Going Public

I’m coming to the end of what has been a very busy semester, during which I haven’t written much for this blog. In the brief lull, while students are working on their final projects but before they turn them in to be graded, I wanted to share some brief comments about public writing. This week I published an op ed in the Orlando Sentinel, celebrating Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. As it turns out, more people read the Sentinel than read Victorian Periodicals Review or the Journal of Narrative Theory. (Or maybe they’re just more likely to email the author). A few students and several members of my department commented on the piece (one shared it with his class), and I got a touching note from the Rabbi at my wife’s synagogue. But more surprising were the notes from local Orlandoans, or other local organizations putting on Shakespearean birthday celebrations.

Now, most days one wouldn’t find me claiming expertise about Shakespeare. My professional academic focus lies in other areas. But the audience for close readings of Maria Edgeworth’s children’s tales is small so I, like everyone else, branch out. In this case I was linking Shakespeare to the need for the humanities, a subject that I care about a lot — which I’d better, give my chosen career. Publishing in a venue like the Sentinel gives me a chance to have, with a larger audience, the kind of conversation I have so often with my students. (And in this case, the germ for the piece was a close reading of a King Lear passage I used in a mini-lecture earlier this semester).

And here’s where I think form meets content. Until I went to a seminar last spring, about writing op eds, it had never occurred to me to submit one. It should have. People do care about the humanities, and humanities teachers are well-placed to share what we know. Literary studies is a profession, and of course our first obligation is to produce the scholarship we’re trained to produce. But sometimes we forget that this scholarship doesn’t exist in a vacuum — this is especially true, I think, for early-career scholars like me. I wouldn’t advise anyone to spend too much time writing for local newspapers at the expense of professional work, but when one’s teaching and/or scholarship intersect with public events (even birthdays), a half-afternoon’s work can go a long way. It’s rewarding, for different reasons, and does the important work of communicating outside the academy.

I have another public presentation coming up in August: when I get back from the NEH seminar on Charles Dickens, I’ll take part in the Orlando Public Library’s series of events celebrating the novelist. I’m looking forward to sharing my work with a more intellectually diverse audience then I might encounter at a professional conference.

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