Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature and an MILIS student at the University of Iowa where he works in the Grad Success office. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien and at his website.
Our campus recently finished up our Three Minute Thesis competition and I once again found myself in awe of my fellow graduate students. It’s not just the fascinating research that they are conducting, but also their ability to so effectively translate it for a general audience, to take complex topics from the cutting edge of their discipline and convey their essential elements to non-experts. From several years of experience working with graduate students in a writing center, I know that this translational task is among the most difficult challenges that many graduate students face. Yet in a world of tight university and research budgets, the ability to communicate scholarly research to general audiences is also among the most valuable skills that a graduate student can develop.
While there are quite a few notable public scholars such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, a vocal supporter of science in everything from his books to his appearance in Sharknado 6, many academics that I work with find public scholarship to be especially intimidating. Though it is important to be cognizant of some of the risks of public scholarship, I would suggest that the benefits far outweigh them and are well worth the effort. Honing communication skills, building a public profile, and sharing and testing research are all vital skills that will serve most graduate students well while searching for jobs and throughout their careers.
To think about how graduate students can begin to take their scholarship public, I recently sat down to talk with Dr. Sarah Bond, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa. In addition to being an incredibly prolific scholar, teacher, and digital humanist, Dr. Bond has also written for numerous popular publications including The New York Times, Forbes, and Hyperallergic (links direct to her writing). She also blogs and has developed a following of over 24,000 followers on her Twitter. As an exceptionally accomplished writer for both academic and public audiences, I asked Dr. Bond about her experiences and what advice she had for graduate students who are interested in taking their work into the public arena. Here are her suggestions:
Meet Them Where They Are: It’s essential, Dr. Bond says, to meet readers where they are and to invite them into your discipline rather than expecting them to come to you. This means that “finding a mediating theme or a mediating material is oftentimes really important.” She used the example of a talk that she gave recently at a local microbrewery on ancient beer and said that her audience “may care nothing about ancient history but we both care about beer” which works as a “mediating substance we can use as a touchstone.” These touchstones can be light, fun topics like beer or they can be more serious topics that relate to controversial issues like politics or religion, but the important thing is that they are rooted in a shared connection with an audience.
Know Your Purpose: Public writing often involves putting yourself out there in ways that publishing a journal article might not (especially where op-eds are concerned), and the responses to it (good and bad) can last a long time. Dr. Bond’s recommendation is to make sure to write something “that is worthwhile to say and that you have conviction about” with the knowledge that digital content has a very long life. She encourages students to write about things they are deeply passionate about, but cautions them to be thoughtful about the long-term impacts their writing can have, especially when it comes to their careers. Connecting back to her own experience, Dr. Bond explained that she approaches her writing a little bit differently since earning tenure but that the purpose of her writing – developing public classics and creating more visibility for female classicists – has remained constant.
Consistency & Reliability: As someone whose Twitter followers only recently broke triple digits, one of my big questions for Dr. Bond was how it is that she developed her audience. She explained that the two big keys for her are consistency and reliability, both of which help to build trust. She wakes up every morning and sends a “this day in ancient history” Tweet that has helped to build her following on Twitter. She also works to connect different audiences and bring Twitter users to her blog or to her longform essays and vice versa. She freely admits that this takes time but she says that consistently providing reliable information is crucial regardless of the medium.
Amplify: When I asked about how Dr. Bond manages to balance her writing with all of her other responsibilities, including her academic writing, she said that her academic writing and her public writing feed each other. She views public writing as “taking the articles and books that other people write, being able to read them, to digest them, and then make them accessible and amplify them.” Like academic writing, synthesizing information that others have said and then amplifying it – emphasizing and effectively framing it – is an essential part of writing for a public audience.
The Pitch: One of the main elements of public writing is finding a venue through which to connect to a specific public. On this topic, Dr. Bond suggested that connecting with editors, often through writers who have experience working with them, is usually necessary as cold pitches rarely work. She suggested sending drafts to writers who you know and who work with specific publications as a good way to start getting connected to an editor. Once you have the connection, she says that the next step is crafting a pitch, “a two or three sentence argument for writing an article” that answers the questions “why is it important, what will you do, who are your sources, do you have images, are those images copywritten (depending on if you’re writing for a blog that needs a lot of images), what is your expertise?” Even with great writing and a great pitch, there will probably still be more rejections than acceptances, but the getting a start and beginning to build a writing portfolio is the first step to persuading future editors.
Everything is Copy: One of the most interesting points in my conversation with Dr. Bond was her discussion of where she gets her ideas. She related a specific experience where she was in the Worcester Art Museum and she saw an exhibit identifying slave owners in eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings. She sent the story to her editor as an idea for another author to write up. Her editor suggested that she do it, despite the fact that her specialization is ancient history. So she did. She said that being an academic is fundamentally about curiosity and highly developed research skills and that she now feels comfortable writing outside of the confines of her discipline and is always looking for new ideas whether she is at a conference or in an art museum because “in the famous words of Nora Ephron, ‘everything is copy.’” Most scholars tend to view the world through our disciplinary lenses to some degree and keeping one eye open to the possible avenues for helping others take on the same perspective is perhaps the first and most important step in publicly engaged scholarship.
Do you have any experience with public scholarship or ideas for how to begin translating one’s work for a more general audience?