On seeking (and finding) a different avenue for expression

By Robert Jensen

Published in ICA News · December, 2001

[This article appeared in the ICA News (International Communication Association), December 2001, pp. 3-4.]

I began my academic writing career a decade ago with a 410-page dissertation. These days, I generally keep things to 700 words.

While this could be taken as a sign of a seriously atrophied intellect, I prefer to believe that the quality of my thinking has not degraded; I simply have chosen a different format to express my ideas. Instead of laboring on traditional academic books and journal articles, I have put my energies into writing for the mainstream and alternative press, with a focus on op/ed pieces in newspapers.

I can report back that there is life beyond peer review and suggest that folks who have the time and inclination spend more time on such popular writing.

For the first six years of my career, I published in the academic arena in order that I would not perish. The goal was not eternal life, but steady employment and real academic freedom that comes with tenure, which in 1988 was granted to me by the University of Texas, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

Since then, I have tried to use that freedom in a very public fashion. I have been absorbing as much as possible about political, economic, and social issues that interest me; organizing public education events and political action around those issues; and writing for a variety of publications to get radical political ideas in mainstream venues. Some of this political activity and writing builds on my past research, but much of it has taken me in entirely new directions.

I will leave it to others to judge the quality of that work, but I can report that my level of satisfaction is way up. I circulate in a much more diverse group of people, whom I generally find more interesting than faculty colleagues. My work is read by far more people and, based on emails and letters I receive, sometimes manages to spark debate, influence views, or provide insight. And at the end of the day, I have far fewer doubts than I once had about whether I spent my time in meaningful endeavors.

That is not an argument that everyone engaged in traditional scholarly research and publishing should abandon that work (though, quite frankly, much of what is published in such arenas could disappear without noticeable effect on the state of knowledge). People have different talents and temperaments that leave them suited for different things, a diversity for which I am grateful, and not everyone experiences my level of disenchantment with the limitations of the scholarly arena.

Instead, I simply want to suggest that those who have the inclination to write for the wider public should look for every opportunity to do so. Scholars often argue that ordinary people will not understand the complexity of their work. But if there truly is important intellectual content in what we do, we should be able to translate it into language that non-specialists can understand (Robert McChesney’s work on media history and political economy comes to mind as an exemplary example of this). I have yet to run across a meaningful idea in media studies that cannot be stated rather simply. The inability to do that is our failure, not that of the public.

I also want to suggest that when taking our ideas into such public arenas, scholars be open about their political views and not hide behind the guise of neutral and impartial researcher. I have been criticized — by readers, students and a prominent editor in town — for taking political stands on controversial issues and told that I cannot be fair in the classroom given that I hold such strong views. The answer to such challenges is simple; obviously all professors have political views that shape our teaching, whether we acknowledge them or not. The question should not be whether or not I have opinions, but how I defend the positions and how open my classroom is to differing interpretations and challenges.

When I write these op/eds, I push my arguments to the edge of what I think I can get away with in mainstream channels. I have published pieces that argued the United States is a terrorist nation, U.S. forces committed numerous war crimes in the Gulf War, corporations are inherently anti-democratic institutions, and the white middle-class is the most morally lazy group of people on the planet. I do not expect to win over large numbers of converts to these political positions, though it is interesting that I get more positive feedback than negative, even on the most radical op/eds. I believe it is crucial to push into public as often as possible the harsh facts about our society and its history that people tend to want to avoid.

I also think it is important in this very depoliticized culture to model passionate and engaged political argumentation in public. I find that students often have no experience of defending political positions, making it all the more important for faculty to serve as models for how offer evidence and reasoning in defense of a deeply held conviction.

For all the talk on campuses about the need to be more engaged with the public, the system of rewards and punishments still offers few incentives for faculty to take time away from scholarly arenas for more activist work. As a journalism professor, it is relatively easy to present this kind of public activity as part of my contribution as a scholar. But I have been warned that because I was hired into a research track job, I will be expected to return to traditional scholarly publishing if I want to be promoted to full professor or get decent salary increases. That means the motivation has to be internal; we should do it because it has value and is rewarding, even if it is not counted by our institutions at annual review time.

I have a short list of tips on publishing op/eds and letters to the editor at www.nowarcollective.com/tips.htm . Anyone interested in reading the essays and articles I have been writing can find them online at uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/freelance.htm. I also have collected some of them, along with additional commentary about media and politics, into a book, Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2001).