Getting Engaged (to “the public”)

As I wrap up the first draft of my dissertation (whoo-hoo!), I’m starting to look for ways to engage in public discussions of broader themes and topics to which my dissertation is relevant, however remotely.  I’ve approached my teaching institution’s communications office to participate in a series of public talks; I’ve added a Google News section with keywords associated to my dissertation topic; and I’m saving my pennies to restart my subscription to the New York Times and maybe, if I can bear it, The Economist.  My hope is that by and through these outlets, I’ll both find ways of making broader connections within my dissertation and bring my dissertation to a group larger than my three committee members and my dog.

But I’m not entirely sure how to begin.  Initially, I thought that I should get involved in the comments sections of blogs and other websites when something relevant comes up — like a TED presentation a few weeks back about which I might have left some insightful (of course!) comment.  But maybe that’s a waste of time, or maybe I just need to pick and choose; Foreign Policy might be good, while Seeking Alpha might be the wrong audience.  And what, exactly, should I say?  While I have the advantage, compared to other historians, of working on a relatively recent and relevant topic, I’m used to talking about the past for its own sake, rather than making the direct connections to the present and future that most readers — who are busy with real jobs and lives in the real present and future — want.

Despite these concerns, I will push forward with my grand plans for public engagement, for at least two reasons.  First, it is actually important that we historians — both student and faculty — take a lead role in bringing historical interpretation to the public.  If we don’t, other people who don’t know a damned thing about the past will use it and abuse it.  Second, this sort of thing can’t hurt when trying to land a job.  Of course, you have to be smart about where, when, and and how you engage the public, but I think it can work out well if you do it right.

A Gift: My Madness

To you, dear reader, I offer a gift: my own special brand of craziness, wrapped up in a little spreadsheet magic that I use to keep track of my writing progress.  As I’ve explained before, at this stage of the game, I’m not really writing prose so much as pumping out words — trying to get the story out on the page before going back and making more sense of it all.  Toward that end, a few chapters back I created a spreadsheet into which I input my daily word and paragraph count to see if I’m on track to finish by a particular date.  I thought I might make this freely available, in case anyone else is as uncreative and nuts as I am and would find such a thing useful.  It’s in Google Docs here, where you can check it out and download it if you’d like (under Google Docs->File->Download).  The spreadsheet’s gone through a few iterations, and the most recent — the workbook “Chapter 5” — is the latest and greatest in dissertation-nerdology.  Here’s a picture:


Here’s how it works:

  1. You fill in the targets for “Word count goal,” “Paragraph goal,” “Deadline,” and “Break Days remaining before deadline” (how many days you will not write between today and your deadline)
  2. Every day, you insert a new line under the previous day, adding the date, the total word count, and the total paragraphs for the chapter you’re working on.
  3. Use the “fill down” function (ctrl-D in Google docs; Edit->Fill->Down in Excel; Insert->Fill down in Numbers) to copy the formulas from the “Rate” column from yesterday’s row into today’s row.
  4. Repeat steps two and three every day, and remember to change the “Break Days” entry as you burn up your non-writing days.  I do this on Mondays, since I take Sundays off.

Basically, if it’s in green, it’s a user-entry line; if it’s in orange, it’s a formula that you shouldn’t touch.

As you make those additions, these other lines will change automagically: current words and paragraphs/day rate; days to word and paragraph goal; completion date at current word and paragraph rate; and average words and paragraphs per day for deadline (the rate you must keep to hit your deadline).

Obviously, you’ll need to delete my entries for step one, as well as my entries for May 31-June 15.  But don’t delete May 29/30 — just change those dates and entries to match your own work.  That will keep the formulas intact.

If you’re anything like me — you poor, poor soul — this sort of constant reporting will serve as a perverse motivator to keep moving, dammit, no matter how stuck you might think you are.  You have to be willing to put up with less-than-perfect — okay, outright shitty — prose, all in the name of progress.  It’s odd, it’s uncreative, it feels a little dirty, but it works for me.

So there you go — use it, toss it, link it, whatever.  Merry early Christmas.  Don’t say I never got you anything.

Finding My “Voice”

No, not that one.  Although I hear it’s a fine television program.  No, I’m talking about the writing “voice” about which I’ve read in oh-so-many books on the craft, like William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, in which Mr. Zinsser instructs his readers to, “develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone” (233).  That’s all well and good, Mr. Zinsser, but how, pray tell, does one develop that voice?  (I suspect more advice is to be found in his weekly column at The American Scholar, to which I’ll try to pay more attention).  I’ve been puzzling over this for some time now, usually while also stumbling through some troublesome sentence that I can’t seem to extricate myself from (or should it be “from which I can’t seem to extricate myself”?).  I suspect that I get stuck on some sentences not because I don’t know what to say, but because I’m not sure how I want to say it — which is to say, so to speak, that I haven’t found my voice.  Lately, in an effort to just get through these tricky times, I just write out what I would say if I were trying to get through a lecture on the topic.  I pretend that I’m standing in front of students and I’ve lost my place in my notes and I simply need to push on to the next big point.  Sometimes it’s clumsy, but it always gets me through.  And often, it’s my voice.  Those are words that I might actually say, rather than some prose that I forced out in an attempt to sound intelligent.  Obviously, those words need editing and polishing and  more elegance.  But the essential sound of the sentence is still mine; it’s the “voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page,” as Mr. Zinsser would put it.  And it starts by realizing what seems an obvious truth: my “voice” is actually my voice.  But without the annoying nasal tone, I hope.