Opinion Peddlers of the Academy

Clarissa Byrne Hessick came at the problem from the perspective of rules. Not “mandatory” rules, as that was beyond what anyone could impose, but the creation of norms that would guide law professors in how to twit so as to neither embarrass the Legal Academy nor use the status of “professor” in a way that deceived the public by conveying the imprimatur of scholarly credibility when they were just blowing random personal opinions out their butt.

Not being a big fan of rules, it struck me as inflexible and censorious. Sure, prawfs have their areas of scholarship, where they may (or may not) be particularly knowledgeable. But they too get to have opinions beyond the narrow limits of what they teach and research, and this being America, they get to express them. Free speech doesn’t mean wise speech, or expert speech, but speech. Even prawfs are entitled to it. Even when they’re wrong. Even when a renowned Harvard legal giant endorses the views of Louise Mensch.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that bootstrapping the ascribed credibility of the job to peddle nonsensical, if not dangerous, opinions isn’t a problem.

There is a big difference, however, between a tweet and an act of scholarly expression: a seminar, a lecture, a refereed article, or a monograph. Scholarship takes time. It is, as the English professor and social theorist Michael Warner has written, a form of expression that unfolds across “longer rhythms” and through “more continuous flows” than the news headline. Yet it is easy for academics to become frustrated by the temporality of scholarship. It often feels like inaction. It feels depoliticized.

This is either a kindly way of expressing the academic norm of prolix writing, the crashing boredom of a law review article that no one should be expected to endure, separate scholars from the real world, or that getting their views out a year after the news cycle means they are as irrelevant as they secretly fear they are.

Many academics lack the discipline necessary for a medium like twitter, turning what could be one decent twit into a stream of dozens. It takes time and effort to be succinct, and the academic stock in trade is words, lots of words, moderated and equivocal words. And then some more words. Brevity is not their strength.

In the process, unfortunately, tweeting erodes the very social legitimacy that enables academic culture to exert its influence on the political realm in the first place. Academe is a public apart from the public world of politics or entertainment. Academe is constituted through the sustained attention of academics themselves. And it is closed to those who cannot understand its conventions or think, speak, and act through its particular registers.

But they are experts, are they not? Their bio lists the name of their chair, their university affiliation, maybe even the last book they wrote that you didn’t read. Some are even so shameless as to call themselves “expert,” because if you don’t toot your own horn, who will? And this makes their twits appeals to expertise. After all, if an expert says so, and the chairs we sit on have no names, who are we to disagree?

Yet academe is legitimated by this exclusivity — not an exclusivity of wealth, birth, or social connections, but of shared inquiry. Engage with us, say our learned journals, but only after you have constituted yourself as one of us, learned to write with our distinctive rigor, and developed the habits of mind we have cultivated across centuries. We profess not in sound bites, but in peer-reviewed studies.

There are a lot of colleges and universities across America, and twitter doesn’t stop there, but brings us the considered views of academics worldwide. The same is true of lawyers, each of us a “technical” expert in the law, and perhaps more knowledgeable than those who attend Twitter Law School but can’t manage to pass the Twitter Bar Exam. But somehow we find ourselves in occasional disagreement. How is that possible if we’re such experts? How can learned people be scholars and yet disagree so vehemently?

While I may not be on board with the imposition of rules, per se, it’s not because Clarissa doesn’t raise serious issues. First, being an academic doesn’t make you “right” about anything, but merely more knowledgeable than the average bear. Some academics push the envelope, whether because they think it needs pushing or they just want to carve out some turf where they can gain a little notoriety. It’s hard to stand out as a scholar, and failure to gain any recognition suggests a wasted life of brutal obscurity.

But then there’s the “lane problem,” when an academic strays from their particular area of scholarship. There’s a philosophy prof who crosses my path on the twitters on occasion because she likes to engage in diatribes about law. Perhaps she’s brilliant in her field, but she’s a legal imbecile, and her utility to me is as an example of how a moron with a Ph.D. can use whatever cred she gets by dint of her paycheck to make people stupider on a subject about which she knows nothing.

This professor is every bit as entitled to take to the twitters and spew whatever nonsense she wants. The problem is that, to the unwary, it’s imbued with the legitimacy of a scholar when her views are no more sound or valid than any anonymous eggboy.

My skepticism of Twitter is not a skepticism of activist scholarship, or even activism by scholars. We bring wide-ranging knowledge to important public questions, and we should be heard. Rather, I am concerned that our participation in Twitter is tacitly endorsing a commercial platform that subverts democratic discourse and collapses the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of debate. Scholarship demands cultivated habits of mind, considered distance, and the unfolding of time. Twitter does not.

Academics may find this too distasteful, too contrary to the norms of discussion and thought that distinguish the Academy from the riffraff spewing their nonsensical, hypocritical, political agenda at 280 characters at a time. It devalues scholarship, on the one hand, and yet enjoys unwarranted credibility in areas where the academic’s “wide ranging knowledge” may not be nearly as wide-ranging as they would have us believe.

But if academics want to be part of the game, they need to jump in like everyone else. Much of the problem is ours, their adoring audience, to recognize that when their twits are no more, nor less, vacuous than anyone else’s. Maybe they’re on to something, but it’s not because they’ve got “prof” in their bio. When they twit outside their lane, they’re no more entitled to academic cred than @DopeyBoy911.

Even when they twit within their lane, they may not be the peddlers of truth, but just their informed opinions. It may be a better-informed opinion than others, but they’re still just peddling opinions to the masses, one more argument from authority that rises or falls on its own merit.

18 thoughts on “Opinion Peddlers of the Academy

      1. Bear

        Hey Yogi, let’s go look for pic a nic baskets before the ranger gets up. Preferably with donuts.

      1. Fubar

        When they twit outside their lane, they’re no more entitled to academic cred than @DopeyBoy911.

  1. B. McLeod

    This makes as much sense as proposing ‘professional norms’ for mud-wrestling by podiatrists.

    I do not see the danger of large numbers of people mistaking Twitter for scholarship.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      I’ve met several…

      Oh, wait. You said “large numbers of people,” not “large people.” My bad.

      1. SHG Post author

        That reminds me, I’m back on all protein, no carbs, and finishing the last of my barbecue brisket, which is all that’s left to bring a little joy into my otherwise miserable donutless existence.

          1. SHG Post author

            I thought about it, but inertia set in. Just so you know, yours was the best pastrami I ever had. Bar none. Thank you again.

            1. LocoYokel

              We’ll see if I can sneak another one out this year, but proper briskets are hard to find in Virginia and the wife is still mad that she didn’t get any of the last one so I would have to do 2 to get some past her. And I’m commuting between states atm so my prep and cook time is limited. And the recipe is really more of a guideline, all my cooking is to taste, not exact measurements.

            2. LocoYokel

              not at all, she gets hers but I didn’t make one for her when I made that one and I should have. She was just not happy to see and smell a whole pastrami go by with out a nibble., 12 hours of smelling the smoker going can do that. Next time I will make 2 and she will be perfectly happy. I have a feeling that with her family within a couple of hours I may end up needing a bigger smoker.

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