Why Nicholas Kristof's Latest Column Stings So Much and Why He's Right

Professors do need to engage more fully in public debates. We must do so in a way more hospitable to those without post-graduate degrees.
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The grading rubric I use to grade my students' essays includes two important parts. First, there's:

"Thesis. Is the essay's claim easily identifiable, plausible, novel, sophisticated, or insightful?"

Then there's:

"Analysis, Logic, and Argumentation."

Nicholas Kristof's latest op-ed published last weekend, "Professors, We Need You!" gets an "A" for thesis, and a "D" for analysis.

Kristof argues that college and university faculty should be more engaged in the public square. Professors should shape our culture's "great debates," Kristof writes, and move beyond our "turgid prose" and "gobbledygook" published in obscure journals. We should reconnect to worldly concerns.

Regarding Kristof's overall point, he's spot-on -- professors do need to engage more fully in public debates. We must do so in a way more hospitable to those without post-graduate degrees. But, in the process of making that argument, Kristof misses what he so often writes about -- namely, systemic injustice, abuse of power, and economic instability. The system just happens, in this case, to be higher education in the U.S.

Many comments on Kristof's blog and Facebook page note the lack of space given to student debt, graduate student workload (some teach three classes a semester for less than minimum wage in addition to taking two of their own), the horrific academic job market, the adjunct faculty crisis, etc.

Kristof also does not take-on the tenure system. If younger, pre-tenure faculty are not encouraged to share their research beyond academic journals, if they are not rewarded for their work in online forums nor for the quality of tweets, if they are not given credit for public presentations given beyond academic conferences, it might in fact be quite unwise for them to pursue the life of "a public intellectual." I wonder what, if any value, giving a TED talk would have for most tenure review committees. In the eyes of some committees, it would indicate a waste of time spent dedicated to true scholarship.

The only time Kristof mentions blind peer review academic journals, he does so in a disparaging way. And while a few sentences do admit he's aware of his broad-brush painting, Kristof includes very little mention of the work of professors who have iterated (note my hip, non-academic language there) to write for Slate or the Huffington Post, new sites like Faith Street and Religion Dispatches, and the growing number of publicly assessable, online academic journals.

Kristof takes potshots at political science's supposed disregard for policy prescriptions, without acknowledging the work of thousands of academics working on issues of global poverty, climate change and disease prevention, issues about which he writes about so often.

While Kristof does note the "growing number of tools available to educate the public" he seems to take for granted that the sheer number of tools will necessarily allow the best work to magically rise to the top. This is media tech-utopianism at its worst. He seems to presume the public is yearning for faculty voices when in fact most are scared of them (exhibit one: climate change).

So, sure, there are some holes in the piece (there are many more). Any writer on a deadline is allowed some off days. And yet, if Kristof's thesis is that our world stands to benefit if our nation's faculty more clearly share their wisdom, scholarship and compassion, I do believe he's right.

I'll finish on a personal, hopeful note. My Ph.D. advisor at North Dakota State University is a 2013 Bush Fellow. Kevin Brooks, a tenured full professor in the English department, is dedicating much of the next few years to, well, I'll let him describe it:

I'm being funded for two years by the Bush Foundation to improve and expand English Language Learning opportunities for New Americans and Immigrants in Fargo-Moorhead. I'm specifically focusing on informal instructional spaces: volunteers going to homes, meeting at libraries, schools and other locations. Within these informal instructional spaces, I am trying to figure out what kinds of materials, print and electronic, are particularly effective. While trying to answer these questions, I will also be working towards rebuilding Giving + Learning, a program that matched volunteers and New Americans in Fargo-Moorhead for about 10 years before closing its doors.

Us faculty-types can get a bit cranky. We use big words too often. Our systems, while good at building highly specific knowledge, need updating. Thanks, Nicholas Kristof for the reminder, even if it stung a bit.

A version of this post is published at A Wee Blether. Other responses to Kristof's op-ed include:

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