A Few Small Ways to Sneak Some Advocacy into Your Academic Writing
Many of us came to the academy because we believe in the transformative potential of research. We believe that carefully crafted questions and rigorously pursued answers can make for a better society, and perhaps even improve the communities from which we come.
Below, we share a handful of suggestions that we have used to make the most of our academic writing. Many of these strategies may seem small, even insignificant, when done individually. But taken together, we hope they can contribute to an academic writing style that moves the needle on how we approach advocacy within the current academic currency of publication.
1. Acknowledge the people who really matter. We all do it. We all ignore that “Acknowledgements” section of the manuscript until the last minute when the editors say here is your article proof and btw um who do you want to acknowledge?, at which point we frantically search our inboxes for the grant number that funded our time when we started this paper, like, three years ago. But did you ever consider thanking the participants in your study? This, of course, opens up further space to disrupt the binaries and categories that we are often forced to use in our manuscripts, perhaps even in the very same manuscript. Maybe you have to say “Latino/Latina” in the paper but really wanted to say “Latinx”? Maybe you needed to narrow your sample to the LGB advocates because the number of trans-identified advocates was comparatively smaller. Acknowledgements don’t take things like sample size and accepted academic labels into account, so thank the communities who contributed to the paper, the way they would like to be thanked. Oh yeah, and thank those funders too, of course.
2. Disseminate beyond the journal. (From William:) I won’t lie, I’m thrilled that the first paper in my dissertation currently has SEVEN citations. For a 2017 paper, that’s on fire (admittedly, the paper had 10 co-authors… so odds of being cited are high…). But not long after I published the paper, I had the opportunity to write for The Conversation. The piece got about 15,000 reads. I reached out to other websites and published different pieces of my research elsewhere, including using data that I had not yet published in an academic journal. Of course, one would not exist without the other, so we are not suggesting that we academics just switch to blog writing or journalism (though folks find success doing that too). Instead, after you publish your piece, seek out different venues that may allow you to disseminate more broadly. If your university works with The Conversation, that’s one place to start. Other times, your disciplines may have a popular blog, like Inside Higher Ed for those in education. If your work is contemporarily relevant, try pitching it to a newspaper like the Washington Post, as Diversity Scholars Network member Victoria Reyes did here.
3. Disseminate creatively. In line with the goal of disseminating broadly, consider disseminating creatively. How can an audience get the relevance of your findings? Just in case our ANOVAs and Grounded Theory explanations were not sufficient, is there any other way of explaining what we did that may be impactful? What about being more creative and sharing the work as a poem? Or a story? Or a first person account? If you know others who do similar work, why not write together with them? (From Melissa:) I had an article published in Social Science in Medicine last year. This year, I am working with a public health communications firm to help me create a site where I break down the paper for a lay person using audio and my photography. I also will have a place dedicated to every person who shared their time with me for an oral history interview, highlighting their name, image, a quote, and soundbyte.
4. Leverage that PhD microphone to amplify the voices of those who are ignored. By the nature of being the highly educated folks we are, people tend to care about what we say. But for many of us, especially social scientists, our careers are made because others are sick. We study illness, we study prison, we study deportation, we study mental health and trauma. Then we apply for grants to continue studying those things. How can we use our positions to thank the people on the backs of whom our work is built? One (small) way is to co-author with the community members with whom you worked throughout the research. Now, this often means something fundamentally different than co-authoring with another academic, who will just track changes on your word doc and be done. You may have to discuss the paper over a meal, or help care for their kids while you chat about how you think re-entry post-incarceration actually works. If you can’t co-author the manuscript with community members, invite them to work on the stories, poems, and media you developed in your attempts to disseminate creatively. Here is one example of this type of collaborative work.
5. Cite intentionally. Sometimes in our rush to be paradigm shifting academics, we forget that paradigm shifting academics have come before us. Often, we haven’t read their work because our disciplines encourage only the citation of authors who are “white, male, able-bodied, economically privileged, heterosexual, and cisgendered.” Thus, scholars of color, queer scholars, scholars with disabilities (that is, scholars like many of us), tend to get read far less often and thus perpetually under-cited. Be intentional about highlighting the work of these scholars. There is a relatively new movement around this very intentionality called #citeblackwomen. The founder, Dr. Christen Smith, lists five resolutions that have come to define the project: read Black women’s work; integrate Black women into the core of your syllabus; acknowledge Black women’s intellectual production; make space for Black women to speak; and give Black women “the space and time to breathe”. So yes, it’s extra work, but you may have to do research on your research to make that research equitable. Search for those feminist scholars who wrote about positionality way before you thought that writing about a Black community, a Native community, or a queer community while belonging to these communities was worth noting.
6. Practice generous co-authorship with junior scholars. So you’re a big time academic rockstar who has paved the way and now can safely get your work on #resistance, #decolonization, and #racisthealthpractices published. Now is the time to share the mentorship and publishing wealth. Being a scholar steeped in activist work means that we should recognize the way activism works on all levels — including co-authorship. Reach out to those whose voices may not be heard easily due to their social and political identities. Realize how your name provides a type of capital that might be useful and important to junior scholars. Write with people who share and stretch your perspective. Who you write with can be a revolutionary act!
7. Be vulnerable. Sometimes we question whether or not our work will be deemed important and scholarly enough when the research is about the personal. Conduct the research anyway. Submit to high-impact journals anyway. Lay your heart out there for all to see anyway. This is in the research process, yes, but it’s also in the writing process. Be transparent about what you are writing with the people you are writing about. There will likely be a generative back and forth that will only strengthen your work and further add to the voice of the fully formed humans who have something at stake.
8. And lastly, don’t die on the Publication Hill. But at the same time, it’s important to be reasonable about the fights you are willing to have with the reviewers and editors of your article. If suggestions above get met with resistance, well, do what you can. Once you publish the article, even if you had to reign in the advocacy angle, you can still engage in many of the strategies we described above.
William Lopez is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID). Melissa Creary is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Both are members of the Diversity Scholars Network at the NCID.