sexta-feira, 14 de março de 2014

The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals

In the 1990s the philosopher and Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton ran an annual Bad Writing contest in order to highlight turgid academic prose. If the contest were still around, this passage from The American Political Science Review might be a winner:
For a body of n members, in which there exists a group large enough and willing to pass a motion, let the members vote randomly and declare the motion passed when the mth member has voted for it, where m “yes” votes are required for passage. Define as the pivot the member in the mth position and note that there are n! (read “n factorial,” that is 1 · 2 · … ·n) such random orderings of n voters (that is, the permutations of ab, · · · , n). Then define the power, p, of a member, i, thus: pi = ti/n!, where ti is the number of times i is pivot.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out, this is the kind of writing that has estranged the reading public from academia. A generation ago, political scientists were public intellectuals. We wrote lucid prose. We spoke to the issues of the day. We advised President John F. Kennedy. But now all we care about is math, jargon and one another.
There’s one problem with what I’ve just said. That passage from The American Political Science Review appeared in 1962, the second year of the Kennedy administration.
Jargon has been the bane of academic life since there’s been academic life. Just read Immanuel Kant. Or Thomas Hobbes, who complained that the academic writing of his day was “nothing else … but insignificant trains of strange and barbarous words.” But if scholarly journals still feature specialists writing for specialists, more academics are writing for the public than ever before. When they’re not, it has less to do with the perversity of their preferences than the precariousness of their profession.


Academics used to face a hard choice between writing for sequestered journals that few people read and newspapers and magazines that are hard to break into. Now we have a third option: the blogs and Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook accounts of the social media world.
In my first year out of graduate school, I wrote an article in The American Political Science Review about the politics of fear. I can count on my hand the number of people outside academia who have read it. Not because it’s abstruse or irrelevant but because it’s cloistered behind journal paywalls that only academics can easily scale.
Now I have a blog, where I write about political theory, McCarthyism and bathroom breaks. As many as 20,000 people read my posts — in a single day. Thousands of my colleagues are doing the same thing, many with even bigger readerships. Group blogs such as Crooked Timber andLawyers, Guns and Money offer platforms to political scientists, economists, sociologists, literary critics, historians and philosophers, and judging by the comments they attract, they are read by a great many nonacademics.
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