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January 11, 2002

Writing Outside the Academic Box

"A lot of people are scared of science. For those of us who can't think of being anything but a scientist, it's hard to know how to convey to lay people the joy and excitement of discoveries in the lab," said Rachel Fink, associate professor of biological sciences, who specializes in cell movement within embryos. "The films I post on the Web are one way to communicate that excitement; writing is another." Fink was one of fifteen Mount Holyoke faculty from across the disciplines who began meeting in spring 2001 to discuss issues surrounding nonacademic writing in Writing beyond the Academy, a monthly seminar sponsored by the Weissman Center for Leadership.

Weissman Center codirector and English professor Christopher Benfey, a respected scholar of twentieth-century literature who writes for both academic journals and the popular press, came up with the idea for the seminar. Benfey often pens pieces about subjects other than literature, regularly publishing essays about art, fashion photography, architecture, and travel for publications ranging from Travel + Leisure to the New Republic and the New York Review of Books. He and English department lecturer Sven Birkerts cofacilitated the meetings of Writing beyond the Academy, inviting participants to share in-progress writing and hear from guest speakers about writing to convey scholarly ideas to broad audiences using precise but not exclusive language. Birkerts is the author of several books of literary criticism, as well as numerous essays and reviews for such popular periodicals as the New York Times Book Review, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire.

Like Benfey and Birkerts, seminar participant Martha Ackmann is well known both in and beyond academic circles. An Emily Dickinson scholar and founding coeditor of Legacy, an academic journal of American women writers, the senior lecturer in women's studies also writes columns about women in history, politics, and sports for such widely read daily newspapers as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. "I was becoming frustrated with the language of much academic writing. It was graceless, filled with jargon, aimed at an increasingly small audience and having limited effect on conversations about issues in the world," said Ackmann of her decision to expand her writing. "I wanted to become part of the larger discussion outside academic journals."

Guest speakers who talked with the group about writing outside their academic specialties and reaching readers through the popular press included author Susan Sontag, who discussed the writing process and offered hints about keeping a journal and lists of words often used in spoken but not written English; author Barry Werth on writing narrative; Smith professor and American Scholar editor Anne Fadiman on first-person writing; Ilan Stavans, specialist in Latin American studies at Amherst College, on "think pieces"; Mount Holyoke's associate director of communications Kevin McCaffrey on op-ed pieces; and, most recently, New Republic editor James Wood on book reviews. Wood joined the group for its final meeting in December, sharing his writing process and two recent pieces of writing: a book review on V. S. Naipaul for the New Republic and an essay for the Guardian about the effect of the September 11 attacks on the American novel.

"To simplify an argument is to do an injustice to a book," Wood told the group, which represented departments ranging from economics and earth sciences to art and anthropology. "But complex arguments can be made without complex language and in words not used everywhere else," he insisted, encouraging the group to write on any subject without using specialized language. Wood has practiced his own advice for many years, writing pieces that balance clear language with complex arguments and appeal to both specialists and general readers. He has even written for general audiences about traditionally "academic" subjects, such as the literary giants Herman Melville, Knut Hamsun, Jane Austen, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Matthew Arnold, and others—all subjects of his book of essays The Broken Estate (New York: Random House, 1999).

The success of Wood, Birkerts, and others undermines the unspoken rule in academia that writing for a large audience outside the scope of one's specialty may represent a simplification, and therefore falsification, of ideas, says Benfey. As Benfey and Birkerts wrote in their invitation to participate in the seminar: "Many of us lament the dwindling away of a common intellectual culture and feel marooned in our specialties, but there are plenty of writers showing that it's possible to reach readers ‘out there,' both an academic audience outside one's own discipline and a nonacademic audience, without ‘dumbing down.' "

Participants gleaned a wealth of new ideas from the seminar meetings. "The seminars were wonderful, a rare privilege to talk about the writing process and about communicating complex ideas in a clear, elegant style," said Ackmann. "I took away a lot of ideas about approaches to writing, about techniques for envisioning and engaging larger audiences, about not simplifying ideas but articulating them clearly."

Professor of anthropology Debbora Battaglia said, "Writing can be such a solitary activity that it was very interesting to see how other writers—both the guest speakers and seminar participants—approach their craft. I think that the close examination of writing done by scholars on very challenging subjects for broader audiences was rewarding; it provided a superb opportunity for all of us to look at our scholarly writing from new angles."

Fink found that seminar participants offered valuable feedback on both her professional and personal writing. She sought their comments on a translation of a scientific paper that she hopes to share with students and other nonscientists and on several essays about being an adoptive mother. "The feedback helped legitimize the writing I do outside my professional life," said Fink, crediting the seminar for the courage to read one of her personal essays on public radio in August.

Professor of philosophy Thomas Wartenberg also appreciated comments from faculty he rarely sees outside of faculty meetings. "I got useful feedback on a piece that I'm writing that is more personal and less academic than other things I have done," he said. "I wouldn't have felt comfortable sharing it in a context that was less intimate and supportive. I think people took risks in sharing their more personal writing, and that was really great."

Praising the scope and organization of the seminar, as well as the range of outside speakers, professor of anthropology Lynn Morgan said, "It was inspiring and liberating to hear about and investigate so many ways of writing. Learning about the different dimensions of writing and publishing was practical and useful. The seminar will have a real impact on my ability to write for publication in nonacademic venues." Morgan has authored numerous scholarly articles and books on such issues as access to public health and the social construction of the fetus; she has also written op-eds that have been published in such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times.

Karen Remmler, associate professor of German studies and codirector of the Weissman Center for Leadership, gained a heightened awareness of her own writing and says she hopes to instill in her students a greater "sense of wonder about the writing process, which can be a way for students to take risks and to recognize their own particular style as they are learning to express and support ideas." Remmler will work with Benfey and Birkerts to offer three workshops this spring on teaching writing in the classroom,
all taking their inspiration from the Writing beyond the Academy seminar.

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