I read about Lynn’s year of writing and my first thought was “that’s excellent! I love when people decide on a path, then walk it despite their fear.” She’s such a strong writer and the world needs more of her voice. She’s got nothing to be scared of.
My second thought was “Oh boy, how do I follow this? My 2018 writing year is a hot mess.”
It’s all over the place! I wrote… all the things. For all the people. And the range is intense:
history lectures in my field for a church class, a co-written article on maps (not my field) for my crowd (professional historians), exhibit text for a general audience interested in makerspace culture, a talk on the Slave Societies Digital Archive for scholars of religion at SORAAAD, a talk on the Fort Negley Descedants Oral History Project for the National Humanities Alliance, a Digital History Profile, an academic book review, two very different grant applications, a trade history book proposal and sample chapters, blog posts, and more!
Unifying these incredibly diverse writing projects, is the question of audience. For who do I write, and why? For me, 2018 was the year I spent experimenting with audiences.
For years, I’ve been moving beyond writing just for the academy. I still present at conferences and rack up the academic publications, but more of my time is being spent finding ways to bring what I do to people who I rarely interact with on a professional level.
I think 2016 taught us all that knowledge is useless if locked in the ivory tower. Don’t get me wrong- I like that I can be in the tower, and benefit from the sharp minds of my colleagues who challenge me, help me refine my thoughts, and review my academic work. It’s important that no one gets away with lazy scholarship. But even more, I like bringing my research out of the tower, to stand up to the light of day. Public humanities satisfy an entirely different part of me.
Presenting my research and discussing it with vastly different audiences forces me to really know my stuff, and my audiences. Every different group of people I write for, whether that’s the general public, or a more specialized audience (like a church group, people affiliated with a makerspace, scholars of religion, or those who work at places like the British Library or the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise & Public Policy), force me to think about the aspects of my work that connect with their interests. I have the chance to mentally go through my research and primary sources and select that which fits a theme I would normally neglect in my scholarship. In doing so, I’ve found that I pull out examples that I haven’t worked with much, and make surprising connections between materials that before seemed to have little to do with one another.
Then writing it up helps me to think about language and background, which gets at accessibility. I don’t want to bore people to death giving them way too much background, but I also don’t want to make assumptions about people’s prior education or exposure to this information. It’s a fine balance that is easy to get wrong. And with information that is at all politicized (as my field often is, since the Atlantic slave trade has so many modern implications), you don’t always know who in your audience is reading what. When I write and teach about slavery for a general audience in the US South, for example, I know I’m going into a topic that everyone has heard of, but that everyone understands differently due to their identities, their personal relationship with that history, and with the elements of white supremacy in our society. I know that because my audience is made hyper-aware of their own identities through engaging with this material, that they are going to interrogate my visible identities that matter when it comes to this kind of a topic- first my whiteness, but then also the way I visibly perform gender, and if I’m speaking, then my accent, which isn’t local.
Getting it wrong has higher stakes in the public realm than in academia. In academia, if you get something wrong, the worst that happens is that you feel a bit embarrassed when someone at a conference or in a review points it out to you. But then you have a chance to fix it, or to reply. It usually ends with discussion over glasses of wine.
With a public audience, getting it wrong means losing out on a chance to share your work. Phrasing something awkwardly has consequences. Giving too much background can make people feel like you’re condescending, while assuming too much prior knowledge can make people tune out. The public doesn’t have the forgiveness or the attention span that academics do- the second you lose them, you’ve lost them for good.
And I love that!
Because it makes me better. Sharper. Faster. Stronger. More able to understand the people around me, and how to communicate in a way that is mutually satisfying and enriching. It’s been such a game-changing treat to see how the people around me understand the history of slavery, and to help them make connections between our past and present. I feel like we both understand this moment in time better.
2018 wasn’t the year my writing was all over the place. 2018 was the year I challenged myself to bring my research and interests everywhere. All healthy adults want to integrate the different parts of their lives and share their passion with those who would listen. Getting to do that in so many different arenas was a privilege.