February 21, 2013

Coming down from the tower

Academics should do more to make their valuable work readily available to those who are not experts.

Academics are a strange breed. Growing up as the child of an academic, I spent years listening to my mother talk about historical events I didn’t know about, name-drop philosophers as if I should know who they are, and construct a slightly alarming office full of books that I was sure no one but her had ever read. But she must have done something to convince me that academia isn’t some kind of elaborate hoax, as I have spent the last two and a half years decoding discipline-specific jargon, learning to name-drop, and using the word “epistemology” in all earnestness. I have also spent a lot of time learning how to defend academic work as something meaningful.

Why is the value of academic work always under siege? Why do many Americans have such deep suspicions about academics? When Obama was running for his first term in office, many criticized him for being too much of an intellectual to understand everyday Americans. Why should intellectuals suffer this kind of stigma when, for example, businessmen do not?

The answer lies in the academic culture of exclusion. People distrust, vilify, and devalue the work of academics because the academic community has, through various mechanisms, created an environment that is closed to most. If we want to demonstrate the value of academia to others (and to ourselves), we need to create a more open and honest intellectual discourse that favors clarity over secret handshakes.

There are many different factors that contribute to the isolation of the ivory tower, including both the physical and intellectual inaccessibility of resources, the use of dense language and discipline-specific terms, certain assumed cultural and moral values, and the mindset that accessibility to the masses automatically indicates that a work is not of scholarly worth.

Access to resources is a big part of the problem. Academic papers are often unavailable to individuals not affiliated with a college or university. The story of Aaron Swartz, the open information activist who tried to illegally download the contents of JSTOR and who later killed himself in the face of heavy federal prosecution, demonstrated that academic information is quite far from attaining free availability.

That is not to say that academics should not be compensated for their work but rather that the current system seems flawed. Academics produce papers and submit them to journals for little to no financial compensation. Those who want to read those papers must subscribe to journals or to a database site like JSTOR. There are certainly operating costs for journals, but these expenses can be prohibitive for many potential readers. Furthermore, and perhaps more worryingly, not all individuals are even able to buy subscriptions to such sites if they are not affiliated with an institution.

That said, it is possible to promote access even within the current system. In the name of freedom of information, many computer science researchers and programmers have been freely distributing their papers and textbooks for years. On a broader level, JSTOR’s pilot program to give individuals free access to some of its content is a move that I applaud as a step in the right direction.

Another persistent problem is the use of dense and confusing language in academic papers. In many cases, there is good reason to use technical terms that may not be comprehensible to someone outside of the discipline. They allow a paper to deal with discipline-specific concepts that do not need to be explained every time they are used. Though this can be problematic—it is frequently a barrier to interdisciplinary research—it is often justifiable. However, much academic writing is difficult to read simply because it is poorly written. Difficult prose can hide poorly constructed ideas and make simple ideas seem complex. Even good ideas can be hidden in this way. Readers without the tenacity to trudge through such writing in search of obscured meaning, or who are without years of experience in academia, often don’t stand a chance.

This brings me to the most deliberate form of exclusion. Many academics seem to think that a scholarly work shouldn’t be accessible to those who have not reached a certain level of education; that if laymen can read your work, you’re doing it wrong. Scholars who produce best-selling books are often looked down upon for “selling out.” Though scholarly standards are vital to producing high- quality research, a work does not fall short of those standards simply by being accessible to laypeople.

Though academic culture will never be, and indeed does not need to be, mainstream, it contains elements of both deliberate and accidental exclusion. This creates an intellectual discourse that is only open to those affiliated with academic institutions. If the public cannot see or understand what is going on in such institutions, then they have no reason to value academic research or support tax dollars going to support it. Worse, we impose strict limits on the kinds of thoughts that can be considered for intellectual worth. In the name of free discourse, let’s open the doors to the ivory tower.

Maya Fraser is a third-year in the College majoring in sociology.