Re: More on "Third Culture"

John H. Stevens, Jr. (jhs14@CORNELL.EDU)
Thu, 7 Sep 1995 09:53:16 -0500

This whole thread on science and humanities has been very interesting.
Rather than go on about the categories, I'd like to address a point or two
that has to do with other considerations, primarily ones that John Mcreery
has brought up.

First, John's point on:

>the fact that a number of scientists have emerged
>who confound our expectations that scientists talk only to
>each other and write persuasively on serious issues for the
>general public. What is striking is not only that they write
>in the way that they do, but the social/business reality that
>their books are becoming popular and influential. In
>contrast, the "critical theorists" who have shaped recent
>thinking in humanities departments have become
>increasinglyesoteric. I would hazard a guess that Stephen
>Gould (who, like Geiger, I like very much) has at least 10
>readers for every one that reads, say, Derrida. Seen in this
>light, whether we should model ourselves on one or the
>other is of more than intellectual interest. If we wish to
>pursue political agendas and must, therefore, speak
>persuasively to a wider public than ourselves the
>practicalities to which Brockman points become of even
>greater concern.

To which I say, in general, quite right, John!! Intellectuals and
academics of all stripes should write better, more clearly, and with an
audience of more than 12 in mind. The issues that this thought opens up is
more about the structure of advanced intellectual/academic work than any
split in disciplines, however. Remember, Margaret Mead wrote for *Redbook*
and Marvin Harris' books have been popular for years. Generally, the
majority of academics write for academics, or at best for their students
and a specialized audience. The problem is not in any particualr
discipline, but in the entire system.

Academics are expected to write dense, jargon-filled articles and books
that demonstrate their brilliance and/or specialization. These articles
and books are more often than not published in either low-circulation
journals or by university publishers who don't have a fraction of
HarperCollins clout or marketing power. Adminstrations at universities
base their tenure criteria on how much a candidate writes, and how obscure
(for lack of a better term) their subject and analysis is, not on
pertinence or comprehensibility. One teacher of mine was warned that if he
didn't stop writing for some semi-popular spiritual and political journals,
he might not get tenure!

But inevitably, this all comes back to the identity debate, I think.
First, most people expect academics to talk like dusty-robed thaumaturges,
to forget that they have three pens in their shirt pocket and to gaze
beyond their left ear and pontificate on grand questions. Oh, and elbow
patches (or, for female academics, flats). Second, the above mentioned
administrations, both university and departmental, set up criteria and
expectations for hiring, merit, and tenure based more on a professor's
theoretical constructs and uniqueness than whether or not they write
clearly, have relevant ideas, or even if they can teach. Third, within
departments, disciplines, and communities of scholars there are certain
expectations, customs, and practices that further assist in the propogation
of both territoriality and rarification.

Yes, this is a generalization, but so is the science/humanities split!

I'm curious if other people think this is correct, and if they can think of
other factors like this that influence our identity and practice as
thinkers and writers.


Best regards,

John Stevens
Department of Anthropology
Cornell University