• September 1, 2014

The New Academic Celebrity

Why a different kind of scholar—and idea—hits big today

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Matt Roth for The Chronicle Review

Back in 1991, a New York Times Magazine writer, Anne Matthews, described Andrew Ross, a doyen of American studies, strolling through the Modern Language Association conference in his "pale mango wool-and-silk Commes des Garcons blazer" on his way to a session on gangsta rap and censorship, as admiring graduate students gawked and murmured, "That’s him!"

That was academic stardom then. Today, we are more likely to bestow the aura and perks of stardom on speakers at "ideas" conferences like TED, which held its 30th-anniversary gathering last month, in Vancouver.

Among the speakers was Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, who seems to have been born to give a TED talk. He was one of a few dozen "all-stars" that TED’s curators invited to Vancouver, to give hyper-compressed updates on their work. TED talks are normally 18 minutes or so, but the all-stars got about five on the stage, standing before blocky red stage-prop letters spelling out T-E-D, wearing conspicuous headset mikes and peering through the bright stage lights into the crowd of 1,200, each of whom had paid at least $7,500 to attend.

Gilbert’s first TED talk, from 2004, on the psychology of happiness, has been viewed nearly 8.8 million times. This year, dressed in a casual olive sweater and black jeans, he explained with exuberance what he called the "end of history illusion" that we have about our personal lives.

"All of us," he said, "are walking around with the illusion that our personal history has come to an end." We tend to view our current tastes, and even personality traits, as the ones we will carry with us for the next 10 years—even as we look back and see that over the previous 10 years our tastes and personalities changed substantially. Throughout our lives, we fail to make use of that insight in predicting the future.

Afterward, Guy Raz, who hosts NPR’s TED Radio Hour and was serving as emcee for this session, stepped on stage and put a positive gloss on the finding—a TED gloss, you might say. "I guess it means we are always becoming better versions of ourselves," he observed, in a chipper tone. "Could you make that argument?"

"You could make that argument," Gilbert began, "but it wouldn’t be supported by the evidence." Gilbert stressed that the finding was simply that we are likely to be markedly different from our present selves in 10 years. Not for the first time, the facts had run up against TED’s relentlessly uplifting frame. Nonetheless, Raz wound things up by stating that he still found the work "very optimistic."

A TED talk (the acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design) is one of the routes to academic stardom that didn’t exist a decade ago. (The 30th-anniversary celebration aside, curators only began posting fame-making free online videos in 2006.) Although TED plays an inordinate role in setting the tone for how ideas are conveyed—not only because of the reach of its videos but also through spinoffs like regional "TEDx" events and the TED Radio Hour, one of the few places nonpolicy intellectuals get substantial on-air time—it’s just one of a number of platforms that are changing the ecology of academic celebrity. 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.

In a famous essay, "The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos," first published in the early 90s, the literary scholar Stanley Fish wrote that "the flourishing of the lecture circuit has brought with it new sources of extra income ... [and] an ever-growing list of stages on which to showcase one’s talents, and geometric increase in the availability of the commodities for which academics yearn, attention, applause, fame, and ultimately, adulation of a kind usually reserved for the icons of popular culture." Fish was Exhibit A among professors taking advantage of such trends, and his trailblazing as a lit-crit celebrity inspired the dapper, globe-trotting lit-theory operator Morris Zapp, a character in David Lodge’s academic satire Small World. But the world Fish was describing, where no one could live-tweet the lectures, let alone post the talks for worldwide distribution, now seems sepia-toned.

"If David Lodge’s Morris Zapp were alive and kicking today," observes John Holbo, an associate professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore, and blogger at Crooked Timber and the Valve, "he’d be giving a TED talk, not an MLA talk. Which is to say: He wouldn’t be doing Theory. He probably wouldn’t be in an English department."

The newest versions of that lecture circuit hold out the prospect of delivering ideas to a broader range of people, but they also privilege some kinds of ideas over others. This year’s TED, for example, featured research psychologists, analysts of technology, scientists, and a couple of philosophers (David Chalmers, Daniel Dennett) with an interest in neuroscience, the academic field du jour. But there were no literary scholars or academic historians or political scientists.

It’s hard to argue against millions of people getting a dose of a Daniel Gilbert lecture—or hearing the MIT cognitive scientist Nancy Kanwisher talk about mapping the brain, or the behavioral ecologist Sara M. Lewis, of Tufts University, discuss firefly evolution (both also spoke in Vancouver this year). But plenty of observers have argued that some of the new channels for distributing information simplify and flatten the world of ideas, that they valorize in particular a quick-hit, name-branded, business-friendly kind of self-helpish insight—or they force truly important ideas into that kind of template. They favor the kind of idea that fits into our "life hacking" culture: providing pointers or data that can be translated into improved productivity or happiness (often assumed to be the same). A TED talk by the Harvard Business School psychologist Amy J.C. Cuddy on "power posing" to increase confidence and succeed in the workplace has been viewed 16.4 million times.

Likewise, while there are bloggers in law, economics, and even political science who command large public followings, with few exceptions blogs by literary scholars and philosophers tend to be read by specialists. In subtler ways, this also affects the ideas that make their way to the public.

Generalizing about academic stardom is tricky business, partly because stars come in so many forms. There’s always been the scientist wooed to a prestigious campus with a lavish lab, the rare Carl Sagan who breaks through as a charismatic popularizer (or Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the new Cosmos, who is no longer in academe), the economist who moves from the faculty lounge to the White House. But the model of stardom that set the tone for a generation or more in academe was that enjoyed by people like Fish, the gender theorist Judith Butler, the African-American-studies experts Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates (even before he wrote for The New Yorker or hosted PBS programs)—people who were read across the humanities and seemed to transcend them. In a special issue of the minnesota review, in 2001, literary scholars debated whether people were engaging with the ideas of such "academostars" or simply parroting and citing them unquestioningly. That kind of stardom has faded.

In describing the shift of the limelight away from the humanities, many people invoke the decline of theory—specifically the abstruse poststructuralist thought espoused by Jacques Derrida and his acolytes—which once seemed set to take over not just the humanities but all of academe. "There is a particular kind of theory-head who thinks that they can explain everything to everyone," says Stephen Burt, a professor of English at Harvard University. "That’s gone. The people who think they can explain everything are in the sciences—or in one case linguistics, Steven Pinker. But I don’t think there’s an explanation for everything, so I don’t miss it." Burt, the rare English professor who has given a TED talk (on poetry and mortality, among other things), says his experience was "unequivocally positive."

People such as John Brockman, literary agent to star scientists and editor of Edge.org, argue that wooly humanists have simply given way to harder-headed thinkers who address intellectual topics, including the humanities, through a scientific lens.

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."

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."

Harvard’s Gilbert dismisses the criticisms of TED: "Who cares about a backlash against the idea of having a series of brief talks by the most interesting thinkers, researchers, and artists?" He says a TED talk is just one form of expression among many and portends the end of serious discourse no more than Psychology 101 lectures do. "This is the argument against haiku: If we write it, all other poetry will vanish."

Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore College psychology professor and another TED all-star, likewise sees no downside. His 2005 talk, on how a surfeit of choice overwhelms ordinary people in a way that seems to conflict with economic theory, has been viewed 5.9 million times. "Anytime you talk about your work, you simplify," he says, but "to simplify is not to oversimplify." He was originally invited to speak after TED’s chief curator, Chris Anderson, saw his talk at the PopTech conference, in Camden, Me. For Schwartz, the effect of TED stardom has been most evident in the shelf life of his 2003 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (Ecco), which continues to sell 7,500 to 10,000 copies a year. "New people discover it every day, and they don’t discover it from the book—they discover it from the talk." He doubts, however, that this kind of popular fame carries much currency in the academic world.

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."

One cliché of the Internet age is that thinkers and writers should be "platform agnostic": books, videos, online texts are all means to a similar end. Naturally, academic blogs have also had an effect on academic publicity and celebrity, an effect that has varied by discipline. When Tyler Cowen, the George Mason University economist, launched his blog Marginal Revolution, in 2003, he imagined reaching 4,000 people a day. Now the number of visitors is in the hundreds of thousands. Once a month or so he gets stopped on the streets by someone who knows him from his online presence (including the free video courses he offers through Marginal Revolution University), which still takes him aback.

Cowen thinks the rough give-and-take of argumentation and comment ("Everything gets savaged") tends to make life online difficult for "people who trade in a certain kind of puffery." By that he seems to mean jargon-wielding humanists who might be more used to deferential nods from their peers at conferences.

"Economics has been a huge gainer and philosophy has been a big loser" in the blog world, he says. "Philosophical arguments tend to be very long-winded—whether that’s for reasons relative to merit or for other reasons." Pithy empirical findings tend to do better.

That’s evidenced by the success of political-science blogs, too. Though bloggers in that field are only mildly well known—in the "famous for Washington" sense—they have raised the profile of the field as a whole. John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University and a founder of the Monkey Cage, a group blog now hosted by The Washington Post, notes that some of the field’s central findings have become "part of the bloodstream" of political reportage: For example, reporters can no longer cover campaigns, as they used to until very recently, without acknowledging that underlying economic conditions shape those campaigns significantly.

But it has not escaped Sides’s notice that political scientists are seldom asked to do TED talks. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, is similarly puzzled about why historical ideas don’t count as "ideas worth spreading," as the TED slogan has it. Recently, in the context of discussing with some of his membership’s elected leaders new presentation formats that might enliven the annual AHA conference, he navigated to the TED site to show them some TED presentations by historians. Except for Niall Ferguson, he couldn’t find any.

(Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, who would respond only to emailed questions, denied that TED ignored certain scholarly fields, but said he was "actively looking to broaden. ... If the idea is good and the speaker can deliver it in a compelling way, we are game to give it a platform, no matter the discipline.")

Historians may have better luck with online courses, a medium in which lightning has struck in some unlikely places. Shelly Kagan, a professor of philosophy at Yale, describes himself as "tolerably well known" in his field, though sub-star-stratum. But his Open Yale Course on death, showing him chatting informally while sitting cross-legged on his desk, became a phenomenon in China, as he learned first from Google alerts and then when he visited Peking University in October 2012. There, philosopher after philosopher told him of the spell the course cast on students. And that wasn’t true just in China: When he visited South Korea last year, to promote a book he wrote based on the course, "I’d show up for a talk an hour and a half early and there would be people stretched around the block." Last he heard, his Korean publisher had sold in the neighborhood of 150,000 copies, though the book, published in the States by Yale University Press, sold quite modestly here.

In a gesture jokingly intended to keep his ego in check, one of Kagan’s daughters recently plugged his name and that of the political philosopher Michael Sandel into Google Trends, and Kagan was trounced. Sandel’s exponentially greater fame is partly due to an edX course, "Justice," that enrolled 71,000 people last year and will be offered with subtitles in several foreign languages this year. Sandel had long been one of Harvard’s most-praised pedagogues, and now his renown extends far beyond that university’s Sanders Theatre. And edX’s tech courses produce numbers that dwarf even Sandel’s, with the Harvard senior lecturer David J. Malan’s most recent introductory computer course enrolling 214,000.

The reach of scholars like Sandel and his fellow travelers in this new ecosystem gives the lie to complaints about the "demise of the public intellectual"—such as Nicholas Kristof’s notorious column in The New York Times this past February. Still, the public intellectual of today clearly has different stripes. The British magazine Prospect has been collating a list of top public intellectuals since 2004—usually with an online-poll component. Over the years, Prospect editors have noted certain trends: the falling-off (or literal death) of Old Left intellectuals, like Eric Hobsbawm; the decline of British philosophers as participants in public debate; the marginalization of Theory. Last year the evolutionary-theorist-turned-pugnacious-atheist Richard Dawkins topped the readers’ poll. This year’s list of 50 World Thinkers, released in late March, included a few new developments: notably leftists who have gained attention because of concern over the global financial crisis and its aftermath, including David Harvey, a professor of anthropology and geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; David Graeber, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London; and the novelist and activist Arundhati Roy.

But they’re far less typical of the zeitgeist than another figure on the Prospect list, Andrew McAfee, co-director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy at MIT. He’s now co-author, with Erik Brynjolfsson, the other director of the MIT initiative, of the new The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (Norton). McAfee gave a TED talk in 2013: On stage, he comes across as a less goofy Jeff Bezos—confident, shaved head, jacket-over-untucked-dress-shirt, fashionable stubble. He’s aware of the TED stereotype for techno-hype but says it doesn’t apply in his case, though he did make some concessions to the medium. "I did not give a relentlessly upbeat talk about how technology is developing," he says, and indeed, he argued that the same robotic technology that would free the upper-middle class and above from drudgery would make it harder for the middle and working classes to find jobs.

However, he went on to float the idea of a guaranteed annual income, and concluding by saying, "I don’t think for a second that we have forgotten how to solve tough challenges or that we’ve become too apathetic or hard-hearted even to try."

"I did end on an up note," McAfee acknowledges. "I tried to be inspirational—I tried to give a good TED talk."

Christopher Shea is a contributing writer at The Chronicle.

Correction (4/16/2014, 11:40 a.m.): This article originally misidentified the conference at which the TED curator Chris Anderson heard Barry Schwartz speak, leading to a TED invitation. It was the PopTech conference, in Camden, Me., not the Gel Conference in New York. The article has been updated to reflect that.

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