I’ve contributed essays to the aggregator site 3quarksdaily.com for two years, and have just decided to bring that relationship to a close. Nothing went wrong – no falling out, no throwing of lamps, no screaming fits of “I just don’t love you anymore!” I just decided that I’d had my run, and it was time to free up the spot for somebody else.
It has been a true learning experience. I wanted to get better at writing for a broader, nonspecialized audience, and I think there’s been some success on that front. The easiest mistake for a stuffy prof like me to make, when he tries to write in a popular vein, is to take whatever arcane thing interests him and dumb it down, stick in silly examples, and earnestly believe others will then find it interesting. That doesn’t work, I tell you. Nonspecialized audiences are not dumb; they are just nonspecialized. If you want to reach them, you have to tap into the things any thinking human is likely to be interested in. It could be a good story, a central concern of contemporary life, or an age-old existential threat. Then try to engage that topic with equal doses of insight and humor, keeping the banter both light and significant. Easier said than done, of course, but if you whack away at it for a time you’ll get a little better. I’m thankful to 3QD for giving me some batting practice.
It’s also been interesting to try to situate writing for 3QD with my academic job. I heard long ago that the average scholarly article is read by 2.1 people – including the author. Averages mislead, but I’d say that most articles are read by one or two handfuls of people, at the most. But publishing such things is the “gold standard” of the academic business, since each piece is vetted by a couple of experts and selected for publication over dozens or scores of others. It’s like winning an intensely competitive contest where only your mom and dad show up for the awards ceremony. Of course, each scholarly article advances the frontiers of knowledge, etc., etc., but – amazingly – each article does so even as it is swallowed up by a deep well of obscurity after being read by maybe five people. And this very silly business is what gets you tenured and promoted.
My 3QD bits are read by – well, it’s hard to say, but loads more people than read my scholarly bits. Hundreds, thousands? (The 3QD editor said my essays are seen by 15k-20k people, but I can’t say whether those are actual readers or just sentient organisms on whose eyeballs there has been a momentary flash of something I’ve done.) The essays are not peer-reviewed, and not competitively selected (though I was competitively selected for the slot in the first place.) So, overall, it doesn’t really count, academic-wise. I’ve just been publishing stuff for readers, not slugging it out with experts.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say again that it seems to me there’s a better way to run this shop. There is certainly a place for experts writing for one another on matters as arcane as they please – that is vitally important for scholarship, I believe. But isn’t there also a place – particularly in the humanities, social sciences, and liberal arts – for engaging with the concerns of non-experts? Well, yes, of course there is. Not everyone should do it, and no one should do only it. But there needs to be more space for it in the graduate curriculum and in the academy, so that more of us more of the time engage the broader culture whose interests we serve.
So I’m very happy with the relation I’ve had with 3QD. I don’t know what happens next. I’ll keep writing stuff for this blog, and for other random venues as they come along. And I’ll keep checking out 3QD – there’s some very enlightening material there, for all of us.