Coral Columns

Academics all live in an Ivory Tower, disconnected from the real world, where we think about pointless problems like whether people in the past could smell colours, which we then turn into pointless articles in journals called things like ‘We are the Experts, na na na na na na!’ And then no-one reads them anyway because we learned how to write from Lacan and how to structure an argument from an email spam bot.

I know it’s not true, you know it’s not true, so why the hell are we still talking about it?

Let me suggest a distinction.

1. When we feed the trolls, by sharing self-deprecating but disproved pieces claiming that no-one reads anything we write; when we similarly moan about how academic writing is all shit anyway; when we succumb to hyperbole about teaching standards; when we slag off our own fields because hey it’s frustrating to see rubbish work; when we do those things, I would argue we are at great risk of doing ourselves a disservice.

We are feeding the myth of the Ivory Tower even when we are the very people that see the cost of coral columns.

Do you want to discourage underrepresented groups from becoming part of, and changing, academia? Maybe stop reinforcing outdated caricatures, and promote good examples. We all know of great academic writing. We all know academics whose work is entwined with a variety of different communities and stakes. Many of us are those academics, and our frustrations at the problems of academia are a bit like student feedback: the problems are real, but i. don’t focus all of your energy on a minority complaint and ii. what if the problems that are identified are not the biggest problems?

(Spoiler: in case you hadn’t noticed, my view is that the biggest problem is not the Ivory Tower, but the exclusivity of academia, which is not the same thing at all.)

2. On the other, when the trolls hold the reins, when they are MPs, vice-chancellors, and cabinet ministers, we need better answers than the default division I’ve seen on Twitter since the latest idiot in power squeezed his invective out in 140 characters.

Those two responses are either i. ‘Actually we do work in/with the real world!‘ and ii. ‘What’s wrong with with research for the sake of research?

The problem, I would say, with both responses is that they appear to accept the terms offered to us. In reality, I suspect no-one within academia seriously accepts those terms. The point of saying ‘we work in/with the real world’ is that the distinction is phoney. And the point of ‘research for the sake of research’ is that ideas have unintended and unforeseeable consequences.

Yet both replies do seem (to me) to accept the discursive frame of the anti-intellectuals. They suggest that the work we need to do is to somehow bridge this gulf that has opened up.

The real challenge (and I have no easy answer for this) is to shortcut that discourse. to remind ourselves and others just how many audiences we already speak to and with, without simply recapitulating the terms of the great divide. How to recognise the truth in the idea that some research is abstract and hard for non-experts to grasp, without accepting that the life of the mind is necessarily apart from life in general?

Perhaps we could begin by not caricaturing ourselves?


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