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Write in public, or on publishing before you’re ready

By Daniel Tubb, University of New Brunswick

Prolific British Marxist Eric Hobsbawm was a consummate repackager of his own ideas, according to Historians Emile Chabal and Anne Perez (2021). They write his “student lectures became book chapters; newspaper op-eds became long essays; and key arguments found their way into a myriad of different formats.” His expansive body of work emerged, on the one hand, from a willingness to recycle, but also because of a willingness to test ideas in public by building lectures, op-eds, letters, articles, book chapters, and books from each other. Some ideas passed the test; perhaps many did not.

What can an ethnographer learn from his method of writing in public?

Perfectionism has meant I approach writing precisely in the opposite way. For a long time, I have written field notes, ideas, jottings, reactions, drafts. Almost all sit unevaluated, unrevised, and unpublished on my computer. My publications have come slowly and unsteadily. Right now, three articles destined for peer review niggle at me. Each is close, but not quite. Each needs revision. If the past is a guide, it might take me a year to even submit somewhere.

Perfectionism has meant that for me publishing takes time.

Ideas have always spilled from my digital notebooks for large projects. But most ideas never go anywhere.

While I have had some modest success on long projects—a smattering of articles and book chapters, an ethnographic monograph that I’m immensely proud of, and an edited volume of speculative non-fiction about the future—these have taken years and have come slowly.

Might I be getting two things wrong? First, big projects take skill and craft. Enskilment in the writing is best learned in the doing—trying, making mistakes, getting feedback, testing ideas, revising. Second, big projects are exhausting. To write a book is to run a marathon after a marathon after a marathon. And yet, runners might finish hundreds of shorter runs to train for a marathon. Why not write in the same way?

I have often thought of the act of publishing as the last and final step of a project; something done at the end. But publication need not be one’s final intervention. Publication can be an opening intervention into a conversation.

I tell students to write before they are ready. Perhaps we should we publish before we are ready?

While I’ve often struggled to finish and publish academic work, I have also had what is an energizing practice as a writer of short pieces for wider publics. The publics have changed. As an undergraduate student, I wrote for student newspapers. As a graduate student, I helped found a student newspaper. As professor, I write pieces for professional newsletters, national websites, and local media. I dabble in social media. It is energizing, but it has rarely been an outlet for my academic work.

Why not?

A metaphor I have in mind comes from artisanal gold mining. For my first book, I spent eighteen months in northwest Colombia with Afro-descendent gold miners learning how to mine. The work was hard and physical, but for some it had its charms, a little profit, and camaraderie. Central to the mine work was regularly checking in with a wooden pan. Washing is skilled work, and it was women who let the centrifugal force of water eject stones and gravel. If they found a few flecks, they knew they were on the right track. 

The metaphor is a stretch, and writing is not gold mining. But maybe publishing is a way to finish an idea, to check in, to articulate it, and to see if it is useful. After all, to check their progress, an artisanal miner must shift a lot of mud and gravel to get a little gold.

My courses are most exciting, my lectures most gripping, and my writing most productive when it is all intertwined and I am working ideas out. Maybe publication need not be the ultimate, last, and final act of a project, but a way to see what emerges in conversation with students, with peers, and with other publics. Might publishing be a way to check in on an idea, and to test it. After all, not all publication needs to be in scholarly journals or books, and there are newsletters, blogs, magazines, websites, book reviews, social media, and other places.

Maybe we should take a page from Eric Hobsbawn, and learn to write in public.

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