The Advertiser’s Stance

This perversion is probably in the long run a more serious threat in our society than the danger of ignoring the audience.

Wayne C. Booth, “The Rhetorical Stance,” CCC, 14(3), 1963.

Academics today are strongly encouraged ensure the “impact” of their research. They are told to measure their success, at least in part, by the effect they have on the public and the policy makers who represent it. For my part, I’ve long tried to push against this eagerness to “really matter”; I have, for example, urged academics to curb their romance with storytelling and focus on their peers and students. I think there is perfectly respectable work to be done entirely within the ivory tower and, like Wayne Booth, I fear that the desire for broader impact establishes some “perverse” incentives for scholars.

Booth tells the story of a dinner party where he was told that his book’s title (which included the word “rhetoric”) was not sufficiently gripping. He’d have been better off polling a few hundred “businessmen” and then settle on a title that would sell, said his tablemate, who happened to be an advertising consultant. Indeed, whether the title “fit the book” was not as important as we might think. “If the book is designed right, so that the first chapter pulls them in, and you keep them in, who’s going to gripe about a little inaccuracy in the title?”

When I read this I was reminded of exchange I had with Patrick Dunleavy. When he announced the publication of Maximizing the Impacts of Academic Research, I suggested that, given the “replication crisis”, perhaps we should also talk about minimizing the harms of academic research. That is, there sometimes seems to be an assumption among promoters of the “impact agenda” that all scientific results are true and their impact can therefore only be good. Maximizing the impact of research results means maximizing their spread in society, which means maximizing these positive effects. But that assumption doesn’t seem to hold. If half of all research results are wrong, maximing their impact doesn’t sound like such a great idea any longer. Perhaps we should talk of “optimizing,” I suggested.

Patrick and I agree on a lot of things, and this turned out to be one of them. In fact, he wanted to call the book Improving the Impact of Academic Research but his publisher insisted on Maximizing. They are no doubt right to assume that the book has been designed right and that no one is going to gripe too much about the title. In fact, while I suppose I did gripe, it was only a little and, as Booth’s advertising consultant predicted, I was immediately placated by the book’s more balanced content.

Nonetheless, by its mere existence, the book gives weight (not balance) to the slogan “Maximize Your Impact!” and that does leave me somewhat uneasy. Back in 1963, Booth put it as follows:

In the time of audience-reaction meters and pre-tested plays and novels, it is not easy to convince students of
the old Platonic truth that good persuasion is honest persuasion, or even of the old Aristotelian truth that the good rhetorician must be master of his subject, no matter how dishonest he may decide ultimately to be. Having told them that good writers always to some degree accommodate their arguments to the audience, it is hard to explain the difference between justified accommodation — say changing point one to the final position — and the kind of accommodation that fills our popular magazines, in which the very substance of what is said is accommodated to some preconception of what will sell.

The technology has changed since then — we’re more likely to speak of “metrics” and “focus groups” (not to mention “sensitivity readers”!) — but the problem is the same. There is an incentive to “accommodate” pressures that are entirely extrinsic to the author’s primary purpose. Booth rightly points out that it is difficult to convince students to stand firm against these pressures, developing and defending opinions of their own. “The advertiser’s stance,” he tells us, “comes from undervaluing the subject and overvaluing pure effect.” Of course, his students have long since graduated, some of them have become scholars, and many have probably even retired. Today, these extrinsic pressures have become altogether intrisic to the life of academics. It’s hard to find your balance when the “pure effect” of not publishing, of not having an “impact”, is to “perish”.

Update: Patrick detects signs of “the old stance of elitist diffidence & separation” in this post. I must partially cop to the charge, but it’s important to keep in mind that, like Booth, I strongly reject “the pedant’s stance” and my plea, like Patrick’s, is always for balance. Where we may differ is in our analysis of the current direction of imbalance. There will be at least one more post on Booth’s essay.

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