No, BuzzFeed-Style Scholarship Won’t Save (or Help) the Academy

Yesterday morning, the Chronicle of Higher Education called attention to BuzzAdemia, a new project spearheaded by Mark Marino, an associate professor of writing at the University of Southern California. With BuzzAdemia, Marino wants to “shake up” academic publishing by disseminating “scholarly arguments” on sites like Reddit, Gawker, and BuzzFeed (hence the name). Marino adds that his dream for the project is for readers to “get locked in a click-bait loop of scholarly arguments, rather than articles about Disney princesses and what to do in your 20s.”

So far we have at least two examples of such BuzzAdemic pieces. First, there is Marino’s own preemptive argument for the project, delivered as a BuzzFeed listicle. As a primer, it certainly goes for the gags, often at the expense of spelling and lines that scan. Some of its points are indisputable (“Likes are more likely than tenure”), others less so (“The RT is the purest form of peer-review”).

Our next slice of BuzzAdemia is somewhat more successful. It comes from Chris Rodley, a graduate student at the University of Sydney in Australia. It’s more or less an explanation of post-structuralism that uses beards as semiotic signs. And the second part of the article uses GIFs.

Now, I’m certainly not against the propagation of ideas that hatch, or at least incubate, in the Academy. My issue here is not, as the article anticipates, that academic ideas will be “watered down” through sharing on such sites and services. My problem with BuzzAdemia is rather that it reproduces nearly every flaw extant in academic writing.

I find it strange that Marino, a professor of writing, believes that “how we write” is so easily distinguishable from “what we write.” Marino seems to think that “scholarly arguments” are like facts that can be distributed on any network. We already have a name for this crazy ideology: data journalism. Nor can the “form” or “content” of a thought be easily separated from its format or the network on which it is delivered. There is a reason why BuzzFeed lists take the form of wildly debatable observations and memes and images. It’s hard to understand why these ideas, which are staples of academic media theory, are so readily lost on the BuzzAdemics.

Academic writing, if it puts its best face forward, is supposed to contain methodical argumentation and peer reviewed commentary. Scholarly arguments, in other words, are processes, a kind of conversation, and not units of knowledge disseminated from on-high, by our Platonic overlords, down to the nether-networks below.

Of course, academic writing can improve, and it desperately needs to. As someone who was once (mercilessly) forced by life to edit such writing, I can promise you that it is plagued by all manner of weasel words and padded thinking. The attempt to short-circuit academic “arguments” into BuzzFeed-like networks does not solve this problem. In fact, if you look at these examples, it only makes it worse. What does help resolve this issue? Working with editors who spend time with what you write, who are practiced with how thought moves from the page to the public. This is a collaborative process far removed from the ghostly peer review or the rare note from the academic advisor. And there are no shortage of places to publish such writing. The “little” and literary magazine community in New York (and elsewhere) provides countless outlets. There are even new sites, like Public Books, that do an excellent job of bringing academic thinking (read: thinking by Academics) to a wider audience without forfeiting its quality.

Finally, doesn’t BuzzAdemia paste over one of the glaring faults of broader Academy? Doesn’t it gentrify the fact that academia — no matter the discipline — is often divorced from the concerns of those people who are counted out? No one should want the academy to become more like the daily newspaper, which is ever more preoccupied with uncovering the affairs of elite politicians and celebrities. But maybe the academy should look to Deweyan journalism. Or maybe it should become less like BuzzFeed and more like art and literature, which, at their best, work to reach people who are counted out of the conversation by uncovering new ways of thinking, hearing, seeing, and speaking.