Poking Our Heads Outside the Cave: Why Academics Should Freelance

By Dana Ter June 24th, 2014

I still remember the horror that spread across the faces of my history professors and fellow graduate students at Columbia University when I mentioned my plans to research Taiwan’s indie music scene in the 1990s for my master’s dissertation.

“No one will take you seriously as an academic.”

“You should research something from before you were born.”

“Does music have archives?”

I eventually settled on a topic that simultaneously warranted scholarly merit and sustained my pop culture interest: examining how Madame Chiang Kai-shek crafted an image as a fashionista in order to liaise with the American press and increase positive coverage on the Chinese war effort during her 1943 U.S. tour.

After earning a Columbia graduate diploma a few years later, I was fed up taking on so much research to only have my mother and my professors read my work. The process of finding an academic journal that would publish my dissertation was extremely tedious. For this reason, you may think I was totally crazy for pursuing another master’s degree in humanities and social thought at NYU. But this time, I also tried something considered “taboo”in the academic world—I started freelancing about pop culture.

When my first article on plastic surgery in South Korea was published in PolicyMic, it was a truly liberating experienceGraduate students in the humanities are especially groomed to become academics. And academics are supposed to produce serious work based on serious archival research. They’re not supposed to go out in the world and write about Taiwanese funeral strippers or amusement parks in the Korean DMZ.

This divide I experienced between the academic world and the rest of the world has been highlighted in many articles, and most recently by Ann Hall in the History News Network. According to Hall, the divide exists because academics are stuck in the mindset of publishing for the extremely limited audience of other academics. Furthermore, history professors have been reluctant to embrace digital technologies and, for the most part, have failed to groom students for non-academic career trajectories. But Hall also believes the dynamic is evolving as history PhD candidates are taking the initiative to embark on more non-academic pursuits on their own, like freelance writing.

“The academy can be an extraordinary incubator for ideas,” said Tim Shenk, author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist. “Even ideas that might seem weird or irrelevant at first, when you reflect on them for a while, might turn out to pack a hefty punch.”

And according to Seth Anziska, a PhD candidate at Columbia who has contributed to the New York Times and Foreign Policy, historians in particular are in a unique position to shed light on international affairs and contemporary politics because of their extensive research backgrounds. “Writing for a wider public—either through op-eds, long form essays, or other online platforms and creative outlets—provides a means to influence the way we think about the world around us,” he added.

However, the question of whether or not to freelance seems to be less problematic when the content is focused on topics that naturally lend themselves to scholarly analysis and debate. Hypothetically, if I published a short article based on a chapter of my dissertation on Madame Chiang Kai-shek, that would be perfectly fine. Yet, as Shenk said, it’s important for academics to meet the public halfway by “poking our heads out of the cave from time to time.”

To put things in perspective, Thomas Meaney, who writes for The Nation, questioned what academics would define as worthwhile freelance journalism. “Is it an op-ed based on your research?” he asked. “A virtually academic review forthe Times Literary Supplement? Or an account of a hiking trip for Outside Magazine?”

Would freelancing about cats or celebrities also warrant the scholarly stamp of approval? Probably not. But, speaking from personal experience, freelancing about contemporary culture could hurt your standing in academia. As Shenk explained, when you’re writing for a wider audience, it might be better to avoid academic jargon for fear of sounding high-handed or antiquated. “When I write, I don’t want to say something that a pundit-robot could produce with the right algorithm,” he said.

However, as graduate students pruned by our professors to pursue a tenure-track position, using this kind of jargon in our academic writing is necessary. “If I ever thought writing for the public would compromise my scholarship, I’d give it up in a heartbeat,” Shenk added.

My case has been different. I’m freelancing because it provides a reprieve from academia. Rather than worrying about whether or not my freelance writing meshes with my school work, I’m building a portfolio so I can pursue a full-time journalism job one day. The way I was taught to analyze everything from the inside out has ended up being extremely helpful when I write about film, music, and pop culture. In other words, I’m learning how to leverage my academic training to help advance my career as a writer.

Scholars may be freelancing more these days, choosing to focus primarily on their academic areas of expertise. That’s an important step, but I’m hoping for the day when the academic discipline will no longer cringe at the mere mention of cats or celebrities.

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