Thursday, April 17, 2014

Summary: The New Academic Celebrity (Shea)

Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the article "The New Academic Celebrity" tackles the idea of how TED talks are changing the definition of academic stardom, as well as what research becomes validated. Though it's not a direct address on the future of the university, it does deal with numerous themes we've discussed over the course of the semester: the privileging of certain research, research publics, donors, and the role of the university.

The general gist of the article is that TED talks have created new academic celebrities, but that their research needs to fit both a particular tone (an optimistic message) as well as attract an audience. What the article points out, though, is that this tends to highlight some disciplines over others. Generally, the humanities are ignored while science, psychology, and neuroscience are routinely featured. The article extends beyond TED, though, to touch on how technologies are changing the university. Shea writes:
"These include similar ideas-in-nuggets conclaves, such as the Aspen Ideas Festival and PopTech, along with huge online courses and—yes, still—blogs. These new, or at least newish, forms are upending traditional hierarchies of academic visibility and helping to change which ideas gain purchase in the public discourse."
A recurring theme (sometimes underlying, sometimes explicit) in our discussions has been the relationship of the university to the public. In this case, research takes the form of the circulation of ideas. More than patents or discoveries, here the public gains some more intangible: a particular perspective. Below, I follow a few key passages from the article and begin to unpack them to help us thing about this dialogue of the future of the university.

But if the old humanist stars had their critics, so do the professors who stalk the TED stage. In December, Benjamin Bratton, an associate professor of visual arts at the University of California at San Diego, delivered one of the most stinging attacks on TED and the intellectual mode it has inspired. (Semi-ironically, he delivered it at TEDx San Diego.) He recounted sitting in on a meeting at which an astrophysicist pitched a donor on supporting his work. 
Bratton said that the donor declined, suggesting the scientist needed to be "more like Malcolm Gladwell." "The donor didn’t think he was inspirational enough," Bratton recalls. "He didn’t tell a story that [the donor] could feel good about." That an actual scientist would be advised to model himself after a popularizer with a packed corporate-speaking schedule struck Bratton as "frightening."
Here, we see the assumptions about how research needs to be presented affects not just public discourse but funding mechanisms. Moreover, these expectations could change how researchers feel compelled to present research in order to get funding. This expectations validates a particular assumption that research should have results, rather than be exploratory. Moreover, it changes which type of research will be compelling for outside funding.
Hard scientists, for their part, seem utterly unperturbed by the opportunity events like TED afford. "Especially for those of us who do research funded with federal grants, I think we have a responsibility to explain to people what our science has found out," says Tufts’s Sara Lewis, the ecologist and self-styled "firefly junkie." She thinks the wide distribution of such talks might even reduce scientific illiteracy: "My hope is that by the time the National Science Foundation does another survey about how many Americans believe in evolution, it won’t be 48 percent, it’ll be, oh, 60 percent."
In this passage, we see a return to the idea of research publics, as well as research in the public good. Moreover, the concept of science literacy that we discussed two weeks ago returned. Here, additionally, the idea of funding and its relationship to the research pursued returns.
TED and its cousin events create the expectation that problems like inequality and environmental degradation can be solved without rethinking any of our underlying assumptions about society, Bratton argues. History has ended; only the apps and robots will keep getting better. Over 30 years, he says, TED "has distorted the conversation we have about technology and innovation. The uncomfortable, the ambivalent, the real difficulties we have get shunted aside."
As we've discussed in conversations about inter/trans/etc.-disciplinary, certain disciplines get more leverage than others in what gets emphasized or what counts as interdisciplinary. Here, we see a complication between research in the public and research insulated within the academy. When facing the public, is there always the assumption that research needs to provide a particular narrative? Is this only particular to TED talks or could this be extended to other areas? What is the responsibility of academia to enter these conversations and provide alternative perspectives?

1 comment:

patrice kohl said...

I absolutely think this could be extended to other areas. As I work on my project for this class on researchers who use digital platforms to communicate science to general audiences, I have also been wondering if blogging, podcasting, ect. give greater leverage to some disciplines than others. I once attended a 2013 AAAS talk encouraging scientists to raise research funds using Kickstarter, which requires a great deal of performance. Not everyone in the room was enthused. Many raised concerns similar to the concerns Bratton raises about TED talks. Thanks for sharing this.