‘The Conversation’ is rather disappointing

How does one get to know about another website? In my case the usual way is a reference in another website to an article or a comment that interests me, so I go there to see, and then browse. If I like what I see I might bookmark it, or even subscribe. And all of that occurred with ‘The Conversation’, which seemed to be an initiative of the higher education system, and therefore something I ought to support.

It offers a daily range of articles covering a good deal of intellectual territory, and it certainly is well read – about 650,000 hits a month. Most of the articles are written by academics, and the site says that it offers ‘academic rigour’ and ‘journalistic flair’. It ought to be a ‘must read’, but after a few months I’m feeling that I can pass it by, and not miss much.

So what is wrong? Well – and now I jump from my current complaint with the ABC – I’m unhappy with the editorial stance. You couldn’t complain about The Conversation’s principles and policies, which are everything that is right and proper. But the overwhelming impression you get is that there are approved points of view, and from time to time it seems that The Conversation is some kind of adjunct to the ABC.

It’s not just what the academics want to write about, for the editors feel free to introduce subjects that they find interesting, but which no one in the academic community has come forward to espouse. One matter about which The Conversation has no doubt at all is ‘climate change’, all articles about which have the proper apocalyptic slant.

After reading a few of them, and being savaged by the defenders of the faith when I ventured an alternative comment, I wrote to the editors and offered to write a piece myself, giving my credentials. Dear me, no! I was not an expert in that field – but if I would like to write a piece on politics they would be happy to consider it.

I puzzled over that. The editors themselves don’t seem to be especially expert in any disciplinary fields, while not a few of those who do write as academics seem to be at the beginning of their careers rather than at the high point. I think it is an excellent experience for any academic to have to write for an interested lay audience, rather than for academic journals. But academics are ‘expert’ in tiny fields only – the ones in which they gained their PhDs. Outside those areas they can be knowledgeable, like anyone else, and that knowledge is valuable. Indeed, it is the breadth of their knowledge that makes academics good teachers and great intellectual resources for their postgraduate students. But being an ‘expert’ is something else again.

So, after a time, I abandoned ‘conversation’ on The Conversation as being too like talking about the virtues of Israel to a Palestinian – at least on the climate change topic. Elsewhere, occasionally, I could offer a comment that I felt was useful and was not instantly chewed up by a resident bulldog.

And the bulldogs are a menace, as they are on any website that tries to provide discussion. The Conversation does set out its guidelines for discussants, but it attracts people of fixed beliefs who are not interested in discussion so much as in telling others that they are wrong, usually rudely. I don’t have any useful suggestions for the editors on how to deal with such people. The sage advice for mere participants is ‘Don’t feed the trolls!’ – simply ignore those who seem to want to hi-jack a conversation. But it doesn’t always work, and others can’t resist doing battle with the troll, so that the thread of the discussion can be lost.

Finally, I wondered what had happened to discussion within the universities themselves. Is what I read on The Conversation characteristic of the breadth of argument within the academy itself? When I was a young academic myself I was impressed by the vigour with which my elders and better did battle with one another, in the daily seminars which took place at the ANU, where I worked, and in the annual conferences of my discipline. I don’t see well-argued contrasting points of view on The Conversation.

What I do see is a form of advocacy based on the latest article to appear, or on the work of one’s research group. Sometimes what you read is akin to a flyer, announcing an academic conference that will start soon. Always, I’ll bet, what is written will appear in some form on the academic’s c.v. When I was a vice-chancellor I was keen that my academic staff engaged with the community, and that is why I have persevered with The Conversation.

But what I see and read there suggests to me that this venture, at least, could do with some serious inspection from the universities that appear to support it.

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • hammygar says:

    Interesting article, even if written by someone I consider well right of centre politically. I don’t have The Conversation in my Bookmarks, but I do have Catallaxy. You may consider The Conversation one-sided on the left, but Catallaxy is extremely one-sided on the far right. A leftish commenter gets savaged there and one constantly sees the comment “don’t feed the trolls”. The term trolls apparently means anyone with an “incorrect” opinon. No debate on that site.

  • John Bromhead says:

    Don,

    I read articles in the Environment and Energy section of The Conversation but now only occasionally bother with the comments section. I agree with your assessment of the tone of argument presented in the comments section. Although there may be a significant number of comments, there are far fewer commentators and many appear on multiple posts on climate change.

    A few of these “gatekeepers of the truth” also patrol the Opinion pages of our local newspaper, The Canberra Times.

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