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IN MY OPINION

Reaching a non-specialist audience: What’s a scholar to do?

Owning the ambition to reach non-specialist readers is the first step in making it happen.

By JONATHAN SILIN | MAR 13 2015

I should have seen it coming but I didn’t. The reader’s report on my new manuscript, a collection of essays about sustaining social relevance as we age, offered a generous and thoughtful analysis of its strengths and weaknesses, along with this final, seemingly innocuous observation: “I don’t think you need all the references.” Over coffee later that same week, the reader, Jane, confirmed what I had suspected had been her full intent: to free the manuscript of the scholarly apparatus that had supported its earlier drafts.

To those of us in academe who aspire to non-specialist audiences, such recommendations are discomforting. To begin with, they entail weeks of retuning the manuscript, making finely calibrated judgments about which books and footnotes need to be integrated directly into the text and which can be dispensed with. More importantly, they require relinquishing the most effective strategies we have for tracing the history of our ideas, the ways that they emerge from and are shaped by the work of so many others. Although they may slow our reading, citations complicate any lingering romantic notions that a manuscript is the product of a single author working in isolation, disconnected from others.

I knew too that Jane was asking me a fundamental question about authorial voice. How do I gain the reader’s confidence without relying on the legitimation of others? When have ideas entered the public discourse so completely that their inaugural appearance no longer needs to be re-marked? What does it mean to speak alone without a chorus of supporting scholars?

I might have anticipated Jane’s suggestions because they are the same ones made by Helene Atwan, the director of Beacon Press, when accepting a memoir about caring for my two fragile and vulnerable parents nearly a decade ago. Although marked by my early childhood educator’s point of view, I was committed to finding a broad readership for My Father’s Keeper: The Story of a Gay Son and His Aging Parents. While at first daunted, I quickly took up Helene’s recommendations as a legitimate challenge to my writing skills. After all, I had already met the central genre-blurring challenge of integrating personal narrative and conceptual material. I learned early on that if the story is well told, many readers resist “interruptions” that take them out of the moment and into the world more abstract ideas.

With this history, why didn’t I make the appropriate stylistic shifts before submitting the new manuscript to an editor’s gaze? The simple answer: I continue to want my cake and to eat it too. I want to enjoy the security that traditional documentation provided while, at the same time, I want to gain a non-specialist audience for my work. A more complicated answer might be found in the conventions that constrain all our lives in academia and my own particular resistance to them.

As a newly minted professor writing articles for peer reviewed journals, I often felt caught between two evils, the Scylla of creating texts so dense with citations that they are hard to read, let alone track the original ideas they contain, and the Charybdis of authoring texts with so few citations that my professional credentials might be questioned or worse, that would leave me open to accusations of plagiarism.

This authorial anxiety eventually lessened as I increasingly found myself writing first-person narratives to engage readers more directly and to bridge the gap between my personal and professional lives. To be sure, these narratives were always tethered to theoretically rich texts, but I became more discerning, choosing only those that helped me to read my life in and out of the classroom with greater mindfulness. In Sex, Death and the Education of Children: Our Passion for Ignorance in the Age of AIDS, I combined stories of my experiences as a gay man and AIDS advocate with an argument for a curriculum that reflects the lived realities of kids today.

In the very different book that followed, Putting the Children First: The Changing Face of Newark’s Schools, my co-editor and I wanted to provide a space in which teachers, administrators and staff developers in a stressed district could tell their stories. We reasoned that our own voices and extensive documentation of the well-known difficulties facing urban communities would only be a distraction. We were leery, as well, of adding to the already large and rather bleak literature on failing urban schools. We intended to create a report from the front lines about progressive educators and community members joining together to remake their schools.

Now, with Jane’s suggestions in mind, I’ll move forward with my new venture. I tell myself that after more than four decades in the field, I have amassed sufficient intellectual capital to speak with my own voice. Although I also tell myself that in a time of rapidly changing theoretical fashions, it is especially important to recognize those who have come before us in our efforts to keep alive traditions of resistance and minority perspectives.

Understanding that we have multiple authorial voices, the scholarly no more authentic than the one we employ when writing for non-specialists, I plan to refer to no more than three books within each chapter. Granted, the number is arbitrary, but I liken the process to editing a wardrobe to fit into carry-on luggage for a long trip. It feels impossible at first, satisfying when accomplished, and seldom will there be regrets about something left behind.

At the end of the manuscript I will provide a list of works used in its preparation for those who want to delve more deeply into a given subject. There are, of course, some scholars whose ideas have been especially important to me, and I will thank them in the acknowledgements just as I do good friends and colleagues. These acknowledgements will appear at the end of the book so as not to distract the reader from moving immediately into the text.

One of great benefits of the electronic age is the ease of saving drafts in which all our supporting scholarship is detailed. This will enable me to submit individual essays, those benefiting from full referencing and footnoting, to scholarly journals. I do this to satisfy my ego, to reassure colleagues that I have done my homework, and to insert this complete text into the public record.

Finally, I will remind myself early and often each work day of the intended audience for the book. Owning the ambition to reach non-specialist readers is the first step in making it happen.

Dr. Silin is a fellow at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, University of Toronto, and the editor of the Occasional Paper series, Bank Street College of Education. He is currently completing a collection of essays, Accidental Archivist: Learning and Teaching Across the Life Span.

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