10 Challenges for Scholars Writing for Wider Audiences

Academics can -- and should -- speak to the general public, and they can do so without compromising their scholarly lives, argue Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost.

June 7, 2017
 
 
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For four years we’ve been editing a crossover series of books and essays called Object Lessons. The idea is simple: authors choose an object to write about -- say, refrigerators or fruit wax -- and then illuminate a lesson about its hidden role in historical and contemporary life.

There’s a yawning gap between academic writing and popular, hot-take journalism. Scholars fancy that they cover important, current topics, but they do so in styles and venues that reach only narrow audiences. And yet there has never been a better time for academics to reach the public directly, and in ways that are compatible with their professional contexts and goals.

This is the space we have been focusing on: common, seemingly obvious subjects riddled with nuances and forgotten histories. Insights about them contribute to public understanding, while raising scholars’ profile and reach. At The Atlantic, we’ve published essays on blankets, diving bells and giant squids. And with Bloomsbury, we’ve published books on phone booths, questionnaires, eggs and dust.

Scholars have insights, experience and research that can help the public navigate the contemporary world, but scholarly work all too often goes unseen. Sometimes it gets sequestered behind exorbitant paywalls or prohibitively steep book prices. Other times it gets lost in the pages of esoteric journals. Other times yet, it’s easy to access but hard to understand due to jargon and doublespeak. And often it doesn’t reach a substantial audience, dooming its aspirations to impact public life.

How can scholars write for wider audiences without compromising their lives as disciplinary researchers?

After publishing dozens of books and hundreds of essays, we’ve seen some patterns, and we’d like to share them beyond Object Lessons. So over the coming year, we’re running a series of workshops sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities to help scholars write for general audiences. At these workshops, we’ll equip scholars to write “crossover” essays and books: informed by research and expertise, but jargon-free and written to be read.

As we’ve talked to editors and authors about the challenges and traps facing scholars who want to write for a broader audience, and based on experiences with our series, we’ve identified 10 challenges.

  1. Scholars often cannot answer the question “So what?” about their own work. And yet a fundamental principle of scholarly work is that it matters in the world. Scholars have a difficult time connecting their work with that world, in showing people why they should care. As the outgoing editor of Sociology of Education wrote in the newsletter of the American Sociological Association, most papers submitted to the journal “simply lacked a soul -- a compelling and well-articulated reason to exist.” 

  2. Scholars don’t write well enough to reach people outside the culture of scholarly writing. To reach those broader audiences, scholars need to adjust their style to speak to smart readers other than their immediate peers. One editor we spoke to suggested “smart undergraduates” as a good benchmark. 

  3. Scholars don’t know how to pitch. They believe that the ideas and their own depth of knowledge about them are sufficient to justify publication. But the audience also matters, and the subject, and the timing and the particulars of all those things at a particular venue for publication. Pitches must be specific.
  4. Passion and generosity are missing from scholarship. One editor we talked to quipped, “Academics are told to smother passion in return for tenure.” But in the crossover and trade-magazine publishing worlds, writing must help readers, not just the writer.
  5. Scholars need not choose between reaching the public and impressing their peers. They can do both. The deciding factor in whether the public appreciates an article or book is not the subject matter; rather, it is the manner in which the subject is made to connect with readers’ interests and concerns. Likewise, ordinary people are perfectly capable of digesting difficult, technical and specialized material as long as the writer explains that material clearly and concisely. Even most scholarly authors prefer reading stuff that doesn’t require physical suffering. But habit, pride and maybe even shame make this topic a forbidden one. And so we end up with the same hard-to-read books and articles.
  6. Scholars don’t know what a “market” is, even when they write for a specific scholarly audience. The process of evaluating a work for whom it might reach and why is simply foreign to scholars -- especially humanists. Almost all book proposals include a section on the book’s supposed audience, but it typically gets filled with celebrations of a project’s “uniqueness.” Uniqueness is not necessarily a virtue. Work needs to reach people who have previously been reached by other, similar work. Academics can benefit from thinking of their work as having a market and considering how comparable titles have fared in the marketplace of ideas and books.
  7. Scholars -- even experienced ones -- don’t understand how publishing works. Knowing more about the process by which books and articles get created, edited, produced and disseminated can help authors conceptualize and complete their projects. It can also help them figure out how to get their work in audiences’ hands.
  8. Editorial oversight is profoundly missing from scholarship. Not just copyediting, but framing and structure at a high level and line editing at a low level. Many scholars have never encountered this type of editorial effort. Working with professional editors will improve the quality of writing, examples, argumentation, flow, pacing and phrasing. Often this means knowing when and how to cut extraneous material or verbiage. In scholarly publishing, as well as (online) media, a lack of editorial resources makes it difficult to rely solely on institutional support for editorial. Scholars need to be prepared to do it for themselves. But there is no common structure through which to mentor them to do so. 

  9. Academics can be jerks -- although often they express jerkiness as a cover for anxiety. This occurs particularly when dealing with editorial figures and processes outside of their idea of normal. A better understanding of what types of workflows are standard and how they can be beneficial to scholarly and public output will help defuse the senses of isolation and exceptionalism that academics can easily fall into. Learning to work with editors who will really edit is a skill frequently absent from academe.
  10. This isn’t for everyone. Not every scholar will or should be destined to reach a broader, more general audience. It is not more or less scholarly or more or less righteous to do so. Each scholar must figure out how their individual talents and disposition can best be put to use. Similarly, recognizing that colleagues and peers might have different talents and dispositions, and concomitant publishing trajectories, can help produce greater scholarly harmony. 


To address these challenges, we proposed an institute of small workshops to the National Endowment for the Humanities. As we set about planning the workshops, we initially looked at running a more traditional two-week program in the summer. But we realized that we could reach a broader group of participants if we scheduled the events throughout the year. Then we also realized that the scholarly routine offered ready-made venues and times, thanks to academic field conferences that would already draw likely participants.

We settled on four sites and times over the coming months: in November around the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts conference in Tempe, Ariz.; in December around the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington, D.C.; in January around the Modern Language Association convention in New York City; and in March around the Association for Writers and Writing Programs in Tampa, Fla.

Prospective participants can apply to attend a workshop through June 30. Our goal is to have around 10 participants attend each workshop and for each participant to leave with a project ready to be pitched or proposed to a suitable outlet or publisher.

This is admittedly a modest project, but that modesty is part of the solution to the 10 challenges described above. Reaching the general public is meaningful and rewarding, but it requires commitment and effort. And that effort comes with rewards -- for individual scholars, for the common good and for the future role of universities in public life.

Bio

Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English and environment at Loyola University New Orleans. Ian Bogost is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a contributing editor at The Atlantic.

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