment. I’m not part of academia and I don’t even have a college degree. But I follow and interact online with many academics like Robin who do work to popularize their fields of expertise.

      If you go looking for popularizing academics like Robin, they are all over the place. There has never before been a point in history where there were so many academics refusing to remain as isolated elite in Ivory Tower academia.

      Look to Biblical studies, for example. That field has a ton of academics writing blogs and making videos. And it isn’t just the Christians who are doing this. The atheists and mythicists in that field are some of the biggest popularizers and have large followings. You can fully educate yourself on the complex intricacies of that field by doing nothing more than reading what is available online.

  31. Jadey February 23, 2014 at 6:22 am | #

    Reblogged this on The World's Chronicle.

  32. kenyatta2009 February 23, 2014 at 11:25 am | #

    Reblogged this on A Little Local Color.

  33. Robert February 23, 2014 at 2:03 pm | #

    This is an excellent reply to Kristof, bravo! Joshua Rothman, covering the controversy for The New Yorker, criticizes you and those making common cause for lacking Kristof’s facile pith (“pithy, winning ease”), which must sting. Notable intellectual quality, that. I wrote a reply on my blog: http://thecomingcrisis.tumblr.com/post/77095170643/cloistered-intellectuals. Main point: “Mass culture does not like to consume critiques of mass culture. But the problem of mass culture can hardly be laid at academia’s door: it is much more a function of modern capitalism, media, and the consumer economy. The main intellectual product of this culture is journalism, and the standards of journalism—which produces conventional wisdom that as many readers as possible can take in stride—are more to blame than this genre of polemic ever admits.”

  34. truth42 February 24, 2014 at 7:47 am | #

    Really interesting article. Ian x

  35. Vlad Spitzer March 4, 2014 at 3:37 pm | #

    Professor…..think Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Jacob Bornowski, Joseph Campbell, Bertrand Russell, Jorge Borges to name a few. I do believe you’re selling Kristof short. A Ph.D is by no means a ticket to this show. I think what Kristof laments is academia’s lack of public involvement when it has so much to offer. Unlike in Europe where intellectual intellectual involvement in public debate is critical for academic reputation, the most prominent of our academics seem woefully missing from the public eye. Notwithstanding any biases you may personally have against Kristof.

  36. Ahmad R. Mahfooz April 11, 2014 at 2:44 am | #

    Reblogged this on ahmadrmahfooz.

  37. Joseph Ratliff January 26, 2015 at 3:15 pm | #

    Reblogged this on Joe's Notepad.

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