Academics on the Internets

Via Scott Esposito, I read David Parry on why academics should write more for the general public:

Meanwhile, the general public perceives faculty members as isolated from reality, holding cushy jobs, and uninterested in open communication. The public has little access to the broad diversity of knowledge, experience, and background inside higher education, because those academics who do achieve broader platforms generally come from only the most elite universities. Although many of those public intellectuals are brilliant writers and speakers, they represent only a tiny percentage of the expertise available in the academic world.

This raises the question of what academics have to offer large online media outlets that is different from what excellent professional journalists offer. My first thought is sheer number: there aren’t enough excellent professional journalists who can write competently on certain specialized topics (e.g., we have a lot of great political and sports journalists writing even for smaller outlets, but fewer great science journalists); academics can help fight the good fight and take good opportunities that come their way.

A benefit of academics writing online for larger media outlets is that it’s now generally done by people who aren’t already famous as authors or researchers – younger academics who probably started writing on a personal blog:

In terms of reach and emotional response, the entire experience seemed surreal. I am a just-tenured medieval historian and an emerging scholar, and my employer is a small Roman Catholic university on the edge of Chicago. Those are not the credentials that tend to bring one’s work before a mass audience. And yet, over the past six months, I have published a string of essays, mostly for CNN and The Atlantic, all of which apply my academic training in history, religion, gender, and disability to contemporary issues.

The experience can be surreal in the sense that, as a relatively junior and obscure academic, you can reach a bigger and more responsive audience than you do in your own professional community. You quickly realize that, no matter how obscure you are, when you write something praising or trashing someone with a higher public profile than yours, or take a strong stand in what seems like a big controversy, people will read it and call you on any mistakes. This is in contrast to something your write for your professional peers, which will be ignored.

In his reaction to Parry’s piece, Scott Esposito says it’s time academics who write online for the public to stop complaining about a) trolls and b) getting labeled as some sort of freak by our peers:

I also gotta say, I know a heck of a lot of academics who are pretty cynical about the shell game that is publishing an article in the average academic humanities journal (to say nothing of the “readership” for said article). These same people usually either publish in popular venues or want to, because, you know, that way there’s a chance another human being might actually read what they’ve written.

Agreed. It’s not 2004 anymore – academic institutions and individuals are fairly savvy exploiters of online opportunities these days, and anyone who pretends to dismiss you as a ‘popularizer’ is either a) over 65 and soon to be suffering from emeritus or b) envious of your small online success.

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