Tag Archives: snobbery

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

Manufacturing Taste

In a comment to my rant on naysaying, Carl Dyke posted the following link (to a Josh Ellis piece from 2003):

Mindjack – Taste Tribes

The piece itself is rather unremarkable. Although, it does contain comments about a few things which became important topics in the meantime such as recommendation systems and the importance of music listeners for individual artists. I’m not too concerned about the piece and I realize it’s “nothing new.” It mostly made me think about a number of things about which I’ve been meaning to blog.

I could react to the use of the term “tribe.” And there are obvious things to say in terms of social groups (family resemblance, community of experience, community of practice, communitas, homogamy, in-group knowledge, social network analysis, etc.).

But I guess my take is at the same time more personal and more cultural.

Contrary to what my Facebook profile may lead some people to believe, I am not a fan of anything or anyone. I’m not saying that I don’t like things or people. I do. In fact, I pretty much like everyone. But fandom isn’t my thing. Neither is fanboyism. So I don’t relate so well to Ellis’s description of networks based on appreciation of a band. Sure, in the past, I’ve participated in similar groups, such as online discussions about one of my favorite tv shows (which still has a fairly active online fanbase). And I did join several Facebook groups about things or people I like. But my personal attitude makes me react rather negatively to fanclubs and the kind of “taste-based community” Ellis so regrettably called “taste tribes.”

Nobody’s fault but my own. I just feel these groups tend to be too restrictive, too inward-looking and, well, too opinion-based.

I’m too much of a social butterfly to spend much time in any one of these groups. My engagement to a group of people can run deeply and my allegiance and faithfulness are sometimes rather strong. But I don’t like to restrict myself to certain groups.

Maybe I’m an “alpha socialiser” after all.

The cultural dimension also seems quite important to me, but it’s harder to explain without giving off the wrong signals. Not only do I react to what I perceive to be abuses of “pop culture references” (in part because I find them exclusionary), but I perceive a kind of culturally significant attachment to individual “cultural items” (“media,” as Ellis seems to call them) in “English-speaking North American popular culture.” I’m not saying that this tendency doesn’t exist in any other context. In fact, it’s likely a dimension of any “popular culture.” But this tendency is quite foreign to me. The fact that I conceive of myself as an outside observer to popular culture makes me associate the tendency with the common habits shared by a group I’m not a member of.

I’m sure I’ll post again about this. But my guess is that somewhat shorter blog entries encourage more discussion. Given the increasing number of comments I’m getting, it might be cool to tap my readership’s insight a bit more. One thing I’ve often noticed is that my more knee-jerk posts are often more effective.

So here goes.

Intro to Post-Starbucks Coffee

A podcast episode on coffee, with Karen Blumenthal, George Howell and Corby Kummer.

On Point : Coffee Buzz – Coffee Buzz

Blumenthal, author of a book about Starbucks, isn’t mentioned in the show notes but she seems to have set the tone of the show, to a certain extent.

In the rest of the show, I quite like the dynamic between the three main participants: the host, Tom Ashbrook, along with Howell and Kummer. Howell often tends to sound much more forceful in his opinions than he did in this show. And the different takes about Starbucks were quite nuanced.

The show does put Starbucks in the centre of the coffee revolution in the United States and then focuses on newer developments. The current period in the history of coffee in North America is sometimes referred to as the Third Wave, in which is imagined a world of openness and transparency in the coffee-related industries.

As I got my taste in quality coffee from a very different source than Starbucks, I hope that we can now go beyond the Starbucks mentality. In fact, I also hope that we get out of the wine comparisons. Not just because they’re boring but because they miss the point about coffee as a diverse drink. It’s not a very American thing to say but knowing coffee isn’t just about being to tell what is the “best coffee ever.”

One thing the coffee world could import from the wine world, is the idea of pairings. It actually works better for beer than for either wine or coffee, but it can work quite well with coffee, especially with different brewing methods.

BTW, I have nothing against wine. I just think that much wine tends to be much less satisfying than several other drinks including coffee, beer, tea, cider, mead, juice, milk, and water.

Individualism, Freedom, and Food

A surprisingly superficial podcast episode on what could have been a very deep subject.

Open Source » Blog Archive » The End of Free Will?

start a conversation about manipulation, persuasion and freedom from choice

To summarize the main issue of that episode: is marketing and "upselling" by restaurant chains undermining the individual freedom to choose quality food? Apparently simple a question, but billed as much more than that.

Maybe they refrained from delving deeper into any of those issues because philosophical discussions, perhaps aesthetic ones especially, are off limits in "polite company" in U.S. media. Too bad.

Actually, I’m genuinely disappointed. Not necessarily because restaurant chains are very important an issue for me (in Montreal, they don’t seem to have the exact same type of impact and I love to cook). But because the show’s participants all came very close to saying very important things about individualism, food, and freedom. The first two are too rarely discussed, IMHO, and the third could have been the "hook" to discuss the other two.

Ah, well…

If you want to know more about my thoughts on this podcast episode, check out some of the tags below.

Normative Language and Spontaneity

In an interview (in French) with Bruno Guglielminetti (site not yet updated with the interview), copy-editor François Hubert discussed the “quality” of the French language on blogs (by which he means the grammatical, typographical, and spelling correctness of blog posts in French).

This concept of language quality, as described by Hubert and many others, is an important component of French language ideology. While speakers of other languages often complain about the poor quality of other speakers’ speech (and, especially, writing), normative language seems to be a more important part of the language ideology for the French language than, say, the language ideology for the English language.

The insistence on normative language, on the part of French-speakers, seems to have very important effects on both non-native speakers of French and native speakers of French. For instance, many non-native speakers of French will refrain from using the language with native speakers because they fear the native speakers will judge them negatively. While this does happen with learners of other languages, it seems especially debilitating for people trying to use French across language communities. In fact, insistence by Hubert and others on the “quality” of written French might be one of the motivating factors for my blogging mostly in English.

Of course, Hubert has the right to his opinions on the matter and his preference for normative language could be interpreted as a part of his job as a copy-editor (my wife is also a copy-editor…). Yet, even those who work on prescriptive grammar in other languages may be more open to non-normative language. For instance, comments by the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style in their Questions and Answers monthly column often display a much more tolerant attitude to non-normative language than many French-speakers with minimal interest in language issues.

There’s a strong tendency in language sciences (my wife and I are both in the field) to adopt a much more neutral view of language prescription. Some language scientists may talk in private about their preference for «un bon français» (“a good French,” as close to the standard register as possible) but the general agreement is that any language variety is as good as any other in linguistic terms.

In this specific interview, Hubert was mostly discussing blog entries and their spontaneity. Pinpointing a known phenomenon linking mistakes with online communication (“What? There’s a ‘Preview’ button?”), Hubert sets up a model opposing spontaneity to quality.  Hubert himself not only sends his blog entries in a word processor to check for typographical mistakes (a spell-checking browser makes this much easier to do) but he even prints out some of his entries before posting them. Thankfully his advice to bloggers is less extreme as it centres on rereading posts before submission and going back to older posts in order to revise them for posterity’s sake.

None of this is inappropriate advice, but it leads us to think about the blurring line between oral and written communication. Hubert’s argument is that, if we care about communication so much, we should revise our texts as they might remain available for a long time. Bloggers often take another approach to revision: readers are like an open-source community of copy-editors. Blogs with active readership communities often attract comments on language issues. Simple typographical mistakes are usually spotted by some astute reader quite early on and deeper issues are sometimes solved by the community. “Given enough eyeballs, all typos are shallow.” This is especially true if the author of the entry is perceived as somewhat condescending to her or his readers. Nothing will motivate someone to write a comment than showing the mistakes the author has made!

This all has to do with not only spontaneity but the “release early, release often.” Bloggers do revisit older entries, if need be. Not necessarily by editing the original entry but by posting a follow up. Blog étiquette seems to have it that entries should be left untouched as much as possible. Otherwise, comments on those entries cease to make sense. And when bloggers are trying to get to publishing quality, they might in fact use the power of the community as an editing team. As such, a blog entry is like a recorded conversation. You don’t change the conversation but you can use it to go further. In such a context, normative language makes fairly little sense. As long as you can post quickly and the gist of your ideas can be understood well-enough to enable readers to ask questions, heavy revision of every single entry is contrary to the very principle of blogging.

IMHO, such emphasis on revision and “language quality” is a reason why so many people have difficulty with writing. Nothing prevents someone from writing more abruptly than thinking about peculiarities of written language. Except if those peculiarities are what this person is writing about, of course!

One thing that few people seem to discuss extensively is the fact that younger people are in fact writing inordinate amounts of text online. Of course, those with a prescriptive and normative view of language will just say that what is written online by a thirteen year old has no value because of the “poor quality of the language.” Yet those teenagers who are instant messaging their way to becoming extremely fast typists are really writing. They are putting ideas into written form. And they develop ways to be as efficient as possible in their writing while still being understood by their interlocutors. More than a skill, it’s an important social change. Writing is not what it was when only a precious few scribes were able to use it for specialized communication and archival (like accounting and religion). Scribes of old have been responsible for a number of changes in language. Why can’t millions of teenagers have more of an impact on written language than a few dead scribes?