I Victor Ray explains why such writing is important for political, personal and practical reasons. I
By Victor Ray
Since taking over the editorship of “Conditionally Accepted,” I’ve sometimes been asked by colleagues and graduate students why I write for the public and how to get started. This column discusses why I started writing for the public, and I’ll be back next week with some concrete suggestions on how to get started.
I’ve begun to respond to the question “Why do you write for the public?” by asking, “Why wouldn’t I write for the public?” I understand why people are concerned about the potential costs of public writing, as some still think engaging with the public shows a lack of seriousness. In graduate school, I was told my desire to write for the public was evidence that I didn’t understand the job. But sometimes this concern is simply gatekeeping and worries about status, as elite spaces, by definition, depend upon exclusion. And while I know this isn’t a popular idea in some corners of the academy, I think academics -- who are paid to think about hard problems -- have a responsibility to help translate their ideas to the public. Public writing is important: politically, personally and practically.
This may sound hyperbolic, but lately it feels as if we are approaching the end of the world. We are in the middle of a mass extinction; many effects of global warming are locked in and irreversible; international fascism is no longer creeping; and white supremacist violence is on the rise. A well-paid set of propagandists invested in confusing the public about the causes and consequences of the issues furthers each of these problems. Academics with real expertise on such serious problems can help ground debates in empirical fact. Many national outlets want to hear what experts have to say about both the technical aspects of these problems and the potential political solutions.
I understand that many academics adopt a pose of neutrality, and some feel that our legitimacy rests upon this pose. The fear that taking sides will lead to (further) funding cuts is real. But I think many of the attacks on the academy would occur regardless, as simple facts about global warming or rising racial violence, in and of themselves, threaten entrenched power. Put another way, how can one remain neutral when our very conditions for intellectual work are threatened? As Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.”
I also write for the public because I see my work as part of a long tradition of black activist scholarship that was never fooled by the idea that intellectual, practical and political work should be kept separate. As an educator with expertise on racial inequality, I see my responsibility extending beyond the classroom, even if I don’t yet have tenure. W. E. B. Du Bois, perhaps the prototypical public sociologist, neatly encapsulated this view of the necessity of public engagement when he said, “One could not be a calm, cool and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved.” The racial problems Du Bois identified are still with us, and we can help eradicate them by engaging in the type of committed public writing that Du Bois modeled.
Claiming this intellectual tradition means it is my responsibility to attempt to contribute, however I can, to making life easier for folks that come after me. One aspect of being part of an underrepresented group at a university is that you have fewer people whom you can compare your experiences with. As a venue for scholars on the margins, editing and writing for “Conditionally Accepted” helps to serves as a kind of collective political resource for marginalized folks who are geographically dispersed but probably experiencing similar types of exclusion. I’ve had more than one person contact me following a “Conditionally Accepted” post to say that they used the post to help push for material changes on their campus.
Practically, when folks ask me about public writing, they are often worried about how the work will count toward tenure. This is a serious concern, especially as universities have pushed for more public engagement from scholars without concomitant protections for those of us who are marginalized or state risky opinions. In many places, only peer-reviewed work formally counts for the tenure dossier, so peer-reviewed work should obviously be prioritized.
But public writing can count in other, less tangible ways. It can help develop a regular writing practice that feeds into our academic work. For me, it helped me move from the assumption that my work wouldn’t be published to the assumption that if I revised enough, it probably would. Because writing for the public is typically a much faster enterprise (pieces are often submitted and in print during the same week), it can help to keep your work on people’s minds between the release of peer-reviewed publications.
Graduate school trains us not to speak until we are certain, and that can lead to anxiety about our work and writing. Publishing in popular outlets can also help us get used to seeing our work and knowing that people are reading it, discussing it and using it. Finally, public writing can help create invitations for work that does count toward tenure, such as invitations to submit to journals or public speaking engagements.
Ultimately, I see public writing as a natural extension of my academic work. I am committed to public debate about ideas and hope to engage across multiple platforms. Given this commitment, I don’t believe in limiting those debates to the formal gatekeeping of academic disciplines.