Women’s Studies Writers Vie for More Media Turf

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Deborah Siegel

(WOMENSENEWS)–Usually the Sunday morning slot of an academic three-day conference is a ghost town.

But “Publishing in Women’s Studies: A Public Voice” had professors with roller bags postponing flights and scribbling furiously on their notepads as Deborah Siegel described her journey from doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin to New York public intellectual and author of the 2007 book “Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild” (Palgrave) about infighting, both historical and contemporary, within the feminist movement.

“I was sitting in this academic perch with my hands in all this knowledge and feeling frustrated with the limitations of where my work was going,” recounted Siegel.

Heads nodded vigorously around the room.

The workshop, hosted earlier this summer by the National Women’s Studies Association during its annual conference in St. Charles, Ill., represents a growing restlessness inside women’s studies, a nearly 40-year-old field.

Countless academic presses publish the latest in gender scholarship. But these days many in the field want to climb down from the Ivory Tower and exert more influence through the popular press and blogging.

Hugo Schwyzer, a professor of women’s studies at Pasadena City College in California, puts the trend in historical context.

“One of the most basic premises of the early women’s studies movement was that feminism needed to be collaborative and it needed to reach people who weren’t in universities,” he says. “For a while it seemed like the only major public feminist work being done was in the highly demanding world of feminist theory, which, though valuable, left a lot of people alienated or confused. All we’re really doing now is returning to the grassroots; it’s both about popularization and radicalization.”

Following the Star Example

But crossing out of the academia and into the more blaring sphere of popular media is not so easy, which explains why so many flocked to hear Siegel, who was also a star workshop presenter at the Council on Contemporary Families conference in Chicago in May and the National Council for Research on Women conference in Atlanta in June.

Siegel, 38, teaches an online course on pop publishing and has conducted other similar workshops that participants say helped them score agent signings and commercial book deals.

Lisa Johnson is an example of someone who turned to Siegel–through an online course last fall–for help breaking out of academia.

In December 2005, Johnson, from the University of South Carolina Upstate, in Spartanburg, sent a book proposal on borderline personality disorder to an editor friend in New York.

She was excited about the possibility of publishing with a mainstream press. That excitement petered out, however, by her friend’s vague feedback: “It’s a great idea, but the proposal needs ‘more.'”

“I really didn’t know what to do at that point,” says Johnson. “So I got busy with other things and put it aside.”

Academic Style Barriers

Some editors worry about taking on academic writers because they fear they won’t be able to strip their language of jargon, says Leslie Meredith, an editor with Free Press in New York.

“Even some of the greatest teachers can sometimes revert to an academic style when putting into writing a dynamic lecture.”

Laura Maser, an editor with Seal Press in Emeryville, Calif., says books aimed at a popular audience must be positioned as cutting-edge and full of what she calls the “now factor.”

Academics trying to cross into commercial publishing must also be willing to forego nuance and state a strong opinion.

This was one of Johnson’s biggest insights from taking Siegel’s online course.

“I really embraced my own authority over the material,” says Johnson. She says her New York agent plans to offer her manuscript to a large trade publisher this month.

As they push for wider audiences, women’s studies professors are joining the ranks of plenty of other academics.

“Higher education, in general, is seeking to communicate academic ideas to wider publics,” says Allison Kimmich, executive director of the University of Maryland-based National Women’s Studies Association, which has 390 institutional members and 2,000 individual members.

“Universities are playing their part, catering, at times, to popular markets,” Siegel says. “I don’t see this as a strict dumbing down of academia, as some might suggest, but rather as a genuine attempt to infuse the popular debate with more nuance and better facts. The pressure to go ‘pop’ after tenure is fueled by an academic star system that rewards scholars who bring attention to their institution by winning the popular spotlight. More often than not, those scholars are male. I’d like to see more women in that spotlight too.”

Kimmich says that women’s studies scholarship is particularly keen to advance progressive social change in popular media outlets.

Crossing Over to Middle Ground

There is also a middle ground between small academic presses and large publishers in New York at places such as 31-year-old Seal Press, known for its anthologies and memoirs.

“We have traditionally done crossover books, which for us, has meant trade books with crossover academic sales potential,” says acquisitions editor Brooke Warner.

Seal will launch a series aimed specifically at the women’s studies audience in 2008 called “Seal Starters,” which Warner describes as “academic lite.”

The Feminist Press, a 36-year-old publisher in New York, also publishes crossover titles. A prime example was “Baghdad Burning,” a series of reflections on everyday life for a woman by the Iraqi blogger known as Riverbend.

Then there’s the blogosphere, with an off-the-cuff writing style that defies the labored and rigorous standards of academia.

Schwyzer, the women’s studies professor from Pasadena City College, has been blogging at HugoSchwyzer.net since 2003.

“I’m quite deliberate about blurring the lines between stories of emotional growth and serious discussions of intellectual issues,” says Schwyzer. “That’s part of what feminism is about for me: a willingness to step out of the model that suggests that our private lives have little relationship with our intellectual work.”

Alison Piepmeier’s 2-year-old blog Baxter Sez at Piepmeier.blogspot.com, which she shares with her husband, was described by a fan as “a swirling mini-cosmos of academic and cultural quirkiness.”

As director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, Piepmeier knows she is taking a risk by blogging.

“I’m fortunate, because being director of a women’s and gender studies program means I’m expected to have an opinion on things like abortion, so it’s not like the fact that I’m openly pro-choice could hurt me on my job. It’s sort of a job requirement.”

“Plus,” she adds, “I’m not willing to wait until I have tenure to try to make my feminism matter in the world.”

Courtney E. Martin is the author of “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body.” She is also an adjunct professor of gender studies at Hunter College. You can read more about Courtney’s work at http://www.courtneyemartin.com .

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at
editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

National Women’s Studies Association:
http://www.nwsa.org/

Deborah Siegel, Girl With Pen:
http://girlwithpen.blogspot.com/2007/04/new-course-offering-for.html

Seal Press:
http://www.sealpress.com/

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