I don’t know whether to feel encouraged or discouraged. Maybe a little of both.
Because of my work (and my interest), I regularly read the Chronicle of Higher Education online. I try to keep up on news and trends “in the industry,” but I also like to see what the bloggers are blogging.
The bloggers on the site are mostly well-known scholars in their academic disciplines. They write about current concerns and cutting-edge issues. Like blogging is supposed to do, they stimulate debate and provoke comments.
Blogging is thus about stating opinions. It’s like the op-ed page of the newspaper. It ought to pithy and provocative. By design, then, it’s looser and more free-wheeling than the usual scholarly writing. I rather like the moxey of many of the writers, even the swashbucklers. I enjoy the alliteration, the catchy turn of phrase, the well-played irony, the playfulness, the wit. I enjoy the pointed give-and-take that goes with the territory and I respect people who enter the fray with a little swagger.
Alas, academics are often no better than “normal people” at having a fair and open argument. I know this is no big surprise, but it is discouraging, nonetheless. That’s because argument is a big part of what academics are supposed to do. Because we are engaged in helping students become well-educated, we ought to engage in pointed back-and forth. We are supposed to demonstrate both courage and skill in analyzing arguments (exposing silly or spurious ones and showing why others are strong). We (and students) must have the guts to stick our necks out and evaluate. Which means more than just stating an opinion. It means not making nice. So it can get a little brutal at times.
Still, we also should have the moral restraint and the self-awareness to recognize our own biases and maintain an openness to people who disagree with us. We should not attribute bad motive or benighted obstinance to other people, even if we suspect that they are. I might be paranoid, but even paranoids can make good arguments.
The Chronicle blog that I read today and some of the comments that follow largely fail on this scale. Some of the comments got nasty and personal. As I said, no big surprise. Academics are people, after all, and we all can get carried away and say things we later wish we would either not have said or said differently. In this sense, it’s encouraging to realize that academics are just people. With the trappings of academe, we can forget this simple truth.
But, on the other hand, it’s very discouraging. The sneering, snarky, back-and-forth fails to hold true to what academics say they are about. This failure is the academic hypocrisy akin to the preacher (I get a double whammy here: I’m both an academic and a preacher) who manifests the maddening “do as I say, not as I do” inconsistency. There are plenty of examples – because it’s become like a favorite parlor game – of preachers to take aim at, pointing out the moral failings of those who presume to be moral guides. Our pop culture loves to expose the inconsistencies of vocal (sometimes obnoxious) well-known Christian leaders.
Maybe even more discouraging is that few people in popular culture ever notice this bad behavior, because what academics say, write and do happens behind closed doors, out of the public light. Which is to say, it’s pretty much irrelevant.