The Rise of the Intellectual Influencer

by Mindy Clegg

Youtube screencaps of Lady Izdihar and FD Signifier

I recently discovered a youtuber, Andy Stapleton. A former academic from a STEM field, his videos breakdown problems within academia and explores his perceptions of his failures in within that space. Although coming from a STEM field, his videos address academics across fields and he provides useful information for those within academia. But Stapleton is also a part of a new economic ecosystem that has grown up around the crises facing academics. As higher education continues to over-produce PhDs, many have sought to forge an alternative path that will allow them to continue in an intellectual stimulating professional life. This genre has become a new niche of the online info-tainment ecosystem. These intellectual influencers produce content for an audience that they hope will embrace and financially support their work.

Those who find themselves on the margins of the modern corporate university might find such an alternative attractive. But do we lose something in using social media to explore topics found in academia? Is it materially different from publishing books, journal articles, newspaper essays, or anything else that academics have done for years? Is it somehow less pure to fund intellectual pursuits via a combination of corporate or patreon sponsorships as opposed to from a university salary? The role of the public intellectual have been highly prized and being an intellectual influencer seems one such way to pursue that path. Where is the line between forging one’s own path and cynically trading knowledge for a paycheck (and is a university salary really any less fraught)? While we should interrogate how intellectually pursuits are funded, I argue that knowledge production is always historically situated. Much like art, there is no “pure” form of knowledge production, free of its historical context. Rather, knowledge production is shaped by the economic possibilities of the society in which it’s produced.

One reason for the crisis in higher ed is the rise of the “corporate” university model. People have been discussing this shift for years now. One example is an article from 2012 in Dissent by Nicholaus Mills. In order to attract elite students, many universities started to out-compete each other with amenities rather than academics and great professors. These elite schools, he argued, aggressively recruit students with great grades and high SAT high scores (many of whom just happened to be wealthier than their peers). These students are being viewed as customers rather than students, according to Mills. This trend also saw the massive growth of a professional class of administrators. Many of these roles were previously held by professors moving up through the ranks into administration. How universities spend money reflected this shift. He quoted Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist who studies academia, who said that between 1998 and 2008 spending on instruction went up 22 percent, but the cost of administration rose 36 percent in the same period. Things got worse in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. State-mandated cost cutting contributed to a shift from tenured/tenure track professors to an increase in relying on contingent faculty. He called correctly them (us) “an academic underclass.” Other have spoken on the problems facing adjuncts and part-timers. David Bell recently noted how the situation in history has gone from problematic to desperate for PhDs. I can’t say I agree with his solution to our problem, but at least the problem is getting some attention. An educational youtuber, Zoe Bee, also explored the issue of the adjunctification of academia and how it is bad for all involved, not just the underpaid adjuncts. Such situations means that many academics are leaving the university, seeking alternatives to becoming a professor.

What should academics do? In my field of history, this has been an ongoing discussion. The American Historical Association has advocated for history departments to embed career diversity into their graduate programs. These are just suggestions and the AHA has no real power to ensure departments train their grad students for a variety of jobs. More often than not, that falls on the shoulders of advisers, tenure-track professors who might be resistant to change and likely have little to offer their advisees on alternative career paths. There are certainly jobs that can absorb people leaving academia. Technology companies still seem hungry for warm bodies to fill their open office plans, as do other types of corporations. Many of these employers prefer to see people who have shown an ability to work independently and successfully. Producing a dissertation is certainly evidence of that. But technology companies are also absorbing STEM post-grads, so that leaves fewer positions for those of us in the humanities. Additionally, they tend not to match people’s academic training. Museums are another option, but of course public history itself is already a specific field of training. Much the same with historic preservation, where graduates can work for municipalities and in other government jobs, advocating for preserving our built landscape. Switching to teaching K-12 has its own set of challenges, including certification, and possibly more work in graduate school. As rewarding as teaching can be, it leaves little time for other intellectual pursuits which many academics highly prize. Much like those working in higher ed, there also is a sustained attack on our K-12 educators right now, which many might like to avoid.

Hence, some who wish to educate others, and have the time to produce new knowledge, have started to turn to social media and the info-tainment ecosystem that has evolved in recent years. This is not just true of adjuncts, either. Boston College professor Heather Cox Richardson has a successful newsletter via substack that is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the political history of the present moment. Yale professor Timothy Snyder’s substack likewise became a critical read in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One of the best known examples of the online info-tainment landscape is Crash Course, John and Hank Green’s educational youtube channel. The brothers founded the channel in 2011, received financial backing from youtube, and is now sponsored by PBS. They also recently partnered with Arizona State University to help students navigate getting a degree. Neither Green pursued advanced degrees, but they rely on expertise of academics for many of their courses.

In addition to former academics who have turned to social media to highlight problems within academia, others have turned to social media to engage an audience outside of academia. They use graduate level discourse to engage a wider audience. An Atlanta-based youtuber, FD Signifier, produces videos on popular culture and masculinity from a Black prospective. He’s mentioned leaving academia in some of his videos and he makes a living via his youtube channel, his patreon, and his recent partnership with Nebula. Signifier leans into academic sources and arguments in his videos, weaving humor and real-world examples into his more abstract academic arguments. Historian of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Lady Izdihar, walks her viewers through various academic arguments about the former second world. She also highlights the critical importance of primary sources that can often upend our understanding of the past that we think we know. It’s unclear if she is still in academia, but she is interested in engaging a non-academic audience. These are but two examples of academics or former academics turning to social media platforms to share their intellectual interests with a wider audience, one that might be willing to support their work.

One question we should wrestle with here is whether or not bringing academic work outside of the academy and the publishing structures that support that scholarship is better or worse. Does producing knowledge within a university system make it more pure somehow than asking for support from viewers? Though we often think of academics as having a great degree of freedom to pursue knowledge for its own sake, the current situation in places like Florida calls that into question. The right wing complaints about “radical, left-wing academics indoctrinating” students is hardly new. Organizations like Campus Watch has been collecting right wing complaints about supposedly radical academics, in this case specifically related to scholarship on the Middle East. The parent organization, Middle East Forum, was founded by conservative activist and historian Daniel Pipes in 1990. One right wing online paper that supposedly “exposes” the left-wing biases in higher ed is Campus Reform which has been around since 2009. Professor of English Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt discussed how her column on ensuring that professors avoid unintentionally promoting white supremacy led to a right wing backlash after it was linked to on Campus Reform. But is the academy really that left-wing? In an article on Teen Vogue (yes, you read that right – Teen Vogue!) Ashmeesh Kapur Siddique pushed back hard against the “left wing radical” narrative about academia. Rather, conservative forces have been chipping away at the academic freedom that became the norm during the 20th century. Board of Trustees were central to this effort, as they became the norm since the 70s. These boards have pushed for universities to look more like corporations since that time. Little wonder that academics, especially from marginalized groups or those who are trying to break new ground that might challenge our understanding of the world, are seeking alternative means of supporting their work.

Still, if turning to social media can provide an alternative career, does it rest on turning knowledge into a commodity? But wasn’t it already a commodity, a byproduct of the corporate university? Like making art, the question of knowledge production in a capitalist system can be troubling. How will we know what is “real” knowledge and what has been compromised by how it is produced? The reality is that there is plenty of good, solid scholarship coming from both more traditional spaces like academia, as well as from social media intellectual influencers. These questions of authenticity in production matter, so we absolutely should focus on how knowledge is produced, how people interact with it, and how it helps us to better understand the world. We might also need to come to terms with the fact that at the end of the day, there is no “outside” of the systems in which we live. Maybe all we can hope for is a better, more critical understanding of that system. Perhaps the dialectic is the actual point, as our ongoing debates are constantly illuminating new aspects of the world. Knowledge production is a part of the social world we inhabit and that includes how we produce it. We should always keep pushing forward and using knowledge to improve our world, even as we continue to discuss how it is produced.