- Writing for the Public/Writing for the Academy:Competing Goals with Uncertain Outcomes
I am extremely pleased to speak at this special Presidential Session of the Pacific Coast Geographers meeting hosted by Jim Allen, this year's President of the APCG. Given his stellar record of published work that has had an important public impact, beginning with We the People (1988) and continuing with The Ethnic Quilt (1997) and Changing Faces, Changing Places (2002), he could as easily be making this presentation. He has consistently undertaken work that has attempted to reach out to a public readership, and like all of us who have attempted to go beyond our academic roots he has struggled with the problems of careful scientific work and making that work attractive to a wide audience. That public audience is often not interested in our arcane numbers and wants a big picture—a theme I will reprise later in this presentation.
All writers want their work to be read and discussed and even to leave a permanent mark—something that lasts and is read beyond the moment and perhaps even outlasts our contemporary careers. But how often does this happen, how can we make it happen, and what is the role of scientific versus popular writing? These are the questions that are at the heart of the discussion.
The Basis of Writing
As geographers and scientists, our writing comes from grappling with what we think are important questions; questions for which we do not have answers but which we believe can, and should, be answered. We conduct research by gathering data and subjecting the data to manipulation and analysis to tell our colleagues something new, or to question established knowledge or even to reaffirm something already known. Most of the time the output is a research article, and our scholarly contributions are often defined by those small pieces that are in turn the building blocks of larger contributions [End Page 108] to theory and empirical analysis. Whether the larger product is a book or a specialized monograph, it naturally takes on a more extensive and discursive structure with chapters and subchapters, in fact a concatenation of what may have been originally a series of articles. The test, of course, is to keep an ongoing and consistent theme through the larger work. Obviously this is more difficult the more complex and larger the work.
Books and, to a lesser extent, monographs can be a summary of one's own research articles. However, they are more likely to be a compendium of your own work and the work of others as one seeks to bring together articles, commentary, current debate, and the whole range of thinking on a topic. In my title I suggested that there are two kinds of books—scholarly and popular (sometimes overlapping, usually not)—but clearly there is a difference between Guns, Germs and Steel (by my colleague Jared Diamond) and the Da Vinci Code. Both have been on the New York Times best seller list for several months, but of course they are quite different and have different aims and different readerships, although I imagine there are people who have read both of these works. In a sense Guns, Germs and Steel is perhaps the best example of writing for the public with a message that matters. Still, books like Guns, Germs and Steel are popular and are not "scholarly" in the sense of most of the academic books that we write for academic audiences. Indeed, the popular "environmental message," perhaps even environmental determinism of Guns, Germs and Steel is heatedly debated within academic geography. Yet, the contribution of the book is still to bring discussions of geography to a public who might otherwise not be aware of our contribution to science and knowledge.
A scholarly work, whether or not it is designed for a wider public or an academic audience, depends on a body of research by more than one scholar. It is not possible, even if it were desirable, to carry out all the investigations that go into a book-length work. Invariably, even if a book is largely new research, it draws together a large...