The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated November 17, 2000


Owing a Written Explanation to the Widest Possible Audience

A few years ago, I received a call from the program director for biological anthropology at the National Science Foundation. Hmm, I thought, maybe he wants to throw some money my way. It was more likely, of course, that he wanted me to review a grant application. I was surprised to learn that neither of those possibilities had prompted his call.

"As you may know," he began, "John Mitani, of the University of Michigan, has just received an N.S.F. Presidential Faculty Fellow Grant, and he's the only social scientist to receive the award this year." Mitani is an old friend and a fine scientist, and I was very happy for him. But what did this have to do with me? "We thought you might be willing to write something about Mitani's work, get the word out into the popular press."

"I'll see what I can do," I responded, happy to think about where I might sell an article about Mitani's work. But I was also stunned -- the director was interested in me not as an anthropologist or a scientist, but as a writer. Clearly, the conversation was a sign that I had crossed the line from traditional academic to science journalist.

I have been writing about science for a general audience for more than 10 years. I began because the academic job market was tight, and I needed the money. But I very quickly discovered that I loved working in the format, translating often difficult science into articles that almost any reader could understand. For the first few years, I did academic writing as well as journalism, but in the past five years or so the journalism has taken over. I now work only half-time at Cornell University, where I teach biological anthropology, so that I can write more. Such is the seduction of the popular media, at least for me.

Not everyone wants to write for a general audience, and not everyone can do it well. But clearly, there is a place in the academy for those who can. From a college's point of view, it is important to disseminate faculty research broadly. Many grantmaking agencies depend at least to a degree on public support for research, which means that telling the public about your professors' useful research makes it more likely that your institution will get grants. Public support increases legislators' enthusiasm for public institutions, too.

For the individual scholar, translating academic jargon into language comprehensible to those beyond your immediate field is a humbling experience. It makes you realize how far your work is from real life, and how difficult it is to convince people that what you do is interesting and worthwhile. Using accessible language also makes academe a more user-friendly place, allowing professors and students in other fields to understand what is going on in unfamiliar disciplines.

If we take an even broader perspective, we see that as scholars, we also owe an explanation -- one that just about anyone can understand -- to a wide audience. If the purpose of academic research is to contribute to human knowledge, presumably for the greater good, then that research should be accessible to everyone.

I happen to come from a discipline -- anthropology -- that has a long history of communicating to the public. Think of Margaret Mead, Jane Goodall, and Donald Johanson. Anthropological subjects have a natural appeal; it's a lot easier to capture an audience with descriptions of chimpanzee behavior or stories of our ancient ancestors than it is with, say, work in molecular biology. That makes it easy to sell stories about anthropology to magazines and newspapers.

More compelling, at least for me, is the fact that I am excited about most of the research I write about -- my own as well as that of other people. I find it's just plain fun to share what I have learned with others.

Robert Sapolsky, of Stanford University, who writes frequently for magazines including Discover and The Sciences on the physiology of stress, once mentioned another motivation to me: "It's so fast, and the results appear in a magazine in a few months. This kind of writing is in such contrast to my research, which takes forever." In other words, magazine writing can be a good way to reach a satisfying conclusion in the midst of a project that seems endless.

Popular writing can also be a way to enrich your knowledge beyond the confines of your own field. These days, I write mostly about other people's work, and because I have to explain their ideas and methodology in detail, I have to know a great deal about their subjects. This year, for example, I wrote a piece for Discover on Mark Flinn, of the University of Missouri at Columbia, and his work on children and stress. Suddenly I had to learn about the physiology of stress, how stress affects growth during childhood, and the various theories that Flinn uses to explain how family trauma harms kids. For a few months, I was almost as involved in Flinn's work as he was, and I can now explain it to just about anybody.

More important, I use my new knowledge in my teaching. One tenet of academe is that research informs teaching. Scholars doing research are actively engaged in the literature of their field, and presumably that engagement spills over into their interactions with students.

The same is true when I am writing a popular story about someone else's work. In the past year, I have written about chimpanzee cultures, the biology of menstruation and cultural approaches to it, kinship in Africa, and the genetics of flowers, as well as childhood stress. I knew little about any of those subjects before I worked on the magazine articles, yet each topic has filtered into my classroom teaching in one way or another. I may not be rooted in a research project of my own, but I am certainly well informed about many others.

There are, of course, tradeoffs when you take the popular path. Some colleagues think of that kind of writing as fluff, because they feel it is superficial and free of the rigors of peer review -- which is why popular writing doesn't count toward tenure. Those with such an attitude obviously haven't experienced the tyranny of a magazine editor or the scrutiny of a fact checker.

More significant, when you sell a story to a magazine or sign a book contract with a commercial publisher, you lose some of the control over your writing that most academics are used to. That can be frightening to a scholar who feels that every word is sacred.

On the other hand, good commercial editors are worth their weight in gold, and most of the time they improve the writing and the story; loss of control becomes a gain.

I know this from personal experience. The first book I wrote was published by an academic press with essentially no editing, and it shows. My other two books, products of a commercial publisher, were examined sentence by sentence by an excellent editor -- because the commercial publisher had a lot more money at stake. As a result, both are better books than the first one.

We live in a culture of information. Magazines, books, television, radio, the Internet. Words, stories, essays, sound bites. As academics, we are in the business of producing much of that information. Explaining what we have learned to the public should be a natural part of our job.

Meredith F. Small is a writer and a professor of anthropology at Cornell University. Her most recent book is Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent (Anchor Books, 1998).

The Chronicle of Higher Education

November 17, 2000
Section: The Chronicle Review
Page: B5