Tag Archives: Hugh McGuire

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian
Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It’s one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it’s completely fallacious, it’s still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”

Blogging and Literary Standards

I wrote the following comment in response to a conversation between novelist Rick Moody and podcasting pioneer Chris Lydon:

Open Source » Blog Archive » In the Obama Moment: Rick Moody.

In keeping with the RERO principle I describe in that comment, the version on the Open Source site is quite raw. As is my habit, these days, I pushed the “submit” button without rereading what I had written. This version is edited, partly because I noticed some glaring mistakes and partly because I wanted to add some links. (Blog comments are often tagged for moderation if they contain too many links.) As I started editing that comment, I changed a few things, some of which have consequences to the meaning of my comment. There’s this process, in both writing and editing, which “generates new thoughts.” Yet another argument for the RERO principle.

I can already think of an addendum to this post, revolving on my personal position on writing styles (informed by my own blogwriting experience) along with my relative lack of sensitivity for Anglo writing. But I’m still blogging this comment on a standalone basis.

Read on, please… Continue reading Blogging and Literary Standards

Blogging Academe

LibriVox founder and Montreal geek Hugh McGuire recently posted a blog entry in which he gave a series of nine arguments for academics to blog:

Why Academics Should Blog

Hugh’s post reminded me of one of my favourite blogposts by an academic, a pointed defence of blogging by Mark Liberman, of Language Log fame.
Raising standards –by lowering them

While I do agree with Hugh’s points, I would like to reframe and rephrase them.

Clearly, I’m enthusiastic about blogging. Not that I think every academic should, needs to, ought to blog. But I do see clear benefits of blogging in academic contexts.

Academics do a number of different things, from search committees to academic advising. Here, I focus on three main dimensions of an academic’s life: research, teaching, and community outreach. Other items in a professor’s job description may benefit from blogging but these three main components tend to be rather prominent in terms of PTR (promotion, tenure, reappointment). What’s more, blogging can help integrate these dimensions of academic life in a single set of activities.


In relation to scholarship, the term “impact” often refers to the measurable effects of a scholar’s publication through a specific field. “Citation impact,” for instance, refers to the number of times a given journal article has been cited by other scholars. This kind of measurement is directly linked to Google’s PageRank algorithm which is used to assess the relevance of their search results. The very concept of “citation impact” relates very directly to the “publish or perish” system which, I would argue, does more to increase stress levels among full-time academic than to enhance scholarship. As such, it may need some rethinking. What does “citation impact” really measure? Is the most frequently cited text on a given subject necessarily the most relevant? Isn’t there a clustering effect, with some small groups of well-known scholars citing one another without paying attention to whatever else may happen in their field, especially in other languages?

An advantage of blogging is that this type of impact is easy to monitor. Most blogging platforms have specific features for “statistics,” which let bloggers see which of their posts have been visited (“hit”) most frequently. More sophisticated analysis is available on some blogging platforms, especially on paid ones. These are meant to help bloggers monetize their blogs through advertising. But the same features can be quite useful to an academic who wants to see which blog entries seem to attract the most traffic.

Closer to “citation impact” is the fact that links to a given post are visible within that post through the ping and trackback systems. If another blogger links to this very blogpost, a link to that second blogger’s post will appear under mine as a link. In other words, a blogpost can embed future references.

In terms of teaching, thinking about impact through blogging can also have interesting effects. If students are blogging, they can cite and link to diverse items and these connections can serve as a representation of the constructive character of learning. But even if students don’t blog, a teacher blogging course-related material can increase the visibility of that course. In some cases, this visibility may lead to inter-institutional collaboration or increased enrollment.


While secrecy may be essential in some academic projects, most academics tend to adopt a favourable attitude toward transparency. Academia is about sharing information and spreading knowledge, not about protecting information or about limiting knowledge to a select few.

Bloggers typically value transparency.

There are several ethical issues which relate to transparency. Some ethical principles prevent transparency (for instance, most research projects involving “human subjects” require anonymity). But academic ethics typically go with increased transparency on the part of the researcher. For instance, informed consent by a “human subject” requires complete disclosure of how the data will be used and protected. There are usually requirements for the primary investigator to be reachable during the research project.

Transparency is also valuable in teaching. While some things should probably remain secret (say, answers to exam questions), easy access to a number of documents makes a lot of sense in learning contexts.

Public Intellectuals

It seems that the term “intellectual” gained currency as a label for individuals engaged in public debates. While public engagement has taken a different type of significance, over the years, but the responsibility for intellectuals to communicate publicly is still a matter of interest.

Through blogging, anyone can engage in public debate, discourse, or dialogue.


Scholars working with “human subjects” often think about reciprocity. While remuneration may be the primary mode of retribution for participation in a research project, a broader concept of reciprocity is often at stake. Those who participated in the project usually have a “right to know” about the results of that study. Even when it isn’t the case and the results of the study remain secret, the asymmetry of human subjects revealing something about themselves to scholars who reveal nothing seems to clash with fundamental principles in contemporary academia.

Reciprocity in teaching can lead directly to some important constructivist principles. The roles of learners and teachers, while not completely interchangeable, are reciprocal. A teacher may learn and a learner may teach.

Playing with Concepts

Blogging makes it easy to try concepts out. More than “thinking out loud,” the type of blogging activity I’m thinking about can serve as a way to “put ideas on paper” (without actual paper) and eventually get feedback on those ideas.

In my experience, microblogging (Identi.ca, Twitter…) has been more efficient than extended blogging in terms of getting conceptual feedback. In fact, social networks (Facebook, more specifically) have been even more conducive to hashing out concepts.

Many academics do hash concepts out with students, especially with graduate students. The advantage is that students are likely to understand concepts quickly as they already share some of the same references as the academic who is playing with those concepts. There’s already a context for mutual understanding. The disadvantage is that a classroom context is fairly narrow to really try out the implications of a concept.

A method I like to use is to use fairly catchy phrases and leave concepts fairly raw, at first. I then try the same concept in diverse contexts, on my blogs or off.

The main example I have in mind is the “social butterfly effect.” It may sound silly at first but I find it can be a basis for discussion, especially if it spreads a bit.

A subpoint, here, is that this method allows for “gauging interest” in new concepts and it can often lead one in completely new directions. By blogging about concepts, an academic can tell if this concept has a chance to stick in a broad frame (outside the Ivory Tower) and may be given insight from outside disciplines.

Playing with Writing

This one probably applies more to “junior academics” (including students) but it can also work with established academics who enjoy diversifying their writing styles. Simply put: blogwriting is writing practise.

A common idea, in cognitive research on expertise, is that it takes about ten thousand hours to become an expert. For better or worse, academics are experts at writing. And we gain that expertise through practise. In this context, it’s easy to see blogging as a “writing exercise.” At least, that would be a perspective to which I can relate.

My impression is that writing skills are most efficiently acquired through practise. The type of practise I have in mind is “low-stakes,” in the sense that the outcomes of a writing exercise are relatively inconsequential. The basis for this perspective is that self-consciousness, inhibition, and self-censorship tend to get in the way of fluid writing. High-stakes writing (such as graded assignments) can make a lot of sense at several stages in the learning process, but overemphasis on evaluating someone’s writing skills will likely stress out the writer more than make her/him motivated to write.

This impression is to a large extent personal. I readily notice that when I get too self-conscious about my own writing (self-unconscious, even), my writing becomes much less fluid. In fact, because writing about writing tends to make one self-conscious, my writing this post is much less efficient than my usual writing sessions.

In my mind, there’s a cognitive basis to this form of low-stakes, casual writing. As with language acquisition, learning occurs whether or not we’re corrected. According to most research in language acquisition, children acquire their native languages through exposure, not through a formal learning process. My guess is that the same apply to writing.

In some ways, this is a defence of drafts. “Draft out your ideas without overthinking what might be wrong about your writing.” Useful advice, at least in my experience. The further point is to do something with those drafts, the basis for the RERO principle: “release your text in the wild, even if it may not correspond to your standards.” Every text is a work in progress. Especially in a context where you’re likely to get feedback (i.e., blogging). Trial and error, with a feedback mechanism. In my experience, feedback on writing tends to be given in a thoughtful and subtle fashion while feedback on ideas can be quite harsh.

The notion of writing styles is relevant, here. Some of Hugh’s arguments about the need for blogging in academia revolve around the notion that “academics are bad writers.” My position is that academics are expert writers but that academic writing is a very specific beast. Hugh’s writing standards might clash with typical writing habits among academics (which often include neologisms and convoluted metaphors). Are Hugh’s standards appropriate in terms of academic writing? Possibly, but why then are academic texts rating so low on writing standards after having been reviewed by peers and heavily edited? The relativist’s answer is, to me, much more convincing: academic texts are typically judged through standards which are context-specific. Judging academic writing with outside standards is like judging French writing with English standards (or judging prose through the standards of classic poetry).

Still, there’s something to be said about readability. Especially when these texts are to be used outside academia. Much academic writing is meant to remain within the walls of the Ivory Tower yet most academic disciplines benefit from some interaction with “the general public.” Though it may not be taught in universities and colleges, the skill of writing for a broader public is quite valuable. In fact, it may easily be transferable to teaching, especially if students come from other disciplines. Furthermore, writing outside one’s discipline is required in any type of interdisciplinary context, including project proposals for funding agencies.

No specific writing style is implied in blogging. A blogger can use whatever style she/he chooses for her/his posts. At the same time, blogging tends to encourage writing which is broadly readable and makes regular use of hyperlinks to connect to further information. In my opinion, this type of writing is a quite appropriate one in which academics can extend their skills.

“Public Review”

Much of the preceding connects with peer review, which was the basis of Mark Liberman’s post.

In academia’s recent history, “peer reviewed publications” have become the hallmark of scholarly writing. Yet, as Steve McIntyre claims, the current state of academic peer review may not be as efficient at ensuring scholarly quality as its proponents claim it to be. As opposed to financial auditing, for instance, peer review implies very limited assessment based on data. And I would add that the very notion of “peer” could be assessed more carefully in such a context.

Overall, peer review seems to be relatively inefficient as a “reality check.” This might sound like a bold claim and I should provide data to support it. But I mostly want to provoke some thought as to what the peer review process really implies. This is not about reinventing the wheel but it is about making sure we question assumptions about the process.

Blogging implies public scrutiny. This directly relates to transparency, discussed above. But there is also the notion of giving the public the chance to engage with the outcomes of academic research. Sure, the general public sounds like a dangerous place to propose some ideas (especially if they have to do with health or national security). But we may give some thought to Linus’s law and think about the value of “crowdsourcing” academic falsification.

Food for Thought

There’s a lot more I want to add but I should heed my call to RERO. Otherwise, this post will remain in my draft posts for an indefinite period of time, gathering dust and not allowing any timely discussion. Perhaps more than at any other point, I would be grateful for any thoughtful comment about academic blogging.

In fact, I will post this blog entry “as is,” without careful proofreading. Hopefully, it will be the start of a discussion.

I will “send you off” with a few links related to blogging in academic contexts, followed by Hugh’s list of arguments.

Links on Academic Blogging

(With an Anthropological emphasis)

Hugh’s List

  1. You need to improve your writing
  2. Some of your ideas are dumb
  3. The point of academia is to expand knowledge
  4. Blogging expands your readership
  5. Blogging protects and promotes your ideas
  6. Blogging is Reputation
  7. Linking is better than footnotes
  8. Journals and blogs can (and should) coexist
  9. What have journals done for you lately?

Audio People of the World: "You, Knight!"

Much to be said about a recent ITConversations podcast episode. Ostensibly, this episode was about the LibriVox success story. (LibriVox is a community project producing public domain audiobooks from public domain books in diverse languages.) Yet, during this conversation, Web analyst (and Microsoft employee) Jon Udell along with LibriVox founder Hugh McGuire managed to share much insight on such varied issues as community-building, project management, grassroots movement, open source development, participatory culture, and aurality/orality.

After the chat, Udell and McGuire followed up, on their respective blogs. Udell developed a useful script to make all LibriVox books into RSS feeds for use in iTunes and other media players. Such a collaboration is an appropriate example of the power of “scratch your own itch” development, described during the podcast conversation. The conversation also prompted Librivox reader Sean McGaughey to describe LibriVox as a killer app. [Update: Blog version of the same description.]

I was led to this podcast episode through a visit to LibriVox reader Kara Shallenberg’s blog. Started listening to the LibriVox podcast after reading about LibriVox on fellow YulBlogger Patrick Tanguay’s own blog. Among other things, LibriVox helped me appreciate Canadian Literature and I’m quite glad that the project may contribute to Montreal’s widespread recognition at the cutting edge of technology and culture.

As an aural learner, I was quite taken by Udell and McGuire’s comments on auditory media. It seems that these two guys really grok what is so neat about sound. At least, their ideas about sound are quite compatible with my own ideas about music, language, and the cultural importance of sound.

We might be in a minority, North Americans who care about sound. Many people (including some online visionaries) seem to care more about visuality. In fact, given the large number of Web designers in the “Web 2.0” movement, it might be said that auditory media have often been considered a subset of “audiovisual content.” Yet there is something to be said about sound standing alone in digital life.

For instance, McGuire and Udell talk about the possibility for people to undertake other activities while listening to audiobooks and other auditory content. Commuting is probably the easiest one to grasp, for most people, and while it might be fun to watch a DVD on a plane or bus, audio podcasts are possibly the ideal “distraction” for (hearing) commuters. Listening to podcasts while moving around has led to very stimulating experiences.

Fans of McLuhan would probably think of “hot” and “cool” media. The difference between video and audio podcasts clearly relates to McLuhan’s ideas about participation.

There’s also the issue of rhythm. While moving images certainly can be rhythmic, speech and musical rhythm seem, to me, to be more readily associated with diverse human activities. No idea where to look for the cognitive side of this but it’s clearly worth investigating.

For lack of a better word, sound is more “abstract” than other sensory experiences. Acoustic signals do have a physical reality but the practise of listening has been used to elicit important ideas about abstract structures in Euro-American aesthetics.

Lots more to talk about but it will do for today.