While there has been an increasing call for social scientists to engage more broadly with the public, concrete advice for starting the conversation has been in short supply. Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels seek to change this with Going Public, the first guide that truly explains how to be a public scholar. They offer guidance on writing beyond the academy, including how to get started with op-eds and articles and later how to write books that appeal to general audiences. They then turn to the digital realm with strategies for successfully building an online presence, cultivating an audience, and navigating the unique challenges of digital world. They also address some of the challenges facing those who go public, including the pervasive view that anything less than scholarly writing isn’t serious and the stigma that one’s work might be dubbed “journalistic.”
Going Public shows that by connecting with experts, policymakers, journalists, and laypeople, social scientists can actually make their own work stronger. And by learning to effectively add their voices to the conversation, researchers can help make sure that their knowledge is truly heard above the digital din.
|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
|Series:||Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing|
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A Guide for Social Scientists
By Arlene Stein, Jessie Daniels, Corey Fields
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Writing beyond the Academy
Arthur Kleinman, a medical anthropologist who writes about how culture shapes notions of disease and healing, aspires to write prose that is "arresting and beautiful." Most of the time he fails to achieve this, but that does not discourage him, he says. "It is the journey of aspiration that counts, that lets you weigh the best words of strong writers and test them against your own strengths, that lets you experiment, eventually comes to burnish and improve what you do write. And that will matter for your readers and ultimately for the writer in you."
In this age of digital technology, predictions about the demise of the written text, the end of the book, and even the death of the author are commonplace. Nonetheless, writing remains key to communicating. Writing is still the primary way intellectuals win respect for their ideas and influence people. Everyone would prefer to read lively, well-written work. Good writing strives for clarity, energy, and engagement. It is clear, concise, at times personal, and passionate. It conveys its argument economically, and makes the reader want to read what the writer has to say. Rather than simply reporting on research, it engages in a conversation about that research with others.
Writing well is central to learning how to translate your work to broader audiences. In this chapter, we offer four basic principles for creating writing that can participate in lively conversations with varied audiences, not just other academics, but also with nonacademic friends, families, different publics, and even, at times, the people we study — insights culled from our experiences as writers, editors, and teachers of graduate students.
Principle #1: Think of Yourself as a Writer
When we're in graduate school, learning the tools of the academic trade, few of us spend very much time or effort thinking and talking about writing. Many professors assume that students simply know how to write. That may be a fair enough assumption at many elite departments, where students often enter with high levels of cultural capital and solid prior training. Writing is something that comes easily to some people, but for most of us, that isn't true. Good writers aren't born — they're made. Writing is, in other words, a craft that takes learning, and practice. Craftsmen — and women — combine technical skill with imagination and pride in their work.
We tend to imagine a craftsman as a carpenter of sorts, but craftspersons can also be found in the laboratory, concert hall, classroom, and in the study. As artisans, they are dedicated to good work for its own sake — to practical activity — but their labor is not simply a means "to another end," such as career advancement. They are engaged in the fullest way possible with their work and refuse to split their work from the rest of life. A mixture of technique and inspiration, good writing requires an acquaintance with the methodologies of research needed for the task. But there is, C. Wright Mills believed, an unexpected quality about writing too — a "playfulness of mind, as well a truly fierce drive to make sense of the world, which the technician as such usually lacks." The technician wrote Mills, "is too well trained, too precisely trained. Since one can be trained only in what is already known, training sometimes incapacitates one from learning new ways; it makes one rebel against what is bound to be at first loose and even sloppy."
Mills saw writing as a form of self-expression that is as much about the process as the product. A mixture of technique and inspiration, writing is not something that simply happens at the end of the research process. "I am trying to make it damn good all over," Mills wrote of his book White Collar. "Simple and clean cut in style, but with a lot of implications and subtleties woven into it. It is my little work of art: it will have to stand for the operations I will never do, not being a surgeon, and for the houses I never built, not being an architect. So you see it has to be a thing of craftsmanship and art as well as science."
Rather than seeing good writing as ornamental at best, or narcissistic or time wasting at worst, we should see it as an integral part of our work, a creative practice that requires practice and dedication, which should have personal meaning for the writer. In this era of academic speedup, as we churn out paper after paper, we rarely pause to craft the elegant phrase. Publishing may stave off one kind of perishing but lead to a less imperceptible but no less insidious kind of wasting: the production of routine work that fails to inspire oneself — or to inspire others. Intellectual craftsmanship, and taking one's writing seriously, can be a mode of resistance. The main reason, Mills said, "I am not alienated is because I write." Writing can make us feel more connected to others, and more connected to the society in which we live.
Principle #2: Know Your Audience
We write for ourselves, to express our ideas and work them out, but we also write for others. And yet, writing guru Helen Sword warns, "Like lecturers droning on and on in front of classrooms full of dozing students, many academics pay no attention to their audience: They write, but they don't communicate." To write is to raise a claim for the attention of readers, said Mills. Effective writing, in other words, isn't simply an abstract quality — it is about a relationship between a writer and readers. "The skill of writing is to get the reader's circle of meaning to coincide exactly with yours," declared Mills, and "to write in such a way that both of you stand in the same circle of controlled meaning."
The best writers cultivate an authoritative yet conversational voice that bridges the gap between writer and reader. They always sound like human beings. The successful writer, according to Mills, "is a [person] who may shout, whisper, or chuckle, but who is always there." She plays down her erudition instead of scaffolding herself with it. To do so, it is crucial to write with a particular audience in mind; being an effective communicator means knowing your audience. Good writers must develop the knack of putting ourselves in our readers' place, seeing the text through their eyes. If you assume you are a voice, but are not "altogether aware of any public," cautioned Mills, "you may easily fall into unintelligible ravings."
Academics tend to write for a finite group of other experts. Early in graduate school, the audience in your head probably consisted of your professors. For a first book, which often emerges out of a dissertation, you may widen that audience to include particular professors on a tenure committee. Later on, you may imagine an audience comprised of all the experts in your field. If you're writing a journal article, that's fair enough. You should probably write with the editors, reviewers, and readers of that journal in mind.
There are many assumptions built into typical academic writing about what the reader knows in advance — and their willingness to plow through a densely written paper to find out more. While the writing should be persuasive, academics aren't particularly concerned about holding readers' attention. They assume that what they say is inherently interesting, and that their potential readers are sufficiently interested in the topic at hand to read on — even if the writing is less than scintillating.
According to the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker, the cause of most bad writing is not laziness or sloppiness, but the "curse of knowledge": the writer's inability to put herself in the reader's shoes or to imagine that the reader might not know all that the writer knows — the jargon, the shorthand, the assumptions, the received wisdom. An academic writer is likely to address other experts: the three hundred people who have read everything there is to read about the neoliberal restructuring of higher education, for example. "Lay" audiences are not driven by the same goals, and they do not share the same general background. Because of this, one needs to keep their attention.
Listen to how George Saunders, an award-winning author of nonfiction and short stories, imagines his audience: "I'm essentially trying to impersonate a first-time reader who has to pick up the story and at every point has to decide whether to continue reading. If an intelligent person picks it up, they'll keep going. It's an intimate thing between equals. I'm not above you talking down. We're on the same level. You're just as smart, just as worldly, just as curious as I am."
For many fiction writers and journalists, audiences dictate a great deal. The "Who cares?" and "Why now?" questions determine, to a large extent, what topics they consider important and worthy of attention. Academics think about audience too, but in a very different fashion: they're more likely to write for others who are interested in a particular scholarly literature or substantive issue — other anthropologists of China or experts in public housing policy in social welfare states. Because of their dedication to members of their scholarly tribe, at times they forget how to translate their interest to others — the "curse of knowledge" problem. Or they may have been working on the problem for so long that they've lost a sense of what got them excited about it in the first place.
Sociologist Jodi O'Brien does a helpful little exercise with her graduate students. She has them go around in a circle and tell the group what their dissertation research is about. They inevitably use big words and say something like "the reification of racial distinctions among low-income white and minority youth." Then she asks them what first got them interested in the project. At this point they respond in a very different way, describing their project much more engagingly, expressing the intellectual spark that first captivated them. Instead of examining the "reification of racial distinctions," they're more likely to say something like "how youth understand themselves in relation to racial categories" or "young people's experience of racism." O'Brien's exercise suggests that even though social science research often requires a certain degree of distance, in order to engage in a conversation with nonexperts about the work we do it is important for us to express the spirit of curiosity, excitement, or anger that initially motivated our research and be able to convey it to others.
To speak to multiple audiences, Patricia Hill Collins advises scholars to internalize a sense of having two audiences — our professional peers and those outside of academia — and to maintain contacts in multiple worlds. Let's use our work to "speak truth to power," she says. But let's also "speak truth to the people," taking it to our families and communities, too. To try broadening the audience for your work at least a little bit, envision a group of nonspecialists — your college-educated aunt, your math major friend. Imagine yourself in several different watercooler or dinner party chats. How would you describe your book or article to others? It's difficult to break out of our comfort zones, but the results are often satisfying. Imagine, Mills advised, that you have been asked to give a lecture on some subject you know well, "before an audience of teachers and students from all departments of a leading university as well as an assortment of interested people from a nearby city. Assume that such an audience is before you and that they have a right to know; assume you want to let them know. Now write."
There is a time and a place to converse with our academic peers using the specialized language, theories, methods, and styles of argumentation in our fields. But you can also expand your audience to include your nonacademic friends, community activists, or unknown others. Don't do it out of the goodness of your heart, or because you want to gratify your ego and desire for attention — though of course those motivations always play some role. Do it because it makes your work better. By bringing your research and writing into conversation with those outside the academy, you can test your ideas out and make them stronger. The better you understand your own ideas, the more readily you can articulate them for different audiences.
Principle #3: Strive for Clarity and Concreteness
Complicated ideas sometimes call for complex language. But to the extent that you can, write actively, concisely, and transparently. Use jargon, or specialized language, only when absolutely necessary. "The most powerful ideas in sociology are clearly stated and easily understood," says Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist who writes about cities. The notion that nonspecialist writing is simplistic is false. Writing well, and writing for nonspecialist audiences, doesn't have to mean dumbing down your work. In fact, it can mean quite the opposite.
Technical terms are useful if they allow us to state something more precisely than we could otherwise do. But too often we become enamored by what Pierre Bourdieu, quoting Pascal, called "puffed-up" words, for their own sake. (Bourdieu rarely practiced what he preached, however!) Literary critics, and practitioners of interdisciplinary cultural studies, seem to be the worst offenders; historians, the least. Social scientists are somewhere in the middle.
In recent years, the rise of post-structuralist thought, inspired in large part by the writings of Michel Foucault, has had an enormous impact, influencing how we think about such areas as the function of prisons, the nature of mental illness, and the meaning of sexuality. This work is extremely useful at times, and has introduced a host of new insights about modern culture. Yet it has also introduced a whole new stream of jargon, words like "discourses" (systems of thought) and "governmentality" (the practices by which citizens are subjected to governance). In this literature there is a common preference for jargon, and for extra words and clauses that bar entry for those who don't spend a lot of their time steeped in this writing. Certain words that become catchy at particular times can be exceedingly vague.
"Social scientists are expected to use the linguistic symbols of their approach as if they are advertising a brand," laments British sociologist Michael Billig. Are you using jargon to signal to your readers that you are smarter than they are, or to claim membership in an intellectual community? If so, you should think twice about using those terms. Consider whether your intended readers will understand what you're trying to convey if you use them.
Our own experiences as writers, editors, and advisors to graduate students suggest that that authors should use terms such as "neoliberal" or "postmodern" only when they allow us to express something more precisely than we otherwise can. We must be certain that readers will understand what we mean by these terms, and not allow them to substitute for precision or understanding. Don't use the word "resources" when you mean money, or "stakeholders" if you mean people, or "interrelationship" if you mean relationship. Don't use "discourses" when you mean systems of thought, ways of seeing, or modes of speaking. Say people instead of "actors," dominance instead of "hegemony."
Social scientists are known for certain kinds of passive writing: technical phrases that consist overwhelmingly of nouns and noun phrases such as "leadership categorization theory," and passive nominalizations like racialization, or mediatization, which transform people and what they do into things. Nominalization turns verbs into fuzzy nouns. "Investigate" morphs into "investigation"; "applicable" dresses up as "applicability." Check out this description of a course called "Contextualization of Contexts." (We are not making this up.)
Structure embeds with process and events with networks among observings and signalings, as variously perceived and constituted in levels and extensions. So the central issue is contextualizing contexts wherein social is interdigitated with cultural, narrative with situational.
This is, admittedly, an extreme example, but you get the picture. In order to weed out such nominalizations, scan manuscripts for words that end in -tion, -ism, -ty, ment, -ness, -ance, and -ence. Avoid these words wherever possible. Then grab a more active verb and slip in a concrete noun (when it makes the sentence better). Find a more concrete way of describing what exactly is happening when someone is doing some "reifying"!
Some versions of sociology describe and analyze broad structures, forces, and social formations, leaving out the flesh and blood players, the people who exist within the structures, who create social life. Describing structural changes without actors, contexts that are not peopled, does not make for very engaging storytelling, however. While such writing may at times be acceptable to publish in academic journals — though even there, they should be avoided — passive sentences make writing less engaging, less energetic, and more timid. Passive writing and wordiness typically go together, and result in a lack of clarity. Don't use several words when fewer would do. See, for example, the handy dandy list compiled by the blog Shit Academics Say, which contrasts "inflated" and "concise" writing (text box 1.1).
Excerpted from Going Public by Arlene Stein, Jessie Daniels, Corey Fields. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction: So You Want to Go Public?
1 Writing beyond the Academy
2 Telling Stories about Your Research
3 Books for General Audiences
4 The Digital Turn
5 Building an Audience
6 The Perils of Going Public
7 Making it Count, Making a Difference