A full day and half at the very start of winter break back in a DePaul classroom in something called a seminar. Some part of me was of course a little apprehensive. I’ve spent a lot of hours in seminars listening to well-intentioned people fill up space and time with talk. You come away feeling, “well, that was interesting but what exactly did I get from it?” (in the best case scenarios).
This was different from the start. When the announcement for the Public Voices Fellowship first appeared a few months back, I remember sensing a little thrill. In my experience, this is an unusual response to work inbox items. But I’d been feeling constrained by academic writing and so this caught my eye: a series of workshops over three months that encourages academics to enter public discourse via OpEds—one of my favorite genres to read, and one I had always aspired to but never managed to attempt.
That nagging internal critic went to work on me right away. “If you want to write an OpEd, why don’t you just write an OpEd?” Fair enough. But if you are like me, like many of us, you need a little push to help bridge the dreadful gap between The Journal of Eighteenth-Century Health and Science and The Huffington Post. Between thought-soaked academic isolationism and more widely-read public fora (see that precious Latin plural? I need help). And if you fancy yourself a decent writer—come along now, most of us do—chomping at the bit of academic prose, well… this program seemed like it might be just the ticket.
So I was thrilled but still unclear about what we would actually do. Having now completed the first day and a half, I am happy to report genuine, ongoing enthusiasm. It was a workshop, to be sure. There was facilitating, role playing, tear sheets taped to dry-erase boards. But I was completely engaged by the experience. The agenda was exceptionally well thought out, the seminar leaders tuned-in sharp to their audience and larger purpose. I found it useful to hear about conventions of the genre, tricks of the journalistic trade, bleak facts on underrepresented voices.
And inspiring to hear my colleagues from across the university give voice to their own hopes of connecting with a broader public. What a group! Faculty and staff communications specialists; humanists, social scientists, and scientists proper; junior and senior, tenured and still waiting (a distinction I’d not expected would loom so large in our conversation—do we really need to convince our institutions of the value of a well-placed OpEd?).
Anxiety and connection were the twin themes of the day. We fretted together over the question of authority: who gets to claim expert status and, more pointedly, can I? Should I? The field is vast, knowledge so intricate. Lucky for us, the seminar leaders proved themselves seasoned experts in dealing with this sort of hand-wringing. Not to weigh in on important issues about which you have some informed insight is a kind of selfishness, they gently admonished. I couldn’t help think (in a good way) of a firm parent with a petulant child: “Enough of this nonsense. Claim your expertise. Focus. Do it!”
They’re offering an impressive network of professional connections to editors, help opening doors not easily opened, all while cheering us along. I feel privileged to have been included and of course some pressure to make a move. Sooner rather than later.
Gary Cestaro is Associate Professor of Italian at DePaul University’s department of Modern Languages. An OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow, he is the author of Dante and the Grammar of the Nursing Body and Queer Italia: Same-Sex Desire in Italian Literature and Film.