A Duke professor recently used the magic word in an op-ed article she published, resulting in an invitation to visit a U.S. Senate office to discuss legislation affecting millions of children.
The magic word was "I." It's a word academics should include more often when writing op-ed articles for audiences beyond their campuses.
The professor wrote about her research showing orphanages in developing countries to be better than many Americans believe. She argued that well-intentioned legislation now before Congress would close too many orphanages and harm children unlikely to be adopted by nurturing families. The senator, one of the legislation's sponsors, was among those who saw the article.
That's impressive impact for a 750-word op-ed article, which requires far less time to write than a scholarly journal article or book. A well-written op-ed can change minds, sway hearts and affect policy. It can advance the author's career and the university's reputation. It also can serve the public interest, bringing faculty expertise to debates about everything from national security to the arts.
For faculty to play this role, however, they need to become more willing to use the word "I."
In the case of the orphanage op-ed, which our office edited and placed in several papers around the country, the author had the advantage of making an interesting point about a timely issue affecting children. What made her article compelling, however, was how she opened with a story about a Cambodian teenager who was forced to leave an orphanage and ended up becoming a "karaoke girl" who has sex with customers. The author wrote that this teenager illustrates the problem she has seen in several countries.
She maintained her first-person voice through her final paragraph, where she expressed satisfaction that Congress is addressing this issue and hopes the bill will be modified to continue supporting orphanages. To describe what she did in movie terms: She started with a "tight shot," pulled the camera back to show the "long shot" and used a character throughout to propel the narrative.
This approach is dramatically different than in most journal articles. There the author typically reveals the conclusion only at the end, festooned with caveats, after requiring the reader to wade through pages of experimental protocols or dense analysis. That approach simply doesn't work with a newspaper reader who is sitting half-awake at the breakfast table, flipping through the editorial pages en route to the local news and sports scores.
Academic articles also eschew the use of "I" or "me." Their authors learn in graduate school to rely on the power of their data and the brilliance of their arguments. Pundits should dazzle with their intellect, they're told, not with anecdotes or emotion. As scientists and others like to point out, the plural of anecdotes is not data.
That's true, of course, but also self-defeating when it comes to placing an article with the editors of op-ed pages, where competition can be intense. This reluctance of academics to come down from Mt. Olympus and share their stories is one of the biggest reasons why so many of them are disappointed when editors reject their articles. It's certainly possible to address an issue effectively with a third-person "voice of the expert," but academics should not consider this their only option.
My colleague Keith Lawrence and I have helped Duke faculty members and students place dozens of op-ed articles every year, something I also did while running an op-ed service for a decade at the National Academy of Sciences. We've learned that, all things being equal, articles fare better when authors share their own experience along with their professional analysis. If you are a physician-scientist who is concerned about national health policy, this means telling us what happened yesterday to Mrs. Jones, the woman who said she can't afford the medication you prescribed. If you are concerned about fracking, describe the homeowners who told you their water tastes strange.
You shouldn't violate anyone's confidentiality and you don't want to sound like a reality TV star. When you share your own humanity, however, your words ring truer. Readers care more about what you are saying. This is why presidents of the United States, regardless of party, place "real Americans" next to the First Lady when they deliver their State of the Union speeches. They know viewers will pay more attention to Lieutenant Smith, the brave soldier who just returned from Afghanistan, than to an abstract discussion about military policy.
Why do we have the Ryan White CARE Act and other laws named for individuals? Why do politicians on the campaign trail inevitably tell us about the family they met yesterday? For better or worse, human beings make sense of the world through examples. Academics who recognize this are not trivializing themselves or disavowing the intellectual rigor of their research. Rather, they are embracing reality and engaging readers effectively.
Americans who read op-ed pages are not stupid. They are more educated and engaged than the public as a whole. Many have expertise of their own. But they're also busy and, like all people, are wondering how an issue affects them personally. As they gulp a cup of coffee and race through the morning paper before heading to work, they want to hear real stories and voices.
They also want to feel a connection with the author. If you are a professor at Penn hoping to place an op-ed with The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, look for a way to mention something that makes clear you're a neighbor.
Many academics approach op-eds as an exercise in solemnity. Frankly, they'd improve their chances if they'd lighten up. Newspaper editors despair of weighty articles -- known in the trade as "thumb suckers" -- and delight in an academic writer who chooses examples from popular culture as well as from Eminent Authorities.
Most of all they want to see the magic word "I." More academics should use it.
David Jarmul is the associate vice president for news and communications at Duke University.
Fenway Park, Boston, 7:35 p.m. last Thursday, at the Gate B press credentials window, a full 30 minutes before the scheduled first pitch of Game Two of the 2013 World Series, the Boston Red Sox vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. I presented my Inside Higher Ed business card and my (valid, by the way) Commonwealth of Massachusetts driver’s license. “I've been assigned to cover the game tonight. May I get a press pass?” I told the man behind the bullet-proof-looking window.
Heck, the Boston Globe had reported that morning that the Red Sox had credentialed 1,800 journalists for Wednesday’s game, the night before (8-1 Red Sox). In this newspaper-closing, hard-news starved world, 1,800 journalists in total, on the whole planet? Then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’ll sell you.
Anyway, I was on a professional development mission. Not for me, for my students, all 13,000 (my last count) of them at Bunker Hill Community College. “Show, don’t tell.” “Details. Details.” “Show, don’t tell.” “Details. Details.”
That’s my daily plea to them these days, as we work through the first drafts of essays to transfer to four-year colleges. I’d read in articles and heard wise educators say that teachers should try their assigned assignments for themselves. So last Thursday, after my early evening transfer-essay session last night, I headed to Fenway, to see what I could show not tell, what details I could find, to write about a some old news everyone already knows -- Cardinals won, 4-2.
Let’s see what I can do for details. Only Bruins fans on the Orange Line, my first train from Community College to North Station. Red Sox hats and red jackets and red sweat shirts and red parkas when I switched over to the Green Line, to Kenmore, Fenway Park. Not a mob. Odd. On regular baseball-season nights, riders just going home must often let a Green Line or two go by before the cars have room for new passengers.
"Professor Sloane,” a young woman said at the Haymarket stop. A Bunker Hill Community College student from Senegal. “I missed you last week, when I brought my essay back,” she said. “Well, can I help you now?” I asked. She pulled the essay out of her bag. “Africa is suffering and crying for a cure,” the draft began. She needs little help from me. (She gave me permission to quote the essay here.) “What did you learn revising?” Big, big smile. “This is about me. Only I could have written this.”
The smile is the test. When the students smile, we’re on our way to turn the lead (“I want to go to a four-year college to….") into the thick-envelope-with-financial-aid gold for these Pell Grant students (“Africa is suffering and crying for a cure”).
This woman wants a Ph.D. in microbiology. She will build medical labs at home in Senegal. A ten-year-old cousin had died because Senegal has too few labs for simple blood tests. We talked until I switched trains at Copley for a Kenmore train.
Still no mob on the next train. (Research questions with credible sources.) “Where is everyone?” I asked a Boston Transit Police officer at Kenmore/Fenway Park stop, when I arrived at 7:05 p.m., an hour before the first pitch. For regular games I’ve been to, the mob just carries you out of Kenmore. “I’ve been here since about 5:00. It’s been about like this,” the officer told me. “Steady but not the usual mob. I think more people are taking their cars, not the T, to the game. Remember, at $1,000 a ticket for the World Series, these are not the regular fans here tonight.” (Detail: What did tickets cost? Find multiple sources.)
“How much?” I asked the first scalper I met on Commonwealth Avenue, at the top of the station stairs. “I’ve got box seats in right field for $500 each,” he said. “What’s the least I could get in for?” I asked the man down the street holding the poster directing us to ticket-broker Ace tickets. “I’d say probably $400,” he said. Where? “The bleachers.”
Detail for comparison: That’s vs. $47 for a box seat, a dozen rows in from the field between first base and the foul pole, the Pesky Pole at Fenway. (Detail: Named for the late Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky. He hesitated on a throw to home. Enos Slaughter scored, and the Red Sox lost the seventh game of the 1946 World Series against … the St. Louis Cardinals.) That same seat was $100 for the American League Division Series against Tampa Bay.
Other Validation of Transit Police Officer hypothesis: Later, at Gate B, I saw an elderly couple, Brahmin (takes one to know one), come forth from a shiny black chauffered Town Car. The woman had a cane, and the man had over his arm a plaid lap blanket that I’d expect to see instead across the Charles River at a Harvard/Yale football game.
Turning to “Show, don’t tell.” Tell could be: Red Sox fans like to eat.
Tell: Many different programs were for sale. Show: “Get your official Red Sox here, with a free Red Sox pennant.” “Official World Series Program here, with Topps World Series Baseball Cards.” “American League Playoff program right here.”
Show, use time. I’d gone to walk around, outside the park, Wednesday night, too, before I hit on the press pass idea. Wandering the scene may be as close as I get to a World Series game. My closest call before had been another Thursday -- Thursday, October 12, 1967, the seventh game of the 1967 World Series, the Red Sox against … the Cardinals. Bob Gibson pitching for the Cardinals against Jim Lonborg for the Red Sox. (Details? Students, click here.) My father had ended up with two tickets; he took my brother. I still think my father should have torn the ticket and given us each half.
Show: Wednesday night, in Santander Bank, corner of Comm Ave. and the bridge across the Mass Pike to Fenway. Revise, details: corner of Comm Ave and Brookline Avenue, which crosses over the Mass Pike to Fenway Park. Trio out of tune, no tempo. Thursday night in the Santander alcove, a solo trombonist, playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” I put a dollar into his hat.
Walking over the bridge, slowly, a crowd at last, I accepted all free placards. From the Globe: “There can B only one,” flipside: “Let’s Go Red Sox!” From WEEI 93.7 FM: “K,” flipside “Fear the Beards.” (Click here for chart of Red Sox beards by player.) From the Seventh Day Adventists, a card to mail in for a FREE Passion story, The Road to Redemption. Your name and address on one side, with flipside a photo of a baseball on fire, the mailing address for Seventh Day Adventists and a box “Place Your Stamp Here.”
Sausages? On Lansdowne Street – the Green Monster backs onto Lansdowne -- I declare a tie between Mike’s, in front of Gate C, and the Sausage Connection, a few yards from Gate E. Both use perfect 8-inch sub rolls from Piantedosi Bakery in Malden, Mass. I didn’t try, I admit, the Sausage King, the Original Che-Chi’s, the Sausage Guy, or Boston’s Best and Original Sausage.
A tap on my shoulder, on the Green Line Wednesday. The balding, middle-aged man beside me asked, “You going to the game?” Just to walk around, I’d said. To buy a Fenway sausage sandwich for my wife to eat watching the game at home.
“You getting sausage? You have to go to our stand. Sausage Connection. We’re the second one on Lansdowne Street. Don’t go to the first one. We’re a dollar cheaper, Best of Boston every year. Peppers and everything. We’ll wrap them up good so you can take it home. What do you like to drink? Coke? No? We got Sprite then. I’ll take care of you,” he promised.
The man, I didn’t get his name, had been shouting into his cell phone from the the Green Line seat. “I killed four guys, but they could only get me on extortion. Yeah, I’m a Made Man, but I stopped all that. They never gave me my money. My wife is on the other line. I gotta take it. What’s your name again?” The next conversation was about heroin, methadone, and cappuccino. That’s when he tapped me on the shoulder.
“I got two tickets, but I’m going to sell them,” he told me. “You never been to the Series? I missed the series in ’04 and ’07. I was in the federal penitentiary in Illinois,” he said. We were off the T and walking down Comm Ave. “I know the Sox are going to win. I’ve got $1,000 on it.” His cell phone rang. He showed me. “You know who that is, don’t you?” I couldn’t see the screen. “It’s A-Rod’s…” A siren screamed. “A-Rod’s agent,” I think he said. “Yeah, I’ll be there in two minutes,” he said into the phone. He turned to me, “You got it? Sausage Connection. Second one on Lansdowne, not the first one. I’ll take care of you.” He was gone.
In front of the Cask ‘n Flagon on the corner of Brookline and Lansdowne, a young couple – Red Sox jackets and hats – were trying to photograph themselves with a cell phone. I volunteered and took a few shots. Effusive (and sober) thanks. “Would you sell me one of your tickets for $20?” I asked. No.
I passed the first sausage cart on Lansdowne. At the second, my new friend was waving his arms declaring something I couldn’t hear to his friends at the stand. I was hungry. But my new friend gave me the two sandwiches and the sodas, for free? Did I want to owe a favor to a guy who’d just told me he had killed four guys? The stories were bluster. I think. Why take the risk?
I stuck to my plan to walk around the Park. Around the corner from Lansdowne, on Ipswich Street, the new Carl Yastrzemski statue, the Ted Williams statue, and the Teammates: Ted Williams, again, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio all had red beards attached. (Detail: True to life, the sculptor had given Dom (the Little Professor) wire-rimmed eyeglasses. Above my head as I kept walking were the retired numbers, 9, 4, 1, 8, 27, 6, 14, and, in blue, 42. (Students: Leave some mystery for the reader to wonder.) Fenway has loading docks along Van Ness. A fence kept us on the far side of the street. It was dark. The flashes of cell phone cameras were popping at one big door. I looked over. A gray-haired man in a white baseball jersey. He turned. Number “8.” “Is that Yaz?” I blurted. “Yes,” everyone said. Carl Yastrzemski. (Detail: You have look up the spelling.) Yaz had played in the ’67 game my brother went to. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to correct one of the uniform numbers that have been retired.)
Mike’s Sausage? Well, my new friend wasn’t at the Sausage Connection Thursday night. I bought a sandwich, and saw the Piantedosi bag. Excellent sausage; perfect roll. Wednesday, avoiding owing a favor my new friend, I’d fallen into step alongside a Boston police officer. (Detail: Never stop looking for primary sources.) “Where would you buy a sausage sandwich?” I asked. He stopped, turned to me. He had a circle of four of five stars on the collar of his white shirt. “I don’t eat sausage,” he said. I guess I looked disappointed. “But you could try Mike’s, in front of Gate C.” I thanked him. A tall man by the stand in front of Gate C -- Mike, I learned -- locked me into his gaze. “What can I get you?” No escape; I’m glad I already wanted a sausage. Two sausage sandwiches, wrapped so I could take them home. I paid and put a tip into the jar.
“I think it might have been the Boston chief of police who just told me I had to buy my sandwich here at Mike’s,” I said. “That’s superintendent chief. He was just here. Danny Linsky, Irish by the way. We’re friends. He sent you? Oh, now he’s going to want a piece of the action,” Mike said. “Never mind. Next time we have lunch, I’ll be sure he pays.”
Oh, at the Gate B press window. The man through the bulletproof window said to me through the microphone, “No, we can’t give you a press pass tonight.” “Isn’t there someone you could talk to?” “The deadline for press passes was October 2,” the man said.
As I tell the students applying for transfer: Don’t wait until the last minute.
Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him on Twitter at @WickSloane.
Not long ago,this column took up the perennial issue of academic prose and how it gets that way. On hand, fortunately, was Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly, a smart and shrewd volume that avoids mere complaint or satirical overkill.
Bad scholarly writing is, after all, something like Chevy Chase’s movie career. People think that making fun of it is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel: to borrow Todd Berry’s assessment of his comedic colleague, “It’s as easy as looking at fish in a barrel. It’s as easy as being somewhere near a barrel.” Besides, it’s gone on for at least 500 years (the mockery began with Rabelais, if not before) so it’s not as if there are many new jokes on the subject.
But Billig did make an original and telling point in his critique of pure unreadability – one I neglected to emphasize in that earlier column. It has come into clearer view since then thanks to a new book by Carl H. Klaus called A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing (University of Iowa Press).
Klaus is professor emeritus of English at the University of Iowa and founder, there, of the Nonfiction Writing Program. He is also a practitioner and critic of the genre of the personal essay, and A Self Made of Words seems largely addressed to the students, formal or otherwise, who want to learn the craft. Scholarly discourse rarely assumes the guise of the personal essay, of course. But Klaus’s insights and advice are not restricted to that literary form, and his book should have a tonic effect on anyone who wants his or her writing to do more than paint gray on gray.
To put it another way, A Self Made of Words doesn't stress writing in the personal voice, but rather the persona that always operates in writing, of whatever variety, whether formal or informal, autobiographical or otherwise.
Klaus wrote an earlier book called The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (Iowa), which I have not had a chance to read, but I assume he there goes into the original use of the word persona, meaning, in Latin, a mask, of the stylized kind ancient actors wore on stage to project a character. The author of even the flattest and most objective or empirically minded paper creates or displays a persona while writing: one that is self-effacing and indistinct, yes, but that manifests its authority through self-effacement and the absence of first- and second-person communication.
Impersonality, in other words, implies a persona. So does the introspective voice and intimate tone of a memoirist, with countless shades of formality and casualness, of candor and disguise, possible in between. The persona is not something that stands behind or apart from the written work, though it may seem to do so. The raw material of the persona is language itself -- not just the vocabulary or syntax an author uses, but the differences in intonation that come from using contractions or avoiding them, from the mixture of concrete and abstract terms, and from the balance of long and short words.
Klaus devotes most of the new book to how those elements, among others, combine to create effective writing -- which is, in his words “the result of a complex interaction between our private intentions and the public circumstances of our communication.” It is not a style guide but a course of instruction on the options available to the writer who might otherwise be unable to craft a persona fit to purpose.
Which, alas, is often the case. Michael Billig did not discuss the academic author’s persona in his book on how to write badly and influence tenure committees – at least, not as such. But it is implicit in his argument about how apprentice scholars orient themselves within the peculiar, restricted language-worlds their elders have created while fighting to establish their claims to disciplinary claims.
In effect, they learn how to write by wearing the personae they’ve been given. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in itself; the experience can be instructive. But the pressure to publish (and in quantity!) makes it more economical to rely on a prefabricated writerly persona, stamped out in plastic on an assembly line, rather than to shape one, as Klaus encourages the reader to do.
As Bard restores idea of writing your way into college, we offer a look at its essay prompts, and others. Are colleges asking the right questions? Was Kant correct about dishonesty? And how cool is the mantis shrimp?