It pains me to make this admission, but I must get it off my chest: I don’t read as often as I should. Rather, I don’t read works of significant value as often as someone my age should. I am constantly reading and assessing student papers and my daughter’s ravenous desire for new books requires a near-constant engagement once I walk through the door. Making time for short editorials and news articles sits at the top of my daily list of to-dos, but novels and extended pieces of non-fiction have fallen by the wayside due to the increasing demands of fatherhood and work. After recently uncovering a box of academic works on philosophy from my undergraduate days, it seemed like a fine time to take on a book that would challenge me mentally and academically. Yet, those books by Marx and Foucault still sit soundlessly on my shelf, slowly being buried beneath mounds of stuffed animals.
While my book-reading has been limited, I have found myself watching more Youtube videos and been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the programs. This series by Wisecrack concentrating on the implicit philosophies embedded in a game franchise have been especially rewarding.
Modern academia has long been criticized for conducting research that has little value or application beyond the narrow halls of its own departments. The LA Times reported a staggering (but not surprising) statistic about the applicability of many academic papers.
The vast majority of articles published in the arts, humanities and social sciences are never cited by another researcher. The implication, of course, is that they go almost entirely unread, and that therefore the research is largely worthless. Some 98% of articles in the arts and humanities and 75% in the social sciences are never cited. Things are not much better in the hard sciences–there, 25% of articles are never cited and the average number of cites even of those is one or two.
Having spent years in academia, I can confirm this lack of worldly application anecdotally. My name is attached to papers that devoured months of work and effort only to be read as a description on my CV. The publish or perish mentality embedded in the modern academy is partly responsible for this glut of academic research that goes unread and unneeded by society, but it isn’t the only variable responsible for this negative trend. Joshua Rothman rightly observed:
In academia, by contrast, all the forces are pushing things…toward insularity. As in journalism, good jobs are scarce—but, unlike in journalism, professors are their own audience. This means that, since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees). Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.
Being a proponent of knowledge and research for its own sake, I don’t have a core problem with academics narrowly focusing on a niche research area. There is something to be said for furthering human knowledge in a field that most laymen find tangential. Especially for undergraduate students in the liberal arts, using niche and pop-culture content as a frame to develop written analytical skills is perfectly understandable.
Yet, when one’s entire academic focus entails pop culture as its foundation material, I begin to see a number of troubles arise. When speaking of public universities that rely on state revenue, the citizenry has a right to question the usefulness of their tax dollars to fund research with little apparent usefulness to the state. When Melissa Click gained internet notoriety for trying to crush student reporting at the University of Missouri, some of the criticism of the academic focused on the perceived uselessness of her research. (One of her papers is titled “Fifty shades of postfeminism: Contextualizing readers’ reflections on the erotic romance series. In E. Levine (ed.) Feeling Feminine: Popular Culture for Women in the Early 21st Century.”)
So while I justify niche research in academia as worthwhile, there have to be limits to this cloistering of analytical thought in the walls of the university. With more academic papers being published solely for a small pool of professors and less academic research being conducted for society at large, our universities preserve a reputation for being futile intuitions for out of touch intellectuals.
For any student that decides to pursue the arts or humanities, they likely encountered detractors who cautioned against the financial feasibility of the field. “How are you going to make money writing about art?” It’s a fair question; any student that enters this realm of research without thinking deeply about their job prospects upon completing their studies is a fool. That isn’t to say there are not jobs well suited for those trained in the liberal arts, but those who think one will be paid to analyze popular culture as a full-time job are destined to be disillusioned.
This returns us to the excellent aforementioned Youtube videos. This academic outreach is exactly what public intellectuals should be doing in the realm of pop culture. These videos are not intended for other academics (although I imagine many would enjoy them), but geared towards the public. Rather than crafting unreadable jargon to pad one’s CV, these videos are helping connect young people to philosophical ideas and analytical approaches they may be unfamiliar with; perhaps they will even be inspired to pursue study in the field one day. These types of video essays also help justify studying the humanities financially. While the Youtube community is competitive, with countless new voices added daily, the opportunities to generate revenue through the medium may supplement academic research in a more traditional institution.
Thus, I plead with academics focusing on pop culture to ruminate on their commitment to the fields they study. Knowledge generated for a few like-minded officials should not be the aim of our academic institutions. Take that research and bring it to the people in a way that can inspire the youth and publicly engage in a discussion of these issues. Youtubers are waiting.