Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now

by Corey Robin on February 16, 2014

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 like to 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—here 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 pm)

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 pm)

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.

{ 95 comments }

1

bob mcmanus 02.16.14 at 5:34 pm

A great and moving post. But it depressed me.

I will try to check out your recommended writers and sites, but I have my own list of brilliant young intellectuals, actually several lists, that I feel I neglect and are undiscovered by engaged intellectuals. Though they have their fans and communities. I don’t know what Kristof does with his time, but a lot of mine is spent searching out fascinating material that I will never have enough life left to read.

Picked up a new book (metaphor alert!). Daniel Alpert’s Age of Oversupply. Sometimes I think oversupply inevitably leads on to gluttony and obesity, and something else, a defensiveness that reveals itself in an overrefined discrimination and pretension. How does one pick and choose, develop the sorting algorithms. Kristof has his, you have yours, I have mine.

2

Bruce Wilder 02.16.14 at 6:03 pm

Some lefty now!

“he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” Yep. You could have stopped there, you know.

Kristof’s not very bright. In fact, he’s a stupid man. Many of his columns reflect a profound inability to reason. And, Pinch Sulzberger, who is also not very bright and the irresponsible scion of a family gone to seed, thinks he should be occupying a prime lot of the most valuable and salient newspaper real estate left. (And, it’s not like it isn’t a pattern — except for Krugman. Tom Friedman? Maureen Dowd? I won’t even mention the Republicans. They’re not just hopeless hacks, they’re frequently competing train wrecks.)

This whole rant says, without saying, that Kristof is a prime example of a talentless fool dominating our discourse, because that’s what some wealthy man wants. Virtue fails, because mediocrity succeeds. Kristof got where he is — I don’t why or how. If a writer and thinker of so little ability has bad taste and poor judgement, lousy values, etc., isn’t that a dog-bites-man story. The scandal is that he’s been approved by the gatekeepers, and that he is a gatekeeper, and that’s normal.

And, for whatever reasons, the mainstream audience, such as it may be, doesn’t really care. They — we? — accept this state of affairs. It’s not like the Washington Post does it better.

3

Bruce Wilder 02.16.14 at 6:06 pm

thanks for links, though

4

oldster 02.16.14 at 6:09 pm

“Why not write about the Anthony Galuzzo’s and Yasmin Nair’s who deserve to be read,”

Yup. Or Kristof could just turn over the keys to his real-estate once a month, let them publish whatever they like, and kick them a part of his salary.

5

Main Street Muse 02.16.14 at 6:30 pm

Thanks for the links.

Kristof goes too far to one end. I think Corey goes too far to the other. Higher ed is in very bad shape right now – it does not know its purpose. People are going into significant debt to go to universities to learn; professors are at universities to publish. (See Mankiw’s advice for new professors page on his website – http://bit.ly/Ag6c1k – research is paramount; all else is a distance second. Good advice, I suppose, for professors on tenure-track; terrible for students and adjuncts.)

That’s a huge disconnect. Worse, 70% of higher ed instruction comes from horribly paid adjuncts – what they are paid severely undervalues their work. Corey points to this very serious problem facing universities: “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.”

And Anthony, as an adjunct, could probably qualify for food stamps if he’s got a wife and children.

Higher ed is a mess, a big, fat sloppy mess right now. Kristoff is not wrong to criticize higher ed professionals for the “publish or perish” mentality. There are many academics contributing to the national conversation, but many more are not. And since teaching is not the focus of the academic’s work, what’s the point?

(Slaughter also wrote that horrible salvo in the mommy-wars, “Why Women Can’t Have it All” http://bit.ly/1jsqEKu) – which included this bit about her failures to navigate the work /life balance: “I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.”) But apparently, that’s not “leaning in” far enough.

6

bob mcmanus 02.16.14 at 6:34 pm

My first was kinda unfair, but trying to imagine a world where all these brilliant kids had good jobs is one where they might not be needed? But they are needed.

Kristof is a prime example of a talentless fool dominating our discourse, because that’s what some wealthy man wants.

And, for whatever reasons, the mainstream audience, such as it may be, doesn’t really care. They — we? — accept this state of affairs.

There a lots of educated people paid very well. MBAs, lawyers, quants, doctors. That social scientists aren’t paid well in our current mess is a social problem. Social scientists are needed, but either aren’t demanded or can’t connect with demand because of neoliberal gatekeepers and a lack of resources among those who need them and might demand them. Those who do read them, like me, are too comfortable to do much more than try to pass them on to others like me. This modern condition was both designed and allowed to happen.

They need to become revolutionaries.

7

Anarcissie 02.16.14 at 7:10 pm

bob mcmanus 02.16.14 at 6:34 pm @ 6:
‘… They need to become revolutionaries.’

Isn’t education intrinsically antirevolutionary? Of all the environments I have been in, including school, working-class jobs, the military, business, a ‘profession’, and of course sweet chômage, the most authoritarian was school, from K to 12 and on up — no contest. Seriously rock the boat and you’re out (cf. Graeber). And I hear things are much, much worse now than back in the Dark Ages when I knew whereof I spoke directly, as the rents go up and the jobs go down.

8

Mitchell Freedman 02.16.14 at 7:25 pm

I think the key graphs are where Jacoby’s thesis is merged into his materialist assumptions, which means: The reason there are too few decent paying slots for public intellectuals, unlike what Jacoby recognized as a golden age in the post-WWII period, is about the money diffused throughout much of American white society in that period. Therefore, it’s all connected to the political economy. And that means Kristoff is off again because he is himself a neo-liberal who loves the creation of adjuncts in faculty that are based upon an increasingly high cost of attaining the PhD that leads to the poorly paid adjunct. And of course we like everything free on the Internet….:-)

9

Jerry Vinokurov 02.16.14 at 7:28 pm

This is a nice article, and the links are much appreciated. I’d like to encourage people to not limit their conception of “public intellectual” to “someone with an academic post” or even “someone with a Ph.D.” There are lots of people out there who contribute just as much great intellectual content without having any connection to the academy.

10

PlutoniumKun 02.16.14 at 7:30 pm

Perhaps slightly off-topic, but I was thinking about this last week when reading up on Amy Chua’s new book – the one outlining her theory about why Asian-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Jews, etc do so much better academically than the average. The book is of course absolute bunk – and not just troll-type bunkum, its just plain provably wrong. Anyone with even the most tenuous knowledge of the last 50 years or so research into education outcomes and culture knows that the difference in performance is almost entirely down to first-wave advantage – i.e. if your immigrant grandparent was highly educated and rich, you will probably end up in Harvard, it doesn’t matter what ethnic group you are. Its quite an easy hypothesis to demonstrate, and it has done so many times.

But what has struck me with some dismay is the number of articles and reviews of the book I’ve read, some by highly intelligent and educated people, which have been generally positive – some quite effusive about her ‘courage’ in asking hard questions. I don’t think ni most cases these writers have been trying to push Chua’s agenda – they are simply unaware that the questions she raises have been comprehensively answered by decades of research. Some of these people have even been what might be considered public intellectuals (but not social scientists, unless you consider economists to be social scientists). Maybe I’ve missed out, but I’ve been surprised at how, outside of a few blogs and the occasional article, nobody has been pointing out the simple fact that Chua’s theory is a long dead, and long discredited hypothesis, which is hardly even worth discussing.

Last week I was thinking of this as ‘exhibit A’ in evidence that the public intellectual is dead, at least outside the world of economics. But perhaps its more true to say that certain types of public intellectual are dominating discussions? I think our public discourse has become very strongly influenced by certain paradigms of discussion which emphasise culture, politics and history, but gloss over the harder branches of science (I don’t just mean physics vs. sociology, I mean the approaches within each discipline). I would suggest that perhaps we need fewer good articulate writers, and more Ben Goldacres, Nat Silvers or Mathbabes – people who actually crunch numbers and say ‘this is simply wrong and I can prove it’ when lousy ideas pop their heads above the parapet.

11

T 02.16.14 at 7:39 pm

I think Kristoff requires at least an endowed chair at an elite institution to get in the game as an “academic” public intellectual. He mentioned Jill Lapore and Anne-Marie Slaughter and I’m sure he’d include Krugman and Niall Ferguson. Doris Kearns Goodwin and Cornell West are more dated examples. Kristoff pines for the days when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. appeared on Firing Line and Hutchins and Dewey defined the genre. I’m afraid most of your friends just aren’t up to snuff.

12

LFC 02.16.14 at 8:16 pm

This is a good post.

Re Robert Silvers whom the OP mentions: I would point out that he’s been editing the NYRB since 1963 and, while I’m not sure exactly how old he is, he’s probably too old to change his MO now. That’s one reason he’s not going to swoop down and pluck out a Yasmin Nair etc.

PlutonumKun@10: Why not tell us what Chua’s thesis actually is before saying for three paragraphs that it’s b.s.? I’m vaguely aware it has something to do w ethnicity and culture but that’s not very specific, and I haven’t read the bk.

13

Ben Alpers 02.16.14 at 8:20 pm

MSM@5:

“People are going into significant debt to go to universities to learn; professors are at universities to publish.”

I’m sorry, but the second half of this sentence is just a lazy, false cliché. Over 70% of faculty are not even tenure-track. And most tenure-track faculty are at teaching-intensive institutions. Even those of us lucky enough to be tenured at research institutions are usually dedicated teachers, who spend more than 40% of our time (which is the share of my effort that’s supposed to go for teaching) teaching and preparing to to teach.

And don’t even get me started on all the pressure from outside the university to make teaching more “efficient” by promoting MOOCs and increasing student-teacher ratios.

14

Main Street Muse 02.16.14 at 10:14 pm

Ben – as I noted in my post, 70% of all higher ed teaching is by adjuncts, not tenure-track. So you are right, researchers are in short supply, and could perhaps dwindle to nothing in some years. North Carolina has gotten rid of tenure for elementary and secondary teachers; universities are in their sights next.

As Corey noted, “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.”

Mankiw offers up that advice to new faculty – focus on research at the expense of all other activities. Teaching is not how one obtains tenure.

So despite what you say, there remains pressure to publish, according to Corey & Mankiw.

That the universities take so much money from students and pay so little to the 70% of the faculty who teach is a massive open sore that no one is treating. Those who have secure jobs must publish to retain their security. It’s a messed up business model.

15

Ben Alpers 02.16.14 at 10:48 pm

MSM – I don’t deny the pressure to publish at all. Indeed, even a lot of non-tenure-track faculty feel this pressure, as many of them are trying to compete for tenure-track jobs. What I deny is the notion that most faculty are only in their jobs because they want to publish or that universities are only asking them to publish, which is what I read you as saying.

As for Mankiw: it would be hard to find a more atypical faculty member than Mankiw who is not only Chairman of the Harvard Economics Department, but who also served a term as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under George W. Bush. (Given Mankiw’s own track record, whether one would want to take advice from him if one did in fact find oneself within shouting distance of those lofty heights would, I guess, depend on how one defines being a successful economist.)

16

Main Street Muse 02.16.14 at 11:12 pm

“What I deny is the notion that most faculty are only in their jobs because they want to publish or that universities are only asking them to publish, which is what I read you as saying.”

You are reading me wrong. People go into academia certainly for teaching and for research. And most people in academia are struggling to find a job that is not minimum wage and offers some security. But tenure is not dependent on teaching evaluations in most university situations. I am (contract) at a “lower-tier” teaching university; people are denied tenure if they do not do research – and they can be fantastic teachers. As one who has come from the private sector (freelance, so security has always been up in the air), I find the adjunct-focused staffing practices of universities to be very problematic.

Mankiw is a very successful academic. That’s why I quote his advice to new faculty.

17

Donald Johnson 02.16.14 at 11:24 pm

I also want to thank you for the links. Anything else I would have said was said better by Bruce Wilder in comment 2. The NYT columnists, Krugman excepted, are unbelievably bad. But so are the Sunday morning political shows, what little I’ve seen of them. And the same for the weekday cable shows–Chris Hayes had an intelligent one when he was scheduled on the weekend mornings, but when they put him on in the evening he went downhill, IMO. There was a New Yorker article about that some months ago, behind a subscription wall, but IIRC Hayes was pressured to dumb down his show for the sake of ratings.

18

Ben Alpers 02.17.14 at 12:39 am

MSM@16:

My apologies for misreading you. I still disagree, in part. I have known people with jobs at very “low-tier” institutions where they don’t really care about research at all, even from TT faculty. But how one gets tenure, especially at the sort of institution in which most people do get tenure, and what is more generally expected of someone in their job are slightly different questions. To say that tenure depends more on research than on teaching at many institutions–especially “top-tier” ones–is absolutely correct. To say that institutions don’t care about teaching is, I think, wrong. Though the ways that many institutions care about it can certainly be criticized (I’m thinking of the emphasis on the sheer number of student credit-hours produced that the Texas A&M regents have introduced at that institution).

My point about Mankiw, my estimation of him as an economist aside, is that what it takes to succeed at a place like Harvard is quite different from what it takes to succeed in most other academic settings. Antonin Scalia is a very successful lawyer, but if I were starting off in the legal profession, I wouldn’t go to him for general career advice.

19

Main Street Muse 02.17.14 at 12:48 am

“To say that institutions don’t care about teaching is, I think, wrong.”

I think that institutions absolutely do not care about teaching – witness UNC’s phantom program for “student-athletes” as one example. Witness the fact that 70% of courses are taught by ill-paid adjuncts.

Teaching is not valued at the college level – if it were valued, teachers would get paid a living wage. A high percentage of university teachers are not paid a living wage. That’s a travesty – and a terrible business model – and proof that teaching is not valued at universities.

I am NOT saying professors are not good teachers. Like ANY profession, there are good, fair and poor employees – higher ed sector is no different.

In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed the once-respected profession of teaching (elementary, secondary, higher-ed) become de-coupled from any sense of value – instead the profession is attacked and defunded to the point of destruction. That’s very scary.

20

QS 02.17.14 at 1:40 am

Corey, great title. On the other hand, Kristoff is partly right. For example, look at international political economy, an area within political science that has so little to do with political economy and the real world that it’s astonishing. Somehow, scholars study international relations as if capitalism doesn’t exist.

21

LFC 02.17.14 at 1:44 am

@QS
Except, of course, for Gramscian, world-system, and other Marxian strains of int’l pol economy, whose adherents constantly talk about capitalism and publish a never-ending stream of books and journal articles.

22

Rakesh Bhandari 02.17.14 at 2:15 am

I think the passing of this public intellectual has gone unmentioned here
http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/feb/11/stuart-hall-work-inspiration-gary-younge

23

Rakesh Bhandari 02.17.14 at 2:18 am

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QS 02.17.14 at 2:34 am

@21

Except that that stuff gets no play in political science. Up until the end of the Cold War, Marxism was treated as a rival theory that was included in IPE textbooks/surveys/scholarship. It was a marginal, but present, part of the canon. Today, the Marxian approaches are missing from IPE scholarship, there are major disincentives vis-a-vis your career to pursue Marxian IPE, and no one is training their students in it. Today’s Marxian IPE is done by radical geographers, not political scientists. This is an obvious problem for the discipline considering that many of the most important and interesting questions about todays politics lead back to finance capital, free trade, and international economic institutions.

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Rakesh Bhandari 02.17.14 at 3:39 am

Stephen Krasner’s first book is instructive here.

26

Henry 02.17.14 at 3:45 am

QS – This is true only of US departments (I talk about this more here if you’re interested. In Canada, the UK, and large swathes of the world, Marxist IPE is still a real presence, and Marxist influenced approaches (English school varieties of critical realism, people who like Susan Strange) are a quite strong presence and talk about capitalism all the time. In comparative political economy, the study of capitalism (albeit in decidedly non-Marxist terms) is ubiquitous – witness the enormous success of the “Varieties of Capitalism” perspective, the work of Streeck etc. And I could go on …

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js. 02.17.14 at 5:30 am

@Ben Alpers and Main Street Muse:

I think you’re both right. And possibly arguing at cross purposes. In particular, MSM is surely right that policies of relying on underpaid adjuncts, of making conflicting and overburdening demands re teaching, research, and service, etc., effectively betray an attitude of not really valuing teaching, in one sense at least. If the institutions in question did value teaching, they would provide adequate good jobs and adequate support, rather than relying on an what is effectively an underclass. This seems right.

On the other hand, Ben Alpers is surely right that lots of high end teaching colleges as well as ‘lower tier’ institutions take teaching very seriously insofar as, e.g., they take student evaluations very seriously in tenure review, and otherwise too. (Disregard for now all the well documented problems with teaching evaluations.) Similarly, they might give a fair bit of consideration to evaluations and teaching letters when making hiring decisions. Etc.

The two points are perfectly compatible I think.

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js. 02.17.14 at 5:35 am

And by the way, student-athletes at places like UNC are a whole another, ultra-special problem that probably needs its own separate discussion. I say this as someone who’s taught at what’s probably a comparable place, and had to field requests to pass athletes that were clearly failing. (They failed.)

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Main Street Muse 02.17.14 at 6:00 am

js. “On the other hand, Ben Alpers is surely right that lots of high end teaching colleges as well as ‘lower tier’ institutions take teaching very seriously insofar as, e.g., they take student evaluations very seriously in tenure review, and otherwise too.”

I believe that institutions that take student evaluations very seriously in tenure review don’t much care about “teaching.” Some of the best teachers will get slammed in those reviews, probably as you did when you failed those “student-athletes.” Students are perhaps not the best experts to rely on when it comes to evaluating pedagogy. In institutions that do rely on these evaluations for tenure, it would be interesting to see if this creates a push toward grade inflation and “fun” classroom experience rather than good teaching.

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godoggo 02.17.14 at 7:29 am

Oh, good God. The correct phrase is, “A whole nother.” I hate to be pedantic but somebody’s gotta.

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hix 02.17.14 at 7:46 am

Job security, decent pay and some slack to do stuff outside ones narrow job description are great. But in that system too, most Phds are unlikely to get tenured research academic careers and even less of them public intellectual jobs. The selection who gets to become a public intellectual will still have too much to do with the usual bad selection criteria.

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DaveL 02.17.14 at 2:56 pm

Corey, your response is much too defensive. Kristof (like all NYT columnists) is paid to write stuff that flatters his readership. “Don’t worry that you don’t take the time to seek out writings by political scientists; it’s not worth the effort.” Krugman is there to add some numbers and jargon to the readers’ reflexive liberalism. “The Republicans” are there to say “Ha-ha! That’s the best the other side has got. Hilarious, isn’t it?”

This is, after all, the same newspaper that notices one or two Upper West Side folks doing something “weird,” invents a “trend,” and devotes more column inches to it than the entire editorial page. (Hmm, maybe that should be “hip Brooklynites”?)

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JW Mason 02.17.14 at 3:43 pm

The problem of adjuncts is real and very important. That’s stated clearly in the original post.

But MSM is wrong to see some tradeoff between research and teaching. He/she is missing the point of the post. What Corey is saying is that tenure-track (or comparable) teaching jobs are important precisely because they make it easier for people to do other, non-teaching work. As he says, it’s hard to do serious intellectual work when you’ve got to be always worrying about paying the rent.

So to say that there’s a tradeoff where we have to choose between decent teaching jobs and support for scholarly work, is to get it exactly backward. Decent teaching jobs are the most important way that we support scholarship.

I feel confident that if you take a cross section of colleges and universities, you will not see the negative correlation MSM suggests between research expectations and teaching quality. If you could make a scatterplot, you would find that institutions with higher proportions of classes taught by adjuncts, also have lower research expectations from faculty. (All the way out to for-profit two-year schools which approach 1 and 0, respectively.) The modal college instructor, I imagine, has a very heavy teaching load and minimal expectations for research. You don’t improve things by pushing them even further in that direction. If we want to improve the quality of college teaching, there is no alternative to offering instructors better pay and more security, meaning — among other things — lighter teaching loads and more support for scholarship.

Intentionally or not, MSM sounds a lot like people who think the answer to the loss of unions and job security in the private sector is to take them away from public sector workers too.

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Shirley0401 02.17.14 at 5:02 pm

@33
I work at a high school, and often hear parents make offhand comments about “getting what [they] pay for.” They’re not referring to the societal benefits of an institutional focus on research.
As college is increasingly seen as a place where money is paid to purchase a credential that will result in a job, I see only more of what you describe. Research is seen by many as a perk that professors enjoy, enabling them to build status, rather than as a fundamental aspect of what they are paid to do. Recently, Forbes published a “least stressful jobs” list, which ranked university professors at #1.

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Michael Peirce 02.17.14 at 5:44 pm

Egads. The core logic of this piece doesn’t hold up. The basic pattern is this:

Pundit says: many A’s are B’s.
Critic objects and counters with: many A’s are not B’s.

The obvious problem is that both claims can be true, and in this case, both are true.

Kristof pointed to a very clear trend in which we academics self-cloister. I know the problem well, having personally tried to get other faculty members of my department to engage in public commentary, to apply their work to issues currently in the news. I am constantly met with nose-thumbing. Such tasks are portrayed as beneath the worthiness of my colleagues’ attentions – momentary concerns that distract them from pursuing timeless truths. But then, of course, some (many) of us are the reverse, and write articles, blogs, and whatnot aimed at engaging the public, not just fellow scholars.

But the fact that people exist who are counter to the trends pointed out by Kristof doesn’t show a thing about whether the aspects of self-cloistering that he points out really do exist or are pervasive enough to warrant concern. And worse, by missing its mark, this piece effectively opts to ignore the problem rather than to address it.

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T 02.17.14 at 5:59 pm

It gets ugly when the worthies get hissy. Kristoff (Harvard/Oxford/Rhodes Scholar) laments the lack of academics engaging as public intellectuals. He looks to the New Yorker for examples of the elusive PI and found editor David Remnick (Princeton) chose only Anne-Marie Slaughter (Princeton/Oxford/Harvard) and Jill Lapore (Tufts/Yale). Not much in the way of public intellectuals he concludes. Where are they? Corey (Princeton/Yale) tells Kristoff maybe he should look past the New Yorker (Hey – there are lots of indie releases if you get past the dearth of studio films.) For example, I have this friend Erik Voeten (Twente/Princeton), my grad school buddies e,g (Swarthmore/Yale), some folks from Berkeley and they’re writing all the time… It was nice to see Purdue mentioned once.
It’s kind of striking. Just sayin’.

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Main Street Muse 02.17.14 at 7:37 pm

To JW Mason, first of all, I say nothing at all about abolishing unions, so to read my posts and to assume I’m calling for the end to unions is a mysterious interpretation.

Second, I don’t know what you mean when you say, “What Corey is saying is that tenure-track (or comparable) teaching jobs are important precisely because they make it easier for people to do other, non-teaching work. As he says, it’s hard to do serious intellectual work when you’ve got to be always worrying about paying the rent.”

I agree that serious intellectual work is challenging always, but more so when you have to worry about paying rent. I think THAT is at the heart of this issue – the fact that so many higher-ed teachers are in unstable, poorly paid positions.

In our country, salaries determine the value of a position – 70% of course instruction comes from contract teachers, adjuncts and lecturers – and they are struggling to pay their bills. This is NOT a sustainable model. And most of these teachers are NOT unionized.

I agree with you when you say: “If we want to improve the quality of college teaching, there is no alternative to offering instructors better pay and more security, meaning — among other things — lighter teaching loads and more support for scholarship.”

Do you see that happening? WHERE is that happening in the United States – outside of the top-tier private institutions? How many students are the beneficiaries of teachers with light teaching loads and more support for scholarship?

At the university level (and in my state of North Carolina, at all levels of education), the function of teaching has been devalued to the point of crisis.

For me, Kristoff’s article raises the issue – what is the purpose of college? To fund research? To provide thought leaders? To educate students? Why do 40% of students who enter a four-year college fail to get a degree… after six years? That’s a lot of debt to take on when failing to get the credential required for white collar work.

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JW Mason 02.17.14 at 8:06 pm

For me, Kristoff’s article raises the issue – what is the purpose of college? To fund research? To provide thought leaders? To educate students?

By setting these up as alternatives, you are part of the problem.

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Corey Robin 02.17.14 at 8:47 pm

T: “It was nice to see Purdue mentioned once. It’s kind of striking. Just sayin’.”

Actually, follow the links. You’ll see U. Washington, U. Oregon, U. Tennessee, U. New Mexico, U. Rhode Island, U. Kentucky, U. Hawaii, CUNY, UT Dallas, Emory. And Purdue mentioned twice.

Just sayin’.

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JW Mason 02.17.14 at 9:00 pm

Not to mention SUNY-Binghamton.

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T 02.17.14 at 10:37 pm

Corey:

Followed some links and found way more diversity than just Princeton and Yale PhD’s : Peterson/Harvard; Meany/Columbia; Goodman/Penn; Ackerman/Cornell; Loofbourow and Bady/Berkeley; a couple of CUNYs (your shop) with Stanford and Brandeis undergrad degrees; Grandin/Yale; …. Which was kinda my point.

You might have went a little hard on Kristof. Despite his general douchebaggery, I think he’s looking for some intellectual firepower against the craziness of the Cruz’s and the corporatism of the Democrats. I was serious when I said you needed a Yale PhD and a Harvard chair to get on his radar. Seems your radar doesn’t require the chair. (See first paragraph.) Maybe everyone should cast a wider net.

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Corey Robin 02.17.14 at 11:13 pm

T: You’ll also see U. Washington, U. Oregon, U. Tennessee, U. New Mexico, U. Rhode Island, U. Kentucky, U. Hawaii, CUNY, UT Dallas, Emory. And Purdue mentioned twice. And a couple of undergrad degrees at Brooklyn College, one from U. Colorado, and more. Not to mention, as Josh Mason pointed out, SUNY Binghamton….Which was kinda my point.

All in favor of everyone casting a wider net. Starting with you and the specific parts of this post that seem to slip through yours.

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Harry 02.18.14 at 1:29 am

JW Mason — look at what you wrote. One natural interpretation is that we use the revenues from teaching undergraduates to subsidize research. I suspect a lot of corners of the institutions we inhabit do, in fact, do that. (Princeton doesn’t — they have dead people to subsidize both). And there really is a trade-off between teaching and research for most of us: more time spent with students, or devising lesson plans, or exercises which will make them learn, or finding out whether they actually are learning, means less time spent reading/writing/in the lab/at conferences, and vice versa.

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QS 02.18.14 at 1:40 am

Hi Henry, your review was a great read, thanks.

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christian_h 02.18.14 at 2:30 am

But Harry the idea of the modern university is precisely that the students learn from those who also engage in research. As JW says it contradicts the very idea of the university to create a competition between research and teaching. And if you knew him at all you would be aware that like many of us he does not agree with the existence of tuition in the first place (sorry if I’m misjudging, JW). Teaching and research are inseparable.

More importantly: Corey, thanks for this post.

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js. 02.18.14 at 2:35 am

we use the revenues from teaching undergraduates to subsidize research. I suspect a lot of corners of the institutions we inhabit do, in fact, do that.

Are you suggesting that such subsidizing, to the extent it occurs, is unjustifiable? It’s not obvious to me that it is. If it is true, as a lot of teaching colleges even claim, that research is integral to being a good teacher at the college level, then it’s not obvious that such subsidizing is baseless. Sorry if I’m misunderstanding the point. And in any case, I completely agree about the research/teaching tradeoff, which I think holds even if original research is in some way necessary to adequately fulfil teaching duties.

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JW Mason 02.18.14 at 3:01 am

Harry-

Sure, yes, in the short term and at the individual level there can be tradeoffs between teaching and research. Only so many hours in the day, etc. But I don’t think that tradeoff is relevant for political/policy purposes. On almost all the axes that are politically relevant, support for scholarship and support for teaching move together. It’s sort of like saying there’s a tradeoff between decent working conditions for public employees and good quality public services. Yes, in principle you can imagine a world where we can cut bus drivers’ salaries and use the savings to run the buses more frequently. But it doesn’t usually work out that way, does it?

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JW Mason 02.18.14 at 3:07 am

like many of us he does not agree with the existence of tuition in the first place (sorry if I’m misjudging, JW).

That’s right.

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T 02.18.14 at 3:20 am

Corey

I followed six more links and as noted Scott Saul, Gordon Lafer, Diane Simon, Mary Renda, Robert Perkinson, and Elizabeth D. Samet all have Yale PhDs. I have only so much time to look. So if you think the mostly Yale (and Penn/Columbia/Harvard/Cornell/Northwestern) PhDs that don’t teach at Harvard are being slighted, their voices unheard, you’re probably right. Damn Kristof.

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Dorothy 02.18.14 at 4:13 am

Meh. I’m not a big Twitter fan and Ted Talks have begun to wear on me. But it seems odd to rant on for four times the column space that Kristof used to try to furiously defend the vast oceans of turgid prose coming out of universities today. The peer review process is endless. In a world that’s moving progressively faster and more fluidly, that process is as modern day as churning yer own butter, my friend! And sure, there are wonderful authors at our nation’s institutions of higher learning, but the writing is generally pretty poor and un-engaging and, because of that, utterly inaccessible to average working people. I think the point is that it would be nice if some of the good thinking going on at Universities penetrated the world more by being encapsulated in vehicles that were readable. Like I said, meh.

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David (Kid Geezer). 02.18.14 at 4:51 am

Just off the top of my head, Joan Carter at the University of Washington has been invaluable on Daily Kos. Lets not limit ourselves to print on paper.

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David (Kid Geezer). 02.18.14 at 4:52 am

I am also astounded by Kristoff’s pedigree. It seems to have been totally wasted on him and by him.

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Rakesh Bhandari 02.18.14 at 5:20 am

Michael Billig has tried to understand why social scientists write badly. “Never nominalize!”–that’s one of his main messages. Social scientists describe the world in static terms such that structures hold things in place. They thus evacuate the world of actors. To write scientifically is to hypostatize “repression” or “habitus”–Billig’s hero Freud and Bourdieu come under fire (I found however quite powerful that exact passage from Bourdieu that Billig criticizes). Billig believes that social scientists lose contact with actors making decisions under conditions of uncertainty and creating unstable outcomes, perhaps not of anyone’s design.

Social scientists also often use technical jargon on the grounds of its precision when their high-faluting terms are in fact notoriously polysemous (or perhaps I should write “polyvalent” to underline his point). Billig tries to understand why social scientists write as poorly as they do. I don’t have the book with me, so I’ll leave it here.

Billig would give us reason to believe that even if academics were bent on becoming public intellectuals, they don’t have to writing chops to be effective.

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js. 02.18.14 at 6:13 am

Sure, yes, in the short term and at the individual level there can be tradeoffs between teaching and research. Only so many hours in the day, etc. But I don’t think that tradeoff is relevant for political/policy purposes.

I think I agree with the last sentence here, but otherwise this seems like an excessively rosy view. There are very real tradeoffs between time and resources spent towards teaching vs. towards research. And yes, in the first instance you’re going to see this in the day to day, or better semester to semester, responsibilities of individual faculty members, but given that analogous responsibilities are going to be put on all or most faculty members at a given institution, it’s really a structural point. One easy way to see this, limiting myself to the relative ‘high end’, (and speaking about my discipline, philosophy), the academic profile of someone at Berkeley is really quite different, modally anyway, from that of someone at Kenyon, e.g.

I’m limiting myself to the high end precisely to make te point that this tradeoff is independent of the sort of political pressures you’re alluding to. The fact that those political pressures should be simultaneously resisted on behalf of both teaching and research doesn’t invalidate the tradeoffs that exist between the two.

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QS 02.18.14 at 6:14 am

1) Social scientists don’t write badly, they write for each other and this form of “internal conversation” generates its own dynamics, especially related to the lexicon.
2) They aren’t rewarded (within the profession) for speaking to the “outside world.” Worse, some institutions clearly are trying to prevent their academics from speaking to the outside world.
3) What academics produce is of little interest to the lay public, hence few within that public seek to enter the academic world to find ideas, perspectives, etc.
4) The reasons for #3 are related to the reward-structure of the discipline.

If the reward structure changes, we might see “better” writing (that is, scholarship designed for the public) by the same academics we have today. Most academics don’t like the current reward structure, but you might wonder about the degree to which academics have any agency in changing it given the increasing power of the administration to shape the university qua institution.

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JW Mason 02.18.14 at 6:17 am

the academic profile of someone at Berkeley is really quite different, modally anyway, from that of someone at Kenyon, e.g.

And is reducing the amount of time Berkeley faculty spend on research going to
Improve the quality of undergraduate education at Berkeley (which is already among the best in the country, no?), or at Kenyon, or in the CSU system, or anywhere else?

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QS 02.18.14 at 6:32 am

Teaching and research are two sides of the same coin. Both require me to read stuff, analyze it, master the content, and deliver it back to an audience. The stuff I teach is the stuff that I research is the stuff that I teach. In practice, teaching often forces a broader view of a subject than does research, which often tends towards the narrow, but typically does so in a way that ends up being useful for research. Similarly, narrow research provides a depth of knowledge into particular processes, cases, issues that are useful in the classroom as exemplars of the broader forces.

I consider this a wholly symbiotic relationship. Those who disagree probably don’t care as much about one or the other, and they themselves are the ones who subordinate that one to the other.

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L.D. Burnett 02.18.14 at 12:38 pm

T,

if you only have time to follow one link from Corey’s post above, follow this one: Tressie McMillan Cottom.

I have always been irked by the term “public intellectual,” and the deeper I get into my field (U.S. intellectual history), the more the term irks me — hidden injuries of class, I guess. But if we’re ever going to recover for that term some sense of lively engagement, some sense of bringing a keen critical vision to bear on our culture — not for criticism’s sake, but for our culture’s sake — writers like Tressie are going to show the way.

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T 02.18.14 at 3:49 pm

58 – L.D. Burnett

Thank you for pointing this out and to Corey for providing the original links. A distinctive and original voice on important topics, it seems TMC has been very successful in finding major outlets. I’m sympathetic with your view of the “public intellectual” and the even more rarefied academic public intellectual. But that probably came through in my earlier posts.

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Rakesh Bhandari 02.18.14 at 4:46 pm

Sometimes I think the most effective public intellectuals come from outside the academy not only because they have not learned how to write badly but because they are freed of the constraints that Upton Sinclair once described in his study of higher education. I think here of Jonathan Steele on the US defeat in the Iraq war (Defeat), Steven Greenhouse on the workings of the US labor market (The Big Squeeze), Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari on the costs of the Indian growth model (The Churning of the Earth).

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Main Street Muse 02.18.14 at 5:36 pm

From QS: “I consider this a wholly symbiotic relationship. Those who disagree probably don’t care as much about one or the other, and they themselves are the ones who subordinate that one to the other.”

You are lucky to work at an institution that supports your research. But you are talking about a vanishing opportunity.

According to today’s NY Times editorial, 50% of faculty at American universities are not so lucky – they are poorly paid adjuncts who get no benefits and have little support for research (and provide 70% of the instruction at universities.) This number has jumped significantly in the last few decades, and shows no sign of slowing down. http://nyti.ms/N6xg6j

40% of students who attend a four-year university program fail to graduate in six years. http://1.usa.gov/1h1MoeA

Student debt in America totals $1.2 trillion, with more than 7 million borrowers in default on their student loans. http://1.usa.gov/M9LYZq

Please continue to feel secure on your tenure-track… while you ignore the powerful problems that plague academia today.

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harry b 02.18.14 at 6:41 pm

Is there any research evidence that teaching and research are inseparable?
QS: is the stuff that your research, which is the stuff that you teach, the stuff that the students should be learning? Think about it this way: does your department figure out what a good curriculum would look like for i) the students taking classes for general education classes and ii) the majors, and then have faculty design their research agendas around that? Or does it decide on its offerings based substantially on what the professors want to teach because it is what they research? Or are the two, in fact, fairly separate: ie, neither teaching nor research are subordinate to the other? The tilt in most departments I know in public research universities is to subordinate teaching to research (ie the middle model).

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Anarcissie 02.18.14 at 7:12 pm

Rakesh Bhandari 02.18.14 at 4:46 pm @ 60:
‘… Sometimes I think the most effective public intellectuals come from outside the academy….’

I was wondering as I read this how the participants were using the term ‘intellectual’. Some of the time it seems to be ‘person with advanced academic credentials’, sometimes not. Of course Mr. Kristof’s problem is one of gatekeeping, not of the categories of intellectuals, whatever they may be. But there are different gates for different categories.

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Joseph Brenner 02.18.14 at 7:31 pm

This is perhaps picking a nit, but Jacoby’s actual complaint was not that PhD’s don’t write for newspapers, but that there is now a shortage of completely unaffiliated “public intellectuals”, people who don’t necessarily even have college degrees, let alone ones that have gone through the academic grind all the way up to the great Tenure Games.

Every single academic who read Jacoby seems to have ignored the “independent” part of his definition, and gone ahead and added “PI” to their business cards after the “PhD”.

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Russell 02.18.14 at 8:25 pm

I just wanted to say many thanks for writing this. There were so many things wrong with Kristof’s piece it was hard to know where to begin. I tried to bite off a different, smaller chunk in a post I wrote.

Krugman’s blog pointed me here. Reading your bio I see that you’ve written several pieces for The Nation I really enjoyed. I’d like to read a good book about conservatism and this reminded me that yours looked worth checking out.

Happy to have discovered this blog, too. I took a hiatus while finishing my dissertation and I’m enjoying being able to pay attention to more than one topic.

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harry b 02.19.14 at 1:43 am

Just a second to what js says.

“And is reducing the amount of time Berkeley faculty spend on research going to
Improve the quality of undergraduate education at Berkeley (which is already among the best in the country, no?), or at Kenyon, or in the CSU system, or anywhere else?”

Is it among the best in the country? We just don’t have much evidence about the quality of instruction in most institutions, let alone across institutions. Or if we do its news to me!

As for whether reducing the amount of time Berkeley faculty spend on research would improve the quality of the education at CSU schools… well, it depends what the faculty do instead. Lets say they spent 20 hours per semester less on research (on average) and devoted that time to learning, and teaching their graduate students (who will become faculty members at CSU schools etc), better instructional skills: yep, that would improve education at CSU schools.

I don’t know what you think happens in large research universities like mine. But take the freshman I was talking to the other day — smart, never been intellectually challenged, and sits in a large lecture class 3 times a week where a tenured faculty member reads his powerpoint slides to the students — the powerpoint slides that, printed, constitute the text for the class. Maybe his research is so fantastically important that really, his time would be wasted learning something about teaching. But, currently, those students pay a significant portion of his salary, and he pisses away their time. Many of our readers attended institutions like mine as undergraduates, and they can pitch in about whether this is a one-off story.

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QS 02.19.14 at 2:02 am

@61, I think you’re barking up a very different tree.

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Main Street Muse 02.19.14 at 4:17 am

To QS, what tree is that?

This one? “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.” (From OP)

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QS 02.19.14 at 5:42 am

You’re trying to argue that the adjuncting of the university has eliminated research as a possibility for the majority of faculty. Of course, this is true. I’m arguing that there is no inherent dichotomy between research and teaching though there are forces who’d like us to think there is. The call to “prioritize” research has come to devalue teaching and artificially separate the two (I argue, conjoined) activities. I argue that those who take research seriously should also take teaching seriously, since they are symbiotic pairs. I would also argue that our Adjunct, Inc. system has a lot to do with the problems I identify.

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cbzoli 02.19.14 at 2:02 pm

Despite a lot of words, essentially, Robin supports Kristof’s (and Jacoby’s) concerns: structural shifts in US public and academic culture that leaves us with a less robust public-intellectual life. Both Robin & Kristof focus on T&P incentives, academic labor relations (which are seriously scandalous and the fact that we in academia have allowed this is unconscionable and truly foolish, undermining our lefty credentials), public divestiture, over-specialization, and other symptoms.

Robin is also right & insightful: there is a lot of amazing new-generation writers leveraging social media venues filling the gap–often heroically–but still those structural pressures remain.

This feels like one of those Mumford or Wilson or Galbraith or Slaughter moments, when truly broad-minded consensus-building public intellectuals simply say: “ok, structure is a problem, cohort of heroic individuals are amazing. Let’s raise public awareness of both, focus energy to remedy the bad, and expand the good.” Not an especially hard problem from a conceptual/rhetorical perspective. But, instead, we in academia largely & predictably polarize and complicate, assault Kristof (Voeten is a good exception), instead of leveraging the visibility of this issue now for positive change: how about those structural issues, adjuncts, for instance. What can we do together with the public focus? Are we really going to be complicit in deprofessionalizing our profession and wait for Congress (state legislatures) to solve this as a wage problem, or do something about it? What about public engagement as a component of promotion? Cohorts of academics pushing for consortia–in & beyond blogs–for social and policy relevant channels for our research? etc.

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JW Mason 02.19.14 at 2:55 pm

harry b, I do not understand what you are arguing. Do you really, genuinely believe that Berkeley is an example of what’s wrong with American higher education? Do you find yourself saying, “The big problem for college students today is that too many of them are stuck at schools like Berkeley”? Do you think other people re saying that? That just sounds bizarre to me — but if you don’t think that, then your comments don’t seem to have a point.

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JW Mason 02.19.14 at 2:58 pm

Or along the same lines, do you imagine administrators at CSU-wherever saying, “We have plenty of money for new faculty, but we can’t find anyone qualified because places like Berkeley are ignoring graduate instruction”? Because again, that seems bizarre to me — but if that isn’t what you think, then 65 is just a big non sequitur.

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harry b 02.19.14 at 3:35 pm

JWMason — no, it is just one big problem with selective higher education that we don’t devote much time effort or resources to improving instruction or even assuring minimal competence, not necessarily the main problem with higher education. Evidently we are talking past each other. I was just responding to particular things that you and QS said, which seemed wrong to me, and, in addition, ill-considered: eg my comment about Berkeley was, in fact, a direct answer to a question that you asked (I did quote the question, and am puzzled why you think it wasn’t an answer). I wasn’t responding to the OP.

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JW Mason 02.19.14 at 4:11 pm

The question i asked was why we think there is any relevant tradeoff between teaching and research at the political, policy or institutional level (as opposed to the individual level.) I don’t believe that any such tradeoff exists, and you haven’t given any reason to believe it does.

The time I’m spending getting ready for class this morning, I could have spent going for a run. But it would be silly to say “the problem with education in America is that teachers are too healthy and fit.” I think your position is — well, not as silly as that, but in the same general direction.

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JW Mason 02.19.14 at 4:15 pm

Corey’s line that MSM quotes 67 makes the same point.

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harry b 02.19.14 at 5:43 pm

You did, in fact, ask the question I answered (I know that, because I cut and pasted it into the quotation marks in my comment). If you think my answer to that question is wrong, go ahead and explain why. I don’t know the answer to the question about whether there is a trade off at the political level (partly I don’t know exactly what you mean by that); but my answer to the question I answered I think suggests that there are, indeed, trade offs at the institutional and policy levels. But if you think my answer was wrong then, of course, you won’t think it suggests that.

Your question at 70: well, you might want to talk to some CSU administrators, and ask them whether they think the quality of the preparation of instructors at the graduate programs they draw their faculty from is good enough. I don’t know any administrators at CSU, but I know plenty at other institutions and of course they don’t say exactly what you ask whether they say (nobody ever thinks they have plenty of money) but, yes, they think that the instructional preparation of PhDs they hire is sub-optimal. You disagree? Think about how much time graduate students invest in learning how to research — reading research done by people who are clearly experts, mimicking it, getting their own efforts criticized in detail, revising, getting their revisions critiqued, etc. Think how much time faculty spend doing that. Now think about how much time they spend watching expert teachers, analyzing what they do, mimicking it, getting others to watch their teaching, criticize it, revising, getting their revisions critiqued etc. QS thinks that people who disagree that the relationship between research and teaching is symbiotic and anyone who disagrees has already subordinated one to the other. I think he (or she, but I doubt it) must have been in a quite extraordinary graduate program and is now in a quite extraordinary department, and I want my kid to go to school there!

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JW Mason 02.19.14 at 6:32 pm

Think about how much time graduate students invest in learning how to research — reading research done by people who are clearly experts, mimicking it, getting their own efforts criticized in detail, revising, getting their revisions critiqued, etc. Now think about how much time they spend watching expert teachers, analyzing what they do, mimicking it, getting others to watch their teaching, criticize it, revising, getting their revisions critiqued etc.

I agree that the second quoted sentence describes a real problem. But I disagree with its juxtaposition with the sentence before it.

Suppose somebody wrote:

“Think about all the effort graduate programs go to improve ethnic and gender diversity. Now think about how little time they spend preparing graduate students to be better teachers.”

I think it would be obvious to you that this is a false opposition, and politically harmful. From my point of view, the opposition you’re akin is the same kind of thing. I very much agree with you that graduate programs can and should do more to prepare people as teachers. (Though, I should add, I went to a program where most grad students work as TA from their first semesters, and in many cases continue teaching every semester until they defend.) But I think framing the lack of focus on teaching as an excessive focus on scholarship is just wrong.

Look: The actual, existing debates about higher education in this country are (1) how much in the way of public resources will go to support it; and (2) whether colleges and universities should continue to be organized as self-governing academic communities, or whether they should be organized more like for-profit business. (With an important part of 2 driven by various groups on the entrepreneur-scam artist continuum who see a chance to divert higher-ed dollars into their pockets.) Those are the debates we are having now. Not whether one of your colleagues should put more efforts into his lectures.

If you take the view that scholarly research is an expensive indulgence that does not contribute to education, you are not (just) participating in a friendly discussion among academics about how to best use our time. You are taking a side, whether you like it or not, int the two debates above. And I don’t think it’s the side you want to be on.

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harry b 02.19.14 at 6:56 pm

Thanks for the patronizing final paragraph.Really helpful to know where you’re coming from.

Time is limited, and we have to decide how to allocate it. It would be nice if all the time we devoted to research served our teaching and vice versa, as it is for QS, but for most of us it isn’t (and shouldn’t be for the reasons I give in response to one of his comments). Our institutions structure the choices we make by providing incentives of various kinds, which is why our choices are an institutional and policy matter. These incentives need to change, and quickly, so that we have more incentive to attend to instructional quality than we currently do and, yes, that will have effects on research. I don’t think the effects have to be large, because I think there is so much room for improvement in instruction that a great deal can be achieved without a great deal of extra effort. Also because a fair amount of scholarly production (by no means most) is not really the doing or reporting of original research, but publication simply in response to incentives (been on a tenure review committee lately?). By that I do NOT mean that the research is frivolous, but that additional publication of the same research takes up time and effort that is not productive. I’m certainly guilty of that.

I agree about what the main debates are, but I think that our institutions need to change, in order precisely to slow (not reverse, that ain’t going to happen in anything like the near future) the secular trend of reducing public subsidies to higher education and to enable us better to compete in with the for-profit sector in both the political arena and the market. I want to see those changes come from inside, because the changes that will be imposed from outside will be worse (viz, Obama’s recent series of recommendations, which are a mess and would create a mess).

I went to a program like the one you went to, and I teach in one (teaching till you defend, with a few exceptions). I know that my program has a reputation for producing (relatively) good pedagogues, and agree that has something to do with the sheer amount of teaching they do, but it has much more to do with the focussed attention that a succession of graduate students has placed on improving instruction, not individually, but in an institutionalized manner. Simply doing a lot of teaching doesn’t make you a good teacher. (Compare with driving: I actually think doing lots of it does make you better up to a point, but you are constantly, constantly, watching other people do it, some well, some badly).

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JW Mason 02.19.14 at 7:05 pm

Thanks for the patronizing final paragraph.Really helpful to know where you’re coming from.

Sorry, you’re right, that was obnoxious. Hard to manage tone in blog comments, as we all know.

Time is limited, and we have to decide how to allocate it.

I agree this is often true on an individual level. I don’t think it is true at the level of the institution or the society. But I’m repeating myself.

incentives need to change, and quickly, so that we have more incentive to attend to instructional quality than we currently do and, yes, that will have effects on research. I don’t think the effects have to be large, because I think there is so much room for improvement in instruction that a great deal can be achieved without a great deal of extra effort. Also because a fair amount of scholarly production (by no means most) is not really the doing or reporting of original research, but publication simply in response to incentives (been on a tenure review committee lately?)

Not lately or ever. I’m just starting out in this game, this is my first year in a tenure-track job. Which I’m sure colors my perspective. Anyway, I agree with all this — except that I’m a bit allergic to the word “incentives”…

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adam.smith 02.19.14 at 7:06 pm

“Think about all the effort graduate programs go to improve ethnic and gender diversity. Now think about how little time they spend preparing graduate students to be better teachers.”

As they say “an analogy is not an argument”… More specifically, if 90% of tenure and hiring decisions at a university were based on increasing diversity then I’d maybe suggest that a correction would indeed be in order. The statement you produce is absurd because we’re very, very, very far from such a reality. I don’t think there are any hires in US academia where someone who is a massively less qualified teacher and researcher gets a job because of their gender or ethnicity. But there are most certainly hires were the hiree is

Rather than keeping this abstract, why not talk about specific measures. How about increasing the importance of quality of teaching for hiring and tenure. Surely that’d constitute a trade-off at the institutional level? E.g. you have two people, one is a better researcher, one a much better teacher, who do you hire/give tenure? Regardless of what your answer is, this is a trade-off. And it’s a trade-off at the institutional, not individual level, because obviously such decisions stack up, send signals, etc.

And what do you make of places like liberal arts colleges, which do exactly this: increase the importance of teaching excellence over research excellence. Do you really think Oberlin and Amherst are part of a conspiracy against publicly funded education or self-organized academic communities??? (and mind you, professors at both of those places produce excellent research. So we’re not talking about “doing away with” research).

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JW Mason 02.19.14 at 7:06 pm

(And I should be preparing for the class I teach in an hour, instead of debating teaching on a blog. Which is another example of how there are many margins to trade off on besides teaching vs. scholarship.)

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adam.smith 02.19.14 at 7:09 pm

oops, sorry this should read:
” But there are most certainly hires were the hiree is a massively less able teacher”.

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JW Mason 02.19.14 at 7:14 pm

mind you, professors at both of those places produce excellent research.

Right, that’s my point. Institutions that do a good job supporting teaching don’t do so by discouraging scholarship. So focusing on that margin is a distraction.

As Corey said in the OP and as various people have said in comments, the real problem with teaching in this country is that so much of it is done by adjuncts who have zero time for research, and no prospect of tenure on any basis. So I really think this is a red herring in the same way, if not to the same degree, as my diversity example.

Now, anecdotally, I will say that when I was on the academic job market last year, a big chunk of all the interviews was devoted to teaching philosophy, how to engage students in the classroom, etc. — except at the couple of research universities I had interviews with, where the subject did not come up at all. So yeah, I don’t deny that the phenomenon you’re describing is real. I just don’t think that the problems in higher education in this country are mainly about the priorities of tenure-track faculty at research universities.

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roy belmont 02.19.14 at 8:47 pm

One of the reasons I spend as much time as I do reading the posts at Crooked Timber, is the opportunity it provides, at times, to observe polite rigorous discussion, of the kind exemplified above by Harry B and JWMason.

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Jerry Vinokurov 02.19.14 at 9:29 pm

This conversation has mentioned Berkeley several times, so as someone who went to Berkeley for undergrad, I have some insight into the quality of teaching there. There’s… lots of variance, that’s for sure. I started out as an engineer, and some classes in EECS (electrical engineering and computer science) were fine and competently taught, and some of them were a pedagogical garbage fire. My predominant experience in EECS was that you had a prof reading his powerpoints (or even transparencies) to a lecture hall of 400 students and then you have a bunch of disinterested GSIs (graduate student instructors), many of whom barely spoke English (no knock on the foreign students, but hey, when you need to learn from/teach someone, it helps to speak the same language) kinda sorta trying to explain the subject to you. That’s one extreme; in several other cases, I’ve had lectures where the professor was barely trying, but the GSIs were super-helpful and enthusiastic about their teaching. Later I changed majors to double in math and physics. In math, unless you took the honors classes (I was not quite enough of a glutton for punishment to do that), you were unlikely to get an experienced professor who knew anything about teaching. You might get lucky with one of the junior faculty or a postdoc, but it was basically a crapshoot. My best experience was in physics, where the majority of the classes were taught by full professors, many of whom were genuinely interested in getting you to learn something and weren’t just going through the motions.

What’s the lesson? I’m not sure there is one; I had good teachers and bad teachers, and the quality of the teacher didn’t seem to have much to do with their star power. My best professor was emeritus and had been at Berkeley forever; my second-best professor went emeritus a few years after I left. If there’s anything that I’ve found correlated reasonably well with quality of teaching, it was age; the older professors just knew better how to explain the concepts to their students. Young superstars, on the other hand, tended to assume they were teaching other (future) young superstars, and would just blast you with torrents of information, and if you picked up something in the process, good for you.

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harry b 02.19.14 at 10:27 pm

Thanks Jerry (and Roy and JWMason). I’d say that the quality of instruction at institutions like Berkeley and Madison is a big issue partly because we produce such large numbers of people who will have responsibility in our (and I would guess JWM and I agree about this) unjustly unequal society, and we want those people to be well-equipped to bear those responsibilities well and inclined to use their skills to benefit others.

But also, it is really no surprise to hear that Jerry’s best learning experiences at Berkeley were in Physics. Berkeley Physics is one of the centers of seriousness about instruction, no? Still, its good to have it confirmed by someone on the spot as it were!

Fwiw I think I’m a much better teacher now than when I was younger, even than a few years ago, but I don’t have much evidence of that (eg, my evals are pretty much as they have been throughout; and we lack good assessments of student learning in my discipline).

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Main Street Muse 02.20.14 at 12:11 am

To JW Mason

“‘For me, Kristoff’s article raises the issue – what is the purpose of college? To fund research? To provide thought leaders? To educate students?’

“By setting these up as alternatives, you are part of the problem.”

Actually, I am not at all part of the problem. I am taking a thoughtful look at a sector that is seriously out of whack. People are going into debt to go to college, to receive the majority of their instruction from people who are paid wages they can’t live on. Students aren’t graduating in a timely fashion, if at all. There is a dwindling pool of those whose research is enabled/supported by the institution. YOU academics need to start asking these questions – and demanding change where needed.

Yesterday, UIC faculty went on strike, in part to advocate for 70 lecturers who make $30K a year. http://bit.ly/1bjAAGk

“Some 1,100 full-time tenured and nontenured faculty members are taking part in the two-day strike, after failing to reach a deal following 18 months of negotiations, the union says. The next bargaining session is planned for Friday.

The key issue, Persky said, is wages — particularly for the 70 or so nontenured full-time lecturers who earn a $30,000 annual minimum.”

Salon did a piece about the Walmart-ization of the university – how young professors (adjuncts) are getting screwed. http://bit.ly/1fdhqD6

Kristoff wonders about the relevance of academic research.

NYTimes editorial page talks about “the new college campus,” a place where most professors don’t earn a living wage, get benefits or have any job security.

You professors are in a sector that is seeing dramatic changes – and not for the good. My questions about the purpose of college are far from being the problem. NOT asking the questions is wrong – assuming the answer is “college does all of those things” ignores the rapidly shifting foundations of the university in America. That’s to your peril.

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js. 02.20.14 at 6:40 am

Time is limited, and we have to decide how to allocate it.

I agree this is often true on an individual level. I don’t think it is true at the level of the institution or the society.

But there’s been lots of evidence presented on this thread, by Harry, by adam.smith, that it is true on an institutional level. A lot of things from graduate training, to hiring criteria, to tenure review criteria, set up institutionally reinforced tradeoffs between resources spent on research vs. on teaching.

The thing is, I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but it’s almost as if you’re making your point weaker by refusing to admit that there’re serious problems that are internal to academia as currently constituted that make it more difficult to coherently respond to external political pressures, pressures which by all means need to be resisted on behalf of both research and teaching (to repeat myself).

Or, really, what harry b said at @76 much better.

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js. 02.20.14 at 6:41 am

Total HTML failure there. First 2 paras are a quote from JWM, first para is JWM quoting Harry.

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harry b 02.20.14 at 1:45 pm

Actually, js, I think your last para puts it better than I did. Not that I want to be contentious or anything!

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Rakesh Bhandari 02.20.14 at 5:21 pm

On good teaching being correlated with age, perhaps that holds partially due to older teachers likely having had the experience of teaching their own kids? Or perhaps that advantage is neutralized by the time it takes to raise the kiddies? Hence, the golden years of teaching are the golden years of a career, after the kids have left and just before one retires?

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Jerry Vinokurov 02.20.14 at 5:28 pm

On good teaching being correlated with age, perhaps that holds partially due to older teachers likely having had the experience of teaching their own kids? Or perhaps that advantage is neutralized by the time it takes to raise the kiddies? Hence, the golden years of teaching are the golden years of a career, after the kids have left and just before one retires?

I don’t know anything about my professors’ child-raising strategies. I think it’s simpler than that: it just comes down to experience with students. The more you do it, the more you develop a vocabulary for conveying the meaning of, say, a formula, rather than just its notation. I find that the more I have to explain things to others, the better I understand them myself, and the more developed my intuition about these topics becomes, and I suspect that’s what’s happening here as well.

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Rakesh Bhandari 02.20.14 at 5:35 pm

Well still working on the assumption that older teachers are better teachers, I can see the logic of what you are saying.

I think that you may find this interesting.

http://teaching.berkeley.edu/blog/evaluating-evaluations-part-1
http://teaching.berkeley.edu/blog/what-evaluations-measure-part-ii

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ezra abrams 02.21.14 at 3:28 am

Respectfully, I think the widespread trashing of NK is all that is wrong with the blogo sphere.

Maybe he said something stupid, maybe not, but if you look at his recent columns (1,2) he is doing what very few people – krugtron aside – in his position of power do: comfort the weak and voiceless, and afflict the powerful (not as good as B Herbert, but darn good)
so cut the guy some slack
ya wanna vent ?
how about J Nocera, who also, as a Times columnist, has one of the most prominent and powerful voices in american media.
And who, of all the penniless people suffering horrible, horrible things, people who can’t afford lawyers or PR men, who are really helpless, does Mr Nocera choose to defend ?
Brit Petro, a deka billion dollar ayear company
Maybe BP is being screwed by the legal settlement process for the gulf oil spill; maybe not.
But they can at least afford their own lawyers
why don’t you cut NK some slack and go after JN ?
this NK orgy must be what people mean when they talk about progressives eating each other up

1 http://topics.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/columnists/nicholasdkristof/

2 (shades of Tulia drug busts) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/26/opinion/sunday/kristof-3-enemas-later-still-no-drugs.html?ref=nicholasdkristof

PS: all this complaining about how there are all these publically engaged acessible PhDs sort of sounds kinda self defensive and whiney, don’t it ?? Kinda like you got something to proove ?

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L.D. Burnett 02.22.14 at 7:06 pm

Over at the US Intellectual History blog, Andrew Seal has a guest post responding to and refining some of Corey’s points in this post. Check it out:

The Point Is Academic

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