Eyeballs on Writing

Many a doctoral candidate is told, by way of a reminder that perfection is too lofty a goal for a dissertation, that chances are high that the only people who will read the dissertation are the five members of the dissertation committee…if that.

Quite the solace.

It is true that the dissertation is primarily a display of the author’s scholarly bona fides, not intended for public readership, particularly in the present day. The thinly-updated dissertations masquerading as books from the 1960s and 70s I encountered during my own research, some simply just reproductions of the actual dissertation with a disclaimer tacked at the front, would certainly not sniff publication in that format had they been completed in 2014.

I’m at peace with the notion that my dissertation, the culmination of over eight years of study including two years of dedicated research and a third of intense writing,  won’t be seen by the public at large, and perhaps infrequently consulted by future doctoral candidates at best (I should note here that some of the most useful sources in my own research were prior dissertations). It’s proof of an ability to engage with existing literature, and an information dump of everything I’ve found related to my subject, written in a dry, but hopefully not too dry, academic style.

A respite from longform academic writing, which truly provided a positive change-of-pace during the dissertation process, was the chance to author a series of essays for Smarthistory at Khan Academy. To date, I’ve written three essays for Smarthistory: Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, and Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.

If you search for the Gainsborough work on Google, my essay is the 2nd result. If you search for the Wright of Derby painting, it’s 1st. If you search for Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, a painting which was voted “the Greatest Painting in Britain” in 2009, my 1300-word essay is the 3rd result.*

*And not just on google.com, it’s 3rd on google.co.uk as well.

Let that sink in. Tens of people might read my dissertation, but thousands upon thousands have read what a then-ABD American art historian has to say on this iconic image of British history. A serious scholar will absolutely turn to a scholar like Andrew Wilton, but frankly, I find public dialog about art to be more rewarding than deep-yet-obtuse scholastic minutiae…exactly the form taken by a dissertation.

It must be said, this admission doesn’t mean that I can’t do research and can’t engage in deep-yet-obtuse scholastic minutiae. I can, and as my PhD attests, I’m damn good at it. However, that type of inquiry doesn’t interest me as much as teaching to the public, and using my knowledge as a springboard for the growth of someone else’s understanding of a work of art, or of themselves.

Writing for the general public is also far more comfortable, and in turn far easier, than academic prose. Jargon, important but overwrought in most places, is replaced with more conversational phrasing. Ideas are far simpler to generate and explain. Language is used as a tool to encourage understanding, rather than a crutch to prop up weak ideas or as a shield to defend against opposing ideas.

In all of this discussion, my intention is not to slam academic writing or the importance of presenting one’s complex research to a scholarly audience. Rather, it is to acknowledge that I find more personal satisfaction in writing for an audience that includes students, lifelong learners, and casual fans of art. I enjoy being that gateway, the one who inspires an idle Google search to continue into deeper research on Turner, Gainsborough, Wright, or anything else art-related which strikes the searcher’s fancy. It’s the same reason I’ve been known to correct or otherwise tweak the Wikipedia pages for artists I’ve studied or whom I’m interested in. Better to meet an audience on their grounds rather than hope and pray they stumble into yours.


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