Many readers will recognize the title of this blog post as a line from Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who in which a kindly elephant named Horton saves an entire town (Who-ville) of very small people living on a small speck of dust by encouraging them to shout en masse as loudly as they can so the whole world can hear them. This story popped immediately to mind when I read Nicholas Kristof's editorial entitled "Professors, We Need You!" in the New York Times this past Sunday. Like Horton, Kristof is admirably trying to bring back into the national conversation the scientists and other scholars (the Whos) of the world residing on that speck of dust called academia who have not been shouting loudly enough to be noticed.
Even if the voice of a serious scholar is noticed, I would answer to Mr. Kristof, it is often discounted, even ridiculed (from inside as well as outside of academia). What is lost to all of us in all this are the advances and positive impacts that can come from the careful scholarship of trained scholars. Instead, what most often impact people and our culture are fads, untested "treatments," marginal "theories," non-data-based and agenda driven polemics and other ideas that are simply not good for us. Were there to be attached to these highly amplified and clearly audible pop intellectual notions the equivalent of the nutritional labels that we so carefully ponder before incorporating foods and beverages into out bodies, I doubt we would incorporate these "loud" notions into our minds and policies.
My purpose here is not to argue with Mr. Kristof about his characterization of the writings and career demands among the professoriate, but to agree and to propose a suggestion -- in plain, nonacademic language. I have been an academe for more than four decades. I know how to write boring things and have done so (as evidenced by the citation rate of many of my works!). I also have been fortunate enough to have some of my work gain national visibility and to have it produce some positive impact on children and families. Seeing how this research gained visibility is very telling however. Few outside of academia refer to the actual articles on family stories that have been published by my colleague, Robyn Fivush, and me. We and our articles are background noise residing in the Who-ville U. campus library.
The fact is that the three people who raised awareness of our research to the point where we hope it can and does help people at large are non-academics: Miriam Weinstein, Laurie David and Bruce Feiler. These are three skilled and recognized writers and journalists, people who had visibility and clout before they wrote about our work. When Miriam Weinstein described us as the "ketchup group" at Emory in her book, The Surprising Power of Family Dinners; when Laurie David discussed our research on family dinners in her delightful and wonderful book, The Family Dinner, and when Bruce Feiler wrote about our work on family stories in his amazing book, The Secrets of Happy Families and in his New York Times article entitled, "The Stories that Bind Us"; people from all over the world began to notice and apply our findings. Many of these people wrote to us and thanked us; we have been invited to give talks and write articles for popular magazines and have appeared on other media; we have been interviewed for Parents Magazine, Good Housekeeping, etc. Clearly, this shocking (to us) level of impact and visibility did not come about because of our journal publications or our scientific writing. My colleague at Emory, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Hank Klebanoff, once told me over a cup of coffee, " Every scientist needs a reporter." Having seen the effects of the lucid, accessible presentation of our work by Miriam Weinstein, Laurie David and Bruce Feiler, I now know exactly what he meant.
Academics are trained to not tout what they do (one of the reasons why people do not hear us Whos). We are trained to write scholarly articles in scholarly journals and the progress of our careers depends on things like numbers of citations by other academics and now something called the H-index, which is too complicated even to try to describe! It has even been suggested that there is something termed the Sagan Effect (after the astronomer Carl Sagan) in which scholars are actually derided and shunned for popularizing their work. I want to emphasize these aspects of the academic "playbook" because they underlie the suggestion I offer in reply to Mr. Kristof's reaching out to the professors, the silent "smart" people.
As I have come to see it, here is the problem that we as producers and consumers of scientific and other scholarly knowledge and ideas face: As things now stand, there are now only two major channels through which scientific and scholarly information may be disseminated: CHANNEL-A (The Academic Channel) featuring necessarily and properly "boring" complex articles in scholarly journals intended for and read primarily by the similarly "boring" (but capable and smart); and CHANNEL M (The Mass Media Channel) featuring necessarily and properly simplified/clarified/distilled findings in mass media such as CNN, Fox, MSNBC or mass print publications. CHANNEL M information is then further disseminated by "liking", tweeting, emailing and other forms of forwarding. However, from the perspective of the originating scholars, as in the old game of telephone, by the time findings and ideas communicated via CHANNEL M get to their ultimate recipients (if such is possible) they more often than not have changed markedly and are very different from what the original researchers found, said or intended.
The suggestion I make here is that we need a CHANNEL S (The Scholars Channel ) for the dissemination of scientific and scholarly information. CHANNEL S needs to be placed on our cultural dial midway between the writing of academics for other academics (CHANNEL A) and the necessarily simplified formats used in mass media (CHANNEL M). By the way, the kind of direct communication from originators to consumers which I propose for CHANNEL S has been common elsewhere in the world for many decades, especially in the UK. And, if we look to such sources as Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker and other high-quality publications in which public intellectuals are well represented, we must conclude that there already is a small version of Channel S where some professors are getting through in accessible forms. However, and in mitigation of the concern expressed by Mr. Kristof, I am suggesting that the "bandwidth" what exists now is not sufficient given the huge amount of excellent scholarship extant nowadays. I am proposing that a broadly accessible venue (a big-time Channel S or the like) be created (ideally here on The Huffington Post), wherein the very same scholars who are creating and discovering new knowledge can write about their own findings (thus insuring their original meaning and intent) in plain language (thereby insuring that it will not be boring and it will be understandable by anyone interested).
I envision Channel S -- the scholars/scientists/professors channel -- as a place where Mr. Kristof's "smart people" can write about complicated things in plain ways. Humbug, you might say, scientists cannot write in non-dull ways. Here is my reply to this straw man I just created (a classic academic ploy!). All of us academics are also plain people who actually know plain language. We tell jokes in the coffee room; we drink liquor and beer (in some academic departments, also in the coffee room); we bake cookies on snow days; we laugh; we make fun of ourselves; we are parents and doting grandparents; we do all the things everyone else does. (OK,OK, as a group, we may be a bit more left wing, but even this varies across and within disciplines!)
Every professor worth his or her salt, however, also can write clearly, informatively and provocatively. Give us a place to communicate broadly, in plain language, and I am betting that the professors that Mr. Kristof is hailing will answer the call. I will wager further that such communication will elevate the clarity and the positive impact of what we do. There can and will be audible sound from the residents of academic Who-ville.
But, even in Dr. Seuss's book, no matter how loud the Whos might have become, they still would not have been heard unless Horton and his friends were listening. So, Mr.Kristof, extending Hank Klebanoff's sage advice that every scientist needs a reporter, I would suggest that we professors as a group need one, too. Whether you meant it or not, you have raised the issue we could not raise -- that the "smart people" have much to offer and what we have is reliably better than the pap and the "pop" that prevail. Perhaps your thoughts will be seen one day as among the early broadcasts on Channel S, that trustworthy place where good academic scholars can share good academic knowledge that contributes to the public good... without being too "academic."
We are here! We are here! We are here!