Abigail Saguy on Breaking Barriers with Op-Ed Writing

SaguyPhotoI am a sociologist. My colleagues and I spend years studying topics including crime, gender relations, obesity and sexual harassment. As a group, we have deeper knowledge than most of the people who dominate public discussions of these topics in newspapers, on the radio, or on television.

And yet sociologists don’t typically write op-eds. Professional rewards go to those who publish in scientific journals and academic books that rarely make it out of the ivory tower. We don’t receive much encouragement to reach beyond academia. Indeed, those who are too successful with a broader public risk being taken less seriously by their colleagues.

This is a shame. It is also a scandal. It is the hoarding of precious knowledge. Researchers have a moral obligation to share what they know.

Feeling a civic duty to participate in public debate is a first step, but it is not enough. Academics also need tools to be able to write for a broader audience. We don’t learn to write op-eds in graduate school! For me, The OpEd project workshop was a revelation and provided me with the tools I needed to start writing.

It helped that I was extremely motivated. The timing was perfect. Oxford University Press was about to launch my new book What’s Wrong with Fat?. This book examines how and why we have come to perceive fatness as a medical problem and public health crisis. It explores alternative ways of understanding this issue and shows how dominant views about fatness are literally making us sick.

I wrote What’s Wrong with Fat? as a “cross-over” book, one that would contribute to sociological research while also being accessible beyond academia. But I knew that to really reach a wider audience, I needed to get the word out. Op-eds were one important way to do that.

I participated in a September 15, 2012 OEP workshop. Thanks to this workshop, I was able to write four op-ed pieces between October 2012 and January 2013, three of which I published in The Huffington Post, LA Times, and Washington Post, respectively. Each time, I received invaluable feedback and encouragement from a mentor of The OpEd Project.

My Washington Post op-ed received over 550 comments. I also received many emails from readers. Many of the comments and a few of the emails were hostile, but most praised the piece and thanked me for bringing the topic of anti-fat bias and “size profiling” into the public discussion. They hoped my piece would shift the public debate. So do I.

Abigail Saguy is Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Sociology and Associate Professor of Gender Studies at UCLA.  She is the author of What’s Wrong with Fat (2013), What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne (2003), and over 20 scientific journals. Professor Saguy teaches in the three quarter-sequence GE Cluster class “Sex: From Biology to Gendered Society” (GE72A, B, CW) and Sociology of Gender (Soc. M162), among other courses.

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