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Faculty aim to cross publishing’s popular divide
On April 9 at noon, 10 scholars crowded into a small windowless conference room in Stokes Hall to meet with a journalist—author and editor Cullen Murphy. Members of the University’s Seminar on Academia and Public Life, they came to hear Murphy talk about the professional world he inhabits and how they could be part of it. Before he began, the journalist asked for some examples of what they’d like to know.
“How do you get through the door”—of publications such as the Atlantic, where Murphy spent more than two decades as managing editor—”if you’re not Alan Wolfe?” Law School professor Kent Greenfield asked the question with a nod to the Boston College political scientist who sat at the other end of a rectangular table topped with sandwiches and sodas, and whose cover stories have graced the Atlantic and other high-shelf magazines.
A couple of other professors were seeking advice on how to calibrate their tone for diverse reading audiences. These questions don’t normally preoccupy scholars, whose monographs, papers, chapters, and books are mostly pitched to other specialists. But the aim of this seminar is to help academics bring their voices into the public square. There have been half a dozen sessions of the seminar since the group began meeting last fall, sponsored by Boston College’s Institute for the Liberal Arts. A few have been workshop-style meetings at which, for instance, participants have considered published articles as case studies, and three have included guest speakers—Wendy Strothman, a literary agent and former publisher at Houghton Mifflin; Peter Canellos, the Boston Globe‘s editorial page editor; and Murphy.
“The reason I’m an academic is because ideas excite me, and I want to be a person of influence on those ideas,” Greenfield, whose teaching and research areas include constitutional law, business law, and legal theory, explained in an interview afterward. But to do that, he said, “I can’t just write law review articles.” During the past year, the professor has placed articles online with the Huffington Post and online and in print with the American Prospect, a liberal opinion magazine. His thousand-word pieces have dealt with constitutional aspects of issues such as gun control and campaign financing.
“We’re not trained in graduate school how to get into these publications,” said another seminar regular, Zine Magubane, an associate professor of sociology. Her winter 2013 article “Polygamy and the Post-Apartheid Nation” ran in a peer-reviewed journal, the Review of African Political Economy, but the South Africa native is also beginning to try her hand at American social commentary. She has written opinion pieces on parenting and celebrity culture for the Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe Magazine and says the seminar is helping to “demystify” journalism for its participants.
The idea for the seminar grew out of conversations last year between Wolfe and English professor Carlo Rotella, whose byline appears regularly over feature articles relating to sports and music in the magazines of the New York Times and Washington Post and who also writes a regular column for the Boston Globe. Both men had been speaking with other faculty who were writing or looking to write op-eds, essays, and mass-market books, and the two agreed there ought to be a venue for such scholars to learn more about the journalistic craft and “otherwise help each other do this kind of work,” Rotella recalled. He and Wolfe took the concept to Arts & Sciences dean David Quigley, who is a historian. Those three are now what Rotella described as the group’s “informal moderators.”
Twenty faculty members have attended at least one session during the seminar’s inaugural year. They’ve come from the English, history, political science, sociology, philosophy, and theology departments, as well as from the Honors Program and the Law School.
There are tentative plans to broaden the initiative, possibly by involving graduate students. The University will also have a journalism fellow for at least part of the next academic year. A distinguished journalist yet to be chosen will work with faculty and undergraduates from within American Studies, said Rotella, who directs that program. American Studies is now offering an undergraduate journalism concentration promoting what Rotella describes as a “liberal arts model of journalism instruction,” in which students look at the profession from various angles—from its roles throughout history to its contributions to literary genres. Student concentrators can also take nuts-and-bolts classes such as Rotella’s “Writing for Magazines.”
At the last presentation of 2012–13, Murphy, who is currently editor-at-large of Vanity Fair, spent the first five minutes tossing out bouquets to his academic audience.
“I love the way scholars work, going into different corners and asking terrific questions,” said Murphy, who, with his round tortoise-shell glasses, mussed-up reddish hair, and faded blue denim shirt, seemed to fit right in with the academics. The author said he has often piggybacked on scholarly research, interviewing academics and recounting their work in his books such as Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007) and God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World (2012), both published by what is now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be piggybacking on your own work,” reframing it for a lay audience, he said. That’s when the bluntness began.
“Forget the audience you’re generally working with, your peers,” Murphy instructed. Noting that scholars place a premium on rigorous analytical exposition, he said, “Nobody in the real world cares about rigorous analytical exposition. They care about storytelling.” He continued, “Forget about proof. Think about illustration.” Most readers assume scholars know what they’re talking about, Murphy explained. “Resist the temptation to prove every point with data,” he advised, and “find something that gets the idea across in a manageable way.”
As for getting noticed by a publication, Murphy assured the academics, “The process is really straightforward.” He went on to summarize qualities of the “glorified letter” in which a writer queries an editor about the article he or she wants to write. Editors are “always looking for fresh material, the next new thing,” Murphy said encouragingly. “They’re strangely starved” for such material. What’s more, “Anybody who is teaching here has an authentic credential for getting a foot through the door.”
There were more questions about craft and what editors want. There was also some frank discussion of whether writing in a more accessible style helps or hurts a scholar’s reputation in the eyes of peers. (Historians who contemplate trading in their dense prose for a narrative approach, said history professor Kevin Kenny, barely half-jokingly, “need to make the transition after tenure.”) In fact, that turns out to be a tricky question.
As Rotella sees it, the disciplines are looking more kindly these days on serious scholars with a popular touch. “The reward structure is changing,” he said in an interview, citing university presses as an example. These academic publishers—gateways to tenure and recognition—are increasingly interested in larger audiences and scholars who can write for a broader readership, according to Rotella.
Wolfe, in a separate interview, took a contrary view. “I would like that to be the case,” he said, but “in the general academic world, I think it’s swinging in the other direction, toward ever more narrow academic output.” Still, the picture varies from one discipline and university to another, he and others point out. And, Wolfe says, Catholic universities such as Boston College are more receptive than most to scholars who introduce their frames of reference into public forums: “We tend to ask big questions here. What is justice? What’s the meaning of life?”
From Boston College’s perspective, faculty members who reach out more widely to the public are helping to put flesh on a University dictum, “Light the World,” said Quigley. All liberal arts universities, the dean added, “need to make a clearer, more compelling case for the value of a liberal arts education, how it can benefit individual students—and how it can contribute to the public good.”
For the professors themselves, it helps to know that editors and agents are ready to listen. “As academics, we think we’re just eggheads in the ivory tower,” said Magubane. But she noted that the message from Murphy and others is: “You guys are interesting. Come talk to us.”
Read more by William Bole