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The rise of the Super Profs: should we be worried about celebrity academics?


15 November 2012

By Richard Miles, University of Sydney

Recently, I looked at a copy of the achingly aspirational male style magazine GQ, and there was an article from its food critic on how to prepare the perfect Bronte pistachio tart. Not having a sweet tooth, I was about to pass it by. That was until I saw the byline.

The creator of this culinary masterpiece was none other than Simon Schama, Professor of Art History at Columbia University. Professor Schama, it seems, writes a regular column on food for the magazine, and one can learn how to make any number of delicacies from the historian's table from fish stew bouillabaisse to special roast lamb with pomegranate.

Of course, one can find Professor Schama's byline everywhere. He is, after all, one of the most influential cultural and political commentators in the media today. Yet, it is hard to imagine Sir Kenneth Clark, perhaps the closest equivalent to Schama in the 1960s, furnishing his public with a recipe for the perfect devilled eggs or "pigs in blankets."

Times have certainly changed in the world of media dons.

In fact, Schama's foray into gourmet journalism struck me as the perfect symbol for a revolution that has taken place in academe over the past two decades. Back then, it seemed that academia had beaten a retreat from "public engagement". When I was going through graduate school at Cambridge it appeared that humanities scholarship, stung by a decade of unsympathetic Thatcherite rule, had withdrawn into its own world. Academic terminology, partly fuelled by a mania for post-modernist dogma, had become evermore complex and impenetrable to anyone outside of the rarified circle of academe.

Now in 2012, we have professors not just acting as feted cultural and political commentators but also arbiters of style. We are surely living in the Age of the Celebrity Professor.

The reach of these "Super Profs" is extraordinary. Schama when he is not making the perfect braised rabbit can be found advising the British government on how to reform parts of the school education system or commentating on the recent US presidential election. He is everywhere.

In the old days, an editor might commission an academic to provide balance to a particularly partisan debate. Now it is often the professors themselves who are the most ruthless gunslingers in the OK Coral of media punditry. Just look at the furor that surrounded an ill-informed attack made by Harvard University History Professor Niall Ferguson on President Obama.

Never mind that the piece was the cover article for Newsweek magazine, its fallout was covered by virtually every major media outlet in the US and UK. All this vilification served to do was remind one of just how internationally famous Ferguson has become.

Schama and Ferguson are just the tip of a massive iceberg. Beneath them sit a battery of ambitious young scholars plotting their own assent to the top by writing newspaper articles, publishing popular books, presenting television documentaries, updating their own personal websites and tweeting. The A-Listers have created a new blueprint for academic success, a blueprint that can bring fame, fortune and influence.

What makes Australia interesting in this regard is that that it remains one of the few places in the Anglophone world that has yet to be conquered by the Super Profs. When one considers the massive media impact of Australians such as Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes overseas, it seems surprising how few public intellectuals there are here. I suspect that this state of affairs is going to change very soon.

My own view is that this could be a very good thing not just for Australia's media but also its universities. Public intellectuals can greatly enrich the national conversation. University academics can bring clarity, independent thinking and most importantly, expertise to important debates.

For academics, who have often traditionally looked upon the media with grave suspicion as the agent of heinous "dumbing down", the chance to communicate their ideas to a wider audience, particularly one that pays for their research and salaries, is a wonderful opportunity.

Working with the media can be an extremely rewarding experience for university academics. For those in the humanities who research on their own, it can offer a welcome opportunity to work in collaboration with others who can often bring a broader perspective.

The media demands clarity of thought and economy of expression - two skills which academics are not always known for. Rather than the oft-repeated charge of dumbing down, the Holy Grail for editors is complex ideas being explained in the simplest way possible. That is surely an aspiration that we can all agree upon.

Writing for a larger, more diverse audience forces an author to strip arguments down to their essentials and ask that all important question: "so what?"

Australian universities need to do everything that they can to encourage their academics to engage with the wider public, and television, radio, print and increasingly electronic media are the perfect vehicles to achieve that aim.

However, the example of the Super Profs should serve as much as a warning as it does an inspiration for any aspiring media dons. Academics are only really effective public communicators when they speak on topics that fall within their area of expertise. It is a short step from expert to being just another celebrity-seeking pundit.

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