Ryan  Burns, phd
April 19, 2014

10 ways to write in academia

Admittedly, this post is less about “how to write” than “where we write matters.” Let me start with a few vignettes. (1)At my talk last week at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, my colleague and former supervisor at the Wilson Center, Lea Shanley, asked me how I would translate my research on “knowledge politics” to policymakers and the humanitarian community. What do they need to know? (2) At a meeting for the certificate in public scholarship program at UW a couple weeks ago a faculty member mentioned that she has her students write in a variety of formats, including a course blog; Luke Bergmann in our department has done similarly, with both Github and digital collaborative writing platforms. (3) In our department’s brown bag lunch with Colin Flint today Colin mentioned that geographers, while we borrow ideas widely and in that way are very open, we tend to not have optimal impact outside our own discipline. That, combined with pressures to specialize narrowly for academic career development, has tended to encourage insular conversations (in fairness, these weren’t his exact words, but rather what I took away from our discussion/). (4) An incredibly inspirational person, who deeply influenced my thinking of gender and technology, Adrianne Wadewitz, died last week in a rock climbing accident. Adrianne’s expansive contributions to Wikipedia have inspired me to think more deeply about the digital humanities and its role in academic knowledge diffusion.

It was estimated recently that 50% of academic journal articles are read by no more than the author, the article’s reviewers, and the journal editor. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse, the same report estimates that 90% of articles are never cited. In contrast, Mark Graham’s article in The Atlantic was tweeted 150 times and received 21 comments from readers and the Floating Sheep collective of which he is a member has almost 3,500 followers on Twitter. Yet the former - academic articles in peer-reviewed, closed-access journals - carry higher weight in the job market and tenure reviews. This is a seriously skewed system that rewards academics for performing, maintaining, and reiterating an ivory tower intellectualism. Geographers are tackling some of the most pressing issues of the day, issues of direct and immediate relevance for several audiences, and yet incentives are set up to avoid making those connections.

Part of my public scholarly identity involves pushing back on those structures and frameworks. OK, sure, I’m going to publish in peer-reviewed, closed-access journals for sheer survival. But at the same time I’m going to publish in more popular circles and help make it easier for others to do so as well. (1) I take Lea Shanley’s question very seriously, and intend to write a very non-academic applied article on knowledge politics for Emergency Management Magazine, and perhaps also a policy white paper on ethics in digital humanitarianism. (2)In my class on Tuesday I offered my students to undertake an “alternative writing” project instead of the literature review they’ve been assigned. In future iterations of the course this will be more directly integrated. (3) This afternoon, after our discussion with Colin Flint, I emailed a bunch of grad students in our department to form a for-credit non-academic writing group this autumn quarter. What I hope will happen is that each of us will spend all quarter writing some piece of non-academic writing, and then submit it to its public venue by the end of the quarter. This may take a number of forms that I want to spend the rest of this post thinking about. Actually, what I’m going to do here is very simply make a list of potential “alternative” writing outlets that could help make geographers/academics more influential. We’re already relevant, we just need to communicate that relevance better. Here are some outlets for those communications:

  1. Wikipedia.
  2. Popular media like the Huffington Post (Saskia Sassen already writes there) or The Atlantic. Think about Ta-Nehsi Coates’s audience.
  3. Book review mags/sites like the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books or the LA Review of Books(Mike Davis publishes here occasionally).
  4. Policy think tanks. They often either have their own journals (such as Council on Foreign Relations’s (semi-rightist) Foreign Affairs), or are open to publish work by interested experts (as the Commons-Lab-slash-Wilson-Center has done many times).
  5. White papers. Many policy think tanks are willing to work with experts to develop policy recommendations in the form of white papers.
  6. Blogs. Blogs are an excellent way to publicize working ideas to lay audiences. Fortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common.
  7. Local newspapers. Local newspapers are usually eager to publish research relevant to local interests. Dick Morrill in our department has published video interviews and has been featured there on several occasions.
  8. Edited Youtube videos. Videos are cool, shareable, and allow for more creativity than you’re used to working with in journal articles. If done right, these can be super cool.
  9. Community talks/panels. Particularly if your work has a political bent to it, bookstores, cafes, shopes, and community colleges may be willing to allow more-than-academic panels and community discussions.
  10. Slam poetry - if you’re really creative. Actually, while that’s a reasonable suggestion, I’m kinda joking. But poetry, short stories, animated films, whatever. There are dozens of possible creative outlets for communicating your research more broadly. Kacy McKinney, for instance, has written up part of her research as a graphic novel.

Few of these are going to be easy outlets for our research. But hey, we put in a lot of effort to learn how to speak to other scholars. It’s now more noble to speak to the public.

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