Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Being a public intellectual on $10/day

One of the best sessions I attended at MLA was "The Semi-Public Intellectual? Academia, Criticism, and the Internet Age." Organized as a roundtable discussion, the session brought together a half-dozen scholars whose work as writers, critics, bloggers, and editors also addresses nonacademic audiences. Some were previously known to me but most were not, and their individual stories and experiences were fascinating. For the first time in my life, I found myself looking at the clock and longing for more time in a cramped and overcrowded ballroom.

For those of us who live half our lives on the internet, it's not news that there's a tremendous amount of writing talent out there. But this panel convinced me that, in addition to launching food and lifestyle bloggers into multi-million-dollar book-and-movie deals, the internet has also reshaped what it means to be a public intellectual--in part by reshaping the audience for their works. On the one hand, authority on the internet is dispersed, resulting in fewer "star" public intellectuals. On the other hand, the voracious reading habits of an audience willing to read not one but ten movie reviews makes this a golden age for the semi-public intellectual: the academic with both the skills and the desire to reach a larger audience. As several of the panelists noted, there really is an audience interested in what humanities scholars have to offer--who are eager for incisive analyses of politics, art, and pop culture that draw upon our depth and breadth of training.

The decline-and-fall rhetoric in the humanities and in traditional publishing has made this hard to believe: are there really more people writing well, in more places, for more readers? I don't know how to provide quantitative answers, but the anecdotal evidence is strong. To stick with academia: I'm only eight years out of grad school, but virtually all the PhD students I know now have at least a limited public presence on the internet (composing wry or evocative tweets is still public writing), and every third grad student I meet also seems to have a larger sideline as a reviewer, critic, poet, or journalist.

I love that, and not only because I love a grad student with a Plan B. I love that I can follow a random series of links on some friend's Facebook page and wind up reading something astonishingly good by someone whose name I don't know in a venue I'd never heard of. (I love, for that matter, that people I've never met keep reading me.)

But although I'm willing to believe that we're living in a kind of golden age for public writing, the gold we're talking about is strictly theoretical. As one of the panelists remarked about the rapid expansion of his online review, academics are more willing to write for free than journalists. Even if we don't care about the employment prospects for journalists (and I hope we do), this isn't good news. Most academics, after all, teach off the tenure track, so the convoluted proxy payment system that we full-timers enjoy simply doesn't apply. Me, I don't need to make a red cent from anything I publish. My academic writing helped me get a job, get tenure, and receive regular merit raises--and my nonacademic writing, in addition to bringing me great personal joy, has served as what Dr. Cleveland calls "a force multiplier" for my scholarship.

Most writers these days, academic or otherwise, do not have my job security, and as Tim Kreider's piece last fall in the NYT Sunday Review argued, writing for free ultimately devalues that writing--and all the thinking, learning, and training that precedes it. I'd like to believe that good writing is its own reward, but it's a reward that some of us enjoy more than others. (Moreover, I fear that none of us will enjoy it for very long: if we could tell our undergraduate English majors, with a straight face, that they could make money as writers, we might have more of them.)

This isn't the fault of the semi-public intellectual; it's a consequence of the hollowing-out of the middle class, the devaluing of the arts, and the rising cost of living in the kinds of urban centers where writers could once manage at least a modest, middle-class life. As the number of novelists now ensconced in the academy reminds us, even those who earn money from their writing rarely make a living off it.

I don't mean to end on a down note; I was genuinely invigorated by the panel and persuaded by case the panelists made for the appeal, relevance, and health of the humanities within the public sphere. But real health means people can support themselves with their work (or do that work from a place of love while supporting themselves with related work). If academics are to write for a public audience for free, they need secure jobs to underwrite that work. And if academia isn't providing secure jobs for current PhD students, they need an alternate career path that is, in fact, a career path.


Jeff said...

"[I]f we could tell our undergraduate English majors, with a straight face, that they could make money as writers, we might have more of them."

I've been writing for money for 15 years—full-time, part-time, and freelance, sometimes all at once—but I'm not sure what I'd say to English majors. I guess I'd argue that you can earn a living as a writer as long as you're resigned to doing tons of blatantly unsexy work: blog posts for a nonprofit, for example, or press releases for a tech firm whose products you only dimly understand. They'll be lucky if they can turn opining about literature, history, or politics into a part-time gig at best.

Was anyone on that panel not primarily employed in academia? Did anyone address the way outsiders (magazine and newspaper editors, for example) perceive grad students and profs?

Susan said...

I'm struck by the way the story seems to focus on reviews of popular culture - contemporary film, music, and books. The other, less sexy part of the humanities - the preservation and analysis of cultural artifacts - doesn't happen nearly as much on the internet. Did the panel address that? There are exceptions, of course, but it strikes me that the past is a harder sell online.

Flavia said...

Jeff & Susan:

You both make good points. I do try to tell my students that lots of people value good writing, but not always in the expected places--but as a consequence, those jobs are harder to "see" (and to find) from jump.

I don't believe anyone on the panel was primarily employed outside of academia, and their non-academic expertise leaned heavily toward cultural criticism. Not all are reviewers, but reviews, essays, and commentary dominated. However, since several work as editors and many write for professional (i.e. paid) sites, they did speak extensively about the differences between academic and not academic writing and the kinds of difficulties academics sometimes encounter when shifting into a different mode or writing for and with professionals.

To Susan's query, specifically: I'm not sure exactly what you have in mind (and I'm not an expert on the writings of the panel members!), but many of the panelists are scholars of earlier periods and certainly talked about drawing upon that work in their public writing. Whether it provides more than framing material, though, I don't know.

Flavia said...

I also meant to mention in the post that I thought the panel was very smart (and very blunt) about the limited ways this kind of writing "helps" academics: it won't help you find a job, it won't help your tenure case, and junior scholars, especially, may need to work extra hard to make their academic writing unimpeachable (lest others consider them dilettantes or unserious).

Phoebe said...

This is all most interesting (and depressing!)

It seems like these are two issues - whether outside writing helps those pursuing an academic career, and whether it's a viable Plan B for grad students who leave their programs, or don't pursue/find tenure-track jobs. I could speak to the latter, not really the former. (As far as I know, none of the outside writing I did, paid or on my own blog, was of much interest either way to those evaluating me as a grad student, in internal competitions, etc.)

But in terms of the Plan B angle... yikes. Journalism and writing generally are fields that, as you say, aren't doing so great. Plus, if you're used to writing on the side, for small amounts of money (or being part of the problem and writing for free), and having grad school cover your bills/health insurance, it's not immediately clear how to switch over. It's not impossible (or so I'm finding?), but the catch-all alt-ac resources your university provides probably won't help as much as you'd like.

And, while it's better to have a Plan B going than to be someone who never considered a life beyond academia and thus has zero outside contacts or skills, if you pursue anything other than academia after leaving/graduating from a PhD program, you're competing with people who've been doing whatever it is full-time since graduation, or with people who've just graduated from college.

(Apologies for the addition of further bleakness to the conversation.)

Flavia said...


Thanks for weighing in--I thought you'd have something to say on this score!

You're right that there are two different issues here, though I'd reframe those issues. I'm actually not particularly interested in the question of whether public writing "helps" an academic career (it's pretty clear to me that it doesn't do so directly, probably for anyone; even the Louis Menands and Jill Lepores of the world don't get, so far as I can tell, academic-professional advancement from their writing).

What I'm interested in is the two ways we typically conceive of academics-who-write-publicly, both of which may be unsustainable and may even be in some tension with each other.

Academics who write for a public audience are usually imagined as:

1) people seeking to expand the influence of their academic work--or apply their academic training in a different context--by writing about at-least-loosely-or-disciplinarily-related things, like books and movies, current events, politics, little-known historical analogues, etc.


2) Those looking for a Plan B if academia doesn't work out (either because they don't get a job/tenure or because they're just not that into the profession or their current position).

They aren't mutually exclusive (a grad student might be doing both), but the conditions to succeed at either one--in the sense of being able to support oneself with that or related labor--are being eroded, sometimes each by the other.

So, yeah. I think it's great for academics to write publicly, in whatever capacity brings them joy, and I'm certainly not going to tell anyone NOT to write for free (or for peanuts). But I'm troubled that we as a community are not supporting the kind of writing and thinking that we consume and that we obviously value.

Phoebe said...

Makes perfect sense.

What seems to happen is, "writers" are people with income from elsewhere - a day job, a spouse, occasionally a trust fund. (The "trust fund" has weirdly come to stand in for all sources of outside income, when the day job has got to be so, so much more common.) And this has come to include not just poetry and fiction, but journalism and publishing. This is *because* writing jobs don't pay well, but it also further drives down wages. An ever-greater number of fields go into struggling-artist territory.

Meanwhile, at the very same time, the day jobs themselves - including but hardly limited to academia - are crumbling, becoming struggling-artist fields as well. The sorts of jobs someone might have once had to support a writing career become barely-paid adjunct positions or unpaid internships.

Flavia said...


YES. To all of the above, but especially this:

The sorts of jobs someone might have once had to support a writing career become barely-paid adjunct positions or unpaid internships.