Why academics should strive to be public intellectuals, not thought leaders (essay)

Professors are only human, so many of us want to be Daniel Drezner.

Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, is a successful academic. A midcareer scholar, he has published more peer-reviewed work than most political scientists will in a lifetime. But he also boasts more than 80,000 Twitter followers, contributes to The Washington Post and, according to the dust jacket of his latest effort, The Ideas Industry, has “one of the most heavily trafficked blogs” in academics.

He may not be in the very top tier of intellectuals who write for a wider audience, but he has “partaken in snack-filled green rooms, business class lounges and swanky conferences in exotic locales.” He has “spoken at conferences run by financial firms” and “even offered some pro-bono advice to Google.”

The Ideas Industry is a wide-ranging book about how the marketplace of ideas has changed, especially but not only in Drezner’s area, foreign affairs. But Drezner devotes special attention to how colleges and universities are now situated in that marketplace. The short answer: we’re in bad shape.

We are in bad shape partly, he argues, because when academics intervene in the marketplace of ideas, they usually do so as “traditional public intellectuals, ready to explain why some new policy idea is unlikely to work,” rather than as “thought leaders,” who tend to have “a positive idea for change and the conviction that they can make a difference.” But Drezner thinks, for reasons I will name later, that it is now “the best of times for thought leaders” and “the worst of times for public intellectuals.”

I suspect Drezner is tweaking us with “thought leaders,” a fad term we highbrows might be inclined to dismiss. But in defining thought leaders as “creators” and public intellectuals as “critics,” Drezner prepares the ground for a “symbiosis,” in which evangelical thought leaders, perhaps too boldly, propose new ideas, while public intellectuals and the academics who think like them “analyze and criticize thought leaders.” Academics willing to be public intellectuals are, according to Drezner, “needed more than ever” in the marketplace of ideas.

But we should pause a little longer at the distinction between thought leaders and public intellectuals. In Drezner’s idiosyncratic understanding, a thought leader and a public intellectual together make up one healthy intellectual, the former representing the bold, creative side without which ideas are never devised and proposed, the latter representing the careful, critical side, without which ideas are never tested and refined. In a handy chart, Drezner explains that thought leaders are optimists, inductive reasoners and prioritizers of experience, whereas public intellectuals are pessimists, deductive reasoners and prioritizers of expertise. Drezner ask that we not push this “binary distinction too hard,” since it is merely a way of clarifying “our understanding of the modern marketplace of ideas.” We will not, then, push it too hard. But it seems all but made up.

Russell Jacoby, who put the term “public intellectual” into wide circulation, used it simply to describe “writers and thinkers who address a general and educated audience.” I doubt that it is illuminating, even as a starting point, to describe the diverse writers and thinkers Jacoby has in mind -- like Jane Jacobs, Gore Vidal and Norman Podhoretz -- as more deductive than inductive, or more prioritizers of expertise than experience. Yet those writers are surely “traditional public intellectuals” in Drezner’s terms.

More importantly, thought leaders are only sometimes, and then incidentally, intellectuals. Look up “thought leader” on Amazon. When I did that, my first hit was Ready to Be a Thought Leader? How to Increase Your Influence, Impact and Success. The third was Personal Branding and Reputation Management: How to Become an Influencer, Thought Leader or a Celebrity in Your Niche. Whereas a public intellectual must be devoted to the life of the mind, a thought leader need only have a thought to market.

And whereas there is tension between the public intellectual as a devotee of ideas and the public intellectual as an “influencer,” since the work of influencing is wont to distract from and distort ideas, that tension dissolves in the case of a thought leader for whom influencing is the point. Drezner is free to define thought leader however he likes, but if, as he admits, “thought leaders are mocked more widely than public intellectuals,” it is presumably because people suspect they are putting us on, not because they are optimistic and inductive.

In fairness, Drezner acknowledges that thought leaders hunt for something other than new truths. Those who most successfully “hawk their wares” and build “their own brands” can share space “previously reserved for moguls, and celebrities, and athletes.” And he discusses the pitfalls of intellectual celebrity. But he seems less, if at all, concerned that the very idea of thought leadership is at odds with the very idea of being an intellectual. A thought leader is not so much the bold, positive sibling of the cautious, negative public intellectual as not an intellectual at all. If academics are reluctant to enter into the symbiotic relationship with thought leaders that Drezner proposes, it is probably less because they cannot adjust to changing times than because thought leaders are nothing like them.

This reluctance is not solely about thought leadership. As Drezner points out, academics are also reluctant to become public intellectuals. They “look to the social world as something to be studied, to be researched, to be analyzed, even to be opined -- but not to be acted upon.” The professoriate traditionally tries to keep itself “removed from politics.” Drezner thinks that this stance bothers critics, who find it “elitist,” and “potential benefactors,” who think it a “surrender to inaction.”

But there are sound reasons for academics to avoid politics. Perhaps academic discourse is less reasonable than advertised, but political discourse barely has room for reason. Alexander Hamilton wrote that in “cases of great national discussion,” we can expect that “a torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose,” a point he demonstrates by accusing his opponents of conspiring, out of self-interest or “perverted ambition,” to dismember the country. Not only, contrary to Drezner’s argument, might professors hope to preserve their credibility by keeping away from politics, but they also might worry that the habits of politics, in which one does one’s best to distract attention from rather than confront the opposition’s best arguments, will leak onto their campuses.

Meanwhile, if academicians choose to engage in public debate, it seems to me that they are in better shape than Drezner supposes. Drezner thinks that trust in universities, and indeed, in all establishments other than the military, has declined. He thinks that in our politically polarized times, colleges and universities are despised by many because they are perceived, not wrongly, as tilted to the left. And he thinks because of growing inequality, universities had better be mindful of what the new class of plutocrats wants, which is “direct impact” and confidence, not detachment and question marks. These three long-term trends -- decline in trust in prestigious institutions, polarization and growing economic inequality -- are the same trends that, Drezner argues, have benefited thought leaders and harmed public intellectuals.

These arguments seem exaggerated to me. Trust in universities has probably declined, but perhaps not much. Drezner draws on the General Social Survey to show that “confidence in institutions associated with learning and knowledge” dropped from a peak of around 50 percent in 1974 to an average of 31 percent in 2012. But if we start in 1975 instead of 1974, we find that confidence dropped less impressively, from about 36 percent to 31 percent. Meanwhile the Harris Poll, which measures confidence in the leaders of “major educational institutions, such as colleges and universities,” finds a similarly modest shift from 37 percent having a “great deal of confidence” in 1971 to 30 percent in 2012. Confidence is likely at least as high now as it was 20 years ago, when it stood at 27 percent. Finally, that inequality has increased does not mean that benefactors have grown more uniform in their preferences.

The overwhelming new fact of our time, which Drezner notes but does not weigh as heavily as declining trust, and increasing polarization and inequality, is the explosion in demand for and supply of intellectual content, and the ability of seekers of nearly any kind of content to find it. Not long ago, I was listening to Unorthodox, a superb Jewish news and culture podcast in a well-populated field. The hosts were interviewing Molly Yeh, who has hit it big with her blog about food, and being an Asian-Jewish Juilliard graduate percussionist transplanted from Brooklyn to a farm on the North Dakota-Minnesota border. Lesson: it is less necessary now than it ever was to fit a particular mold to find an audience for one’s ideas.

In that sense, we can cheer with Drezner that at least part of the world outside the university, far from being an intellectual desert, is intellectually vibrant. But if we academics choose to try to make our way in that part of the world we need not shoot for the role of the optimistic thought leader’s crabby counterpart. We can have our own show.

Jonathan Marks is professor and chair of politics at Ursinus College.

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University of Michigan prepares to test automated text-analysis tool

University of Michigan adds an automated text-analysis tool to a growing program intended to give more students a chance to learn through writing.

Wisconsin Board Leader Wants to Hire Nonacademics

John Behling, the new president of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, said Friday that he wants institutions to recruit leaders from the private sector and otherwise “streamline” the process for hiring chancellors and other top administrators. In so doing, he might have shed light on why a state budget proposal includes language -- opposed by faculty members -- that would ban the regents from ever considering only academics as top administrators.

Currently, there’s no systemwide policy requiring that the system president or campus chancellors or vice chancellors have tenure or terminal degrees. But Madison campus policy says that its chancellor, provost and vice chancellor must hold a tenured faculty rank, effectively disqualifying nonacademics. Saying that the policy has helped keep Madison a top-ranked institution, members of the campus Public Representation Organization of the Faculty Senate have asked the state Legislature to remove from a state budget bill nonfiscal language saying that the regents can’t ever require that the system president and campus chancellors and vice chancellors be academics.

In his first address to the regents as president, Behling, an attorney, said the hiring process often results in leaders with academic backgrounds and that he wants to expand recruitment of those from outside academe, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. The board's vice president will reportedly lead a working group on potential policy changes to the timeline for recruiting chancellors and other university leaders, with the goal of approving new hiring rules by the end of the year.

“Across the country, hiring of private-sector individuals to lead universities is the latest trend,” Behling said, contradicting the findings of a major report from the American Council of Education saying that the hiring of nonacademics as presidents is actually down within the last year. “The University of Wisconsin [must] make sure our hiring process allows for a pool of candidates that is both diverse and dynamic.”

Behling’s statements didn’t go over well with many academics. Here's a social media reaction snapshot.

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Improv Instructor Found to Have Assaulted, Harassed Students

It’s no laughing matter: Nicholas Riggs, a former adjunct professor who led an improvisational-comedy group at the University of South Florida, sexually assaulted one student there and sexually harassed another, according to a campus investigation. Riggs denied the allegations in the investigation and in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times; the newspaper obtained a copy of South Florida’s report on student complaints under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibiting gender discrimination in education.

According to the report, Riggs and his wife, a former graduate student on campus, often approached students together to proposition them for sex, but questions of consent arose over time and students said they felt pressured by Riggs. One complaint originated from a parent, whose son reportedly grew angry and withdrawn about being part of the group and by 2015 confessed to having had sex with Riggs and his wife.

The student said Riggs pressured him over time to have sex with him alone, and that Riggs made sexual jokes at his expense in group settings. Riggs allegedly showed favoritism to those students in whom he was sexually interested in the on-campus improv group when it came to performing in a second, off-campus improv group, according to that complaint. When the student broke off sexual contact with Riggs, he was allegedly shut out of improv social gatherings. The university concluded that Riggs’s behavior amounted to assault.

Another student filed a complaint against Riggs during the investigation, saying that Riggs told her he “loved her mind” and that he had a “crush” on her, after which she engaged in a sexual relationship with Riggs and his wife, and then Riggs alone. But when the student told Riggs she wanted to end the relationship, he allegedly came to her apartment. The student said she told Riggs she didn’t want to have sex that day, but they had sex anyway. The university concluded that Riggs’s visit to the student’s apartment was harassment.

The university also found some evidence that Riggs had harassed another student and failed to report an incident of nonconsensual sexual contact at one of his parties. Alcohol and marijuana were allegedly present at such events. South Florida’s investigation also raised questions about whether or not Riggs followed proper protocols for research involving human subjects in his dissertation, which has been removed from the university’s website, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Riggs obtained his Ph.D. from South Florida’s department of communication in 2016.

Riggs has been banned from teaching at South Florida and also has stopped teaching at several other area institutions, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

"As soon as USF became aware of the allegations against Riggs, we immediately began to review the matter," spokesman Adam Freeman said. "USF values respectful and fair treatment of all members of our community."

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Doctoral students and postdocs should approach their job search like a customized career fair (essay)


It’s an excellent way for Ph.D.s and postdocs to articulate how their skills might add value to organizations that lie outside their traditional disciplinary areas, writes Robert D. Pearson.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017
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How to Build Your Own Career Fair

Introducing a new series on reproducibility of scientific research (essay)

How do we know which scientific results to trust? Research published in peer-reviewed academic journals has typically been considered the gold standard, having been subjected to in-depth scrutiny -- or so we once thought. In recent years, our faith in peer-reviewed research has been shaken by the revelation that many published findings don’t hold up when scholars try to reproduce them. The question of which science to trust no longer seems straightforward.

Concerns about scientific validity and reproducibility have been on the rise since John Ioannidis, a professor at Stanford School of Medicine, published his 2005 article “Why Most Published Research Findings are False.” Ioannidis pointed to several sources of bias in research, including the pressure to publish positive findings, small sample sizes and selective reporting of results.

In the years since, a wave of scholars have dug deeper into these issues across a number of disciplines. Brian Nosek at the Center for Open Science and Elizabeth Iorns of Science Exchange spearheaded attempts to repeat past studies in their respective fields, psychology and cancer biology, with discouraging results.[1] Economists encountered trouble in merely repeating the analyses reported in papers using the original data and code.

More on Reproducibility

By 2016, when Nature surveyed 1,500 scholars, over half expressed the view that there is a significant “reproducibility crisis” in science. This crisis comes at an uncomfortable time, when some skeptical voices question even well-grounded scientific claims such as the effectiveness of vaccines and humans’ role in climate change.

Given this hostility, there’s a concern that reproducibility issues may undermine public confidence in science or lead to diminished funding for research.[2] What is clear is that we need a more nuanced message than “science works” or “science fails.” Scientific progress is real, but can be hindered by shortcomings that diminish our confidence in some results, and need to be addressed.

There has been plenty of coverage about the reproducibility crisis and its implications (including debate over whether to call it a crisis) in both scientific publications and mainstream outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate and FiveThirtyEight. But somewhat less attention has been paid to the question of how to move forward. To help chip away at this question, we’re publishing a series of articles from researchers leading initiatives to improve how academics are trained, how data are shared and reviewed, and how universities shape incentives for better research. After this essay, the rest of the series will be appearing on the “Rethinking Research” blog on Inside Higher Ed.

Why the Shaky Foundation?

The reproducibility problem is an epistemological one, in which reasons for doubt undermine the foundations of knowledge. One source of doubt is the lack of visibility into the nuts and bolts of the research process. The metaphor of “front stage” and “back stage” (borrowed from the sociologist Erving Goffman, who used it in different context) may be helpful here.

If the front stage is the paper summarizing the results, the back stage holds the details of the methodology, data and statistical code used to calculate those results. All too often, the back stage is known only to the researchers, and other scholars cannot peer behind the curtain to see how the published findings were produced.

Another big issue is the flexibility scholars have in choosing how to understand and analyze their research. It’s often possible to draw many different conclusions from the same data, and the current system rewards novel, positive results. When combined with a lack of transparency, it can be difficult for others to know which results to trust, even if the vast majority of researchers are doing their work in good faith.

As Joseph Simmons, Leif D. Nelson and Uri Simonsohn write in their article on researcher degrees of freedom, “It is common (and accepted practice) for researchers to explore various analytic alternatives, to search for a combination that yields statistical significance, and to then report only what worked … This exploratory behavior is not the by-product of malicious intent, but rather the result of two factors: (a) ambiguity in how best to make these decisions and (b) the researcher’s desire to find a statistically significant result.”

Given the potential for biased or flawed research, how can we encourage greater transparency and put the right incentives in place to promote reliable, reproducible research? Three big questions we’ll be looking at in this series are: How are researchers trained? What resources and support do they receive? How do institutions respond to and reward their work?

Training the Next Generation of Researchers

Lack of proper training in research methods and data-management skills can contribute to reproducibility problems. Graduate students are sometimes left on their own in learning how to manage data and statistical code. As they merge data sets, clean data and run analyses, they may not know how to do this work in an organized, reproducible fashion. The back stage can become extremely messy, making it hard to share their materials with others or even double-check their own findings. As the students advance in their professions, they may not have the time (or the right incentives) to develop these skills.

In the 2016 survey conducted by Nature, researchers identified an improved understanding of statistics and better mentoring and supervision as the two most promising strategies for making research more reproducible.

A number of organizations are tackling this issue by offering workshops for graduate students and early-career researchers in how to conduct reproducible research, manage data and code, and track research workflow. Among them are trainings offered by Software Carpentry and Data Carpentry, the Center for Open Science, and the Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences. There are even courses available online from institutions such as Johns Hopkins.

Resources and Support for Better Science

While proper training is essential, researchers also need resources that support reproducibility and transparency. One critical piece of infrastructure is data repositories, online platforms that make it easier for scholars to organize research materials and make them publicly available in a sustainable, consistent way.

Repositories like Dataverse, Figshare, ICPSR and Open Science Framework provide a place for researchers to share data and code, allowing others to evaluate and reproduce their work. There are also repositories tailored to qualitative research, such as the Qualitative Data Repository.

Universities are also enhancing their services and support for reproducible research practices. For example, the Moore-Sloan Data Science Environments initiative offers resources to support data-driven research at three universities, including software tools and training programs. Dozens of universities also have statistical consulting centers that offer advice to students and researchers on research design and statistical analysis. Some disciplinary associations are also convening groups to develop guidelines and standards for reproducible research.

Creating Incentives for Reproducible Research

Researchers often face career and institutional incentives that do little to encourage reproducibility and transparency, and can even work against those goals at times. Academic achievements like winning grants and earning tenure are linked primarily to publishing numerous papers in highly ranked journals. There’s little professional reward for the time-consuming work of sharing data, investigating and replicating the work of others, or even ensuring one’s own research is reproducible.

Institutions are beginning to shift these incentives through policies and funding that encourage reproducible research and transparency, while reducing some of the flexibility that can allow biases to creep in. Funders such as the Arnold Foundation[3] and the government of the Netherlands have set aside money for scientists to conduct replications of important studies. Some have offered incentives for scientists to pre-register their studies, meaning they commit to a hypothesis, methodology and data analysis plan ahead of data collection.

Increasingly, funding agencies and academic journals are adopting transparency policies that require data sharing, and many journals have endorsed Transparency and Openness Promotion guidelines that serve as standards for improving research reliability.

In another interesting development, some journals have shifted to a model of registered reports, in which an article is accepted based on the research question and method, rather than the results. Recently, Cancer Research UK formed a partnership with the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research to both fund and publish research based on the registered-reports approach.

All of these initiatives are important, but the path to academic career advancement also needs to shift to reward research activities other than just publishing in prestigious journals. While change on this front has been slow, a few institutions like the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands have started to expand the criteria used in their tenure and promotion review process.

From Vision to Reality

The driving vision of these initiatives is a system that trains, supports and rewards scientists for research that is transparent and reproducible, resulting in reliable scientific results. To learn how this vision is being put into practice, we’ve partnered with contributors on a series of articles about how they are working to improve research reliability in their fields.

None of these solutions is a silver bullet. Improving research reliability will depend on change in many parts of the academic ecosystem and by many actors -- researchers, funders, universities, journals, media and the public. Taking the next steps will require openness to new ways of doing things and an attempt to discern what’s effective for improving research.

In many ways, we’re still in the early stages of realizing that there’s a problem and taking steps to improve. The good news is that there’s an ever-growing segment of the research community, and of the public, who are aware of the need for change and willing to take steps forward.

[1] The hundreds of psychologists who collaborated on the Reproducibility Project in Psychology were only able to reproduce about half the studies they analyzed. The Reproducibility Project in Cancer Biology has encountered similar difficulties reproducing results, though a more recent release of two replications showed a higher rate of success (experiments are ongoing).

[2] This concern was raised by several speakers at a National Academy of Sciences’ conference on reproducibility in March 2017.

[3] This series was supported with a grant from the Arnold Foundation.

Stephanie Wykstra is a freelance writer and consultant with a focus on data sharing and reproducibility. Her writing has appeared in Slate and The Washington Post. Wykstra helped coordinate this article series in partnership with Footnote, an online media company that amplifies the impact of academic research and ideas by showcasing them to a broader audience. The series was supported with a grant from the Arnold Foundation.

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Brazilian Wax Question Lands Professor in Hot Water

Howard University has found a professor of law guilty of sexual harassment in relation to a 2015 test question involving Brazilian waxing. At first blush, it’s the kind of case that might anger even modest professors concerned about the rising tide of what’s been called campus illiberalism, or student calls for censorship of emotionally discomfiting speech.

But Reginald Robinson’s full question about a client who fell asleep during a wax and later alleged improper touching is rather graphic, with references to a “landing strip,” hairlessness from “belly button to buttocks" and more. Still, some free speech and academic freedom advocates are calling Howard’s response excessive: mandatory sensitivity training for Robinson, prior administrative review of his future test questions, classroom observation and a warning that any further violations of the university’s sexual harassment policies may result in termination.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education -- which asked Howard to revoke Robinson’s sanctions, but reportedly did not hear back by a June 30 deadline -- said this week that the university’s “overreaction to a simple hypothetical question is a threat to academic freedom and a professor’s ability to effectively teach students.” The question "clearly does not constitute sexual harassment,” added Susan Kruth, FIRE’s senior program officer for legal and public advocacy. 

Robinson’s attorney, Gaillard T. Hunt, said via email Thursday that it’s “silly but relatively harmless” if Howard’s law school “wants to treat its students as delicate snowflakes who must be protected from unpleasant hypothetical cases.” But when it makes a “formal finding that a professor is guilty of ‘sexual harassment’ because of a discussion in class, that’s libelous of him as an individual and debases the whole concept.” Howard did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Two students complained about Robinson's question, triggering the university's investigation, according to FIRE.

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Questions on funding and disclosure surround article advocating more economic analysis at the FCC

Questions about funding and disclosure surround article advocating more economic analysis at the FCC, ahead of major moves by Trump appointees to roll back net neutrality rules.

How women and femmes of color can deal with harassment (essay)

Sexual Assault on Campus

What steps, asks Gabi Jordan, can women and femmes of color take to care for themselves amid a culture that fosters harassment?

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The microaggressions committed against transgender people in academe (essay)

Academics want to know and explore critically, writes Francis Walker, but the way in which that curiosity is expressed in relation to trans people is fundamentally unbalanced.

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