About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Academics and Journalists

I'm not a well-known academic (at all).  That's because I haven't published (much) in academic journals.  It's also because I've chosen not to have a traditional academic career; I've chosen (with all the expected harm to my professional life) to work part-time as an adjunct rather than pursue a tenure track job.  Though I have loved being able to spend more time with my children than most (if not all) of my tenure-seeking friends have had with theirs, my professional choices have, to a certain extent, sidelined me as "not a real" academic, a fact that sometimes is quite painful.

I'll never fully be comfortable with it, but it is what it is.

But even if I *had* chosen a tenure-track job, I might have still been marginalized by many of my fellow academics, for one reason:  I prefer and do qualitative -- not quantitative -- research.

Translation:  When I do research, I either interview people or consult lots and lots of newspapers or archives.

It's not that I cannot do statistical analyses or read data.  I learned enough of that to get the Ph.D., did enough of it in the dissertation to prove a decent level of proficiency.  But I knew, very early on, that I was never going to want to sit behind a computer and run statistical analyses.

I'd rather sell shoes.

There is a hierarchy within academia in general, and within social science in particular, that holds that the "smarter" people work with the big data sets and do the fancy statistics, while the rest of us "just interview people".  Or maybe we analyze years and years of news articles or work in dusty historical archives.  In any case, we who do not do heavy statistics are generally looked down upon by those who do.

Graduate students are socialized into this reality in multiple ways.  First, there are more grants and more job opportunities during grad school for those who can crunch data, so if you choose to be a qualitative researcher you truly are the proverbial poor-as-a-church-mouse grad student (and you probably work in a restaurant in your "spare time").  Second, there are more job opportunities  after grad school if you choose to be a number cruncher.  Third, there are more job opportunities outside academia, even for those who (gasp!) don't finish the Ph.D.  All in all, there are some strong arguments for more graduate students to choose quantitative skills over qualitative ones.

But not if you hate the work.

I knew I couldn't be that person.  But I hadn't quite understood the negative effect it might have on my self-esteem until, one day in graduate school, I had the following discussion with other students and a few faculty about types of research and what we liked to do.

"I really like interviewing people, hearing what they have to say and how they perceive their lives."

"But that is just journalism," one statistically-minded (and highly competent) researcher told me.  "How do you know that what you're hearing is true?"

That was the moment I learned just how great the divide is between some qualitative and quantitative researchers and how many in the latter camp use another field altogether -- journalism -- as a way of dissing those in the former.

Prior to that comment, I had not really had any negative opinions about journalism.  In fact, I had seriously considered going to journalism school.  I chose sociology because I perceived that it welcomed people with broad interests.  If there is nothing else true about me, it's that my interests are broad.

But I didn't choose sociology over  journalism; I just decided I wanted to teach college.

This tension between academics (particularly those who do quantitative analyses with large random samples) and journalists has bugged me ever since, and I see it play out among my colleagues in depressingly predictable ways.

I know a certain sociology department with a long history of animosity between the qualitative researchers and the quantitative ones; those in the former group are referred to as "Camp A" and those in the other as "Camp B".  Camp B has more power and more men.  Let's just say that *if* I were in this department as an assistant professor seeking tenure, I'd be in Camp A and have good reason to fear not getting tenure.

I'd also have good reason to fear being compared -- and not with respect -- to journalists.

I'm going to skip the essay on what good interviewing entails, and on how hard an academic has to work to do enough interviews to know for sure that he or she has found a pattern, rather than just an idiosyncratic story.  (Sociologists look for patterns in society, not just interesting stories.  However, interesting stories can lead them to look for patterns -- thanks, journalism!)

Why is it that academics so often dis journalists?

I think academics often see journalistic work as ephemeral, ahistorical and atheoretical.  O.K.  Fair enough. Often true.

And I think that academics worry (with some legitimacy) that students hang onto journalistic accounts of reality without looking at studies of the same thing.  Also true.  They do.  I have to tell my students that they must go read peer-reviewed studies and not "just" rely on what they find on MSNBC or CNN (not that they do not often find excellent stuff there, too -- they do.)  But, to be fair, often news (especially about science) is watered down in the mainstream media because it has to be -- if you really want to understand a study, you have to go read it.  It's up to us academics to make sure our students know this; it isn't journalism's fault that students can be lazy.

Academics become upset that so much of what is put out there is done too fast and without enough analysis.

I wouldn't disagree.

So, turning it around -- why is it that journalists (sometimes) dis academics?

I think journalists' proverbial feathers get ruffled when they hear "experts" discuss politics or situations without having been there.  True.  I do not disagree that some academics (particularly in this media age) LOVE the opportunity to go on TV and see themselves hold forth.  They may not always be as careful and cautious in their analyses as they should be (but I think I could safely say the same about some journalists).

I recently told a colleague how much of my course material was peer-reviewed articles and scholarly books and how much was stuff written by journalists.  I rely quite a bit on articles written in The New York Times or The Atlantic, for instance.  I seek out books written by journalists (such as Nick Kristof or Barbara Ehrenreich) who I think are truly exceptional writers and researchers.  I like finding authors who bridge that journalism-academia divide (Ehrenreich being probably my favorite).

My colleague was a bit surprised at how much I do rely on good journalism for teaching sociology, but he also acknowledged that sometimes the journalistic accounts are easier to read, more student-friendly than the academic ones.

"I guess David Brooks is kind of a sociologist," he said.  "He kinda hovers above all."

I joked that it my next life, I'd be happy to "hover" as a journalist/sociologist.

For now, I have to settle for being an adjunct.

Not all academics dis journalists and I hope not all journalists think we're just a bunch of head-in-the-ivory-tower people who don't respect their on-the-ground work.  Some of us really appreciate their work and use it as inspiration for our own.

I've always been heartened by something a very old (and, ironically, very quantitative) sociologist told me (also during grad school):  "You know, Elaine, you don't have to worry about being "like a journalist".  Some of the best journalists out there would have been great sociologists."