In a recent New York Times piece, Joshua Rothman responds to Nicholas Kristof's admonition of the academy. Kristof suggested that academics have all but abandoned public discourse about the most pressing issues facing our world. "We have done this in part", says Kristof, "by secluding ourselves in the arcane world of disciplinary jargon." Rothman, though, suggests that the issue is not that the academy is marginalizing itself, but that the whole system that produces scholarly knowledge is changing. A shrinking and increasingly competitive market for academic positions has had the effect of encouraging writing and research aimed at ever smaller, more powerful groups. As Rothman writes:
Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.
Kristof may want professors to get back in the game, but the stakes of that game have changed, and not necessarily for the better.
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