|Charles Dickens gives a public reading in 1867
Academics cannot seem to let go of Nicholas Kristof’s February 15, 2014 New York Times op-ed “Professors We Need You!” (And I am apparently one of those academics who can’t let go because I continue to blog about it. I weighed in on the piece here).
Over at History News Network, Jim Downs of Connecticut College explains why it is often difficult for academic writers and historians to find their way into popular magazines and other outlets. Here is a taste:
This past summer, I queried TIME magazine to publish an article on new research that I conducted on the largest massacre of gay people in U.S. history. June 24, 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of the night when 29 gay men were killed in an arson attack in a bar converted into a church. The editors at TIME jumped at the story, but when it came to interviewing the remaining survivor, who I located, TIME insisted on assigning one of their star reporters to conduct the interview. They claimed that as a historian I did not have the skills to conduct the interview, and that according to their protocol, they had to have their own reporters do it. While that seemed reasonable, the story almost went to print with the reporter listed as the only name on the byline and I would be listed at the end of the article as simply providing research. Under the auspices of journalism, my research, my framework and my writing almost got erased from the story.
I write these examples, not because I have sour grapes, but rather to offer concrete evidence of the struggles that academics face when they attempt to get published in mainstream magazines. Further, my argument is simply that there are limited opportunities in the nation’s leading magazines and newspapers in which academics can reach broader audiences; journalists and freelance writers certainly face these limitations as well. That said, I am simply attempting to argue that Kristof’s critique neglected the fact that it is very hard for academics or any other writers for that matter to reach broad audiences. The sheer will to be a public intellectual is not enough; one needs access and often an Ivy League imprimatur after their name.
Finally, one of the most astute observations that Kristof later made in his blog that has also gone virtually overlooked is his claim that “when professors do lead the way in trying to engage the public, their colleagues sometimes regard them with suspicion.” This is absolutely true. I cannot even begin to document the cruel and mean-spirited responses that I have encountered as I try to engage the public. Not only do most scholars snub insights that scholars, like me, make in the mainstream publications, but they seethe with insults about my desire to publish in this genre. The negativity that I have encountered from within the academy has been more of a detriment to me continuing to reach out to the public than anything else. Further, the fact that I emulate scholars, like Harvard Professor Jill Lepore, who writes for The New Yorker, or even Timothy Patrick McCarthy, another Harvard professor, who is a leading social activist, as important voices within national conversations, has only branded me with the scarlet letter a for adulteress — to the academy.