Edit 17 February: If you want to move beyond criticism (and snark), join me in thinking about things that Mr. Kristof should look into/write about if he really wants a more engaged academia here.

In his Saturday column, Nick Kristof joins a long line of people, academics and otherwise, who decry the distance between academia and society. While I greatly appreciate his call to engage more with society and its questions (something I think I embody in my own career), I found his column to be riddled with so many misunderstandings/misrepresentations of academia that, in the end, he contributes nothing to the conversation.

What issues, you ask?

1) He misdiagnoses the problem

If you read the column quickly, it seems that Kristof blames academic culture for the lack of public engagement he decries. This, of course, ignores the real problem, which is more accurately diagnosed by Will McCants’s (oddly marginalized) quotes in the column. Sure, there are academics out there with no interest in public engagement. And that is fine, by the way – people can make their own choices about what they do and why. But to suggest that all of academia is governed by a culture that rejects public engagement deeply misrepresents the problem. The problem is the academic rewards system which currently gives us job security and rewards for publishing in academic journals, and nearly nothing for public outreach. To quote McCants:

If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.

This is not a problem of academic culture, this is a problem of university management – administrations decide who gets tenure, and on what standard. If university administrations decided to halve the number of articles required for tenure, and replaced that academic production with a demand that professors write a certain number of op-eds, run blogs with a certain number of monthly visitors, or participate in policy development processes, I assure you the world would be overrun with academic engagement. So if you want more engagement, go holler at some university presidents and provosts, and lay off the assistant professors.

2) Kristof takes aim at academic prose – but not really:

 …academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose.

Well, yes. There is a lot of horrific prose in academia – but Kristof seems to suggest that crap writing is a requirement of academic work. It is not – I guarantee you that the best writers are generally cited a lot more than the worst. So Kristof has unfairly demonized academia as willfully holding the public at bay with its crappy writing, which completely misdiagnoses the problem. The problem is that the vast majority of academia isn’t trained in writing (beyond a freshman composition course), there is no money in academia for the editorial staff that professional writers (and columnists) rely on to clean up their own turgid prose, and the really simple fact that we all tend to write like what we read. Because academic prose is mostly terrible, people who read it tend to write terrible prose. This is why I am always reading short fiction (Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories, etc.) alongside my work reading…

If you want better academic prose, budget for the same editorial support, say, that the New York Times or the New Yorker provide for their writers. I assure you, academic writing would be fantastic almost immediately.

Side note: Kristof implicitly sets academic writing against all other sources of writing, which leads me to wonder if he’s ever read a policy document. I helped author one, and I read many, while at USAID. The prose was generally horrific…

3) His implicit prescription for more engaged writing is a disaster

Kristof notes that “In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.” In short, he sees engagement as prescription. Which is exactly the wrong way to go about it. I have served as a policy advisor to a political appointee. I can assure you that handing a political appointee a prescription is no guarantee they will adopt it. Indeed, I think they are probably less likely to adopt it because it isn’t their idea. Policy prescriptions preclude ownership of the conclusion and needed responses by the policymaker. Better to lay out clear evidence for the causes of particular challenges, or the impacts of different decisions. Does academia do enough of this? Probably not. But for heaven’s sake, don’t start writing prescriptive pieces. All that will do is perpetuate our marginality through other means.

4) He confuses causes and effects in his argument that political diversity produces greater societal impact.

Arguing that the greater public engagement of economists is about their political diversity requires ignoring most of the 20th century history of thought within which disciplines took shape. Just as geography became a massive discipline in England and other countries with large colonial holdings because of the ways that discipline fit into national needs, so economics became massive here in the US in response to various needs at different times that were captured (for better or for worse) by economics. I would argue that the political diversity in economics is a product of its engagement with the political sphere, as people realized that economic thought could shift/drive political agendas…not the other way around.

5) There is a large movement underway in academia to rethink “impact”.

There is too much under this heading to cover in a single post. But go visit the LSE Impact Blog to see the diversity of efforts to measure academic impact currently in play – everything from rethinking traditional journal metrics to looking at professors’ reach on Twitter. Mr. Kristof is about 4 years late to this argument.

In short, Kristof has recognized a problem that has been discussed…forever, by an awful lot of people. But he clearly has no idea where the problem comes from, and therefore offers nothing of use when it comes to solutions. All this column does is perpetuate several misunderstandings of academia that have contributed to its marginalization – which seems to be the opposite of the columns’ intent.