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Personal newsletters can be a boon to academic-life writing

A Q&A with professor Brenna Clarke Gray.

By NATALIE SAMSON | July 6, 2016

Email newsletters are by no means a new frontier in publishing. You probably subscribe to your fair share already, whether it’s a daily note from your school or a weekly update from your favourite media outlet. (Speaking of which, have you subscribed to the University Affairs newsletter yet?) The latest crop of newsletters, however, doesn’t conform to the tried-and-true form of the institutional mailing. In the last few years, it’s become an important vehicle for writers to share their thoughts in what seems like a more direct and personal way than social media or blogs. They’ve also become a space particularly sought out by women to work through the challenges and triumphs of their work. (Jennifer Lawrence, for example, wrote about Hollywood’s gender wage gap in Lenny Letter, a feminist newsletter launched by actor and writer Lena Dunham last fall.)

Dr. Gray. Photo courtesy of Douglas College.
Dr. Gray. Photo courtesy of Douglas College.

Brenna Clarke Gray, a professor of English and the associate of arts coordinator at Douglas College in New Westminster, B.C., started her newsletter just over a year ago using the TinyLetter platform. In This Week I Learned (TWIL), Dr. Gray touches on topics that range from work-life balance to diversity in the media to democracy. She recently spoke with University Affairs about TWIL and academic-life writing.

University Affairs: Why did you start This Week I Learned?
Brenna Clarke Gray
: I have to confess, it was a bit of jumping on a trend. I write for Book Riot and all my favourite smart, funny people there were developing TinyLetters. I thought, “I will also do this.”

I write publicly online a lot through Book Riot and other venues and while I enjoy that, I have had a few experiences where things have gone – viral is too strong a word – bigger than I expected or intended. I found myself wanting to write publicly, but in this sort of intimate space. Showing up in someone’s inbox doesn’t have the same feeling as someone seeking you out in a blog. You only sign up for a TinyLetter if you really want to hear what that person has to say. It just felt like a different space, a more intimate space, a space where I could play with ideas to a smaller audience but still an audience. I’m a big believer in thinking things through in public when it comes to intellectual work.

UA: What do you see as the value in thinking things through in public?
BCG: When I arrived at Douglas College in, whew, 2010, I was making my students do all this public learning and not really thinking about it for myself. Two of my colleagues here, Peter Wilkins and Dave Wright, run a blog called Graphixia for comics scholars. They asked if I wanted to join and I was terrified at first. Peter said, “Never underestimate the power of 250 words a day. Just keep doing it and see what happens.” Adding that public component, it means that from the early genesis of an idea, you’re acknowledging that it has a place in a larger community. I like when people engage with my ideas. And online, where we all own not only the expression of the idea but the response to it, it’s not like an anonymous peer review. You’re owning your response and you’re doing it publicly and I’m engaging with you. I think we can use that for really powerful, deep thinking.

I guess in many ways the TinyLetter is like an extension of that, but it’s just a little bit less focused on my research and a little bit more about trying to be a better human being in this academic space.

UA: You write pretty frankly about the difficulties of the job, of maintaining work-life balance. If writing publicly about your intellectual work has helped your work through it, has writing publicly about personal issues helped you work through those issues, too?
BCG:
When I started the TinyLetter, the first people who subscribed were all the women whose TinyLetters I was following. I kind of knew that I was primarily writing to a group of women that I really respect and who are all around my age, who are all really invested in their careers but who are also trying to be human beings at the same time. I knew that if I wrote something that they had advice for that they would write back – and they do. That’s particularly great when I’m doing something stressful and I’m trying to work my way out of a situation. I know I can rely on that core group of women to write back even if it’s to say, “I totally understand what you’re going through. I have no idea how to fix it, but I get it.”

UA: Has a letter generated more feedback than most?
BCG: Yes, the one about my passive-aggressive downstairs neighbour passing me a note about our plants leaking onto their balcony. Getting that letter wound up bringing this profound sense of alienation out of me. I’m a small-town girl, how did I wind up in a giant condo in a suburb of Vancouver where my neighbours don’t even know me well enough to say, “Hey idiot, stop letting your plants leak all over my balcony!” They have to pass me a passive-aggressive note that they don’t even sign!

It totally threw me. And that was fun because what I discovered was lots and lots of other people feeling the same way – they had found themselves in big, faceless condos or townhouse developments, or even big suburban housing developments where they don’t know their neighbours. There’s the sense that you’re sharing your life with these people and you don’t know them – how profoundly alienating that can be. Apparently everybody has a passive aggressive neighbour story.

UA: Is there a letter that you found particularly difficult to write?
BCG: It was maybe the fourth or the fifth letter – fairly early in the process – and I was dealing with some interpersonal stuff at work and I needed to try and think some of that through. I wrote a letter about how much you should let slide in the workplace. How do you know when it’s the right time to come to your defence and how do you know when you should just let stuff go? That was hard because it was sort of a turning point in how I saw the letters. When I’m dealing with difficult or complicated issues in the TinyLetter I always try to frame it as, “This is my struggle with this idea.”

UA: How many subscribers do you have?
BCG: Right now it’s about 125. Rebecca Schinsky of Book Riot told me that it’s like a tiny, tiny sliver of your Twitter following. That has pretty much been my experience of it.

UA: Why do you think people want to read about your life?
BCG: It’s a great question isn’t it? When I’m writing for the 900th time about how hard I find it to find balance I wonder, ‘Why are you reading this? Who are these people?’

When I was a grad student at the University of New Brunswick, that’s when I first started to seek out academic-life writing. It was always immensely comforting to me. I’m sure this happens in all professions, but I think as academics we are hyper-competent people but we also have to spend our lives performing our competence. Academia is a really scary place to say you don’t know something, which is [strange] because it’s the greatest group of people to say you don’t know something to. But it’s still terrifying.

When I first started seeking out these kinds of blogs, particularly female academic blogs, it was immensely comforting to see that other people are flailing, to see that other people you perceive as super competent are actually flailing. There’s nothing I write about in my TinyLetter that is unique to my experience of the academy. When I write about being frustrated about being the token woman on a project, or I write about workplace conflicts, or I write about my struggles with my own pedagogy – none of that is unique to me. It can help when you’re struggling to know that there are other people out there who are working through that same stuff.

UA: Have you noticed much of a change in the academic-life writing you were reading then versus what’s out there now?
BCG: There are definitely trends that come and go. It seems like every couple of years “quit lit” becomes a huge thing for a little while. But I think there’s just more of it and more women’s voices. And there’s definitely more precarious or alt-academic voices, or at least they’re easier to find. I think that has been good for the academic conversation as a whole since those positions had been invisible for so long.

UA: It seems to me like women’s voices are actually easier to come by than anyone else’s in this particular genre. Is that fair? And if it is, why do you think that might be?
BCG: One thing the internet has been great for is that it’s a place where people can find community when they feel like they don’t have access to one. I think that, especially for communities that have been precarious or had been on the margins, if you can be brave enough to be vulnerable to write about that precarious position or that marginalized position, you’re doing a great service to all people who are looking for it. That’s probably a big reason why communities that seem so vibrant in online conversations are often communities of people who have been marginalized by the academy in all sorts of ways.

UA: What advice do you have for people considering getting into academic-life writing?
BCG: I’m a big believer in radical honesty. I put myself out in these spaces and share my honest experience in this moment. I think that being vulnerable, especially in an academic context can be really, really scary but it’s also incredibly rewarding. If this appeals to you, if you find yourself reading a lot of academic-life writing and you want to contribute to the conversation, you don’t have to start a blog tomorrow. A TinyLetter is a great way to get into it. It’s super easy and it’s small, intimate and free. Get on Twitter and engage with people who are writing things that resonate with you. You don’t have to start the conversation with an essay; you can start the conversation with a comment in any of these venues. That’s a low-stakes way to test out the waters.

Getting out there, getting your hands dirty, being part of the public conversation – it’s all really good training for the stuff we’re supposed to be great at already.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

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