Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Do clickbait articles like "Why professors are writing crap that nobody reads" erode the humanities? Here are 5 weird tricks to tell you the answer.

Figure 1. It got your attention, didn't it?
This little number--"Why Professors Are Writing Crap That Nobody Reads"--was all over my Facebook feed recently, as it may have been all over yours.

Why?  Why does this stupid piece of clickbait provocation keep popping up every few months? I didn't link to it because you don't need to read the article; Google tells me that there are 13 million+ hits on the same exact subject.

Although I'm calling out this one because it's the most recent, it's a whole genre, and you could take your pick of reasons why they're written and published:
  1. It requires absolutely no thought at all to write, since the conclusion is always the same: "Well, the main reason is job security." No kidding! Do tell me more, Captain Obvious. 
  2. It's quick to do, because you can always pick up some random figures from a recent study to "prove" your points.
  3.  Snark is the currency of the internet, and everyone wants to raise their social profile by getting a lot of hits.  It's easier to hurt something than to build it up. 
  4.  It's basically an aggregator paragraph or two that popularizes someone else's research with a few sensational provocations--calling what professors write "crap," for example.
Yes, we'd like it if more people read our stuff. And yes, we ought to reach out to the general public, as I do, or try to, on my other blog, and as many of you on the blogroll already do. Yes, we shouldn't be enabling Elsevier and the rest to make the big bucks by profiting from our free labor as writers and editors. Finally: yes, it's true that we ought to give more weight to informative posts on social media like blogs or platforms like Vox, Medium, LitHub, and the late, lamented The Toast.

But there's an insidious side to all these calls to stop publishing for a scholarly audience and judge an essay's worth based primarily on its popularity. Here are the five weird tricks promised in every clickbait headline to tell you why, although I'll spare you the usual pointless slideshow festooned with ads to show you the list:

1. You can't judge the impact of an article by its immediate popularity. Did Vannevar Bush's classic "As We May Think" make as much of an impact in 1945 as it has since the development of the computer? Some pieces take a while to come into their own. How many ideas popular in their own time (cough*eugenics*cough) were popular and entirely destructive?

2. All research, and certainly humanities research, builds on previous work--standing on the shoulders of giants, I think they call it. The general public may think that an article mapping where speakers in England used "icicle" and where they used "isacle" is pointless, but maybe it tells later researchers where the Vikings landed, or something. I don't know, because I'm not a specialist in Old English, but that's exactly the point: I don't know, and neither do you, dismissive writers and casual readers on the web.

3. It plays into our current national value of being ignorant and proud of it. There are a lot of things I don't understand because I'm not trained in the field, but that doesn't mean that they are not worth attention. A civil society has to trust its members, and it ought to trust that people with expertise know something.

4. The people who read these essays are in a real position to harm funding for research--not just voters, but legislators, who like to wave things from the internet around during their speeches to prove that they're current with what the public is saying. Every time a state legislature moves to cut funding for higher ed, saying "why can't they teach 7 classes a day, 5 days a week?" this is the kind of article they cite.

5. People are hungry for real information, which is why we should share it, but not everything is going to make enough news to gain the kind of currency that these articles demand.  What's going to make a bigger splash on Google News--identifying the multiple authors of a manuscript or a cute walking molecule simulation?

When these articles appear on Facebook, I have held back from saying what I really think, in the name of being noncontentious. I think it's time to start being contentious.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

The title made me LOL, and the post made me glad for the N+1th time that I'm not on Facebook.

I especially appreciate your points 3 & 4.

I don't have any particular skill at writing for a general audience, nor a strong desire to do so. Sometimes it seems I'm so specialized I can barely communicate with my students, who are English majors and have a vested interest in grasping what matters to their professors. But what I do tells us more about who was reading what, and why, in a period when information technology was on the cusp of---or in the middle of---rapid and drastic change. That seems fairly relevant to our current situation, though it probably needs someone other than me to draw out the comparison in a way that the general public could appreciate. Nonetheless, because I have done the research, it is available for that person, whoever it may be, to work with.

And you're absolutely correct about the importance of research into linguistic distribution: it does have consequences for what we know about invasion, assimilation, the spread of immigrants, and so on.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Preach it!

At the same time, I do believe that there is value for researchers to make things accessible and to understand and communicate the importance of what they're doing to a wider audience, even if that audience is just people at a cocktail party or academic convention. Because everything worth studying is important and interesting otherwise we wouldn't be studying it. It just takes making those connections accessible to make it interesting and important to someone else.

#4 is especially important. I remember a news story where legislators had grabbed on something with a silly title and removed funding because of it, but the research turned out to be quite important once the news people had explained it.

nicoleandmaggie said...

adding... knowledge shouldn't be limited to people who know the jargon

undine said...

Dame Eleanor--thanks! Some specialties don't translate well into public posts, but that doesn't mean they aren't valuable. That's what's so irritating about these articles: it's like if average person can't understand something, from string theory to the Laffer curve, then nobody has to know it.

I used the icicle/icacle thing because it was an article I stumbled across as a very callow undergrad, and my reaction was pretty much Joe Everyman--"can you believe this!" But that's what education does for you--shows you that just because you can't see the value doesn't mean the value isn't there.

nicoleandmaggie--I agree about making things accessible when you can (hence that middle paragraph), but making that the sole criterion of research value is like making student evals the sole criterion of good teaching. Knowledge shouldn't be limited to those who know the jargon, it's true, but there's no harm done if the reader has to do a little thinking.

MattH said...

It's not only humanities types who get fed up with such trivialization of expertise. I work in pharmaceutical research, so my publications are about specialized technical aspects of that field. One needs some background to understand current research in any field.

Undine Spragg said...

MattH--in a science field like pharmaceutical research, the trivialization would be harmful on multiple levels, I'd think.