dancing with them who brung you

I think that Jeremy is right: if you feel like working at McDonald’s is better than graduate school, then you should leave.  And it is offensive to people who hear graduate students and professors whining about our lives. Beyond just the offense, I think that we do ourselves a great disservice by continuing the meme of irrelevance.

In the meme of auto-voice-generated movies about becoming an academic the repeated theme is that we write obscure articles in obscure journals that no one reads. In other words, our lives and our work is worthless. Why, then, are we surprised when Tom Coburn threatens to cut funding to the NSF or, as Brayden points out on that other blog,* states look to make professors “accountable” and threaten to cut funding to public institutions that don’t meet those metrics. I mean, seriously, if we give the impression that our research doesn’t matter, why should taxpayers believe that it is?

This is something that has constantly irked me since I started graduate school. I attended a state institution for graduate school from a state that was hurting before the latest economic crisis; now it is close to being devastated. All but one year I was in graduate school, my salary was funded (or subsidized) by either the taxpayers of the state or federal taxpayers through teaching salary, fellowships, and federally-funded research assistantships. When I heard people complain about the need to explain why their research is important to people outside of academia or that non-academics could “never understand” their work, this really got under my skin. While I understand that my research, which tends to lean towards understanding the role and potential benefits of public policy, is conducive towards this stance, I am still shocked by the sense that people feel offended that they have to explain the value of their work to the people who help pay their salary. Like Chris Uggen, I believe that it is important that we “make ourselves useful” regardless if we are in public or private institutions (though, arguably, especially if we are in public ones).

If we don’t start explaining the value of our work to others, then state legislators will start doing it for us. I guarantee you that we will all regret not explaining the value of our work if we leave it to those legislators with an axe to grind to explain what we are worth.

*Since Brayden highlighted the Texas legislature in his post, quoting the famous progressive Texas political commentator Molly Ivins seemed apropos.

12 thoughts on “dancing with them who brung you”

  1. I largely agree with you, and also very much appreciated the link to the Uggen entry. Justifying the elite publics, like UNC, is a difficult task, and I always worry when the rationale offered is quality undergraduate education on its own. More recently, our chancellor has been pushing the entrepreneurial university, which at least foregrounds scholarship but IMHO overprivileges science and applied research.

    I would like to see us develop a justification for the academy that:

    1. Recognizes the profoundly multifaceted nature of the modern research university (undergraduate, graduate, professional, and continuing education; pure and applied research; innovative humanities and arts; engaged service; and yes, even athletics);
    2. Emphasizes the university’s role in creating new knowledge, not just storing and passing along existing knowledge;
    3. Promotes the uni- in university, meaning that it maintains the ambition of creating and communicating the universe of knowledge, not just the knowledge that is immediately useful or convenient; and
    4. Maintains an institutional capacity to reward long-time-horizon inquiry without requiring short-term application. (This is NOT the same as not justifying the work, it’s recognizing that the payoff to intellectual work is not always immediate.)


  2. I agree that communicating relevant research with the public is morally, professionally and politically important.

    However, I never feel entirely comfortable whenever an academic invokes this sort of polemic. In my opinion, first and foremost, the purpose of the university should be to pursue knowledge for its own sake. This mission is more than a professional indulgence; it is a means for fostering creativity and innovation, and should make sense, even from a utilitarian ‘results-oriented’ public investment standpoint. Just as Google has “20 percent time”, where its employees have free time to explore anything they find interesting (which in turn, has generated numerous innovations), universities play a similar R & D role in society. There may be the esoteric exchanges, little-read journals and tenured deadwood, which draw the ire of both politicians and some academics. However, these things may be necessary evils involved in a system which also fosters cutting-edge research and ideas.

    My favorite example of the merits of the “non-useful” scholarship is chronicled in the link below. Donald Coxeter, is a math professor worked on arcane and seemingly obsolete problems in geometry for decades, which eventually spurred profound and wide-ranging academic and practical innovations in fields from marketing to engineering:

    Click to access Coxeter.pdf

    Professionals of all types increase the complexity of their knowledge (or more cynically, their jargon) through years of accumulated experience. Naturally, outsiders won’t be able to understand the full complexities of this work. I’d imagine anybody reading this can think of works of little public interest or practical use, which are still of great value to ourselves or other social scientists. Put differently, some scholarship may be two or three degrees of separation from ‘useful’ or ‘publicly communicatible’ work. However, as Coxeter’s case shows, often the ‘esoteric’ underpins the ‘useful.’

    We have all sorts of institutions in society geared towards the ‘useful’; but the university is pretty much the lone place where knowledge is pursued for its own sake. For that reason, I think it’s important, and possibly politically effective, to protect (and lobby) those values, even in the face of hostile legislatures.

    Anyhow, just my $0.02.


  3. I agree with both the sentiment of the original post and with the commenters’ defense of knowledge for its own sake, except that an abstract math theorem that later proved useful is the wrong defense. Knowledge for its own sake should also be defending literary criticism, history, and art. I don’t consider my own research to be “irrelevant” — to the contrary. But I defend my colleagues’ right/duty to pursue some lines of research that by definition have no possible practical application. This implies that our explanation of why what we do matters should encompass why knowledge for its own sake matters.

    Also, please note that sociologists have a particular problem because it is precisely when our research DOES have applicability that some groups want us cut. It is when our work implies challenges to dominant structures or ideologies that our funding gets cut. For sociology, it is not our irrelevance but our relevance that gets us in trouble.

    As far as the cartoons go, I do believe that anyone who feels that her/his own research is boring and irrelevant probably should leave the academy. Thinking OTHER PEOPLE’s research is boring and irrelevant is fine. But if you are not interested in your own work, that’s a problem.

    (Note: everybody gets the blahs about a research project after you’ve worked on it too long or you hit a frustrating block, but the whole point of being an academic is to do research on things that interest you. If you are not interested in it, that is probably a sign than you need a career change. . . . Realizing that some people are working on projects they may not be interested in because it is the research of their advisor/employer . . . So then you have to calibrate whether there is other research you will be interested in. Still, I stand by the general point.)


    1. As usual, olderwoman, you make great points — especially that sociology has the problem that its relevant applications are often the most controversial.

      I strongly believe that there is value in pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. My point is not that every project or line of research should have to justify what the immediate, practical payoffs of the research are (though, as per Shakha’s point below and yours about the applicability of sociological findings, practical payoffs should also not *discredit* research). I think that requiring practical payoffs for every project would be a disastrous turn for research.

      The point that I am trying to make is that if we believe sufficiently in our research, whatever that research is, then we should be able to explain in earnest why we think its pursuit is valuable. More importantly, I think that we should be able to explain to those who are not academics why we believe in our research. Often non-academics have a difficult time understanding why our jobs, routines, work processes and salary mechanisms are so different than most other jobs – we have nothing to lose by demystifying these things. I think that I am preaching to the choir among the folks who write and comment here; however, I have heard several colleagues, from grad students to senior scholars, express exasperation at needing to be able to explain why it is that we do what we do and receive tax money to do it.

      In other words, I think that we need to:
      1. Defend the pursuit of knowledge, not just the pursuit of projects (and really like Andrew’s ideas above making a case for this at universities);
      2. support our own work publicly and not categorize it as being irrelevant (even if it is obscure); and
      3. take the time to explain our work to those who don’t do what we do.


  4. One thing about public sociology: I have, on numerous occasions, been told by senior folks that I don’t want my first book to be “too popular,” as it will run against my scholarly qualifications.

    In fact, during my 15 minutes of fame I received numerous emails and had several communications wherein people said to me, “aren’t you worried that you won’t be seen as scholarly anymore?”

    I’m not sure if this conventional wisdom about the antithetical nature of publicity and scholarly reputation is true. But we do tend to punish people who are too public, or at least demean them in some ways.

    When I was explaining my next book to someone recently, they said to me, “I’m glad it’s more scholarly.” By which they meant, “less people will care about this work. That’s good for you.”


  5. Thanks for reading and resurrecting that old post, Mike. I concur — and dimly recall feeling pretty much the same way as an unfunded first-year student. Back then, I never expected anyone to pay me to be an intellectual, but figured the social value of my intellectual work might someday justify some claim to resources. Today I’m more acutely aware of my privileged position but still driven by the twin engines of shame and guilt.


  6. I agree we should make the positive case for research and teaching we believe in. But is there a reason why we shouldn’t make the negative case against the marginal value of other research?


    1. You mean, other sociological work? Generic or even relatively broad disparagement of other research (especially in your own field) does not make you look good, it makes outsiders think that the whole field is crap. Well-defined thoughtful criticism of particular research for particular reasons is, of course, what we do, and an important part of building a self-correcting body of knowledge. But broad attacks on “mindless number crunching” or “unscientific participant observation” hurt everybody in the field. The people who think they are the only ones who ever have done good research (and everyone else is incompetent) are usually bitter people whose articles get rejected a lot and are seen as lunatics by others. It seems to me that most of the people who do really good research and writing can appreciate other people’s work and other styles of work, while still maintaining an ability to think critically about it.


      1. I agree with much of what you say. Broad criticisms are often, perhaps usually, false, and often made by bitter individuals. But sometimes they are true.

        There was a nice article in The Atlantic about John Ioannidis’ research which undermines a great deal of medical science.

        I believe it has similar implications for social science.

        Furthermore, even if there were no major under-appreciated flaws in any discipline or major research area, we do need to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of different research programs, because how else are we to decide how to allocate finite resources?

        I have no idea whether immigration or urbanization is more deserving of research on the margin. Part of me doesn’t want to know, because then another part of me would feel obliged to make my opinion known, and that would hurt people I care about.


      2. This is a reply to Michael Bishop, you can’t have endless reply threads. So I actually agree with the concern in the cited article, and believe it is appropriate to try to get people to do research differently to avoid that problem. I’ve seen a presentation on the kind of patterns in economics the article mentions near the end. I agree that serious scientists (including social scientists) ought to be taking this concern very seriously. People ought to be doing research and writing differently.

        BUT it is also true that (as you can see in the way the article is written) that posing it as a wholesale attack on a science undermines support for the science from outside that group. As sociologists, we have an interest in sociology as a whole being esteemed.


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