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Intellectual Journalism and Intellectual History

by editor Simon Brown

By Simon Brown

In an interview at the Chronicle Review with the writer and teacher Maggie Doherty about academic humanities and public writing, I encountered a term for the first time that described in a new way what felt very familiar: “Intellectual Journalism.” The interviewer used it to gesture toward the book reviews, trade titles and essays that authors — or readers — with graduate training might write (or read) outside of their own formal disciplines and the peer-reviewed journals and book series that sustain them. My experience turning over the category of “Intellectual History” on its many sides to better understand how it held together led me to wonder about this congruent term. 

Is it writing about intellectuals? Is it writing by intellectuals? Is it a particularly “intellectual” way of writing about not-particularly-intellectual things? These are the questions that might first arise to confound any effort to get an easy grip on intellectual history as a discipline, too. Likewise, there is a lot that could make a book review in n+1 (the magazine the interviewer offers as an example) an “intellectual” piece of writing.

These may seem like empty questions — trying to pin down the elusive significance of an uncommon term that people have no need to apply with academic precision. But as Doherty describes in the interview, new conditions in the academic labor market have spurred more people to write this work and to read it. Graduate students facing dismal prospects on the market for academic jobs find other avenues to publish book reviews and essays that they might have otherwise saved for specialized journals, and personal reflections on scholarly life that they likely would not. There are, in other words, historical forces that have made “intellectual journalism” more salient in this moment. The fact that an editor of one of these magazines most associated with it (again, n+1), Nikhil Saval, recently won a state senate seat in Philadelphia only lends weight to the sense that there is something palpably contemporary about these genres, publications, writers and readers.    

Initial keyword searches for the exact phrase, however, suggest a different timeline. It is most closely associated with one particular magazine which has not been published in nearly two decades. Lingua Franca was unmistakably intellectual journalism — the “journalism of ideas” even, according to one retrospective, only tightening its terminological entanglement with intellectual history, or “the history of ideas”. The magazine was founded in 1990 and covered scholarly debates and disciplinary developments during the heights of that era’s “Culture Wars” and the front that they opened within and between academic departments. 

Contributors reported stories on new scholarly work, the clashes they provoked and the universities that housed them. Many young writers and editors began careers at Lingua Franca writing about topics for general audiences typically reserved for academic readers. Rick Perlestein wrote a celebrated essay on the generational divides shaping the disputes within historical scholarship on the 1960s in the United States. Reconstructing the arguments of recent dissertations and conference papers, he illustrates the faultines within the historiography with a granularity rare even for the most thorough literature review. But his reflections on the personal investments of a generation of former SDS members, who now write the history of the campus protest movement from within university walls, transcends the limits of peer-reviewed constraints. The magazine also published reportage on university politics, such as Emily Eakin’s survey of Hillsdale College as a battleground for the clash shaping up between social conservatives and laissez-faire libertarians of the decade.    

The publication folded in 2001 after a major funder pulled support, revealing for not the last time the unreliable financial foundations of so many little magazines. What united much of this writing was a focus on what happened at universities and what the people who worked in them thought about and argued over. At its best it illustrated that both the passions and the stakes of academic disputes could, in fact, be high, and not just for other academics. In this way it makes sense as an exemplar of “intellectual journalism” because there was a well-defined intellectual life within university walls. 

Essays like Perlestein’s brought an academic rigor that went beyond the standard book review. Writing like that avoided some of the shortcomings of contemporary “journalism of ideas.” Corey Robin  (also a contributor to Lingua Franca) notes the recent tendency among journalists who engage with scholars to distil their work into convenient answers to political questions. This “Historovox,” as he describes it, leads pundits and commentators to, say, ask a medievalist about the history of walls in order to question the effectiveness of the proposed wall on the southern US border. Rather than take on a posture of “explanation” to the end of finding an answer — such as when Vox publicizes an interview with legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw as “Intersectionality, Explained” — journalism that engages with scholarship can cover its internal divisions and disagreements to open the possibility for much more interesting questions.    

If intellectual journalism of the 1990s was marked by its proximity to the academy, the contemporary genres that Doherty describes are a reaction to that academy’s shaky foundations. Sometimes a necessary supplement to a graduate salary or a contingency plan after the job market, the essays and book reviews by precarious intellectuals have made “intellectual journalism” a resonant category again but for a different reason. Rather than one exemplary magazine like Lingua Franca, this intellectual journalism we think of today populates pages across many new publications, with reviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Public Books (both founded in 2012) and academic reporting and scholarly debate in the Chronicle Review.  At the same time, the omnibus book review — a genre familiar from most graduate seminars — seems to be a more frequent form for mainstream publications like The New Yorker, as print review space dwindles elsewhere. As more and more “intellectual” writers are unmoored from universities, so the writing most associated with them is dispersed away from what were once singular sources of prestige.  

As someone trying to understand this landscape of intellectual journalism, I’ve fallen back on my own work and reflection on intellectual history to get a grip on it. That history reminds us that the aspiration to nail a reliable category of “intellectual” to one recognizable career position cannot account for change very long. 

With a shifting market for academic jobs and their access to the conditions that once made intellectual status most secure comes changing priorities, subjects and approaches in the writing that might be called intellectual. Doherty’s own recent book, The Equivalents, traces the lives of an early cohort of Radcliffe fellows in the 1960s, after opportunities for more traditional academic careers had been largely unavailable to women in their status, and their contributions to twentieth-century feminism. Other works of modern intellectual history published for more popular audiences, like Merve Emre’s The Personality Brokers, reconstructs the ideas that inspired the mother and daughter who created the Myers-Briggs personality test, largely beyond the institutions of established scientific research and scholarly life. 

As younger writers with academic training turn to non-academic publications that engage with the contemporary cultural and political moment, they’ve confronted and articulated questions about the status of intellectuals within politics. In a now-prophetic essay about his personal struggle to commit to critical writing and the life of the mind on the one hand, and political organizing for left campaigns that would allow more people to engage in that life on the other, Nikhil Saval captures a tension confronting others in his cohort. Work traditionally associated with intellectual status in academia, journalism and publishing brings debt and precarity, and so the relation of these workers to those confronting similar shifts has become an exigent political  question (raised and answered, of course, by these workers themselves). As precarious employment in these fields becomes more common, it drives some to organize in unions and others to found publications, like Contingent Magazine, to support contingently-employed scholars by explicitly naming their status and providing them a platform.

If intellectual journalism is a label to name new publications, genres and debates that resonates now, it is not because it is now easy to recognize who or what is intellectual. The conditions of intellectual work in recent history have made it less rather than more obvious. Intellectual history as a field, however, shows that a rigorous and universal definition of the “intellectual” is not necessary to continue on work that falls within its scope.


Simon Brown is a PhD candidate in history at UC Berkeley and a primary editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: May Day Parade (c.1938) from the New York College Teachers Union, Local 537 of the AFT. Courtesy of the Gotham Center for New York City History.

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