On the way back from the Academy of Management's annual meeting in Philadelphia, I fell into conversation with the woman in the seat next to me who was also returning from the meeting. She told me about a plenary session she had attended in which a large panel had extolled the virtues of social media in getting their research "out of the ivory tower" and into places where it "really matters". They were dissatisfied with the prospect of merely making another "contribution to theory"; their aim was to transform the practice of management. And they were full of helpful advice about how to get this done.
The most memorable part of the session, my seatmate told me, was when a member of the audience stepped up to the microphone and made an impassioned plea for staying in the ivory tower. The panel, after all, had been almost unanimous about the pointlessness of publishing still more boring, unreadable (and therefore unread) journal articles. And their enthusiasm for social media extended even into the classroom where they were increasingly using social media to better engage with their students.
The speaker pointed out that the panel seemed to have given up on the idea that academic knowledge has its own particular ethos. It takes years of research to make an interesting discovery, and takes much more than a tweet to communicate that discovery to people who are qualified to assess the validity of the discovery and determine the significance of its contribution. More importantly, there was a time when everyone understood that our knowledge was not the sort of thing that could be disseminated by op-ed or blogpost but required the long term mutual commitment of students and teachers in the classroom to be properly understood. What the panel was really doing was redefining what it means to know something. By abandoning "old school" lecturing and classroom discussion, and traditional academic prose, they were simply giving up on the sort of care and attention that makes it possible for us, as a culture, to understand complicated facts. As an academic writing coach, he said, choking up a little, it was breaking his heart.
At this point in my seatmate's account I was, of course, able to introduce myself as the very speaker she had been so moved by, and if this had been a movie I would now have been more charming and she less married and the whole thing would have become a beautiful romance. But this was not to be. Instead, which is almost as good, I found another like-minded scholar, someone who is worried about what is happening to academia today, and until we were hushed by the people around us who wanted to sleep on the flight across the Atlantic, we discussed this sorry state of affairs.
In my speech from the floor, I had suggested that our admiration for people like Malcolm Gladwell (with whom many of the members of the panel were of course impressed) shows that we are now trying to get people to believe things they can't possibly understand. We are telling them what we think the truth is but without allowing them to engage critically with it. That's precisely what our classrooms and journals are for. They are situations in which ideas can be presented along with their justifications, and where those justifications can be questioned before the proposed belief is adopted.
Academics who have stopped believing in academic virtues and are turning to social media to "get the word out" have an exaggerated sense of their own authority. They think the world will change for the better if busy managers, inspired by a tweet that links to a blogpost, adopt their views about one thing or another. (This, I pointed out, is a bit like thinking that if Harry Styles* would only tell his twitter followers to read Plato...) But the world will only change for the better if they devote their time to carefully explaining to their peers what they have discovered, and then still more carefully and patiently explaining themselves to their students, year in and year out, so that the next generation of managers will be better informed than the last.
Perhaps the greatest academic virtue, that is, is patience. Too many academics today think of themselves as public intellectuals whose job it is to "spread ideas" through the most efficient media available to them. Such academics are, literally, ideologues; they think universities produce and distribute ideas. What universities really "produce", friends, is more articulate and knowledgeable students. People who are less likely to be immediately impressed by a TED talk, in fact, because they have a higher standard of belief.
*I'm embarrassed to admit that during the plenary I retold this anecdote as being about Justin Bieber. My apologies to Harry Styles.