Academia and accessibility

At the conference my students and I attended last weekend (the conference where I got two beautiful nights of sleep), I had the opportunity to interact with and listen to a lot of wonderful colleagues and scholars.  Truly, for a regional conference, this one had an impressive number of people my students and I have read.

One of the things that struck me is how important I find accessibility to be.  As a scholar, I want to be writing and presenting work that a broad audience of thinking people can understand.  Let me be clear:  I really like doing scholarship--work that has lots and lots of footnotes, long paragraphs full of analysis, lengthy (lengthy!) close readings.  What that means is that I don't ever plan to become a mainstream writer in more than the occasional sense.  But I don't want my scholarship only to be understandable to those Ph.D. students who are enrolled in a seminar of mine.  I want curious undergraduates, thoughtful bloggers, zine creators, and my own mom, to be able to read my stuff and engage with it.

This isn't the case for all scholars.  I know that when I was fresh out of grad school, I felt like being a scholar meant speaking a language that other folks didn't/couldn't speak.  My first book, Out in Public, was loaded with good ideas, but some of those good ideas are so masked in theoretically dense language that it can be hard to figure out exactly what I'm saying.  For instance:

As the following chapters will demonstrate, a completely constructionist or poststructuralist reading of the bodies of nineteenth-century women inadequately accounts for the real bodily limitations these women faced.
Theory, of course, can function as a kind of useful shorthand, but for me it was as much a vocabulary I was trying to wield to show that I belonged in the club:  Take me seriously!  I'm a real scholar!  Really really real!

I guess that way of speaking, of processing ideas, can become habitual.  Or maybe it's legitimately a good fit for certain scholars.  For me, as I've gotten older and more settled into academia, I've gotten more and more comfortable being less and less stuffy.  I got books published.  I got tenure.  Students of mine went on to various PhD programs and did really well.  I got quoted in various sorts of things.  It started dawning on me that I am, in fact, a really really real scholar.  I'm so comfortably in the club that I get to change the rules a bit.

So now my academic writing almost always has a personal component.  I started my most recent academic article with an anecdote about why many memoirs piss me off, and the piece also made reference to Biffle asking me to please stop reading memoirs.  Like most of my academic writing these days, in this piece I try to make my points clearly, without a lot of unnecessary name dropping (for instance, Foucault doesn't appear there at all, and you don't have to understand poststructuralism to get what I'm saying).

Now, I recognize that some of you may have opened up that article, started reading it, and then thought, "Yikes, not for me!"  That's okay.  What I hope, though, is that you didn't think, "Yikes, I can only understand 25% of what she's saying here!  Not for me."  In part I'm an academic because I love the conversation, and I want it to be a conversation that a lot of people can choose to be part of.


Cindy said...

"really really real scholar". :))

Meriah said...

thank God for "really real" scholars like you!! LOL.

I have so much more respect for people that can speak "real" and communicate outside of the ivory tower with you know, "really real" people.

I love you.

Okay, now I want to find that great article you wrote for the NYT and link back to it for a post next week on the disability rights movement.

Alison said...

Thanks, Meriah! The article is here:

krlr said...

Well I, uneducated clod that I am, am grateful. Loved your last article about the books (which also, you should be proud, pushed me to make a list & actually start reading thru it). I will confess that a "post structuralist reading of the bodies" may not have been at the top of my nightstand stack o' books.

How's it going otherwise?
Happy Easter/Spring!

Alison said...

Hey, uneducated clod, the fact that you went to read those books definitely made me feel cool--and also says a lot about what a thoughtful clod you are. :)

George Estreich said...

A favorite topic of mine. Including personal experience questions the compartmentalization of Living and Thinking. Also, it's nice to see language used as an open door, and not as a moat.

Academia thrives on anxiety--anxiety about tenure, about knowing enough, about being good enough. I agree with you--language can embody that anxiety, or defy it.