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Writing beyond the Academy

A report by Brett Ashley Kaplan

The Writing beyond the Academy workshop was a transformative experience, and I am (and, I think everyone who participated was) so grateful to the AJS for this unique opportunity to collectively think about writing in a thoughtful environment. Designed to encourage AJS members to, well, write beyond the academy—op-eds, editorials, books for a wider audience—the seminar took place from June 12–June 16th, 2023 at the Center for Jewish History on 16th Street in New York City.

Sam Freedman, a former New York Times columnist, a professor at Columbia University, and the author of a zillion books on diverse aspects of U.S. history and culture, steered the week’s course. Sam doesn’t waste time. And he knows how to run a workshop. Each day he’d post on the white board that day’s schedule: time in the morning to ask questions, a visitor, afternoon structured workshops. There were twelve of us academics who wanted (to use Sam’s phrasing) to cross the street into a more public-facing landscape, while Sam was crossing the street into a richer academic hue with his newest book, just out from Oxford, Into the Bright Sunshine. During the afternoon workshopping I was continually impressed with the care everyone in the workshop took reading each other’s work and providing feedback; as would happen in a creative writing seminar, the author remained silent while the participants offered feedback. Sam went last and offered such detailed comments on the work that it was as though he’d memorized it. He handed back line edits to most of us. 

Throughout the week I gathered up a few crucial words of advice from Sam, including:

•    say something new! And make clear your unique perspective 

•    send a pitch to an editor, not the actual essay, and try to develop a “family tree” of everyone you know who might know a newspaper or journal editor

•    for an op-ed (750-850 words) you have one point to make: get to it quickly

•    include your reader and let them feel smart, so explain things that might not be obvious—public writing is about showing how smart the reader is (not how smart the writer is)

•    don’t fall for the “cats fighting in a bag” problem—have one idea, one story, and don’t compete for the focal point

•    get your book out there with several spinoff articles that involve material not included in but related to the book (do this about six months ahead of book publication date) 

Before the workshop started, we’d each been sent a packet of writing from both the workshop attendees (drafts for revision) and from several visitors (published in high-circulation newspapers, journals, podcasts). The results of the workshopping and advice we received are clear: in the past few weeks, we’ve all been in email touch and participants have shared articles we workshopped in their published forms. There couldn’t be clearer evidence of the positive outcome of this Writing beyond the Academy adventure!

Orit Avishai: “Pretending to be a gay Haredi man on TikTok does not help queer Orthodox Jews”

Aryeh Cohen: "Cash Bail is a violation of our humanity"

Olga Gershenson: "Bringing Mindfulness to Higher Education"

Jennifer Glaser: "Jewish identity was weaponized in Supreme Court case overturning affirmative action"

Jonathan Kaplan: “Ten Commandments bill excluded many and devalued Jewish origins”

Ruth Panofsky: “Ruth Panofsky on how the TV series ‘Little Bird’ also evokes the suffering of Holocaust survivors”

Jessica Roda: "Performing Hasidic music, these women are transcending gender and the Orthodox-liberal divide"

Dov Waxman: “Israel’s assault in Jenin will only further erode the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy”

The first person to visit, a conservative anti-Trump former Republican, Peter Wehner, took as a unique starting point for many of his articles (printed in the likes of The Atlantic and The New York Times) his disgust with Trump and Trumpism and his hope that a moral core will return to Republican voters. He stressed that, for him, the hardest part is the opening statement, and he always tries to make that super strong. He thinks about the counter-arguments as he’s writing so that he can anticipate them and, in some cases, address them head-on. In response to a question about his research methodologies he shared that he will sometimes craft a long email and send it out to 25 or 30 people with a series of questions for an article so that he can get a wide array of opinions from people in the know. 

Our next visitor was Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a professor at the New School, a podcaster, and expert on the politics and culture of the US with a focus on gender, race, class, and identity. Her books include Fit Nation and Classroom Wars, and her podcast series, Welcome to your Fantasy, about the history of the Chippendales (men, not chairs) won many awards and was also seemingly adopted, according to an article in the Times, uncredited (!), by a television streaming service. In discussing the importance of podcasting, Natalia said that “even small podcasts, when you never know who is listening, these can be super important and they help you hone your voice.” When Sam asked about transferring historian’s skills to the world of podcasting, Natalia replied that she focusses on finding the force of a narrative and decides which details to cast aside so the story can progress at a reasonable clip. She co-hosts, with Nicole Hemmer and Neil Young (a different one), a podcast that brings an historian’s lens to contemporary turmoil, Past Present. Working in podcasts raises the question of how this public-facing material is counted in academic metrics for things like promotion to full professor. The academy, as Natalia explained and as our whole workshop confirmed, is changing rapidly as more and more academics seek to write beyond. We discussed whether this was taking space in the journalistic sphere away from journalists but collectively concluded that our expertise, when boiled down, scraped shorter, and disseminated widely, can be invaluable. 

Our next visitor had us all in stitches—it was more her delivery than the content that had us laughing so! Jennifer Finney Boylen is the author of Mad Honey, a novel co-written with Jodi Picoult, and many other books. She’s a former contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, a human and trans rights advocate, and a writer in residence at Barnard. Jenny asked us to think hard about why we want to write and shared that for her, writing is about opening “people’s hearts and minds… you can move the needle a little bit” through the well-placed word. “Life is peculiar and full of sorrows and wonder,” she continued, explaining that a peculiar story can pull readers in and begin to open hearts. For an 800-word op-ed she advises getting in there with a hook and then demonstrating how “this short bit illuminates a bigger question.” 

She discussed some of the changes in newspaper publishing and lamented the rise of team editors so now one receives comments back from multiple readers. But she continues to have a great deal of faith in writing and encourages us to “trust your story, trust your writing and trust the process.” 

Our penultimate visitor, Adam Kirsch, writes regularly on Jewish literature and culture so was the most familiar to me. He sent us a fascinating article about Freud which was just about to be out in the Jewish Review of Books. He’s an editor at the Wall Street Journal’s weekend review and the author of Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? and other texts. His perspective rounded out the visitors and allowed us space to ask him about transforming academic ideas into more widely-circulated essays. He suggested it’s best to enlist an editor early in the writing process, that way they may be more invested in the work. He stressed that the article or op-ed should have a good fit with the journal and should be in conversation with what the journal or newspaper already publishes. This is advice I always give to my graduate students, too, for academic publishing: cite the journal, make it clear you know what they do. Adam encouraged us to think about (or try to think about) academic ideas as a layperson would. This seemed like excellent advice—but perhaps easier said than done! 

The final session, on being a public intellectual, with Meg Jacobs and Julian Zelizer was a perfect way to end as there was a great discussion about transforming historical insight into prose fit for a wide audience. They are both professors at Princeton who write and publish widely. Julian is a CNN political analyst and author or editor of books on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Obama, Trump, Gingrich, and other major figures in American political and religious history. Meg works on the history of energy and published an enthusiastically review book, Panic at the Pump as well as many other works. They helped us understand how to balance focused academic scholarship with more public-facing work and were so generous in answering our questions. 

We all shared in person and over email how much we appreciated the opportunity to learn from Sam and from each other and how much we value the AJS’s work to put this together and support our public-facing efforts. We’re extremely grateful to Warren Hoffman and Amy Weiss for all their brilliant organizing! I’ll leave you with two testimonials from participants: 

Olga Gershenson:

The Writing beyond the Academy workshop provided me and my colleagues with a unique platform to explore innovative methods of communicating Jewish scholarship to wider audiences…. The workshop offered insightful discussions, thought-provoking presentations, and hands-on exercises that empowered us to expand the impact of our research in the public sphere. By learning effective strategies for reaching diverse audiences, enhancing our writing skills, and exploring alternative forms of dissemination, we now have the tools and inspiration to share our scholarly work with a broader community.

Ruth Panofsky: 

Writing beyond the Academy was a rare opportunity to learn from the renowned journalist Samuel Freedman and fellow Jewish Studies scholars who share a desire to write for a wide audience. Sam quickly established a rapport with all of the participants. Each morning, he shared his vast knowledge and practical advice. He also brought in six dynamic guest speakers who generously answered our many questions. The workshop portion in the afternoon, when we had the chance to discuss our work, was equally stimulating and valuable. Sam’s breadth and depth of knowledge and his capacity to discern what we are trying to achieve with our writing was impressive. The workshop was terrific; it inspired many ideas and a great sense of community.