“Writing Longhand” by R. Crap Mariner on Flikr
As with any new WordPress blog, the first post you see when you load it up for the first time is the ubiquitous “Hello World” post. I’m thinking of leaving that post on my blog as I write this. Not to indicate a lack of familiarity with how to edit a blog, or to demonstrate a lack of professionalism, or a sort of ambivalence to blogging, but rather, because that phrase sums up an insecurity that I think we all have regarding public writing and public scholarship in particular.
As students, and later as scholars, we’re used to completing scholarly writing for a specific, and often limited audience. We’re accustomed to subduing our own personal voice, using it only when necessary, in favor of a discipline specific academic voice. We write for the eyes of our instructors or peer reviewers, or committees but not for an unknowable audience in the world at large. We may hope that our work is eventually read by many people, but the reality of even most academic publishing is that it is very niche at best. A small audience, if we expect one at all.
“Hello World” disrupts this idea. While the truth is that most blogs are hard to find and will not be read by a mass audience, the very act of blogging means that we are forced to consider the possibility that it might be.
“Hello World” – means anyone in the world could read this.
“Hello World” – means I can no longer cling to the security blanket of jargon and academese.
“Hello World” – means I put my ideas out there to be interrogated in ways that I didn’t expect.
“Hello World” – is bigger than I am, and makes me feel vulnerable.
Engaging in public scholarship means we must, as academics, adjust. We must make the product of our labor more accessible to more people. We must learn a new language of writing and thinking-through. Some worry that this entails a dumbing down of ideas, but the challenge is to simplify complex ideas without dumbing them down. Perhaps we worry about our abilities to do this effectively.
For my students, I want this post to be instructive. I want you to be able to know that your instructor feels the same insecurities that you do when we put pen to paper. It’s difficult to write “Hello World” and put your ideas out to the unknowable audience, particularly when you’re still working on forming those ideas. But I also want you to know that at the very heart of this insecurity lies the great potential of public scholarship. By making ourselves vulnerable in this way and putting our nascent ideas into the world, we can share those ideas with people who will never have access to academic journals. We can invite people from outside the academy to help us make our ideas better. And finally, we can begin to find our communities of practice through which we can learn and grow. This is the best of what public scholarship offers, and it is the world which I hope to say “Hello!” to as I write in public.