The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Why scholars aren’t getting the gigs


In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, the authors outlined reasons why scholars are often unable to reach wide audiences. They insightfully say:

There’s a yawning gap between academic writing and popular, hot-take journalism. Scholars fancy that they cover important, current topics, but they do so in styles and venues that reach only narrow audiences. And yet there has never been a better time for academics to reach the public directly, and in ways that are compatible with their professional contexts and goals.

They go on:

Scholars have insights, experience and research that can help the public navigate the contemporary world, but scholarly work all too often goes unseen. Sometimes it gets sequestered behind exorbitant paywalls or prohibitively steep book prices. Other times it gets lost in the pages of esoteric journals. Other times yet, it’s easy to access but hard to understand due to jargon and doublespeak. And often it doesn’t reach a substantial audience, dooming its aspirations to impact public life.

The article is talking about disciplines of all sorts. But I think this is extremely relevant to Christian apologetics and philosophy (and theology, Bible studies, etc.).

Scholars have left the planet

Most scholars have spent a better part of a decade in school immersed in some discipline absorbing the subtle minutia and nuances crucial to understanding the cutting edge of that field. They have become specialists and they speak and write to extend the discipline.

But something happens during that process. There’s a tendency for these scholars to travel to the planet of specialization and are unable to ever return to the real world. They speak a new language and can’t seem to remember how to get back to the real world.

Now scholars write A LOT. But it tends to be the case that only other scholars in that specific field are reading these works. It’s not uncommon for a scholar to spend a few hard months on an article (or even years on a book), and it is only read (especially in its entirety) by less than 100 people. Now this is not as tragic as it sounds. The primary goal of academic writing, it seems to me, is not necessarily a large readership. Rather the goal is to extend research and reflection on interesting areas in a discipline, and the impact is not always reflected in the amount of people who read it.

But still, there’s a concern. The concern, as I see it, is this stratification of scholarly material causes a fracture between those who know what they are talking about and those who are speaking to wide audiences.

This can be quite dangerous if this gap gets too wide.

How to get expertise to the people

One way to close this gap is to have, what I call, translators. Translators are not scholars, but they take the scholarship and make it more accessible and relatable. An example of translator in the world of science would be Bill Nye (formerly known as The Science Guy). Nye has no advanced degrees in science, but he has had a tremendous impact in science education and he is routinely called upon to speak as an authority in science . But since he’s not himself a scholar, his science chops are not exactly always on point.

In the world of Christian apologetics, we have translators as well. And we have some terrific ones. These are ones who take complex issues in science, philosophy, history, etc. that bear on the truth of Christianity and make them understandable and relatable for a wider audience. But, let’s be honest, just like Bill Nye, there are some who just simply don’t fully understand the issue they are speaking or writing about.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is not to minimize the importance of a translator in apologetics. There is an important space and a huge need for popular level apologists. My concern in this post is that there seems to be a lack of scholars who are getting (at least some of) their material out there in accessible ways. Right now in the world of Christian Apologetics, we have a growing number of popular level apologists that are doing really well, and God bless them for the work that they do. But it seems there’s a lack of scholars getting called upon to speak to popular audiences. And this is because scholars have very often done a terrible job at speaking and writing on a level that nonspecialists can understand.

Why are scholars typically bad at the popular level?

Here are some of the more salient challenges cited by the article that scholars face in writing to wide audiences and some of my thoughts about these challenges.

  • “Scholars often cannot answer the question ‘So what?’ about their own work”
  • “Scholars don’t know how to pitch.”

It’s often the case that the problems that scholars are writing about are only problems that academics have (the Problem of Evil literature can tend to be this way). So it is not that there isn’t a “so what?”, it’s that the “so what?” is only for someone who speaks the scholarly language. But there are many things that have been said in the scholarly literature about, say, the Problem of Evil that could be really helpful for a wider audience. But those connections are often not made. Until they make these connections, the scholar can’t pitch the relevance of their content.

  • “Scholars don’t write well enough to reach people outside the culture of scholarly writing.”
  • “Passion and generosity are missing from scholarship.”

The thought here is that scholars don’t typically write with their readers in mind when they write scholarly material. It’s really just the research and the argument that matters. Consequently, the writing isn’t compelling (writing with passion) and it is not helpful for the uninitiated reader to understand the material (writing with generosity). So something can be written academically well, but it may not be written well for an actual real-life reader.

  • “Academics can be jerks.”

Yes. Yes, they (we) can. I’ve actually found that many academics (though certainly not all) are overall humble people. What happens is that they use an authoritative voice, when talking as a scholar, and this can easily come across as jerkish. In academic writing, there is a need for this authoritative voice. However, when it comes to popular writing, there’s a need for intellectual humility to come across as well.

  • “This isn’t for everyone.”

I know some academics that I’m not sure are able to get back to earth. And that’s okay. We need these scholars to do what they do. But I tend to think these are the exceptions and not the rule. I think many scholars just aren’t good at this because they haven’t worked at speaking and writing this way. But they could do it if they try. And we need this.

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