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In Praise of Youtube Pop-Culture Academics

It pains me to make this admission, but I must get it off my chest: I don’t read as often as I should. Rather, I don’t read works of significant value as often as someone my age should. I am constantly reading and assessing student papers and my daughter’s ravenous desire for new books requires a near-constant engagement once I walk through the door. Making time for short editorials and news articles sits at the top of my daily list of to-dos, but novels and extended pieces of non-fiction have fallen by the wayside due to the increasing demands of fatherhood and work. After recently uncovering a box of academic works on philosophy from my undergraduate days, it seemed like a fine time to take on a book that would challenge me mentally and academically. Yet, those books by Marx and Foucault still sit soundlessly on my shelf, slowly being buried beneath mounds of stuffed animals.

While my book-reading has been limited, I have found myself watching more Youtube videos and been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the programs. This series by Wisecrack concentrating on the implicit philosophies embedded in a game franchise have been especially rewarding.

Modern academia has long been criticized for conducting research that has little value or application beyond the narrow halls of its own departments. The LA Times reported a staggering (but not surprising) statistic about the applicability of many academic papers.

The vast majority of articles published in the arts, humanities and social sciences are never cited by another researcher. The implication, of course, is that they go almost entirely unread, and that therefore the research is largely worthless. Some 98% of articles in the arts and humanities and 75% in the social sciences are never cited. Things are not much better in the hard sciences–there, 25% of articles are never cited and the average number of cites even of those is one or two.

Having spent years in academia, I can confirm this lack of worldly application anecdotally. My name is attached to papers that devoured months of work and effort only to be read as a description on my CV. The publish or perish mentality embedded in the modern academy is partly responsible for this glut of academic research that goes unread and unneeded by society, but it isn’t the only variable responsible for this negative trend. Joshua Rothman rightly observed:

In academia, by contrast, all the forces are pushing things…toward insularity. As in journalism, good jobs are scarce—but, unlike in journalism, professors are their own audience. This means that, since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees). Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.

Being a proponent of knowledge and research for its own sake, I don’t have a core problem with academics narrowly focusing on a niche research area. There is something to be said for furthering human knowledge in a field that most laymen find tangential. Especially for undergraduate students in the liberal arts, using niche and pop-culture content as a frame to develop written analytical skills is perfectly understandable.

Yet, when one’s entire academic focus entails pop culture as its foundation material, I begin to see a number of troubles arise. When speaking of public universities that rely on state revenue, the citizenry has a right to question the usefulness of their tax dollars to fund research with little apparent usefulness to the state. When Melissa Click gained internet notoriety for trying to crush student reporting at the University of Missouri, some of the criticism of the academic focused on the perceived uselessness of her research. (One of her papers is titled “Fifty shades of postfeminism: Contextualizing readers’ reflections on the erotic romance series. In E. Levine (ed.) Feeling Feminine: Popular Culture for Women in the Early 21st Century.”)

So while I justify niche research in academia as worthwhile, there have to be limits to this cloistering of analytical thought in the walls of the university. With more academic papers being published solely for a small pool of professors and less academic research being conducted for society at large, our universities preserve a reputation for being futile intuitions for out of touch intellectuals.

For any student that decides to pursue the arts or humanities, they likely encountered detractors who cautioned against the financial feasibility of the field. “How are you going to make money writing about art?” It’s a fair question; any student that enters this realm of research without thinking deeply about their job prospects upon completing their studies is a fool. That isn’t to say there are not jobs well suited for those trained in the liberal arts, but those who think one will be paid to analyze popular culture as a full-time job are destined to be disillusioned.

This returns us to the excellent aforementioned Youtube videos. This academic outreach is exactly what public intellectuals should be doing in the realm of pop culture. These videos are not intended for other academics (although I imagine many would enjoy them), but geared towards the public. Rather than crafting unreadable jargon to pad one’s CV, these videos are helping connect young people to philosophical ideas and analytical approaches they may be unfamiliar with; perhaps they will even be inspired to pursue study in the field one day. These types of video essays also help justify studying the humanities financially. While the Youtube community is competitive, with countless new voices added daily, the opportunities to generate revenue through the medium may supplement academic research in a more traditional institution.

Thus, I plead with academics focusing on pop culture to ruminate on their commitment to the fields they study. Knowledge generated for a few like-minded officials should not be the aim of our academic institutions. Take that research and bring it to the people in a way that can inspire the youth and publicly engage in a discussion of these issues. Youtubers are waiting.


Staff Writer
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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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21 thoughts on “In Praise of Youtube Pop-Culture Academics

  1. I completely agree with the sentiments expressed here Roland. It made me think a lot of Stephen Ambrose, who was sometimes criticized by his fellow historians for his writing style, but he created far more history lovers than his academic colleagues.

    I will also note that YouTube continues to impress me as it matures. Is there still a LOT of lowbrow content? Absolutely. But there are so many people with channels that are offering real value in the form of instruction, discussion and inspiration. As a wannabe woodworker, I find no shortage of makers on YouTube who are doing the Lord’s work in sharing their craft with others. It’s impressive.

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    • I just got off the phone with a salesman selling “instructional videos” in the sciences. It wasn’t a productive conversation because my attitude was very much, “For what I want videos for, there is lots of good USGS stuff on YouTube.”

      And yeah: there’s a lot of useless stuff*. (And a lot of useless stuff I laugh like a loon at – the “wanna smash” bird videos are kind of awful but also kind of funny in an animal-behavior sense), but there are also some good, solid, instructional things.

      There’s a retired British materials-science or civil engineer on there who has a video on soil strength I use in class and I keep meaning to check to see if he has other videos, just for my own interest.

      *I admit, I question the need for “10 hours of Nyancat” or “the theme from ‘Phineas and Ferb’ but sped up to 4 x normal speed” but it’s not like those are REPLACING more useful content, so….

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  2. I agree with a lot of this article, but I think it’s valuable to distinguish between academics doing research on pop culture, academics doing research with the methods of pop culture, and academics presenting research using the methods of pop culture.

    The first has little interest to me personally. If I’m interested in Fallout I’ll think about its philosophy. I recognize that it can introduce novices to the deeper issues underlying pop culture.

    The second is risky, but it’s also probably the rarest. Academics tend to use serious techniques or at least the industry-standard.

    The third is what I’m most interested in. Free Youtube videos of science, arts, history, et cetera are pure gold.

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  3. Honestly, I was hoping the Fallout philosophy video was either more entertaining or more incisive.

    (And if you haven’t played to the end of the DC wasteland or New Vegas, you probably shouldn’t watch)

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  4. Alas that the YouTube phenomenon cannot be monetized better. An academic producing some interesting insights like these Fallout videos (the Philosophy of Fallout 4 video is just as good as the one embedded in the OP) can get literally hundreds of dollars a month digesting and recapitulating the understated elements of the writing in these games. Which is a great pity because this sort of thing is hugely less arcane than the technical academic writing that earns someone tenure.

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    • My impression that people that do this for a living either have a gazillion subscribers, or just get a modest amount through their YouTube channel and get the rest from Patreon type funding & sponsored podcasts

      There’s really more a market for the good erudite podcast than the good erudite video methinks (and the latter takes an order of magnitude more work)

      (My other impression is that a lot of people that do this for a living have a significant other with a ‘real’ job as they try to get their internet career off the ground towards self sustaining)

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      • That’s accurate. You can make money off YouTube but it’s hard to make a living without other revenue streams. I do think there is potential for it to become more lucrative though, in some kind of sub-YouTube environment where people can post more valuable content.

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  5. The problem being that YT has no standards unlike academia. So much passes for research and scholarship that could not be further from the truth.
    Good scholarship needs to be in depth, well researched and dare I say long at times. Let’s hope we never fall for the MC Drive Through of public policy that is YT or twitter.
    Big issues are by their nature complex issues. They need complex solutions more often than not.
    I can’t speak for everyone but my doctoral degree included some of the most boring material ever published on this planet but I came to understand why it was important.
    God help us all if we ever find ourselves in the care of a doctor with a YT degree!

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  6. Look, I agree with you that because public universities are funded by tax dollars, the usefulness (and hence public justifiability) of what that money is used for must have some weight in the deliberations of how the university funds its programmes.

    However, its a complete non-sequitor to think that the philosophy of 50 shades of grey is more useless than the philosophy of Jane Austen.

    Also, citation count is a poor proxy for usefullness to non-academics. Edmund Gettier published just one paper during his entire academic career. That paper “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” is perhaps one of the most cited (if not the most cited) philosophy papers of perhaps all time if not in the field of epistemology. That said, the paper is only of use to other epistemologists and not really to anyone else in analytic philosophy. I’m not saying that its not a great paper; it is. Its just that having a low citation count only means that other academics dont want to read your paper, not that the paper is of little public interest.

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    • “I’m not saying that its not a great paper; it is. Its just that having a low citation count only means that other academics dont want to read your paper, not that the paper is of little public interest.”

      That is true. It may be that a paper is not read by other academics but is read and used by the larger pubic. I imagine that many of the academic papers published in the areas noted in my piece are read by almost no one, layman and expert alike.

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