Scholars and the Public Eye

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Harvard professor Jennifer Hochschild remembers the first time a scholarly article about blogging came across her desk. She laughs now describing how she and fellow editors at Perspectives on Politics did not know what to make of it in 2003.

“We spent a lot of time among the editors saying, ‘Is this really political science? Is this really appropriate? Is this a flash in the pan? Is this a game?’” said Hochschild, a professor of government and African and African American studies at Harvard and president of the American Political Science Association. “I don’t think we were hostile. We just didn’t understand it.”

Times have changed. Today academics are major players in the blogosphere—a trend that began with the rise of the “explainer blogs,” such as Crooked Timber, a name derived from an Immanuel Kant quote, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” It launched in 2003 and is run by an international group of academics. Five years later, John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, followed with the Monkey Cage—a reference to writer and scholar H.L. Mencken, “Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage.” Today the Monkey Cage is owned by the Washington Post, and joins similarly popular blogs such as the Upshot in the New York Times, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, and Ezra Klein’s Vox. Then came the 2015 debut of the start-up US edition of the Conversation, a new partnership between veteran editors and professors from the world’s leading universities. Its motto: “Academic rigor. Journalistic flair.”

The evolution of explainer blogs signals a significant attitude shift in the academic world, said Hochschild, who blogs occasionally for the Monkey Cage. She said few intellectuals dared to write for a broader audience when she began teaching, which was frustrating.

“Today scholars take it more seriously and see it as a genuinely worthwhile thing to do more than they used to. It was, you know, ‘Real men don’t eat quiche. Real experts don’t involve themselves with the public.’ But things have changed dramatically,” she said.

While vocal critics allege that the academic world cloaks itself in a veil of "arcane unintelligibility," they are increasingly countered by a growing number of scholars who are using social media to share complex ideas in a style that is accessible. By sharing their ideas directly with their readers, academics provide accurate data and necessary context as political and social events unfold. Of course, not all scholars are on board yet—but we’re getting there, said Hochschild.

“There are going to be remnants of people who don’t respect it. People who think it means dumbing down. That writing for the public is high-class journalism and there’s a reason we’re not journalists. But my guess is that’s strongly generational,” she said.

Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard and regular columnist for Bloomberg View, knows something about the reluctance of the elders. In 2003, just as the US went to war in Iraq, Feldman published his book After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy. The New York Times Book Review said the book put Feldman “into the center of an unruly brawl now raging in policy circles over what to do with the Arab world.” He was heralded as a leading Western authority on emerging Islamic democracy. That same year, Feldman served as senior constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and subsequently advised members of the Iraqi Governing Council on the drafting of an interim constitution.

Yet senior colleagues at New York University Law School dismissed the book. When he was up for review to move from assistant to associate professor, he learned “the reviewing committee didn’t consider After Jihad to be part of my scholarly work—ostensibly because it was aimed at a popular audience.”

“Today scholars take it more seriously and see it as a genuinely worthwhile thing to do more than they used to. It was, you know, ‘Real men don’t eat quiche. Real experts don’t involve themselves with the public.’ But things have changed dramatically,” —Jennifer Hochschild

Feldman is encouraged that scholars of his own and older generations seem to think differently now. Many among them have learned to move between the academic and mainstream worlds while respecting their very different demands, though that can present its own challenges.

“First, I’ll say that I think there are some technical arguments in every field that can’t be made in a short, publicly accessible format. And it’s extremely important that we remember that—and therefore that we continue to value and embrace scholarship that’s written just for other scholars. That is irreplaceable as an important part of the academic profession and as an important part of the search for knowledge,” he said.

That said, Feldman continued, it’s useful and necessary that academics learn to write about their work in language that is concise and clear. “Scholars in every academic field have an ethical obligation to contribute to public knowledge and public discourse,” he said. “There’s no doubt that it takes time to produce work that is accessible. Sometimes it’s actually harder and more time consuming to write something in an accessible way than it would be to write it for specialists—but that’s time well worth spending.”

Hochschild said she is reminded of the old saying, widely attributed to Mark Twain: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

Dani Rodrik, a professor of international political economy at Harvard, is a regular op-ed columnist for Project Syndicate, one of the world’s top news websites. He said writing for a popular audience has not detracted from his academic career—in fact, quite the opposite.

“I don’t see it as costly. You could, of course, spend a lot of time doing this—but if you are, as I am, an economist who works on policy issues, I think writing for a broader audience is something that reinforces your research and stimulates it and is quite complementary to it,” said Rodrik.

In addition, Rodrik agrees with Feldman that for the sake of clarity, among other things, academics have a responsibility to explain their findings and views directly.

“A lot of us deal with ideas that are complicated and nuanced and highly contextual. If we let just pundits and think tankers and policy entrepreneurs be our sole conduit, the risk is that our ideas can be easily hijacked or they can be distorted,” Rodrik said. “Who else can explain our ideas better than we can?”

Meg Murphy, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

This is one of three articles on the growing number of academics who are writing for a public audience. Weatherhead Center Faculty Associates interviewed on this trend include Harvard professors Noah Feldman, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law; Jennifer Hochschild, the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and professor of African and African American studies; and Dani Rodrik, the Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy.

Also in the series: a Q & A with Professors Hochschild, Feldman, and Rodrik and Noah Feldman on How to Write for a Popular Audience.