Putting on our public face: How can anthropologists get better at it?

The following is an invited post from Erin Taylor. Erin mostly puts on her public face at PopAnth, where she leads a team of editors to provide what John McCreery calls “mentor review.” A firm believer in the responsibility of academic disciplines to disseminate their knowledge, Erin is fond of irritating anthropologists with ideas from economics, and economists with ideas from anthropology. She is also a Research Fellow at the University of Lisbon in Portugal since June 2011, which she describes as “possibly the best career move ever.”

An increasing number of anthropologists recognize the value of making our writing public. We’re improving at both writing and dissemination, but we still have a long way to go. How can we get better at it?

Our reasons for wanting to go public vary. Some of us believe in open access principles. Others feel that disciplinary conversations should take place in the open. Many people use blogs and other Internet-based media to communicate with other anthropologists, and there are increasingly more of us who are interested in outreach to the general public.

However, a lot of our public writing efforts fall short of the mark. We publish without having a clear idea of what audiences we’re aiming for. We struggle to shake off an academic writing style that alienates all but the initiated. We don’t know how to get published on anything other than our own blog or an anthropology website. We lack contacts with journalists, radio producers, and other gatekeepers who can help us disseminate our ideas.

We can do better than this.

All of the knowledge, connections, and experience we need already exists within our own extended anthropological family. But it’s hard to find. It takes a lot of work for all of us individually to find someone experienced to give us feedback on our writing, figure out where to pitch our work, and to know the best ways to disseminate it.

We can take down a lot of these barriers to better public writing by building a tighter-knit network of anthropologists who are interested in public dissemination. The fewer  degrees of separation there are between us, and the more that information flows, the easier it is to find what we need to improve our work.

But how?

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What everyone can do

We can assist in small, yet effective, ways by familiarizing ourselves with what’s out there and disseminating each other’s work. Did you just stumble across a fascinating article by an anthropologist in The Guardian or The Conversation? Share it via your social media and networks. Did your colleague write a really evocative piece on their own website? Send it around.

If you think this sounds too piecemeal, you don’t know how social media work. Things get noticed in places you’d least expect, sometimes leading to bigger things. Producers and journalists are always on the lookout for new stories and will get in touch if something floats their boat.

You can also help by commenting on the articles you read, either on the websites where they were originally posted or on social media. Don’t be afraid to say what you think. Feedback, whether glowing praise or constructive criticism, encourages authors to write more.

How to find this work? You could start by mining Jason Antrosio’s list of anthropology blogs , a list he updates every year. For anthropology in the news, the best source is anthropologyworks.

To find articles published in a wide range of venues, check out PopAnth’s social media accounts (such as PopAnth on Twitter), as we regularly post links to articles that are by anthropologists or which mention them. You can also download the booklet we produced for the AAA meetings in 2014, Showcasing Popular Anthropology.

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What individual bloggers can do

Blogging on your own website is a great way to get started. But why not also write for some of the great group blogs and websites out there? Savage Minds, PopAnth, Allegra Laboratory, the AAA’s blog on The Huffington Post, and many others stand ready to publish your work. The editors at PopAnth will spend time helping you to get it into shape (what John McCreery calls “mentor review”). It’s not as scary as you may think.

When individuals stand up and contribute it is good for everyone. You get help and publicity. Group blogs grow. Everyone learns how to write better. Networks shrink and help becomes easier to find.

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What group blogs and websites can do

Those of us who run group blogs and websites can benefit by actively supporting one another’s initiatives. We’re clearly not in competition: there still aren’t very many of us, and we all do different things.

Sites like Savage Minds and the Open Anthropology Cooperative play an outstanding role helping anthropologists communicate with each other. PopAnth is oriented squarely towards the general public, not to anthropologists. Allegra Laboratory sits somewhere in-between: for anthropologists but open to our supporters as well. Ethnography Matters reaches out across the disciplines.

My opinion is that we should be actively trying to forge links, cross-produce, and cross-promote. A great way to strengthen our ties would be for us to write for each other. In becoming familiar with each other’s operating procedures, we might spot ways to do things better ourselves. Once we’re well-connected, we can share resources to help our writers, tools to build better sites, social media know-how, and so on.

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What departments and institutions can do

Stop penalizing staff for spending time writing short articles. You are simply stalling an inevitable process. Figure out ways to credit academics for the time they spend doing public outreach work. Encourage staff and students to write for the public by providing them with support and information. Be proud of their work and make it a feature of your websites. There’s more to publishing than peer-reviewed articles that few people actually read. Short, accessible pieces permit a greater diversity of styles, voices, and conversations.

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Out of the ivory tower, out of the garret

What I’m suggesting takes very little work. It doesn’t require long conversations or complicated working groups. It just requires people who already recognise the value of dissemination to spend a little more time – even a few minutes per week – contributing in whatever way suits you.

If you’re unsure how, ask someone. Those of us who do public outreach are generally community-minded by definition and will help you. There is simply no reason to fight your way out of the ivory tower, only to be stuck in the isolation of the artist’s garret, working alone as you were before. A world of public anthropology awaits.

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

5 thoughts on “Putting on our public face: How can anthropologists get better at it?

  1. Re “mentor review.” . Put down is not the purpose. Neither is gatekeeping. Like most public-facing outlets for your writing, PopAnth is always looking for new material. You will not be offered this service unless the editors already like what you have written. We provide feedback. Our Holy Grail is to move whatever you have written from good to great.

  2. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is publishing articles or op-eds in newspapers and magazines. Not only would this help improve the image of anthropology, but if it were something we were more effectively trained to do it could help those of us on the edges of academia to supplement our near-poverty level incomes.

    I’ve submitted a few things to magazines and articles but was quickly rejected. Part of it was that I didn’t know where to submit. I know about the big publications, but those places get a high volume of submissions and my little contribution would never get noticed. Figuring out how to identify potential venues for our work is one thing that might help.

    Another issue was obviously the academic quality of my writing. I’ve been disciplined to write this way even though I blog regularly and do everything I can to make my writing accessible. Having some guidance on writing for public audiences would be helpful too.

    I’ve been following Carole’s writing workshops on here, and they’ve been helpful. Maybe it would be good to have one specifically geared to writing for publics and getting professional journalists and op-ed writers to contribute and offer advice. Maybe the AAA, SfAA and other professional organizations – or even the OAC – could host workshops on writing and publishing op-eds, in which the participants actually write a short piece and have it reviewed and critiqued and then try to find a venue for publication.

    Those are just some of my ideas on the issue. I’d be interested in hearing from others who have suggestions or other ways to help us all figure out how to write and publish better.

  3. Thanks John. By the way, everyone, I’m currently in charge of social media for both PopAnth and the OAC, so if you want us to share stuff, just send it along. I don’t always see stuff on social media but you can email me, erin@popanth.com

  4. Jeremy, one thing that might be helpful is checking out sources like Writer’s Digest [http://www.writersdigest.com]. Another good place to start is John Scalzi’s Utterly Useless Writing Advice [http://whatever.scalzi.com/2004/12/17/john-scalzis-utterly-useless-writing-advice/]. Scalzi is a pro, not only a successful author of Science Fiction, but also a writer who makes a comfortable living writing in a variety of non-fiction genres. He is utterly candid, and what he says rings very true to me.

  5. Jeremy, I agree, there needs to be materials available to help anthropologists with their public writing and to learn how to get published. PopAnth gives general guidelines on our submissions page for de-academicizing writing but nothing in depth. But there are a few anthropologists who have worked on parts of this issue in the past. Agustín Fuentes and a few others ran mentoring through the AAA website, but I think it’s defunct now (?). Paul Stoller ran a writing workshop at the AAAs last year. There are numerous anthropologists with regular columns, they clearly know how to write! It would be good to bring all these experts together. Maybe do an interview series asking them how they got started, etc?

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