I was reminded yesterday that SSHRC has awarded a large sum to help start up a Canadian version of The Conversation. I have followed links to the other national iterations of this site before and thought it seemed like a good idea. “Academic rigor, journalistic flair”: what’s not to like?
Well, actually, I don’t altogether like the tone that tagline sets — as if there isn’t journalistic rigor, as if academics can’t have flair, as if the twain otherwise don’t meet. Okay, folks, you’re different, but maybe not that different: people with “deep expertise” do write for other outlets, after all, and once in a while “facts and evidence” actually do get into the public arena from other directions. It’s a great idea to make the kind of expertise academics have more widely available, but that good impulse is somewhat offset, for me, by the site’s faint air of condescension. Am I being uncharitable or oversensitive? Does it strike anyone else this way?
Thinking about The Conversation got me thinking, in turn, about some other academic “crossover” sites I’m familiar with. Almost all of these have occasionally (again, despite their manifest good intentions and the often very high quality of their content) irritated me in the same way: Stanford’s Arcade site, for instance, or the Public Books site (which has another tagline that I don’t like, implying as it does that the “curious public” is passively awaiting delivery of “cutting-edge” ideas); or, in a more niche category, the Branch Collective. Obviously, these sites aren’t all trying to do the same thing, and they have quite different personalities of their own, but they have in common that they are deliberate attempts to bridge the divide between the ivory tower and the rest of the world. Also, they all seem very keen to differentiate themselves, implicitly or explicitly, from the masses of other sites offering analogous content, playing up the scholarly qualifications of their contributors or their replication of key academic processes (notably, in the case of the Branch Collective, peer review).*
I think what rubs me the wrong way is exactly what these sites (with some justification) play up as their strengths — that they may be out in public, but at heart they are still academic. They are careful to explain and assert their own authority, in (mostly) implicit contrast to the many other sites that are equally public but not created or curated by academics. To me, this all has a whiff of the all-too-familiar academic mistrust of the actual “public arena,” in which credentials are neither necessary nor sufficient for authority and peer review neither filters nor stifles contributions to the conversation. It’s not that there aren’t good reasons to get frustrated with the resulting chaos of information and opinion, but to me there’s something a bit precious about setting up special academic enclaves and calling them “public” instead of just joining in. (If you don’t think Wikipedia is good enough, why not make it better?) It also seems to me in some cases as if, alongside the desire (genuine, I’m sure) to offer something of value to people outside the academy, there’s some concern about ensuring that the form that offering takes will pass muster inside the academy — because for all the big talk these days about “knowledge mobilization,” in practice universities are profoundly conservative institutions, and the more familiar an “innovation” looks, or the more it is “branded” as a ground-breaking institutional or disciplinary project, the more likely it is to be praised and given professional credit.
Again, I’m not disdaining the quality of the sites I’ve mentioned. There is just something about their tone or atmosphere that I sometimes find off-putting. I have also been frustrated at having them held out by other academics as exemplary in ways I do not believe they actually are. In my own promotion case, for instance, one of my external reviewers praised the editorial process she (or he, I don’t actually know) had experienced at Public Books, suggesting more or less directly that it was more rigorous than that at Open Letters Monthly because she had found some of my reviews there “repetitive” (which ones, she didn’t say). Well, of course, equally rigorous readers can still disagree about judgments like that — and it’s a hard claim to assess or dispute anyway, without specifics. (I didn’t appreciate the slur on my co-editors, however, even setting aside the criticism of my own writing!) However, in my turn, I’ve read a few things at Public Books that I found ponderous, pretentious, or just too long for me to care enough about to finish, so I don’t see any reason to assume that either venue can claim a uniquely effective process. (I certainly feel confident that contributors to Open Letters get pretty arduous treatment in what we fondly call the “shark tank” of general edits.) I also have academic colleagues who are keen to write essays for Branch but cannot bring themselves to contribute to Open Letters — it’s pretty clear that the academic imprimatur motivates them in a way that our masthead does not. (Or perhaps, as has been suggested to me a couple of times, the prospect of going public quite so openly, even on the modest scale Open Letters offers, is intimidating. As Alex Reid has observed, “the Journal of narrowly-focused humanities studies is a good place to hide,” and I admit it takes a while to get used to just saying what you think without the protective shelter created by peer review and obscurity. Or perhaps they just don’t think very highly of Open Letters but are too tactful to tell me: my speculation should not be too partial!)
Obviously this issue is personal to me, especially at this particular moment in my career, which is why I freely acknowledge that my inverse snobbery about these erudite and high-minded projects may well be symptomatic of my own anxieties about the choices I’ve made, rather than an accurate reflection of anything they’re actually doing or saying. Clearly, I have approached working in public in a different way — not as part of an institutional or specifically professional enterprise (not that we have anything like, say, the Public Humanities program at Western — but even if we did, that’s not what I want to be doing), not in a special space that privileges academics. I have just tried to find a place for myself in the ongoing public conversation about literature, to figure out what I could bring to it and how. In this conversation, unlike at The Conversation, we share and create authority for each other; mine, such as it is, doesn’t inhere in my credentials. I am not saying this is the right or best model for all public academics (it almost certainly would not work for nuclear physicists), and I’m also not saying that the enclave model is wrong — though I do think it should not be insisted on or valued more highly just because it preserves, even relies on, distinctions between the university and the world. I think that for me personally, the problem with the enclaves is that they represent, or resemble too closely, what I came out here to get away from, is all.**
*I can’t decide where The Valve fits in here. I think it always had more of a hybrid quality, and certainly while I was writing for it its boundaries seemed fairly porous. But maybe it struck other people as insular in this same way.
**My way has the advantage of not requiring a SSHRC grant to get on with it — though actually to some people that it’s free (except, of course, for the investment of time) apparently counts against it, because getting grants is a thing we’re supposed to do.
The “Arts & Culture” section of The Conversation seems to be mostly interested in sports and a current U.S. presidential candidate, not topics that encourage me to spend much time there. Also kind of a strange use of academic expertise.
I too perceive a “if academics are not in charge, it’s not worthy” and an “ugh, great unwashed public: cooties” attitude from your description. (Could be confirmation bias, though.)
The enclave model is limited and, to the extent it prevents or discourages direct engagement with the public outside of one of the public-facing, public-friendly outlets you mention, also wrongheaded if not actually wrong.
I’d never heard of The Conversation. But it seems telling that every author’s name is immediately accompanied by their institutional affiliation. And as Tom says, the Arts & Culture section sure doesn’t seem up to much.
I’ve liked some things I’ve read on Public Books, but I do often get the feeling that this is where Established Scholar in the Field goes to give the final word on what the public needs to know about books. It’s a bit pop-culture focused for me, but I’ve really liked some of things I’ve read on Avidly. Do you know it?
Can definitely confirm that Open Letters editing is *plenty* rigorous.
I pretty much completely agree with your critique of the “enclave model.” Also, I think the idea you venture in attempting to explain academic reluctance to write for something like OL, about fear of exposure, is dead on. That fear has at least two facets: some academics I’ve encouraged to write for us are daunted precisely by the prospect of our rough-and-tumble editorial process. The idea of being held to account for their sentences is extraordinarily scary to them, despite their perfect willingness to accept peer review of their ideas, perhaps because, in many ways, criticism of one’s writing style is more personal than criticism of one’s officially formulated Theories and Hypotheses, as if the dialectical situation of every human utterance is objective and innocuous in the case of academic publishing, but personal and untenable in any other. And then actually being read by hundreds or thousands of non-academics, and drawing whatever response, if any, those non-academics should choose to make, is also scary to them, for reasons that I’m less able to fathom. (But then it’s been my personal quirk that I’ve thirsted for audiences my whole life, so I can’t understand that particularly form of literary shyness.)
This essay does make me wonder, what do you think of Aeon? I think they must have a very rigorous editorial process, much like OL’s, because often they elicit really snappy, interesting writing from academics not otherwise known for readability. As far as these multifarious academics-speaking-to-the-public sites go (and there are many more of them than any individual one of them seems to realize), Aeon has always struck me as a pleasant exception.