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(Also appears in Mama PhD)

Wrongs Must Be Writed!

I'm away from school working on my thesis at another institution. I noticed the other day that there was a letter to the editor in the local newspaper where some guy was mis-paraphrasing the Pope mis-quoting the recent Benotti et al. pharmaceuticals in drinking water study to say that the Pill is giving all men girl cooties and destroying society and should be banned immediately, by his Highly Scientific Viewpoint. So I wrote a replying letter to the editor, politely, with inline references and just a little snark, to refute it line by line. I was shooting for the tone used in LTEs in Nature or Science. My letter was never published, and today there's another missive of anti-choice wingnuttery from the same person, a week later. Apparently our local editor has granted this person's oppinions pride of place on the editorial pages. I would be slightly less freaked out if this wasn't the local rag for a town dominated by a major research institution-we're supposed to be scientifically minded here.

What would you suggest that I do, given that I feel I can't just let this go, but there's apparently a local gag rule in place on feminist viewpoints in the local media? How do you break through?

There's also the ever present 'could this affect my job prospects if I try to stay here?' in the back of my mind, along with the 'oh gods, why does this have to to happen while I'm trying to finish?'.

Ah, yes. There's nothing like seeing your discipline (or something you know something about) being misrepresented, is there? Kudos on writing to the paper -- I think that we academics really have something of a responsibility to inform people outside the classroom, and being able to sum up the importance of actual, you know, research and convey it in a public forum is a great skill.

That said, what do you do when you shoulder that responsibility and someone declines taking you up on it? What I'd do is write directly to the editor, explaining your bonafides (your field, your institution, etc.) and offering to write an op-ed for him about the topic. Be informal and conversational, but feel free to attach a c.v. Especially if you're willing to write it for free, he/she might very well jump on the offer: local papers usually like being able to publish things by/about local people who are Doing Things. Like earning PhDs in fields that shed light on popular news topics.

Of course, you'll want to write in a tone that doesn't suggest that you think that the local paper's a reactionary rag (even if it is). Blah blah professional but friendly. Sadly, it's probably unwise to use the word "feminist"; if you're a woman, and you're writing about birth control, you're by definition a Radical Feminist (unless you're condemning it). Probably thinking in terms of Nature or Science is a little too high-falutin' for most local newspapers. I think generally newspapers are supposed to read at an 8th grade level or something like that? So think of your audience as being interested, but uninformed undergrads: approach the piece as a teaching assignment.

If you can get the editor to bite, you'll have a nice line on your c.v. And generally that's how one breaks through, I think: by working the local angle, and approaching the editor in a collegial, I-can-write-a-piece-for-you-and-be-interesting tone.

All that said: the thing that leaps out at me from your letter is your statement that you "feel you can't just let this go." I'm flashing back to my own obsessive online feminist presence while I was writing my dissertation. If you really want to write this piece, by all means do so -- it's a good, public-spirited thing to do--but be wary of the "I can't go to bed, someone is being stupid on the internets!" phenomenon, especially when you're in the middle of writing a dissertation away from your home institution. The single-minded loneliness of writing a thesis can make the most mellow grad student into something of an obsessive, and it's all too easy to find Really Pressing Things that Must Be Taken Care Of! that don't happen to be your actual project.

In short, send a friendly query email, no longer than a couple of paragraphs. Then call up a friend or go for a walk, grab lunch and a beer, talk about something frivolous and apolitical, and then get back to work.

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