Why Bother?

Guest post by Mark A. Largent

Four years ago, I set out to do what I had long promised I would once I had the security of tenure: start writing for a broader audience. Over the previous decade, I had met all the expectations of a mainstream academic scholar. I had published a book with a university press, as well as a half-dozen peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals. I had organized conferences and served as the book review editor for my field’s journal of record. I had taught my classes, served on committees, and even edited a book series. Now, I could finally start publishing works that would be much more widely read and that (hopefully) would have an influence far beyond the ivory tower.

I had strong support for my plan. I had taken a position in a public policy college at a land grant university that prides itself on civic engagement. My dean encouraged me to start thinking of myself as a public intellectual, and I spent several years editing dozens of my colleagues’ writings and thoughtfully developing my own writing style.

In the summer of 2008 I set to work on a new project, one that everyone seemed to believe had obvious appeal far beyond the academy. I wanted to write a book that explored the ongoing debates about the alleged link between vaccines and autism, and I wanted it to appeal to the average American reader. I hoped to write a book that “New York Times-reading parents” could pick up to help them sort through the confusing mess of claims about the modern vaccine schedule. Four years later, Johns Hopkins University Press released Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America.  I am intensely proud of the book, but almost as soon as it hit the shelves I began to ask, “Why bother?”

Why bother trying to write to an audience beyond my relatively narrow academic discipline? There are few incentives and many disincentives, especially for someone who publishes a book about something controversial enough to be of interest to a general audience. For example, I was reminded of what a harsh and uncivil environment the Internet is. I found out that even well-written books on timely subjects are not easy to sell. I learned that a reasoned and moderate position on a controversial subject leaves the author with few allies and twice as many enemies. Finally, I was reminded by some of my colleagues that “accessible” is oftentimes an insult in the mouths of academics.

Writing for broad audiences is not a bother; it is a duty. Unfortunately, relatively few scholars are encouraged or feel compelled to enter the public square. I still remember hearing Ken Alder’s acceptance speech for the 2003 Davis Prize, which is given annually by the History of Science Society to the best book published in the history of science for a general audience. Alder enthusiastically described why he wrote The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World, his history of an 18th-century expedition, in such a way as to be widely appealing. He explained that it is often erroneously said that if professional historians didn’t write readable histories, someone else would do it. “Well,” he said, “someone else is doing it, and it’s not being done very well.” He finished with an appeal to all of us to continue our scholarship and to take up the responsibility for helping translate some of our research into accessible, useful work.

Alder was right. Scholars ought to feel compelled—and they ought to compel one another—to consider applications for their research and writings. This is not easy work. It will open our work to criticism, misuse, and distortion. But, unless we are to admit that our methods and our conclusions are interesting or relevant for only a tiny percentage of the reading public, we ought to find ways to do extension work that applies our expertise to broader public problems and appeals to broader audiences.

largentMark Largent is a historian of science and associate professor at Michigan State University’s James Madison College .  His work focuses on the role of scientists and physicians in American public affairs, and he has published on the history of evolution, eugenics, and the vaccine-autism debate.  He is the author of Breeding Contempt:  The History of Sterilization in the United States (Rutgers 2008) and Vaccine:  The Debate on Modern America (Johns Hopkins 2012).  He is currently working on a history of Reye’s syndrome.