Last year, I convened a conversation among women scholars about self-presentation in the public sphere. After that, I was interested in expanding that conversation to speak a bit more broadly about gender, race, sexuality, and public writing with a slightly reconfigured group of discussants. I was also interested in thinking through the citational and professional inequalities in academia. These inequalities develop from a more baseline structural inequality, but their forms are various and changeable. And people do a lot of mental gymnastics to absolve themselves of responsibility. If, for example, you are in conversation with or reflecting on the writing of a woman or POC that you neglect to cite, you are part of the problem. If you routinely highlight your engagement with theorists and not fellow critics, you are part of the problem. If you have a brilliant idea but fail to check to see if your idea may already be percolating in the academic agar, you are part of the problem. If you are reluctant to share praise with the women and POC with whom you are in conversation, you are part of the problem. If you are quick to ask women and POC to do the work of organizing events, scheduling meetings, and talking problems through with students, you are part of the problem.

In this roundtable, I asked discussants to think about their workflows and the structural limitations on their thinking and writing. How can we be scholarly in a public sphere that moves so fast and that seems to condense discussion into soundbites? For the purposes of this conversation, I asked each discussant to introduce themself briefly.

I'm Claire Jarvis, I was a professor until recently, and I'm working on new writing outside the academy. I have two children under three and even with (very newly begun!) childcare I'm spending a lot of time catching up in the little gaps I have when my baby naps. I was getting really frustrated with the limited time I had to work before beginning my toddler in nursery school this month, so I'm feeling out the new schedule with a mixture of trepidation and relief. The biggest challenge for me is that I'm trying to do more reviewing but I have very limited reading time. No one really talks about reading, just the stress of writing, but, for me, the reading is more challenging right now. I find it so draining and time-consuming, and I'm not sure where to get the time to do that kind of immersive work. I am constantly trying to get enough sleep, and I could do with not mainlining coffee quite so dramatically. I am grateful for my family, a family I never thought I'd have, but I am so tired all the time. OK! Now you! I am working on a project I began literally before my baby was born, so please let me feel some commiseration that time is absolute garbage!

I'm Rahne Alexander. I'm an artist, performer, and writer. This year I've finally returned to the academy after a very long hiatus, pursuing an MFA in digital arts at University of Maryland Baltimore County. I will graduate from this program thirty years after completing my BA, which is wild. I'm a trans woman, who has relatively recently completed my medical transition, and this life experience underpins every aspect of my work. I see little separation between my art work, my political work, and my domestic/social/emotional labor. I've identified as a radical feminist since the second semester of my undergraduate career, and I'm really grateful for the political tools the feminist academy provided me in those years as I was finding myselfeven as many of those same feminist academics rejected me and my kind outright. I got to meet Mary Daly face to face, for instance, and that went about as well as you might imagine. In the years between undergraduate and now, I've hung out on the academic periphery, taking classes here and there, guest lecturing in friends' classes and symposia, reading critical theory for fun, that sort of thing. But a number of factors kept me from pursuing graduate study: poverty, student debt, a sense that I loved the academy more than it would ever love me. Transition was hard and expensive, much like grad school; and as I completed that process, I began to think about what would come next, and here we are. I think we're in a very strange time regarding feminist discourse, and it's a special challenge to inhabit my particular political position. Academic and radical feminism gave me so many survival skills, especially Sonia Johnson and the French Feminists and every contributor to This Bridge Called My Back, and my commitment to the cause informed my transition. I recall a great breakthrough on my dorm room bed, sometime in my sophomore year of college, realizing I had a unique opportunity offered to me: if I had the ability to choose to transition and become a woman, I also had the ability to choose what kind of woman I could become. Which meant that I could, and should, choose to become a feminist woman. I think about epistemological moments like this a lot, and I have always been interested in the question of gender epistemology. How exactly do I know myself to be female, even when there was persistent and compelling evidence to the contrary? How does anyone really know what gender or sex they are? I've belabored this question forever, and probably always will. I also love puns and potty humor.

I'm Cameron Awkward-Rich, (newly) an assistant professor of women/gender/sexuality studies at a public research university. I'm also a poet, which is how most of my thinking/writing circulates, though in the interest of keeping my job I am working on shifting the balance. I suppose I'm still suffused with that newly tenure track amidst the ruins feelingthat particular mix of guilt, dread, bewilderment, and dizzy gratitude about having found myself, yet again, in the position of being paid to read, to write/talk about what I read, to devise reading lists, to read student papers and push them to be better readers of their own work and others'. And while I know that this feelingbeing thrilled to have the chance to do the work I was trained to do!is a sign of something terribly, structurally wrong, I intend to bask in it while it lasts.

I'm Sarah Blackwood, and I am an associate professor of English at a small urban university that has no endowment (there's no money for anything, ever), a ton of service requirements, and a relatively (but not totally onerous) heavy teaching load. Most of our students are first generation college students and I love, love, love teaching them. In addition to scholarship (mostly on c19 visual culture and also Henry James womp womp), I write a fair amount for non-academic audiences. In graduate school, I wrote TV recaps for Television Without Pity (pseudonymously), and since then have written a lot (personal essays, cultural criticism, book reviews) for lots of different places online, and co-founded and co-edit Avidly and the Avidly Reads book series with Sarah Mesle. Depending on the day you ask, I'd say I prefer writing for the "public" or...I'd say the complete opposite, ha. I definitely prefer being paid for my writing than the noblesse oblige bullshit of the academy. I have two kids, who are now seven and five, who nearly killed me to conceive, gestate, and give birth to across a decade but HEY past that now (right?), so while I still feel overwhelmed by the ridiculous impossibility of balancing work and parenting, it's definitely eased up now that they are both safely in the arms of the state. Last year I wrote a proposal for a trade book about motherhood and literary history but it didn't sell, which was sad and pretty painful. But I'm working through it! And regrouping now with my wonderful agent, trying to figure out what direction to take my writing next.

Greetings! I'm Tara Bynum and I'm an assistant professor at Hampshire College. I know this question seems to have an obvious set of answers but I must admit I haven't thought about them for real before. I almost want to say I don't know what my relation to my intellectual labor is. I read. I write. I teach. And maybe not always in this particular order. I do my work and I ask my students to do their work. I know to value this work, but the intellectual part doesn't quite feel laborious. It's what I enjoy most and despite the difficulties of writing and thinking, it's fun for me even when the everyday living feels like a bore or a chore. Maybe that's my relationship to it then, I think thinking is fun and it gives my mind something active and, at times, productive to do.

I'm Jane Hu, an English PhD candidate with a minor in Film & Media studies. Sometimes, I freelance and write film/TV/book reviews online, and this is where I get maybe 15% of my income. The other 3% comes from odd jobs like dogsitting and the like. I live in the Bay Area, where it's impossibly expensive to live, and with each subsequent year of grad school (I'm currently in my fifth), I'm forced to reevaluate the literal costs and labors of being an academic under current market conditions. I spend more and more of my time thinking about how I can pick up gigs to keep paying Bay Area rent, and less and less time thinking about my own scholarship. And between teaching a reading & comp class and freelancing/conferences, I have made minimal progress on my diss this semester, which I'm hoping to turn around in the next. As a woman of color and international student, I've also tried to foster communities for grads who feel, in different ways, alienated inside the institution (not to mention this country at this time!), but that takes its tolls too. Until this year, I had been working in co-organizing an English Grad Student of Color Coalition group, but that service work hasn't continued into the current semester, and while that doesn't feel very positive, it's also the kind of service work that gets harder and harder to do as the tasks pile up. It is the work I want to do, but I don't know how to fit it in when I haven't made any progress on the diss that is supposed to get me a job! Writing publicly is a source of income, but it's also a source of community, and that has often kept me afloat when feeling otherwise disoriented.

I'm Sarah Mesle! I'm Assistant Professor (Teaching) of Writing at USC, and Senior Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and, like Sarah B says, the co-editor of Avidly and Avidly Reads. So in a way, I spend most of my professional and intellectual time thinking about and guiding other people through their intellectual labor, and it has been a pleasure to discover that I both love and am good at this. This feels like serious work to me and I'll just flagSarah has written about this beautifullythat this work is of the kind that academia both highly values and does not really know how to value, and that means that it has been a process, with a lot of collateral damage along the way, to learn how to value it myself. But these days, I'm pretty into it! I'm also in the strange position of really enjoying writing but not being required to do any, and so that does mean that writing goes by the wayside more often, I think, than I'd like. But the future feels wide. My kids are eight and twelve and make their own breakfasts and like to sort of sit near me while they read. I get enough sleep and that makes the mind possible!

Hello! I'm Kathryn VanArendonk. I got an English PhD a few years ago and half fell into, half chose a non-academic route when I graduatedI had a three-month-old baby when I defended my dissertation and wasn't willing to do a national job search (my spouse has a good job with health insurance!), so my choice was essentially made for me. I'm very lucky, though; there is a tenuous, bad market for TV recaps but it's better than the academic market, and I had some outlets where I could place freelance writing while in the midst of new babydom. I now have a job that I love as a full-time staff writer/TV critic that lets me keep grappling with a lot of the ideas and texts I loved as a grad student. And I get paid! I make essentially nothing after I factor in childcare, but that's workable for us, at least temporarily (see: spouse's good job, my wild level of privilege). For me, what that means is figuring out what public writing versus academic writing looks like, with all the attendant implications of snappy fast arguments, humor, speed, and timely relevance. Plus also having two young kids. And, you know, having idiots come yell at me in comments sections.

CJ: Claire Jarvis

RA: Rahne Alexander

CAR: Cameron Awkward-Rich

SB: Sarah Blackwood

TB: Tara Bynum

JH: Jane Hu

SM: Sarah Mesle

KVA: Kathryn VanArendonk

1) At the risk of speaking plainly, are women treated differently from men when they write personally?

CJ: I'm still thinking of Andrea Long Chu's personal essay in the New York Times last year. On the one hand, a lot of the responses to the essay seemed to highlight how her particular telling of her transition story gives anti-trans activists fodder to advance their positions. But on the other hand, the baseline point of her essay seemed to me to be: trans women are also allowed to be a mess! We live in a cultural moment that leans on the project of the essay as a way of unfolding the subject into a new order of being, or a new (more whole? more positive, for sure) relation to the world.

One thing that has stuck with me since I read it is an essay by Merve Emre about gender and the personal essay, in which she argues against the exploitation she sees in the personal essay, which depends on women and POC exposing their vulnerabilities in graphic (grotesque?) detail to make a political point. I don't entirely want to rehash the various debates around Chu's essay, but I would like to think about Chu's self-revelation in relation to Emre's point about exploitation. What kind of exploitation is too much? Do women (and perhaps marginalized women most of all) owe it to their communities to dig in on behalf of the progressive model of selfhoodthat only by addressing trauma and moving beyond it (i.e., by publishing careful essays that show how they moved from point a to point b) can the person be integrated into a thoughtful, engaged subject. Now, to me, this sounds a lot like a Foucauldian subject formation, which doesn't always end well, as we know. A shorter way of asking this is: has the cultural dominance of the "coming out" narrative (as queer, as a woman or man, as, god, a mother...or a neurotic?) fucked up our ability to live messy lives?

CAR: My gut reaction is: when were "we" able to live messy lives? It seems to me that Chu's ability to publish that op-ed and to get the care she wants despite her recalcitrant sorrow / unwillingness to perform anything other than ordinary, messy humanity (as well as the sheer publicness of trans twitter's equally messy response to the essay) would suggest that, actually, certain trans people are more able to live publicly messy lives than ever before. To live public lives at all! That is, what's new about Chu's narrative of trans pain that does not get better is not its content (the essay often credited with inaugurating trans studies is literally a call for less gatekeeping and more and more messy trans narratives!), but rather its audience, the fact that the essay doesn't really even have to pretend to imagine that it is addressing other trans people (which is really what I think is the heart of the problem). Also, I think there is a distinction to be made between living a life and narrating a life, though that doesn't change my gut feeling.

SB: Cameron, I love that final point about the difference between living a life and narrating a life. People forget that all the time. The thing that intercedes is literary craft. So while it's true that a lot of contemporary personal writing just isn't good (doesn't show a lot of historical consciousness or depth of reading), I don't think that means it's exploitative. Likewise, I'm not sure that narratives of selfhood are something worthwhile to push back on; first of all, it's a losing game, have you met people?! And second: screw renunciation! I say: more and more narratives of selfhood, abundant choices, good and bad shit, lots and lots of different kinds of arcs.

SM: Here's a sad thing: this year I made the conscious choice to teach primarily writing by women. And, especially when the writing by women was about being a woman, many of my smartest young women students were really hard on it. I have been thinking about this. It makes me realize that students just are not practiced at being asked to look at the world through women's perspectives. In most of our storiesour blockbusters, for examplefor many years, women have not been real, they have been fantasies, objects of rescue or of strong women characters or whatever. So when a woman shows up who is textured and not expecting to be universalized, women readers can take the difference personally, rather than recognizing that the personal voice is in fact not trying to speak for them. On the flip side, though, many women writersconditioned by storiesdo universalize their personal textures. (Sarah B helped me see how this move crimped Chu's essay, for instance.) So I guess I will say: yes, despite the rich history of women's memoir, women as readers and writers are still learning how to toggle between the personal and generalizable versions of ourselves, and this learning means, often, a lot of judgment enacted in various ways: shunning, wagon circling, back channeling. These themselves can be meaningful forms of coming to understanding. But there is a roughness to them.

TB: Sarah, your point has me wondering. I taught a course on black culture recently in which I, very intentionally, only taught worksbroadly definedby black women. I wanted us to look together at the various ways black women make and think about and through black culture. We watched Dr. Brittney Cooper's TEDWomen talk on the "racial politics of time" and, while thinking about time, I posed a "where" questionif not in time, where are black women? It seemed weird to me that there was no clear answer in our class discussion. So, almost every class thereafter, I would ask students againwhere were or are the black women?in the assigned readings and in their (my students') minds. There was rarely a clear response. At some point, I directed them to think literally and there was no clear response; even our classroom was never an answer and there were literally black womenwho identified as suchin the classroom; they continued to ask it, too, to each other and I'm not sure I ever heard a cogent answer.

I was struck by what I might understand to be a collective inability to answer the question, again and again. It made me wonder how they've learned to imagine or place black women (and themselves) in time. It makes me wonder: where have the voices of women and, in particular, black women goneat least, when I think about my students. I, at the very least, have some idea of where they are even if that just means I try to know where I am.

SB: Sarah and Tara, those are both interesting classroom experiments. My cis women students are also often very hard on the women characters and personas they encounter in their texts. (I was almost in tears last week deeply defending Olive Chancellor to them!!). My sense in my own classrooms is that it's painful for them to acknowledge how hard life still is for women. They are young, they want to believe they won't get caught, that they stand outside of patriarchy somehow, that feminism has done most of the heavy lifting, that they will somewhat easily find satisfaction in work and romance. But, the books and essays and articles show them how false this optimism is, and I think they often turn to critique to lessen the pain of that recognition.

RA: Yes, of course women's personal writing is treated differently, but I also think that women tend to approach personal writing with a different complex of feelings than men do. I've written a lot of personal essays focused on my trans experience, and I usually worry less about the ways that that form exploits me than I do about how it exploits others in the story. My family, in particular. And while I've always had a relatively contentious relationship with my family, I still concern myself with how they're going to feel and respond if and when I write about what happened to me.

I spent a lot of my young life very sad that I wasn't going to be able to escape the fact that I'm trans in my art or writing, not recognizing that my own journey was as interesting, as valid and universalizable as, say, Hemingway in Spain. Was he exploiting his life? Sure, but is he ever scolded for doing so?

Speaking of scolding, the Chu essay kind of broke me for a number of reasons. I found her positioning of happiness as a teleological transition goal to be sloppy and insulting when there is plenty of trans writing out there that addresses the fact that surgery doesn't de facto make you a happy trans person. There is this tendency from the mainstream press to allow trans women in particular to get a platform when it's time to talk about what we're about to do (get a surgery, start a hormone, go to the passport office, reinvent the wheel), but when it comes to talking about maintenance and survivalbecoming old women, which as we know is not interesting to the marketplacethere's silence, and I feel that more and more as time goes on. If I might borrow the phrase, if not in time, where are trans women?

I think about this a lot, how we who are trans-identified in Western culture are caught in a historical moment, especially those of us from ethnic (white) backgrounds that have successfully cleansed their histories of non-binary identities to such a great extent that a lot of us have few other "traditions" to fall back on apart from the medical transition path. I'm personally fine with my medical transition; it was good for me. And yet I'm left to wonder how I might think about myself and my body and my relationship to feminist politics had I come along 20 years later? We'll never know.

CAR: Rahne, because you've circled back to Chu's essay, I just wanted to say that what you bring up herethat there is so much trans writing that addresses the fact that medical transition doesn't and can't fulfill the promise of happinessdovetails with my feeling that the larger take up of Chu as a "new" "refreshing" voice in trans cultural criticism, among many academics, in particular, signals a willed failure to engage with trans thought more generally. Don't get me wrong, I think Chu deserves the attention she has worked to get, is better at the genres that the internet requires than most, and is very often right. Still, it often feels like she is writing for a cis reading public, and other trans people are simply overhearing that conversation. I don't think that marginalized folks ought to be required to write with each other in mind, but I often do wonder whether that cis reading public would be as into Chu-in-conversation-with-other-trans-cultural-critics as they are into Chu-alone. My guess is no, which is not her fault, but is telling.

JH: This discussion dovetails with some things I've been thinking about since the release of the 2019 Pen Award for the Art of the Essay longlist. I'm interested in the essay form and I'm also interested in prize culture, and, as you can see, a lot of the longlist this year might be broadly described as "racially politicized essay collections." Thispaired with the fact that Jenny Zhang's semi-autobiographical Sour Heart won last year's PEN prize for debut short fictionmakes me wonder what contemporary American readers want or expect from personal writing. Is the essay form currently valued as a vehicle for argument, for polemics, or for a way to understand "otherness," broadly construed? If the last is the case, maybe messiness (whatever we might understand that to be) is more the mainstream now? A kind of messiness sells!

But, also, I think we should acknowledge what it means to be publishing something like Chu's piece in the New York Times. I've personally never published in the Times, but just to take a step back and understand the kind of editorial and institutional context any "personal" writing takes once placed under a publication's banner seems important.


2) To continue the line from the last question, are women treated differently from men when they engage with theoretical or analytical topics?

CAR: Sorry to be that guy, but I have to register my worry about the ease of the gender binary. Because it seems to me that black men's feelings, for example, are not often taken to be reasons. In fact, their feelings are often not taken to even be feelings proper, if we think about feeling as, like, a form of responsiveness to the world. This is even more deeply true for black women, of course, but this seems like an issue of magnitude, not inversion? I don't know, I don't have specific examples of how this plays out in public writing, but I'm primed to be thinking this way because I have been (theoretically) putting the final touches on my next poetry collection, whose epigraph is taken from Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia: "Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?"

CJ: You're right, maleness and whiteness carry different kinds of authority that mean women and POC are often held accountable for "feelings" not "reasons." Yes. I am, however, going to push a bit moreI think masculinity holds a particular power in the world of written expression, particularly around personal writing. I do not think men, especially white men, are asked to think through their reasons in a personal way. I am interested in how women dominate the form of the intellectual essay rooted in personal experience. And although I think men of color (and especially Black men) are asked to present "personal" stories in their analytical work, those stories aren't presented or received as a form of slightly suspect vulnerability.

Is there a way that women writing about their experiences as bodies leads to a worry about exploitation and rationality-giving-way that doesn't happen when men do it?

TB: I love the eighteenth century and delight at every opportunity to tie anything to this periodpickled lobsters, anyone? Cameron, your epigraph from Jefferson's Notes still haunts a societal misunderstanding of black affect; somehow, black people just don't respond or feel rightly; feeling is figured as too much of somethingtoo angry, too loud, too [insert demonstrative adjective]. What I think is interesting, though, is what happens when black feeling, on the part of women or men, is not in conversation with white misreadings of black affect. Because I think it's important to note that there are times when black people are not thinking about how white people imagine or don't imagine their feelings. Even though there are spaces and times when white people aren't the subject of a black person's focus, I suspect black women are still considered too inappropriately demonstrative, while black men are allowed to feel and allowed to have those feelings serve as reasons or analysis.

CJ: Hey, Tara! I like the question you asked here"what happens when black feeling is not in conversation with white misreadings of black affect"one problem of the long afterlife of enslavement in the U.S. seems to be summed up in that: whiteness confers a cultural belief that one's readings of situations are correct, even when they're demonstrably not right, or that they are legitimate readings when they're actually misperceptions or refused perceptions.

I've been trying to think through what is happening in our wider culture where very explicit racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, and misogyny have become more widely, outwardly accepted than they were even five years ago. People with a sense of their own accurate perception find it confusing when they are told that, no, their perception is not right! People think because they don't perceive their racism, that anyone else's perception of it (or experience of it!) is wrong, touchy, all too sensitive. I mean, I grew up in the South, the exposure (or the fact of) of these ideologies isn't a new thing, but the discomfort people who adhere to these ideologies have with people who criticize them is startling to me. How to move forward, especially as writers and (many of you) educators?

CAR: Tara! Claire! Thank you for taking up my inelegant formulation and pushing me. I've found myself tangled up in knots lately, trying to think through some questions about blackness and trans/gender, and I find the language of black feeling/black gender "not in conversation with white misreadings" very helpful.

TB: Claire, I wish I had a magic 8-ball to figure out what's happening right now. How do we wrestle with the fact that people in those black and white Civil Rights Era photographs may still be living or only recently passed away? When I remember that lynching was an opportunity for community building and celebration in our recent past our present makes so much sense. I suspect that if the aforementioned people had to or have to face their misperception, they may have to face a set of questions that the nation isn't willing to facenamely, its violent and recent past. And if we do that, we, then, have to confront who we are, from whom we come and to whom we belong.


3) What do you wish you'd known about public writing before you did it?

CJ: That people I dislike will use it against me! I am thinking about the ways that some people sneer at public writing, especially online writing, as devoid of seriousness or finesse. I've written for a lot of different places, and my editing experiences with online publications have been among my most rigorous. Also, I think there is deep angst in a lot of scholarly writing that its production doesn't really matter: there is the palpable sense that one is writing for, like, four people, three of whom advised your dissertation. The problem of professionalization looms here, too: are people just writing in the hopes of getting or keeping a job?

It is also the case that academic circles still highlight work by men, especially straight white men, more than by women and people of color, as transformative or field-changing. I often wonder what would happen if we all went through our bibliographies and changed the gender make up of our references. What would happen!?

SM: Just chiming to say what we all know: that while, yes, academic circles highlight work by men, so do most of the public intellectual ones! In the last few years I've spent maybe not equal amounts of time in academic and let's say "para" academic or public critical spaces (literally in meetings and in email threads and so forth) but semi-equaland academia does NOT strike me as significantly worse. I guess here I'm tying the question at hand to some of the earlier ones about who gets to be taken seriously and in what ways and how: let's think about all the attention (editorial, readerly, writerly) to Knaussguard for instance. What does he have to worry about when he writes in public about his reasons and feelings? Apparently not "getting published," for one. Anyway!

JH: Seconding the point about rigorous editing for online pubs, Claire! If only I had such consistently good editing in academia! In terms of gendered biases in intellectual and theoretical writing, it gets a little messy for me, because a lot of writing becomes about anticipating how one might get gendered (or racially stereotyped), and proceeding accordingly.

But it's also dependent on the "content" of one's theory too, right? Like, I write about Orientalist aesthetics in my scholarship and, as far as I can tell, some of the most rigorous and theoretically complex work to come out on the topic is written by badass Asian women: Rey Chow, Mel Chen, Sianne Ngai. I guess just to reiterate that race obviously changes the equation. Don't get me started on tropes about Asian male feelings. (Cf. do they exist?)

SB: Oh god being edited by someone who is good at it AND gets paid for it is like: a complete dream? The dreamiest dream. So rigorous!! Every single argument we all are asked to read on a rotating 4-6-month basis about "academic writing" and jargon or whatever is completely, utterly, and fundamentally idiotic because nobody ever talks about the role of editing and how academic writing is rarely edited, start to finish, developmentally and by line. Peer review is not editing. And I just feel sad that the writing by the people who know the most about a topic is mostly left hanging in the wind; university press and journal editors are so overextended and unsupported and do their best (like in a book, you'll get one chapter really well-edited, but the rest are left to you or you have to hire an outside editor which: argh $$$$?!). Of course, journalism and media is also getting crunched with regard to editors now, too, which sucks and is a real, huge problem. We need editors!

CAR: I just laughed out loud in a coffee shop at "Every single argument we all are asked to read on a rotating 4-6-month basis about 'academic writing' and jargon or whatever is completely, utterly, and fundamentally idiotic because nobody ever talks about the role of editing and how academic writing is rarely edited"! Duplicated for emphasis, Sarah, because this is so so very true.

Something similar could be said about the fact that very few graduate or professional development programs are invested in teaching academics how to write in the first place! How devalued writing programs and the teaching of writing are! I get that most tenure-track and tenured faculty don't want to teach writing courses because they are labor-intensive and don't obviously further one's research agenda, but sometimes I suspect that the real reason no one wants to teach writing is that there is a pervasive fear among academics that we don't actually know how to writewe'd be exposed, the jig would be up!

Relatedly, going back to your question, Claire, one thing I'd wish I'd known before putting my work out there was how often high school and college students would email me, asking me for interpretations of my own poems, for biographical information, for my thoughts about xyz, for other kinds of intellectual and emotional labor...basically, to do their homework for them. It's mostly flattering and heartwarming and ego-fortifying, but seems also to speak to a failure to teach students the mechanics of basic research and literary interpretation? The difference between lit crit and journalism? I don't know, maybe I'm being too harshI mean, how great! That students are reading my work! That young people feel in community with contemporary writers rather than distanced from them!but I find it bewildering.

CJ: Poetry produces an intense cathexis in its readers, so I'm interested to hear you say more, Cam, about the contact you get, especially from younger students! That "do their homework for them" element is real! And yet, there is something about the porousness of cultural life right now. How crazy a student in a high school classroom can reach out and CONTACT us!

I also think you're right about the anxiety people have about knowing whether or not they can write. Part of that challenge, for me, is coming to academic prose through a strange pathvia poetryand then being plunged into the tail end of the theory wars of the last century. I remember vividly a grad school professor asking me, honestly and truthfully, whether or not English was my first language after a particularly garbled paper (probably about Henry James, Sarah B.). It took me until the end of writing my first book to feel like my prose became un-garbled. And now, I think one of my strengths as a writer is voice, but that's also something that is (often) an irritant in academic prose (and there's more to say about how a female voice is extra irritating to readers). Also, I do not like, and don't do, the posture of needless genuflection well, so Reviewer Two is always, always mad I didn't cite him or her. Oh well!

KVA: Just chiming in to say: being actually edited is the best. The best. EXCEPT, that is, for being rigorously fact-checked by a completely impartial third-party fact-checker, which seems like it should feel like a nightmarish invasion into your innermost thoughts, and actually feels like someone methodically going through and fixing every tiny hole in your personal armor. That is maybe even better than editing.

TB: Just to second, KVA's point. I hired a developmental editor for my book, and it was a wise decision. It was, in fact, the best ever.

CAR: Hm, that's interesting Claire, that a sideways path to academic writing made it more difficult for you. I think it was nearly the opposite for me! In particular, there was something about participating in poetry slams throughout grad school that seemed to make writing my dissertation relatively painless. Much slam poetry is not great, it's true, but I do think it is amazing practice for any kind of writing that requires distilling complexity and, like, gentle argument.

In fact, sometimes I fantasize about how much better conferences would be if participating in one season of a slam was a required part of grad school. Everyone would hate it, but it would be for the common good! Also, most messages I get from readers are from very kind (nearly always white) people who like this or that poem and want me to know; a handful of students with "I have to write this essay..." questions; every once in a while a young person who has been in some way moved by my work, which are always the best ones. I think what's most strange to me is not that students can reach out (I'm young enough to have lived my teen years online), but that they do. Porousness is a good word for it. But I also think it's related to the rise of horizontal celebrity, like the celebrity YouTuber phenomenon: a kind of shine that is not about distance from everyday life (Beyonce) but precisely about seeming to do everydayness exceptionally and in a way we can all aspire to and relate with.

CJ: I think reading in public should be a more central part of education. It insulates you from feeling too shamefaced about criticism! The performative element is like a nice thick coat of Tyvek!

RA: I've only gotten to work with a couple of really good editors in my time but it's such a treat. I'm such a brutal editor of my own work that it keeps me quiet, but I think that gets at the heart of the question for me: I have worried my whole life about speaking in public, worried that if I ever say or write anything I don't 100% believe that it's going to haunt me to my grave. I don't think I'll ever shake this feeling, even as I keep contributing to whatever tiny corner of public discourse I'm able to occupy. So maybe my real answer to this question is: "You're never not going to feel anxious about what you say in public, so just publish anyway."


4) What are the best ways to develop / realign / expand public intellectual conversations so that more voices are represented?

RA: Social media, particularly Twitter, has been helpful for me to find women of color, disabled activists, non-binary activistspeople that I have historically not had a great deal of direct personal exposure to, but who have similar political needsand I feel like I've learned so much and unlearned so much because of this exposure.

It's basically a cliché that the way to empower marginalized voices is to amplify them, but it's a cliché because it's true. I decided a long while ago, for instance, that even though I've developed the skillset that could make me a pretty good Executive Director of a trans organization, I don't want to do that because, as marginalized as trans women are, the world doesn't need another white trans ED more than it needs a Black trans ED. A few years ago, I was in charge of booking the speakers for a national trans conference, and I was given the greenlight to book whoever I wanted. I went in with the singular goal of making sure that the majority of the speakers were POC. At one point during the run of that conference, one person thanked me and told me that I had really raised the bar for that event. This was a great compliment, of course, but it meant more to me that he felt that something had shifted just by making one simple curatorial choice.

SB: I agree, Rahne. I don't want to speak for Sarah M, but in our work editing Avidly, we think about all this a lot: whose voice do we need here? Do we need to know what Žižek thinks about, well, anything? No, we do not. So editing is one place that expansion can happen, a little bit invisibly.

Alsoand this is somewhat related to the trivial humor question belowAvidly has continued chugging along publishing essays about romantic comedies and other "slight" cultural forms even as the entire world burns down. We talk about this with each other a lot! And it isn't an unvexed question: whither the romantic comedy in the age of catastrophic climate change? I don't know the answer, but I do know that the cultural stuff coded "woman" is the first to go in dystopias, and I want to at least push back on that a tiny bit.

KVA: Rahne, your point about social media resonates with me, and it's a big part of my complicated feelings about Twitter. Being on it is basically a prerequisite for me professionally, and it's also one of the things that's helped me learn and unlearn so, so much. I love that. I know it's reframed a LOT of stuff for me, and I know I have more learning to do. But it's also a messy all-selves-in-one-pot place for me. I have friendships there, and work relationships, and it's my major source of entertainment news, and political news, and often personal news. And even though I know I should try to make it just one thing, my Twitter self is somehow always my mom-self and my work-self and my goofy-who-knows-what-else-self. So when I'm following it as a way to realign and expand a public intellectual conversation, as Claire put it in the question, I'm also always struck by how impossible it is for me personally to keep any kind of boundary between the intellectual conversation and the media gossip and the "my kids are monsters / adorable" stuff.

Do you feel like that's easier for you to navigate? Possibly I am just very bad at boundaries.

JH: I'm an Aquarius sun with a Gemini Moon and Aries rising, so am definitely very bad at boundaries. Boundaries are all the more important when you're a grad student, too, turns out! Maybe? Sort of? I don't know! We're seemingly held to both more and fewer strictures, since no one seems to know what's going on. What seems safe, though: to stay off all social media and not be a person in public at all.


SB: (GEMINI RISING over here!!!) Kathryn, I have that same vague worry about having a murky online personality, where all my selves are thrown into one bucket. But I have so little patience for Professional Personae. Even as I'm actually (I think!) a really good worker and professional and do a very good job at my job(s), the implicit sense that my job should also be my personality is such complete anathema to me, but it's one that absolutely suffuses academia and the people with the most power are often the ones who basically live this way which, sorry, but vom.

SM: Yes, I agree with Sarah B about making space for different voices and topics! Another way we think about this is about creating writing and spaces for writing that is not responsive to the timescapes of the larger world. Like: one thing we've moved away from with Avidly (we may move back) is thinking much about the timeliness of our pieces. This is complicated because timeliness matters (I myself think that I'm pretty much best as an 'occasional writer'again, minor forms) but, like, at Avidly, we're super busy, our writers are busy, we don't need to drop everything and write in response to whatever public event or cruelty. My sense is that the more marginalized you are, the busier you are: the more draining it is simply to be you in the world. So let's just write from our moments of discovered joy and pleasure and intensity, whenever they happen.

JH: When friends ask me how to pitch, it's always a surprise to have to remind them about timeliness ("what's your 'hook'?"), because it's just...not as immediately vital an aspect of slow-burn academic thinking. But timeliness can be mobilized in useful ways to think about scholarly urgency as well, I think. Some scholarly questions feel urgent, just as some online essays do. Sometimes I read an essay, either online or in an academic journal, and my general response is, "Oh thank you for finally articulating these difficult things."

TB: Maybe because I write about black people's pleasuresin my beloved 18cI've got to say that the idea that "the more marginalized you are...the more draining it is to simply be you in the world" unsettles me a bit. Living doesn't come easy, but I do think no matter our categories of personhood and identity we still have to find some way beyond what's draining; and with this in mind, marginalization isn't what defines us or even what makes us busy, all the time.


5) How do you understand the place of humor and silliness in public writing and social media? How does humor alter an intellectual conversation?

KVA: This. This is something I think about a lot. Because it's something I really enjoy doing, and, as the recent author of such works as "Are Muppets Sexual?" and a recap of A Christmas Prince 2, it's something I have the opportunity of doing pretty regularly. But I do worry about it! I love being funny online, but I'm also aware that I use it as a form of safety, especially when I'm trying to critique something. It's one thing if I'm making an argument about something being particularly cruel or unjustI feel fairly comfortable just getting angry, and transmitting that emotion. But if what I'm mostly trying to say is that it's just bad, it can feel mean! Which I'm sure has a lot to do with socialization! So it's more comfortable to make those arguments if I'm presenting them as a joke. "Yes, this thing is bad, but see, we're all laughing about it!"

CJ: Kathryn, this was precisely what I was thinking about! I like making dumb (like, dumb) jokes, but Twitter is such a huge medium, and it worries me occasionally that people will either not get my humor or will assume I'm an asshole if I'm joking. And then, stereotypically, I get really nervous when I think people think I'm being mean when I'm just trying to be silly. And after I get nervous, I get annoyed that people can't perceive the joke. Bad cycle.

RA: Humor is a big political tool for me, maybe my most effective tool? I think it is so effective at minimizing and distilling monolithic problems so that I can cope with them and undermine them. It's a way to bring people into my circle, too; to let people in on my jokes feels like a way of building community, even in a temporary way. Lately, though, I often feel like I'm struggling to maintain a sense of humorI'll open Twitter and no quips come, and that's kind of a new and uncomfortable feeling for me, that really nothing in the world is funny at all right now. It feels like a personal triumph when the jokes come back these days.

CAR: Well, unlike all of you, I think I might be deeply unfunny or simply not understand something crucial about how humor works. I perpetually have the experience of making what I understand to be jokes and finding that people (my students, my readers, my mother) are taking me utterly seriously. While I think this is partially an effect of my inability to modulate my tone, it also has to do with expectations liberal readers have for black/trans affectblues, protest, haunted, depressiveso many people approach my work expecting that something deadly serious must be going on. My failed humor makes me terrible at Twitter, but has actually been useful for navigating other kinds of publics. I know who my people are because they are the ones who recognize my jokes as jokes, or at least recognize laughter as one appropriate response to, say, a confrontation with, as Rahne puts it, monolithic problems. I don't know if this is politics, exactly, but being able to construct and speak to two audiences at oncethose who are in on the joke and those who are outside itis definitely useful for political speech. Especially when this means letting only people in who would ordinarily be a punchline.

SB: God, so much to say here, and I love everything you all are saying! I'm endlessly annoyed that Twitterwhich is FOR JOKES, trivial things, and community informationlike literally that's what the genre ishas turned into such a genre flail and that the result of the genre flail is that those of us using it correctly are made to feel unserious and blithe.

Regarding the "comic mode" more generally, my thinking has changed a bit. Like Kathryn, I find myself worried or dissatisfied when I realize I'm using humor to neutralize or soften a sharp point; I'm not super interested in humor used in that evasive way any longer, it's just so gender socialized in not a great way. But I do believe that humor is an excellent way to express full human personhoodit's a way to come into relation with other people as a body and not just an intellect or abstract bunch of words.

SM: I grew up very earnest and learned how to be funny at a late age and entirely in digital spaces: chat rooms, text, Facebook, blogs. So I give the digital a lot of credit! It is a space that brings us toward wit! But then I always remember this excellent essay by Emily Nussbaum, "How Jokes Won the Election," which you should all read, if you haven't, and which is depressing.


6) What are the biggest challenges to your writerly voice? Are they academic (peer review, critique, citational failures) or personal? Do you worry about not being rigorous or engaged enough? Is writing a creative outlet, or is it a means to a (political? personal? academic?) end?

RA: My biggest challenge is my inner editor, who is brutal and unforgiving. My editor-self is gracious and encouraging with others, but she has no chill with me, and keeps me silent at times because, yes, I'm not rigorous enough, I haven't researched enough, and what value does my experience have to anyone else anyway? Of course, this is also where my Libra / Scorpio cuspiness shows itself: I can't publish because I do not know enough, and it's so easy to trash work that doesn't serve me. But this is why I'm always going to be able to rely on the personal essay form to do my political work. If nothing else, I am an authority on the topic of me. It's not like I'm going to make a living off my personal and political writing; at the same time, I'm not willing to exploit my writing and editing to do work that I do not believe in anymore. Writing and editing is the hardest work I do; I fret over every word (even here in this discussion), and there isn't a publication on earth that can equitably compensate me for that work. So the work I do has to be meaningful.

SB: I agree, Rahne, that a big challenge is the inner voice. Especially, for me, the internalized voices of other peopleauthorities, family, peers, hateful people, whoever! But I'm also in the exceedingly lucky position of not having to write. So when I write, I do it because I have something to say, which raises the stakes in some ways, but mostly does feel meaningful and creative and not tied to any particular or specific ends other than trying to think on the page.

CJ: Sarah B, that is such an important point, and one that shouldn't go unmissedacademics past tenure don't have to write to keep themselves or their families solvent, they can write when they have something to say. It connects with what Kathryn said above (and what I can say here) about having a spouse willing and able to support a family so that one can write. I wonder a lot about what money does to writing. I wonder, too, about what unpaid writing means for the academy, especially in light of the angst I see about exploitation (both of academic material, and of writers who do have to work, and are paid less, because academics are willing to work for nothing). Do we have any thoughts on how to think through the relationship between financial survival and writing for readers?

SB: I don't want to romanticize writing as expression, which I feel like maybe I just did a little bit up there. And while of course I often do treasure the very loose relationship between intellection, expression, and financial remuneration that academia cultivates, I think probably in the end it mostly fucks all of us over. It certainly chips away at a person, individually. Like, for example, Sarah and I edit this book series, and it's a lot of work, and there was never any expectation or possibility that we would be financially remunerated for all the work. I actually hate that feeling, even as I also hate that I hate it? But it also screws us over collectively, too. My thinking on these issues shifts all the time, but I do think that it would be good for academics to be less precious about their writing, and begin framing it more clearly as labor that could and should be compensated. For one thing, this could help coalition-building between academics and other intellectuals who have been pushed out of (or never allowed to find a place in) the academy (narrowly defined) but who are still writers and thinkers in so many different ways: in publishing, in literary agencies, in non-profits, at home, whatever. Most contemporary conversations around writing and the academy are so near-sighted and almost entirely run by people with singular, extremely cushy positions. I have tenure, which at this point in human history is a complete anomaly, but I'm at an institution that doesn't pay me well and actually could sort of not care less about my intellectual production; so even though I'm "inside" academia, I see how tenuous the R1/Ivy intellectual patronage system is.

TB: My biggest challenge to writing is writing. Writing sucks. But, I've accepted that it helps me put my thoughts somewhere. So, I just pretend that I'm Toni Morrison and hope for the best, most times. I worry too much still and edit myself too much. But, it feels like just part of the process at least for now. I've learned to just keep writing and to expect the discomfort of writing.

CJ: Writing Sucks. Keep Writing.