Significant change has taken place in the UK and abroad in how academic knowledge is communicated, accessed and written, but persistent stereotypes of the unengaged, obscure professor are still widespread, evidenced most recently by last week’s New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof. Pat Thomson finds Kristof’s piece fails to account for the wealth of hybrid spaces for journalists, academics and the public. However, the ways in which numbers and quantitative data are understood may require more scrutiny when it comes to productive public discourse.
I often get asked why I left Australia to come to the UK. Apart from the obvious answers – (1) a job, (2) well it wasn’t the weather, and (3) it was a late career adventure – the question is now pretty out of date. After more than a decade, it seems more to the point to now ask why I stay. Well, it isn’t the weather. It is however still the job, even though some of the things about higher education in the UK make me pretty irritable, as my last post on hyperbole and league tables attests. One of the things I DO appreciate about the UK is the fact that there does seem to be an interest in the things that academics get up to.
When I first arrived here in mid 2003, yet another Ozzie in the heart of Empire, I couldn’t get over the fact that serious journalism and decent television actually still existed, and quite a lot of it. The small Australian population was, at that point in time, largely at the mercy of a terrible tabloid triumvirate. If, like me, you lived in a minority Australian state, the one where the Murdoch galaxy had its headquarters, there was little relief from tabloid talk. I could hardly believe that in the UK it was actually possible to buy two, three, four serious newspapers and several specialist news magazines let alone listen to ‘serious’ radio any time of the day or night. There seemed to be quite a number of savvy and witty people on air and in print, among them academics, all engaged in writing/talking/presenting separately and together.
Over the last decade social media has made some difference to the production of news and commentary in Australia. As I look from the other hemisphere I see that there are now several alternative media news-sites and magazines available for those who want/need something other than the binary of the beleaguered national broadcaster and commercial print media. There is academic input into these alt-media publications. The Conversation in particular has created a new space for academics to write for interested readers. So it’s not the same as when I left.
These hybrid web spaces have also opened up in the UK and have been taken up by a range of players, including of course the existing ‘quality’ press who now maintain online columns and forums. As in Australia, there are now more opportunities for academics to write for a wider readership, and there is also a flurry of academic blogging. But unlike Oz, UK research funding bodies now push for public engagement and impact, and so this matters in individual funding bids, in research education, and in institutional audit (the REF). The majority of UK researchers now routinely have to think about academic publication, publications for their particular interest community and writing something more general. They might also hold an exhibition, make you tube videos, write blogs, create websites, work in research partnerships…. In other words, we can’t just write obscure gobbledegook as per the stereotype, even if we wanted to.
Given this context, it was probably not surprising that when I read Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times op-ed piece, disingenuously titled Professors we need you! that I got a bit cross. I was reading from a UK perspective. The piece got a fair bit of traffic on social media, initially retweeted as if it applied to the UK. Kristof’s comments have been contested in the US, and they need to be here too.
In the UK context, Kristof’s argument seems like a very cheap shot indeed. Another go at academics for being obscure and difficult. Yes, we all write the odd arcane paper and yes, it is rewarded and yes, it might only be read by three people. But we also try really hard to write other things too. Today’s academic writes and publishes for a range of audiences. What’s more, and by the way, I thought mentally wagging my finger at Kristof, the UK academy and the public are not as easily cut apart as that. There are increasing numbers of ‘alt academics ‘out there’, just as there are ‘alt professionals’ inside higher education (I’m one). There is an expanding archipelago of mixed communities of interest, mixed publics if you like, where there are discussions, debates, networking, joint activity and information sharing.
This is not a one-way street. As Tressie McMillan Cottom has observed, getting academic work into the public arena requires two-way understanding between journalists and academics. It’s not simply down to the academics that the work doesn’t get out there, as Kristof’s piece suggests. And maybe that is where the UK might be an interesting counter to Kristof. There doesn’t seem to be the same hostility here to public intellectual activity as Kristof argues is prevalent in the US – but maybe he has this pretty wrong if yesterday’s responses are anything to go by (just see #engagedacademics). But the UK does have lots of journalists who see themselves in the same space and conversation as academics, unlike Kristof apparently. I’d say there is a pretty positive climate in the UK for academics to engage in public discussions.
However, I must acknowledge that one element of Kristof’s article did ring a little UK bell. His piece includes a quote from Anne Marie Slaughter; she says that academic work is now much more quantitative and thus more inaccessible to the general public. This did give me pause for thought.
There IS a problem in the way that numbers are used in public debate in the UK. In my own field of education, policy spin – I couldn’t possible say whether this is wilful or through sheer ignorance of numbers – often makes bizarre sense of and with numbers. Take averages. One inference of the ongoing fuss about too high/too low exam results is that the pass mark is somehow the equivalent of a law of nature rather than a human judgement. A common interpretation of test results is that if every child improves then everyone will be above the national average, a mathematical impossibility. As persistent as the mis-use of the idea of the average (and perhaps the bell curve in the case of pass marks) is the conflation of correlation and causality – so poverty is said to cause poor results, rather than there being a correlation between the two. A correlation means there is a complex set of processes and relationships involved in its production, and one which we need to unpack… Not easy to sum up such complexities in a sound byte. But my point here is only that, in my field, a general public recognition of the difference between a correlation and causality would certainly take some of the heat out of the argument that attainment is simply about aspiration and hard work, and that to say otherwise is to make excuses.
So this all leads me to a concluding thought. Maybe there is a project here that could be jointly undertaken by some in the academy, some in the public sphere and some in the media community – educating about, and demystifying numbers. If, in the UK at least, academics are to move more and more into ‘big data’ and ‘mixed methods’ then we need to do more than simply train doctoral researchers to be statistically capable. We have to support them to translate numbers into understandable ideas and language. But we also have to make sure that, when research is reported, it is discussed accurately and not as non-math-sense. We have to work together to make sure that this happens. So how about it? Is making sense of numbers a good area for a UK based joint academic-media programme of activity? If so, maybe I ought to thank Nicholas Kristof for making that thought come to the forefront, rather than have me just stay affronted.
This piece originally appeared on Pat Thomson’s personal blog Patter and is reposted with permission.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Pat Thomson is Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham. Her current research focuses on creativity, the arts and change in schools and communities, and postgraduate writing pedagogies. She is currently devoting more time to exploring, reading and thinking about imaginative and inclusive pedagogies which sit at the heart of change. She blogs about her research at Patter.
Thanks to Pat Thomson for a welcome commentary on a vexed topic. My colleagues and I at the ESRC Centre for Life Course Studies (ICLS) would slightly take issue with one point. This is that an increase in quantitative analysis in social science inevitably leads to greater problems in communication. To put it somewhat controversially, some of the tendency in social (and other) sciences towards impenetrability arises from lack of confidence in one’s results. Or even from a fear that no significant questions are being asked at all, let alone answered. Using complicated and jargon ridden means of expression can serve to ward off the scrutiny of outsiders so that they leave you in peace. There are very clear questions like “what is the Universe made up of” that receive impenetrable answers, basically, because scientists are still working on them. During this phase in a science, participants must struggle to stay in business at all, and use various techniques including “my machine is faster than yours”, “my mathematics are more complicated than yours”. But in the end, the idea is to answer an identifiable question. In sociology (I cannot speak for political science) we far too seldom even ask this kind of identifiable big question. “Why do women live longer than men” is one example, but consigned to epidemiology. My favourite would be “Which is more important: freedom or security?”. Everyone can understand this question and translate it into their everyday experiences, hopes and fears. While creeping up on the question, sociologists would have to use the full range of methods: qualitative, quantitative, ethnographic. Interim answers might well appear that were complex and clumsy. Debates might flare around methods. But as long as the relationship between social scientists and lay participants could be re-framed in terms of the main question, dialogue would develop. So I think our problems do not lie with methods or with language but with timidity about questions.