Nicholas Kristof has written an op-ed “Professors we need you,” in the New York Times. His point is that that professors like me need to write and express ourselves more clearly so all our presumed smartness is accessible to people like Kristof. Partly I agree. But partly I don’t. I also think that people like Kristof and the policy-makers he advocates for need to read more carefully.
This is a sore point with me, especially since I was lectured a couple of times by policy-making types about writing in op-ed length of about 750 words chunks—that is the sort of thing that Kristof is really good at writing.
My muttered response: Oh that’s how decisions about invading Iraq were made by Congress, in 750 word chunks. I occasionally write in 750 word chunks, and it is a fine way to make one very clever point to adjust a discussion. It is though a lousy way to make public policy.
But good public policy also requires the reading of books. Whole books. Lots of books. Books which deal with generalities and not just specifics. Books that help you think, as opposed to op-ed which in 750 words typically appeal to emotion.
The kind that make long complex argument if, for no other reason, that questions of why people go to war (and do many things) are complex. Sometimes it even helps to use big words and complex sentences, too–maybe then you will think a little more carefully about invading countries, like Iraq.
This type of reading is work–but it pays off in the long run. Just ask the Germans who did not invade Iraq–my students in Germany complained that my readings were too easy, and “too popular.” In other words, bye-bye Jared Diamond, hello Eric Wolf.
And see, I just made that point in 350 words, while appealing to emotion by using an anecdote, and an unsupported correlation.
The point of course is that not only do writers need to write clearly like Kristof points out, readers also have a responsibility to wrestle with complex ideas, and maybe even numbers.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.