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Adventures in the New Humanities: Publishing — not perishing — in a new age

This post is part of a blog series, ‘Adventures in the New Humanities,’ by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.

I have a red T-shirt from the University of Alabama Press that my husband brought back from a conference many, many years ago. You might have seen it because I exercise in it, both at Tostrud Center and out on the streets of Northfield. Across the front, it exhorts people to “Publish or Perish,” which can be a fraught concept for humanists. I tend to forget about the message because, to me, it’s just a well-broken-in exercise shirt, but I suppose it could be taken as a boast (because I have published), a threat (since I’m a senior faculty colleague), or a warning that comes just when your endorphins ought to be kicking in.

However we faculty members feel about scholarly publication, it’s a huge part of what we trained for and how we are evaluated. Whether we mastered the scholarly writing idiom with typewriters and boxes of notecards or laptops and thumb drives, master it we all have. We know how to craft a scholarly argument, document it, and footnote the crap out of it, if I may phrase it inelegantly.

Sitting, as we do, at a small private college in flyover country, publishing is our chance to join scholarly conversations happening in our fields or disciplines. It’s a way to gain status there too. And it’s an important determinant of our careers here at home. In the Statements of Significant Scholarly/Artistic Work that departments use as part of their tenure and promotion processes, words like “publication” and “peer-reviewed” predominate in humanities’ versions, affecting our salaries or our continuation at the college. Publish or perish, indeed.

Have I raised your anxiety level yet? It gets worse. Publishing has become a rapidly shifting target. Print journals are disappearing and there’s a whole sub-species of dubious ones that will print your article instantly — for a fee, of course. Libraries don’t buy as many books, which means that publishers have become pickier about the humanists’ bread-and-butter genre, the scholarly monograph. It’s not that they don’t want them anymore — I confirmed that with my editor at University of North Carolina Press, Chuck Grench — it’s just that they want their authors to, as he put it, “reach out” to a broader audience.

Ah, the mystical “broader audience,” the holy grail of modern-day academic humanists. As it turns out, there are many broader audiences and many reasons to want to reach them.

Ah, the mystical “broader audience,” the holy grail of modern-day academic humanists. As it turns out, there are many broader audiences and many reasons to want to reach them. For some, the broader audience is whatever an academic press editor thinks it ought to be (more on that in a minute). For others, its audience, as St. Olaf Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Writing Program Director Diane LeBlanc says, is personified by people who shop in airport bookshops looking for something compelling enough to make them forget the indignities of modern airline travel. Still others want to break out of the scholarly framework altogether to fiction, memoirs, or journalism, problematic for academic assessment and, sorry, not my topic here. I lack the expertise, although since journalists writing in my field routinely top the New York Times bestsellers list with history books or win Pulitzers for biographies, maybe I should go there soon.

As the author of a recent book that was aimed at the elusive broader scholarly audience who has been writing for ever-broader and more popular audiences since then, allow me to be your guide into the world of more-popular-yet-still-scholarly publishing, enhanced by some conversations with writing specialists on and off campus. It’s not scary, I promise. Most of it is really fun.

Two books by Professor of History Judy Kutulas, who offers her fellow faculty and students in the humanities tips on writing for the mystical “broader audience.”

In modern-day academic publishing, nobody is so clueless as to think there are mass-marketing opportunities for most scholarly monographs, even broadened in scope. Rather, the new target audience is a range of scholars beyond your discipline, people who might see your book advertised in The New York Review of Books and think, “that sounds interesting.”

When e-books began their inexorable creep into the marketplace, at least some academic publishers thought the way to mass-market scholarly monographs was to get rid of the academic jargon and the footnotes, add lots of pictures, and maybe slap a sexy cover on the books. Of course, that isn’t true, although after looking at the covers of my first and latest books, I think a pick-me-up kind of cover can’t hurt. Yet even the jazziest cover can’t give some topics mass appeal. It’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.

As the St. Olaf Writing Center’s Bridget Draxler pointed out to me, ideas and contexts must be relevant to target audiences, otherwise it doesn’t matter how many pictures you have inside or how informal your voice. Publishers, by the way, know that and adjust their expectations accordingly. There’s still room for fairly traditional academic scholarship, although you will probably have to address “marketability” with those individuals who most puzzle academic humanists: the people in marketing.

Shifting to more-popular publishing means that you must respect your audience and what they might want to read. As faculty members, our first big projects — our dissertations — were written to satisfy very small audiences (namely those awarding us our degrees) and, let’s face it, they had to read them. We followed the conventions of our scholarly communities, just as they did theirs. Going broader means thinking beyond the conventions of our smaller scholarly communities.

Shifting to more-popular publishing means that you must respect your audience and what they might want to read. … Going broader means thinking beyond the conventions of our smaller scholarly communities.

How you begin, for instance, might have to change. Most editors these days will ask you to shrink down your introduction, especially the parts where you situate yourself in a scholarly conversation by summarizing others’ work. People outside the discipline care less about it and you don’t want to alienate them right off the bat. A friend of mine who is a popular enough academic writer that she has an agent was advised to start with a prologue that introduced some of the conventions of fiction, setting the scene and establishing a central character in her historical study.

Jill Lepore’s very popular The Secret History of Wonder Woman begins with something she calls a “Splash Page,” which is comic-book lingo for a page with a single image on it or in web-design-ese, the initial image. The point is not just to make a splash, but to offer the reader a way in and a motive to continue. I’ve just been writing a piece for the ACLU’s 100th anniversary and thought I had begun with a pretty captivating opening sentence. The first thing the editor said when he saw my draft was to expand that sentence into two or three paragraphs and make it, and I quote, “a bit more dramatic.”

Hooks or splashes or whatever you want to call them sometimes might feel like, as St. Olaf Associate Professor of History Eric Fure-Slocum apologized for at a recent book reading, an “it was a dark and stormy night” gimmick, overwrought and dramatic. I get it; I don’t agree with it, but I get it. If you want to go broader, remember that your audience has made an investment in you and you have an obligation to inform AND entertain them in some way. Yes, entertain them. I can hear the groans now, but it’s a perfectly legitimate expectation on the part of the more general-interest reader. If it helps any, substitute “intrigued” for “entertained.”

Holding your audience is just as important as hooking them in. Your approach to a subject must be accessible and it will not help at all if you think of that process as “dumbing it down.” I have been practicing more accessible writing in this post. Can you tell? I have tried to use language to add spice and drama (we’ll see if the word “crap” survives editing) and some of the other conventions of fiction, plus I have decidedly personalized the product and emphasized my unique voice. It’s a lot to remember while you’re writing drafts and here’s one more pretty important thing: “It was a dark and stormy night” writing still needs to go somewhere. What applies in fiction applies in nonfiction as well: you can’t just create atmosphere and description. There needs to be a point.

Like I said, it’s a lot to remember in the heat of writing and even worse when you finally have to confront any unspoken attitudes you might have about more-popular publishing. I have never clashed as much with an editor as I did last year when I wrote a piece about women’s athletics at St. Olaf for the magazine of the Minnesota Historical Society, Minnesota History. I approached the article with all the conceit of an experienced scholar, confident that they’d be sooo happy that I’d submitted something. They weren’t. I got the classic “revise and resubmit” letter. When I got back the revised draft covered in suggestions and edits, I was so outraged I actually considered pulling the piece. What I took as “how dare you change my sacred prose,” the editor meant as “too dry, too academic.” She knew her audience wanted to hear about the female students and their struggles more than how historians think about women’s athletics. She knew they wanted pictures and maybe some historical signposting because they don’t know the history as well as I do. And she was right. For months after it ran, I got e-mails from people who had lived those stories or loved the pictures. This time around, in writing about the ACLU for its members, I am taking all my editor’s suggestions. I expanded my hook sentence into three dramatic paragraphs without so much as a whimper.

I wish I could tell you that writing for broader audiences pays better than more traditional academic writing, but it doesn’t. You do get more immediate and personal feedback, which is excellent. I still cherish Professor of English Mary Titus’s comment after reading a draft of one of the chapters in my book — “this is my life,” she said — because I had reached her as a person and not an academic. Immense satisfaction guaranteed.

Change is hard and writing is a solitary business. To compensate, there are writers’ groups, editors, and there’s where I’m writing this right now, a St. Olaf writing event. This year some writing hours have been scattered across the calendar, sponsored by the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts (CILA) and our Writing Program. There are cookies, coffee, a check-in at the beginning and a touch-base at the end, all led by Diane LeBlanc. It’s the most peaceful 90 minutes I’ve spent this week as well as the first 90 minutes I’ve spent that’s all about me. Every last person around me is writing for a broader audience, and we are all finding reassurance and inspiration in writing alone together, as Diane says. They don’t know I’m writing about them, but they are all my heroes for taking that leap into the future. There are other ways besides running laps to get those endorphins going.

CILA’s Summer Writing Retreat runs June 3–7 this year and still has a few spots left open for humanists, or anybody else, who want to try writing alone together. Contact Susan Carlson ( if you are interested.

Judy Kutulas is a professor of history at St. Olaf College, where she teaches in the History Department and the American Studies program, along with American Conversations. She is the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, charged with helping to revitalize humanities teaching and learning at the college. Read her inaugural ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post here.