PopAnth: get it while it’s hot!

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What goes down easy, tastes great with salt, melted butter, or even a bit of Tabasco, and yet feeds your mind and fires your curiosity about human creativity? Pop Anth, of course!
The anthropology online community gets new members all the time, just as we sometimes see old friends transition away from more active production for a while. Every once in a while, however, we see something a bit different, with a proposal for a less well-trod path for online anthropology.

Graphic from http://popanth.com/welcome/

I’ve been really pleased to see the launch of PopAnth (‘Hot buttered humanity’), a new site that features anthropologists writing for a general audience, with more than a little bit of flash. It’s a slick new offering (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) that helps to present bite-sized versions of anthropological research in easy-to-read, gentle-on-the-eyes format (kudos to the designer, Gawain, and to Erin, for some great organization, editing, and design work!). And it’s easy to submit.

Erin and the other editors describe the goals of the new site:

PopAnth translates anthropological discoveries for popular consumption. Academia does a lot of good work researching, decoding and understanding human societies – past and present. We discover all kinds of really cool stuff about human nature and culture. Anthropology can help us understand who we are as individuals and as a global society.

However, our discoveries are often locked away in academic journals. We take anthropology’s collective knowledge and translate it for mainstream audiences, much in the way that popular science books, tv shows and trivia quizzes make even the hardest of sciences accessible. We strive to provide you with the best of anthropology in a format that makes you go, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that!’ Our cross-cultural stories aim to help you discover things about yourself and the world you live in.

The site is open for submissions from anthropologists of all types, and already has a wide range of features, including such recent offerings as:

The initial offerings are quick, clear and intriguing. They open a wide variety of windows in on the kinds of projects we do, a taste of the amazing range of work that we do.

Where does Pop Anth fit in?

According to Erin Taylor and others of the founding members, I had some hand in encouraging their effort (truth is, I can’t take any of the credit, but they’re quite generous). Back in July, on the Open Anthropology Cooperative, ‘during a conversation about taking anthropological research to a larger audience,’ Erin and Gawain Lynch found my typical rant about the subject helpful. According to them, I wrote, I think we have to practice DOING accessible, popular writing and see what works.’ Erin has argued that one reason anthropologists don’t do this more, especially cultural anthropologists, is that we don’t necessarily have avenues to share this work, which is where Pop Anth comes in.

Credit aside (and I think that their attribution is overly generous), anthropologists do need to work at popularizing what we do, taking an experimental approach to outreach rather than simply complaining about our lack of public interest. We’ve got to go out and offer people a way of getting access to what we do, unless we’re content to labor in obscurity writing for each other. And the only way for our field to learn how to communicate better is to try to communicate. The effort won’t simply make us better writers; it may even change how we conceptualize what we are doing so that we focus on actually making discoveries and addressing questions with broader relevance outside our field (or at least learning to articulate the broader relevance that we know is there). Ultimately, writing pop anth is not just PR; it’s about reorienting what we are after by doing anthropology. (See, for example, a great discussion thread on this subject at the Open Anthropology Cooperative.)

Of course, writing for a popular audience is not just ‘watered down’ academic writing. In fact, just writing as we normally would for our peers with fewer citations and shorter word limits is liable to fail miserably. It’s not that the public is dumb; it’s that we’ve been having our own conversations for so long that it’s sometimes hard for someone to jump into the stream of thought (sort of like the first year or two of grad school where the references mostly go over your head and you keep thinking, ‘crap, that’s another thing I’ve got to read.’).

Pop Anth addresses a need that a number of us have been pointing out for quite a while (like here, or see Daniel’s post here on the subject): anthropologists spend too much time bemoaning that no one pays us any attention and not enough time shamelessly trying to attract attention to ourselves or figuring out what to do once the public does turn its eyes our way. We’ve got to figure out how to translate ourselves, including learning to write in new, accessible genres, taking the lead from anthropologists and other science writers who have already blazed a trail into greater public awareness (like David Graeber, for example).

The reason we’ve got to sell what we do to the public, not just talk amongst ourselves, isn’t simply to feed our own egos. If we are to attract the brightest students of the next generations, to stand up for our discipline, to share what we have learned, then we have to be willing to write and talk to a broad audience. There are all kinds of dangers arising from public invisibility, not just from ignorant politicians (see Daniel’s coverage of Florida Gov Scott’s drive-by on anthropology); we also risk letting other people dominate the public understanding of subjects we really care about.

Chris Kelty pointed out back in 2010 at Savage Minds that anthropologists are not good at getting our work into public places, or building relationships with journalists:

Cultural anthropologists have no tradition of publishing articles that simply describe their ongoing or recent research in brief but detailed, relatively standardized forms. Instead, the journal article in cultural anthropology is a mini-book, replete with complex forms of argument and narrative, rich, detailed description and a complete list of references in the literature. Whereas many scientists write a synthetic review article of research in their field once every couple of years, sub-fields of anthropology get one per decade, if that. Whereas a brief article reporting some results in science looks like “findings,” a brief article by an anthropologist describing a bit or recent fieldwork looks paltry and insubstantial.

Although I’m dwelling on the dangers of not having a public face, the sad fact is that our own community suffers from our obtuse and anti-social writing tendencies (long articles, complex arguments, rhetorical hair splitting, highly specialized language, decentralized and slow journal system — let’s just call it ‘anti-pop anth’). As Chris goes on to describe:

One result of this is that I honestly have no idea what the vast majority of my colleagues in anthropology are working on until well after they are done doing it, and this is a real failure when it comes to making anthropological research appear fresh. If I were king, or Bill Davis, I would require every researching anthropologist to publish a paragraph describing ongoing research in a AAA publication at least once a year. Such a resource, if done correctly and made freely available would of its own accord change the dynamics of attention to the discipline by outsiders.

A vital, engaging forum for sharing new research and ideas in non-specialist ways would help us to be more aware of interesting discussions in other subdisciplines and specialities. As a diverse discipline, it will even help us internally if we’re producing more easy-to-read, exciting accounts of what we do.

Alright, so you want to write pop anth…

For some of us, especially those of us with under-developed lives outside of the office, our own personal blogs make sense. But for many, we don’t want to commit to this kind of output, or we want to make popular, accessible writing only a small part of our repertoire. If you’re in this situation —and I suspect this is the majority of academic anthropologists— a site like Pop Anth is perfect.

The Pop Anth Peeps have put up their own guidelines and suggestions, as well as a ‘Contributor’s Corner.’ They’ve also gotten a ‘writing coach,’ which I think is a brilliant idea. John McCreery, PopAnth’s coach in residence, is a rare bird: with a PhD from Cornell in anthropology, he’s also ‘spent thirteen years working in advertising in Japan as a copywriter and creative director.’ Perhaps one of the smartest moves of the PopAnth people (well, after taking my sage advice) was making available a coach because writing for a popular audience actually takes skillz, as I’ve learned the hard way. Although John’s input is not obligatory, he’s a great resource, and I know I’ll certainly be asking him to take a look at anything I submit.

Suggestions for writing Pop Anth (or other social science-popular cross-over genre):

  1. Get stuck in and do it! Start tryingto write accessible, engaging stuff, and don’t overthink it. Better to write in the darkness than to curse loudly our lack of visibility as anthropologists. It’s futile to complain we’re not a more popular field if we’re not trying to write popular pieces. And the best way to learn is to do. Look, no matter which way you say it, the best way to make anthropology more popular is to write popular anthropology.
  2. Get role models (or even a coach). Don’t expect, if you read nothing but baroque arch-theoretical discourse all day that you will suddenly be able to write engaging, accessible prose for a general audience. If we’re going to write pop anth, we’re going to have to spend some time studying the craft of pop writing. I’ve got my own favorites (like Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Rebecca Skloot, Jennifer Ouellette, Seth Mnookin, David Dobbs, and Steve Silberman, to name just a few). A piece by Deborah Blumprobably shifted my writing over night when I realized how sophisticated and subtle her sense of story-telling was.And I have learned so much from anthropologists and other academics who have successfully written popular stuff, not just the classics in our field like Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Marjorie Shostak, and Katherine Dunham, but also our contemporaries, like Bill Beeman, Paul Stoller, David Graeber, Wade Davis, Agustin Fuentes, Jonathan Marks, Philippe Bourgois, John Hawks, Krystal D’Costa, Daniel Miller, Kate Clancy, Jason Antrosio, Kristina Killgrove, my partner-in-blogging, Daniel Lende…  I’m not ashamed to emulate people like Marvin Harris, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, even Thomas Friedman, with whom I might disagree theoretically, but who clearly have found distinctive ways of reaching out to a broad audience.

    (EDIT: I made and remade this list and the previous one and dropped or momentarily forgot many, many authors whose work I love. If you’re not on it, it’s only because I HAD to practice what I preach and not just write a more and more bloated paragraph out of fear of offending someone. If I was writing a list of favourite science and anthro bloggers, I would have to include Kerim, Lisa, Barbara, Patrick, Ryan, Rachel, Max, Vaughan, Lorenz, Pat, Jovan, Pal, and many many more… you get the idea. In fact, this proliferation is one reason that we need a central site like Pop Anth to help us find, not just our favourites and most prolific colleagues, but also the one-off pop anthropologist.)

  3. Look, I could go on and on, but the point is that, if you want to write pop anthropology, you should read pop anthropology, or at least popular science writing of some stripe. And you should pay attention to what the best stuff does, how it’s structured, and what you like about it. We don’t have to all write alike – no way. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel from scratch. Check out other people’s wheels.
  4. Remember that no one has to read the next sentence. I think I picked this up from Steve Silberman’s amazing post on writing advice, or it might have been from Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer… As academic writers, we can sometimes treat our audience as captive — once they start one of our articles, we can persuade ourselves that our readers must diligently plod on because of some sort of sense of academic obligation, no matter how dreary the prose (that’s self delusional, of course, but a separate subject).Especially in online writing, you can lose a reader at every single sentence; it takes even less effort to surf away from what you’ve written than closing and putting down a book. And an online reader has likely made zero investment in getting your work. With Google Analytics, I can tell how long the average reader stays on my long posts, and it can be sobering. Put a couple of clunker sentences in a row of turgid, convoluted jargon-babble, and your readers will have already clicked away to something more nimble and engaging. We have to keep giving our readers pay-offs for reading us: moments of insight, beautiful details, well-phrased and economical arguments.
  5. Tell stories. The more I read and study popular science that gets me excited, the more I realize that good narrative drives some of the best (although, interestingly, not always, and certainly not in pointless, undirected ways). The narrative can be complicated, twisting, and even slightly tangential at some points, but inevitably, I find that many of the best pop science I read has a story. Splitting the story and weaving the discussion of theoretical or analytical points into the narrative can make the article more sticky, less likely to lose readers. (For more on narrative in science writing, check out this video workshop.)
  6. Even if it’s your blog, try not to make it about you.Try to shift away from too much excessive self-introjection if you want to fly for a popular audience (unlike this post). Sure, when there’s an element of memoir or autobiography, go for it; write yourself all over it. In fact, if the story is about you, writing yourself in can be incredibly effective. But I have found in my earliest blogging that I was introjecting little bits of me, including self-derision or displays of humility both real or affected, in totally unnecessary ways. Rereading some of these posts just make me groan. More of my posts should have started straight into the story, the ethnographic subject, the material I wanted to discuss, not talking about my reaction or positioning myself. Reading my earlier efforts now feels awkward and excessively ‘bloggy’ (not a good thing).The best thing about cultural anthropology for a general audience is not the anthropologists. It’s the stuff we study. Focus on our subjects’ stories and lives.
  7. You’ve GOT TO explain as you go.Name dropping anthropologists or flirting with concepts without explaining can just seem like you’re writing for insiders. Imagine your audience as intelligent and curious, but coming from outside your field, like a really good undergraduate class where you get smart cross-overs from other majors.Perhaps the best academic preparation for pop anth is undergraduate teaching.If you explain well, those who don’t have the academic background will appreciate your clear explanation; your colleagues are likely to admire the clarity of your discussion; and your pissy, pretentious colleagues, who want to take issue with any explanation, were reading all along to take issue and have a tantrum. So f*** ‘em. Don’t write defensively or with fear of being caught out for not being exhaustive. Instead…
  8. Use your excitement for your subject (or hijack your students’ excitement, if need be). Don’t bury colourful details and fun stuff in notes – popular writing is precisely the place to leverage quirky details, even if they’re slightly off topic. In sales school for being a door-to-door salesman, our teachers used to tell us, ‘Sell the sizzle, not the steak.’ In pop anth, show what our approach can do, don’t talk about it. Nowhere — NO-WHERE — in pop anth should the word ‘methodology’ appear. That’s shop talk. Do anthropology and let that energy be what we convey.
  9. Promote your colleagues’ work, and don’t get too caught up in internal criticisms. One of the things that irritates me to no end is that, given a public forum, one of the first things some cultural anthropologists do is to attack other anthropologists’ ideas. We can sometimes heap scorn upon our elders, accuse each other of hyperbolic, imagined intellectual crimes, and basically behave like over-wrought intellectual hair-splitters. There’s plenty of more appropriate forums for the scholastic take-down, ideal settings for a theoretical bodyslam.As Alex Golub (the extraordinary Rex at Savage Minds) told me when we met up in Sydney (and I think he said he got it from David Graeber), ‘Students don’t care who’s wrong.’ The same is true for pop anthropology. In this format, we should focus more on offering constructive alternative, not painting ourselves as the permanent opposition or the discipline of naysayers (more on this in my ‘brand anthropology’ post).

    One of the great pleasures of writing popular stuff has been the opportunity to promote exciting work in our field that’s being done by our colleagues. Especially if you’re good at writing pop anthropology, don’t be afraid to talk about someone else’s work. Be generous, acknowledge your sources, and you’ll be surprised how much travel these pieces will get. Almost never, in about five years of writing online, have I found that a colleague has responded negatively when I’ve talked about their work, if I treat it graciously and don’t become hyper-critical.

  10. If you’ve got access to institutional support, use it. The PR office at your university (if you’re employed by one), is probably craving content, including new things to put on your university’s homepage. Talk to them. They may even shop your pop anth pieces around for you, taking them to potential outlets. Or use the support offered by folks like Erin, Gawain, John and the crew at Pop Anth. Don’t be afraid to hold your hand up and ask for some helping getting your work out, brainstorming how to write it up in a more accessible way, or otherwise reaching out to the public: it will get easier and easier the more you do it.
  11. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned, and one of the things I still struggle with, is simply pushing the ‘publish’ button, or sending out a popular piece to a potential publisher. If you write with a generosity of spirit — don’t assume that the people you’re talking about are idiots or try to expose them in some grad school critique kind of way — you don’t have to fear writing often and quickly. Write short pieces, and publish often through the channels that are increasingly available. The more we do it, the better we will get as a field.
  12. Finally, don’t be afraid. Be bold. Write the kind of stuff that you would have found fascinating when you first discovered anthropology. I wish we could share that thrill with everyone out there, that first time that we feel a life-long intellectual passion get ignited. When I write my best pop anth, I often feel like I’m writing for a younger me, remembering what it was like when the discovery of human variation, creativity, and complexity was so intoxicating. In this sense, pop anth can remind us why we love what we do.

In closing, I actually think academic anthropologists and other non-journalist anthropologists have an advantage when writing pop anth over regular science journalists: our knowledge of our field is often extremely deep, and we do not have the pressures of deadlines faced by journalists, in which pieces need to be produced in days, or with even shorter horizons. We have more time to craft our pieces, more stories to draw on, and, if necessary, often more interesting personal stories (including fieldwork) to interject ourselves into our writing.

We don’t have to all write pop anth, but a lot of us have the potential —and the material— to put together some brilliant stuff that could really expose what we do to a much wider audience. Erin, Gawain, John and all the folks at Pop Anth have provided us with a wonderful new channel to hone our craft, to test ideas, and to practice reaching out.

More advice for academic writers crossing over:

A really important post, one that actually made me change even my word processing software: Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors, by Steve Silberman.

From Norton: http://wwnorton.tumblr.com/post/32954793512/nine-tips-for-academics-writing-for-a-general-audience (more advice for book authors than for shorter form writing).

Chris Kelty at Savage Minds: Anthropology Journalism HOWTO.
Kelty’s post is excellent, making a case for more public outreach in anthropology on the basis of an earlier comment by Brian P on Chris’s post, Why is there no Anthropology Journalism?
Especially check out comments on Anthropology Journalism HOWTO by John McCreery and Merry Bruns.

On Reaching a Broader Public: Five Ideas for Anthropologists, by Daniel Lende (Neuroanthropology.net)

How to write an anthropology book that people will read?  by Joana Breidenbach and Pal Nyirri at Savage Minds.

Anthropologists in the public sphere, by L. L. Wynn (my colleague at Macquarie) on Culture Matters.

Bright Ideas and Popular Anthropology by Jeremy Trombley at Struggle Forever.
Jeremy actually points out that popular writing is not for everyone, and won’t be, no matter how anthropology changes. However, he also points out that writing for popular audience is itself a craft and makes some excellent points.

On the Future of Anthropology, by The Humanihilsocialist.

Writing for a popular audience, by Jeremy Trombley at Eidetic Illuminations.

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