Sunday, June 12, 2011
June 12, 2011: I Really Want to Know!
In the many posts here that have engaged directly with the idea of public scholarship—and for that matter in the entire blog’s overarching attempt to exemplify what that concept can be and mean—I have mostly analyzed a couple significant elements: the content, the themes and topics and texts and figures that I feel should be more fully understood and more complicatedly narrated in our national conversations; and the purpose, the reasons why such engagements are always important and have to my mind become even more salient in our current culture and moment. While of course those are two pretty crucial elements to this equation, I think I have not paid quite enough overt or specific attention to a third, perhaps even more foundational, factor: audience. If in the broadest and most ideal scenario public scholarship connects to all Americans (not literally, of course, but at least in representative and far-reaching ways), the reality is that we have to (and should in any case) start more directly than that, by trying to figure out to whom we’re talking as a meaningful part of figuring out what we have to say.
I’m thinking about this tonight for a not-so-great reason that I’m trying to make into something more positive. Today was supposed to be the third of my trio of spring readings from and talks about my recent book—following the very positive joint launch with my colleague Ian Williams at Fitchburg and the equally successful NEASA Colloquium—and moreover was by far the most non-academic and thus public of the three: a reading in the community room at my local (Needham, MA) public library. I was there, flyers about the book were there, and my adorable boys were there (when they weren’t in the children’s area or running around the library or pretending to give talks themselves at the podium or etc), but, well, nobody else was. And that’s not false modesty or hyperbole, there was literally no one in the audience. (The friendly library maintenance guy who said hi to me every day during the summers while I wrote the book stopped by to see how it was going at one point, but since he was paid to do so, I’m not counting him.) Thanks to supporting words from family and my own recognition of the practical challenges of trying to hold an event on a Sunday afternoon in June, and moreover one publicized mostly through library materials and posters and one local website (I knew I should have invested in the skywriting message), I’m trying to remember that those no-shows aren’t necessarily about me or the book at all, and so shouldn’t get me down. I promise that they won’t, but they have got me thinking, again, about audience, about the question of to whom I’m talking and what that might mean for my words going forward.
That question can be a lot harder to answer when it comes to books and readings and the like, but one benefit of this online community is that I can pose it a lot more directly. And so, to extend this post’s titular quote from The Who, I ask, “Whooooo are you? Who who, who who? I really want to know!” I know that blog reading can be a comfortably anonymous or non-committed activity, and I would never want to force you, dear and very appreciated readers, to say or share anything that doesn’t feel right. But I will ask this: if you read this post and can post some version of an answer to my question in a comment, and I do mean any version—your job, your location, what brought you here, your interests, as anonymously or cryptically or straightforwardly as you’d like—it would be a huge help to me going forward. Whatever else you post, I suppose my most central follow-up question is “And what do you hope to find here?” (Whether you have already found it, have found it sometimes but not other times, have glimpsed it in the distance, or haven’t found it yet but are still hopeful!) On the one hand, a space like this comes very much from me, and of course that’ll never change; but on the other, it wouldn’t exist if I didn’t hope that it’ll get to you, and the more I know about who that “you” is and can think about what that means, the better chances I have of getting there.
Thanks in advance! This is, coincidentally but appropriately, my 200th post here, so it makes a particularly great occasion to have this kind of conversation. And while you’re commenting, as always, suggestions for future posts, offers to guest post, or any other thoughts will be entirely welcome and appreciated too. More tomorrow,
PS. In the spirit of finding audiences, here are a couple other blogs well worth your time, both public and scholarly in their own impressive ways:
1) That aforementioned colleague Ian: www.ianwilliams.ca
2) One of the most loyal commenters here, Mike Parker: http://nocategory76.blogspot.com/
3) OPEN: Looking forward to your comments!