From a Ph.D in Medieval Literature to a Public Critic

JosephineLivingstoneI really enjoyed this interview with Josephine Livingstone, a culture staff writer at The New Republic.  She describes the difference between academic writing and public writing.  Here is a taste of her interview with Rachel Scarborough King at Public Books:

RK: How do you compare the kind of writing you do now to your academic writing? What do you like and dislike most about the public-facing writing that you do?

JL: Being productive is a big hallmark of my attitude toward this work, which is a little different from how I saw the academic work that I did before. The difference between that and my academic writing is kind of temporal. When I wrote my dissertation, I felt like I was speaking to myself and to the past. I was trying to make diagnoses implicitly about the modern world, but mostly my materials were medieval, and what I was doing was trying to push back certain arenas of postcolonial theory to apply to culture before the era of mass colonialism. For me it was kind of about trying to define my existence as not being part of the contemporary world. And I liked living elsewhere, which is a form of fantasy, but I really enjoyed it, and it felt productive and like I was doing something that had an ethical drive behind it.

But the work I do now I think of as service to the community of people who make art; I feel that reviews are a very important part of the economy—okay, maybe they’re not very important, but they are in some way a part of cultural production in 2019. And so I feel this ethical duty now to take every work of art seriously even if it’s a minor novel that’s coming out and I just want to boost that person’s name. You have to take every work of art equally seriously and ignore how famous or prominent the person who made it is. And that is an ethical drive, but it’s really different from the ethical drive that I felt in the academy.

RK: So do you see yourself as taking skills you learned in grad school and translating them, or are they different skill sets?

JL: A lot of my writing is about gender and race, and I definitely draw every day on the critical theory and some of the primary texts that I read in grad school—there’s no line there, it’s like a fuzzy overlapping boundary. The thing that Jill Lepore calls academic jargon is much maligned in the media. The first editor I ever had would give me so much shit about it, but I think that when you’re in an academic community you devise certain kinds of shorthand for much bigger ideas that help you to imply much more than it looks like you’re saying. A good example is that I used to use the word “horizons” a lot, and my editor would always be like, “Stop using this word,” but to me the word “horizons” implied this critically aware way of describing social historical context and how that limits or inflects an individual’s thinking. That makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t make sense to most people, so it took a lot of unlearning.

I also like Livingstone’s thought about being a “public intellectual”:

I think it would be very grandiose for me to think of myself that way, so no. I also don’t think that public intellectual is something that—like, no one ever introduces themselves at a dinner party and someone asks them what they do and they say, “Oh, I’m a public intellectual.” It’s more of an idea and a way for people to group and better understand a sector of professionals at work now who don’t quite fit into old typologies of who does what, because the public intellectual is something that has always been around. Today I think it incorporates things like editors, people who founded publications, columnists but not op-ed writers; it includes some podcasters and some radio people. Yeah, I think it includes so many types of people that the term “public intellectual” has to somehow describe a sensibility more than a workday.

Read the entire piece here.

One thought on “From a Ph.D in Medieval Literature to a Public Critic

  1. My career of several decades has spanned daily and weekly newspapers and newsletters, magazines and financial research.

    The way I view the difference is in shelf life. News has a life of a day or week, you do the best you can within a strict deadline with the thought that everything can be updated soon when more information is available.

    The research is meant to have a longer shelf life. White papers and economic outlooks are meant to be things that people can pick up and get something out of for months or even years.

    As far as academic writing, I have had a few pieces of industry research published in scholarly academic journals. One of my research group heads came from the academic world, so it meant something to him.

    It was exciting, given by humble background (a BA from Messiah). And when I looked at the journals, I don’t think I could understand any of the articles produced by academics. Most were filled with long mathematical formulas that had no application to the industry, were on subjects that were not relevant to current trends, and were written in a way that I doubt most academics could comprehend.

    To be sure, academics do contribute a lot to the financial world, and I read and respect a lot of academic economists. But there are industries where contributors from the academic world are sparse.


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