Thinking About Thinking: What’s in a Name?

The Internet has been abuzz with news of J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous novel-writing undertaking.  Taking the male name of Robert Galbraith, the woman who sold over 450 million copies of the Harry Potter series wrote a crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and didn’t spill the beans about it until her identity was exposed.

thought leadershipIt brings to mind the question of why one of the modern world’s most successful writers wished to write under a different name.  Which leads to the more complicated question of how much of an individual’s value is placed on their namesake and its history, and how much on the merit of his or her present work.

As this Wall Street Journal article states, Rowling’s reason for the first question is simple and understandable enough.  “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation,” she said on her website.  For someone who has long been a tremendously celebrated writer, writing without the pressure of hype must seem like a nostalgic and impossible notion, something reserved only for fledgling artists.

Her secret lasted for about six weeks, and soon after the author’s true identity was revealed, WSJ reported that sales shot up and 300,000 more copies were printed.  NPR states that the book reportedly only sold 1,500 copies in the U.K. its first week and gives it a lukewarm review, while user reviews on Amazon averages at a solid, respectable 4.    However, if Rowling’s identity hadn’t been revealed, what would the book’s overall results look like?

This piece in The New Yorker explores another case of secret writing by a famous author, one that occurred years before in the early 1980’s.  The author was the young fellow at a publishing company who failed to pick on author Doris Lessing’s pseudonymous manuscript.  He stands by his first reaction, stating that the novel was simply not good enough or remarkable enough to warrant being placed on the “agented” shelf.

Though the moral of these two stories are slightly different, they both ring true the fact that intellectual renown is part talent, part cultural hype.  Would attention towards a particular piece be different if the person who wrote it used a man’s name?  A Western name?  A male Western name?  Ultimately, what’s the extent of the relationship between the thinker’s identity and her ideas?


South Asian Women on WBEZ

A guest post by Namratha Kandula


Nammi Kandula, Niala Boodhoo, and Haleema Shah

South Asian women in the house! It was a first on WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate. I had been invited to be a guest on the Afternoon Shift, where we would be discussing health and preventative care in ethnic communities. As we sat there, I realized that all of us–the host, Niala Boodhoo, the other guest Haleema Shah, and I–were all South Asian women.

“Is this a first?” I asked. Yes, it was! And at that moment, I was struck by this funny and, in some ways, remarkable moment. Here we were, three young(ish) first-generation immigrants, having a public conversation on Chicago Public Radio about immigrant health. Immigrant health is my topic of expertise, as I have been a clinician and scientist for more than 10 years. It was incredibly empowering because I was able to tell all of Chicago and beyond about the challenges that immigrants face regarding preventative health, and what should be done about them.

Men and the majority culture drive so much of public opinion and discourse. As a Northwestern University Public Voices Fellow, I have been reminded over and over again to “own your ideas.” For so long, I was unsure if my work and my ideas would be considered important enough to write and speak about in the public arena. My ideas were mostly confined to grants from the National Institutes of Health, academic papers, and talks at conferences. The problem with confining your ideas within a narrow space is that you can forget: Why do you do what you do, what does it mean, why does it matter?

Thanks to the mentors in the program, EJ Graff and Michele Weldon, I was barely nervous about my first radio appearance. When we went live on the air, I realized the depth of my expertise in immigrant health and that this topic was of great interest to many people. I spoke about the challenges that immigrant communities face in accessing health care and prevention programs, and even more importantly, I felt a surge of confidence when I offered my ideas about possible solutions. Because of what I learned through the Public Voices program, I savored the opportunity of having my voice joining those of Niala Boodhoo and Haleema Shah, as well as all the other women and minorities who are finding their space in public discourse. Women and minorities in the house!

Ask a Mentor-Editor: Janus Adams on Bravery, Brown v. Board, and the Future of American Journalism

Award-winning journalist, historian, producer, and publisher, Janus Adams is the author of three books and creator of the groundbreaking BackPax children’s book-and-audio series. A scholar of African American and women’s history, Adams specializes in putting current events into historical perspectives. She writes the syndicated column, “What Do We Tell Our Children,” her commentaries are regular features of NPR, and her OpEds have appeared on and in USA Today. Her on-air guest credits include CNN’s TalkBack Live and NBC’s Today Show.

RK: You are an Emmy Award-winning journalist, historian, author, producer, publisher, and non-profit founder. You’re also a classically-trained pianist! Do you have a favorite hat? What advice do you have for young people who have multiple passions and are struggling to find careers that incorporate and cultivate them all. What about those of us who don’t know?

JA: I started playing the piano at age 3 and began life thinking I would be a musician.  Ultimately, I turned to writing and journalism, but the discipline of practicing up to six hours a day by the time I was in graduate school powered everything else. As for a “favorite hat,” I love the art and craft of communicating ideas and information – by any means necessary. I have degrees in music, theatre, and history.  And if you listen to my BackPax children’s CDs or attend my “Glory Days: In Concert,” you’ll  find it all there.  So, my advice would be the usual: do what you love and put in the time to do it well.  Nothing is ever wasted.

RK: Not only have you divided your energy between different pursuits, you’ve also split your focus between different generations. What prompted you to form BackPax and write your “What Do We Tell Our Children” essays?

JA: Never underestimate necessity as the mother of invention and invention as the necessity of mothers.

I founded BackPax – publisher of children’s books, audios, and games – in answer to the needs of my twin daughters and their peers for non-racist, gender-inclusive materials.  I used my training as a broadcast journalist to produce the first audios (on location throughout the Americas) for what I thought would be a radio series.  The response of teachers and parents eager for the tapes led me to form the company.

My “What Do We Tell Our Children?” essays were inspired by letters from readers of my column and at signings for my “Glory Days” books.  Now, the response to those essays has inspired the launch (March 2010) of my “What Do We Tell Our Children?” campaign to “parents, educators, and other concerned adults.”

RK: At 8 you were one of four children selected to pioneer the desegregation of New York schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Did you understand the importance of what you were doing at age 8?

JA: We were quite aware.  This was a national story made local.  With the violence of segregation threatening every African American, North and South; we saw Brown, too, as affecting us all.  With New York City among the first major northern school districts to test desegregation of the elementary grades, we left our all-Black school to take our place in an all-White school just weeks after Rosa Parks kept her historic seat launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

With White parents and teachers openly hostile, our families, neighbors, churches, former schoolmates rallied to our support and our parents armored us for the battle as best they could.  One parent spat at me and tore my dress.  An exception to the terror, one teacher, Mrs. Rose Zir, stood out for her sheer human decency.  I also got to meet Dr. King when I was ten.  He asked what I was doing for “our people.”  I told him about the four of us and our school.  He hugged me and said that what we were doing was “important.” That one gesture from him helped cleanse the wounds.

RK: What would you identify as the most formative experience in terms of your association with journalism?

JA: I was fortunate in the midst of misfortune.  In my first full-time job in television, I was working at Metromedia Channel 5 (now Fox News) when a union strike dragged on for twenty weeks. With our crews on the picket line, non-technical production staffers had to take on assignments beyond our job descriptions.  In my case, as production assistant I ended up as the show’s principle writer.  That was the turning point for me.  Years later, I helped pioneer feminist programming.  My shows – excerpted and aired on NPR – brought me to their news director’s attention and I became NPR’s first National Arts Correspondent.

RK: You’ve been involved in media for a long time—what are some of the changes you’ve observed take place?

JA: What the union was fighting in that 20-week strike I mentioned was the future: robotics.  You go into television stations across the country today and what IATSE feared has come to pass: tech crews have been replaced by robotic cameras and reporters with minicams.  My entry-level position as a production assistant is done by unpaid interns.  The story isn’t new.  The erosion of media jobs has been going on for quite some time, but now it’s affecting once-untouchable major media executives and frontline talent.  For newspapers, the biggest story is reporting their own demise.

RK: Have you experienced any sexism in your career?

JA: I left television because of sexism.  After that strike and the awards garnered by our show, I was promoted to management where my new boss explained that my responsibilities included being chased around the desk and getting caught.  Sexual harassment wasn’t a term then.  There was no one to talk to and nowhere to file a grievance.  You got along by going along or you left; I left.  This wasn’t about television; this was about abuses of power when sexism and racism hold sway.  But, if this was going on behind the camera, how well do we think the news covered racism and sexism in other workplaces?

RK: On the OpEd Project website we have a page titled “Arguments That Changed the World,” that includes “If Men Could Menstruate” by Gloria Steinem, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” What are a few articles you would select for this page as examples of extraordinary and influential argumentation?

JA: I love the essays Toni Morrison has written over the years for The New York Times. Particularly powerful is her “What the Black Woman Thinks of Women’s Lib” (1971), and, of course, her Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power of language.  I’d also include Alice Walker’s “In Search of our Mother’s Gardens,” the original and revived “This I Believe” radio series, and almost any essay by James Baldwin, a master of the form.

RK: This is a very uncertain time to be embarking on a career in journalism—as people rely more and more on the internet for their news, we hear about the declining circulation rates of national and local newspapers; more than a few have gone under completely. And yet many seem to think that journalism does have a future, that it’s just undergoing a radical transformation. What do you think? What future do you see for journalism? For people who want to make a living doing it?

JA: Journalism will always exist because people will always want to know what’s going on.  The real issue is: “it’s the econom(ics) stupid.”  The radical transformation that’s about to happen on the internet is awaiting someone powerful enough to break the unsustainable luxury of “free.”  It’s already happening – e.g. the Wall Street Journal started charging for its core content two years ago.  The challenge will be to find a balance between “free” and the free-flow of ideas; maintaining good business (business as a source of employment) and good access to information.  In the wrong hands, one danger of monetizing the internet would be a cable television model.   Societally, were already being steered to rely on the internet for everything.  When that transition is complete, we’re in danger of a financial model that will emulate our cable TV scenario where even free channels must be viewed via cable, the cost for which is skyrocketing.  We could be forced to pay for everything via escalating modem and wi-fi fees with premium pay-per-use services.

RK:Who is the thought leader that stands out in your mind? Historical or current? Who most influenced you?

JA: My grandfather: William Landsmark, an AfriCaribbean immigrant.  When his children were young, he began a Sunday ritual of roasting peanuts and reading to them from the New York Times. “Now the politicians say this, but you have to learn to read between the lines” he’d tell his daughters aged ages 6, 5, and 3.  When my cousin and I came along, he was never without two newspapers – the Times and Muhammad Speaks – and other insights on the state of the world.  My father died when I was young, so I’d put my grandmother, Myra Landsmark, and my mother, Muriel Landsmark Tuitt, a phenomenal educator, next. And, for his sense of the world, my former husband, musician Max Roach, is up there too.  I don’t do this for sentimentality sake; it’s my truth.  When I published “Peanuts and the Sunday News,” a story about my grandfather’s love of reading, it was picked up for a standardized test and has since gone on to inspire children the world over.

RK: What is the one thing that helped you to get where you are that you didn’t expect?

JA: Growing up, I thought a career was about making a living.  Now, I know it’s about making a life.  Racism and sexism can detract us or power our climb.  I’ve been excluded by White women because I was Black. I’ve been excluded by Black men because I was a woman. I’ve been denied my rights by an “officer of the court” for looking “not too bad off.”  Then I came upon a book of African American women’s history with a title that put all that nonsense into perspective:  All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave. When I can’t be brave, or forget how, I “whistle a happy tune” and put on something outrageously red.

Ask a Mentor-Editor: Jessica Seigel on getting the scoop!

Jessica Seigel is an award-winning magazine writer, radio commentator, and editor who has excavated ancient bones at the real Armageddon, generated electricity by bicycle, and run with wild horses– all to get the story. Her features on culture, health/science, travel, and celebrity have run in The New York Times Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, and National Geographic Traveler, among others. She spoke with OpEd Project Intern Ravenna Koenig about what animates her passion for journalism, the farthest she’s ever gone to get a story, and what it was like to try on a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe.

Ravenna Koenig: You have a very eclectic repertoire as a reporter: you’ve written articles on culture, health, science, travel, and then done a good number of celebrity interviews. Why those subjects?

Jessica Seigel: My background is as a national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. That’s a job that requires being a generalist—you have to cover breaking news across genres: politics, the economy… I was in particular covering Hollywood as a sub-specialty because I was based in Los Angeles. So those are skills that you gain from that kind of a background. Then, when I went on to magazines and radio commentary, I had that investigative, gumshoe, old-fashioned reporting under my belt. And what I have been working on as a magazine writer—it may not be immediately self-evident, but there is a theme… I’m often using science, history and just basic investigative reporting skills to write about cultural myths—often about women, but about other things as well (for example doing an expose of a diet scam).

I think that, as a journalist you don’t really consciously make an intellectual decision—you follow your passion. That’s the most important thing: just following your passions; it’s later that you analyze your passions. What animates my passion is that I was an intellectual history major in college at Wesleyan. Understanding the history of ideas informs absolutely everything I do.

RK: As a travel reporter I understand you’ve embarked on some pretty  exciting endeavors in order to get your story. Where is the most remote place you’ve ever traveled for your scoop?

JS: This summer for a book that I’m working on that relates to the history of beauty ideals, I went to the Kalahari desert to interview hunter-gatherer bushmen on their views of beauty.

RK: How does one even go about making a journey like that?

JS: Most of the work goes up front in planning the trip, in planning who your guides are going to be, who your local translator will be—all those things have to be set up in advance. That took many, many weeks of working through emails to find the correct experts, to speak to them when I arrived, to pick the right area, the right bushmen.

RK: I would imagine that you could run into a lot of technical difficulties doing reporting in situations like that. How do you deal with that?

JS: I work for both radio and for print, and being multi-media in that way requires that you have a higher level of recording. The question right now is switching to digital recording: the digital recorders are not of the quality that mini-disks are; they don’t have the depth of sound. When I went to Africa I brought both my old mini-disks and my new digital recorder because you never want to go anywhere relying on just one device. I would actually recommend traveling with three. My old mini-disk broke in transit, and then I was stuck with using only the new digital, which made me extremely uncomfortable. What I learned from old-timers, is never rely on one recorder, you should literally run two at once. Always, always, always take notes by hand while you’re recording. There have been a number of key instances in my career where the recording didn’t work for a number of reasons and I had to do my entire profile from handwritten notes.

RK: You’ve interviewed Julianne Moore, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Hefner, and… Audrey Hepburn (among others). Have you ever been a fan of an interviewee, and if so did that make your interview more difficult or easier?

JS: I think if you’re a true fan of someone that you are profiling, it makes the interview very, very difficult. Luckily, with Audrey Hepburn, it was a phoner. It made it much easier to interview her over the phone because I wasn’t dazzled by her presence. I would say the person I interviewed who I was the biggest fan of was Bette Midler. It did make it harder. The thing that will interfere with your interview the most in the world is if you secretly want to be liked by your profile subject. And no matter how much you push that out of your mind and try to be professional, it’s still there. The main thing is to be aware of it. Know what the hard questions are and ask the hard questions anyway.

RK: Have you ever been put under pressure by an editor ask or not ask certain questions in an interview?

JS: I don’t really think so. I’ve been very lucky to work for very professional people. The truth of the matter is that the harder the questions you ask, or the more provocative an interview, the better the story is.

RK: I think one of the incredible things about the work you do is that you make your pieces very accessible to the average reader: you cover an assortment of topics that interest a great many people— but I also get the impression that you pursue the stories you want to write. In the OpEd Project’s seminars, one of this things talked about is how to package one’s expertise in a way that will engage others. What advice would you give women trying to get their opinion pieces published to that end?

JS: I really think you have to write stories that you have a particular involvement or expertise in, in some way. The op-ed that Ruth Bettelheim (OpEd Project Alumn!)published in the New York Times this week piece about custody and divorces —it was absolutely a terrific piece because it was a very concrete critique of what is wrong and included very concrete and specific suggestions about how to fix it. Bringing your expertise and inside knowledge to make very specific recommendations, is a good way to get published.

The work I do takes a tremendous amount of leg work. I have a point of view but it’s married with real, hardcore knowledge. An idea isn’t going to come and hit you on the head from heaven, you have to go searching for it, you have to cultivate your knowledge, you have to stay up to date on what’s going on in your field; it take active interest and hard work!

RK: Last question, forgive me if it’s a little fluffy… what was it like to put on a dress that had been worn by Marilyn Monroe?

JS: It was really very exciting. I had to go through many, many collectors before I found one who would let me try on her gown. I got deep inside the world of Marilyn collectors and fans, one would transfer me to the other (that’s where the gumshoe reporting comes in). I had to talk to a lot of people! Along the way I found out there is a tremendous amount of fake Marilyn Monroe goods and claims on the market… I got a press release in my mail box just the other day saying they were promoting Marilyn Monroe’s girdle… now it so happens that I know that Marilyn Monroe was criticized for NOT wearing a girdle. This gets into myth, cultural myth! Ask the basic questions, never take people’s word for it!

Ask a Mentor-Editor: Zeba Khan, finalist in The Washington Post’s “America’s Next Great Pundit Contest”

Zeba Khan is an independent social media consultant who works with nonprofits, and an advocate for Muslim-American civic engagement. In 2008, Zeba founded Muslim-Americans for Obama, a social network dedicated to mobilizing the Muslim-American community in support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She is also the creator of the online grassroots community for The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, a nonprofit that aims to help U.S.-affiliated Iraqis successfully resettle in the U.S. Most recently, Zeba consulted with Ashoka’s Youth Venture to help develop their first-ever global virtual campaign to incubate young social entrepreneurs worldwide.

Zeba’s work and writings have been featured in numerous media outlets including Newsweek, NPR, Reuters, Voice of America, Washington Post, The Guardian and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. Her work was also highlighted at the 2009 Personal Democracy Forum Conference in New York.

Ravenna Koenig (OpEd Project Intern): You are a social media consultant for nonprofit organizations, correct? What exactly does your work entail? How did you get started at that job?

Zeba Khan: Initially, I used social media like most of my friends – to connect, plan social events, stay in touch, etc. After I graduated from grad school, my interest in social media changed out of necessity. I had a friend who was starting up a nonprofit to help Iraqi refugees. He had a small staff and very limited funding but he also had a large number of people who wanted to give of their time. I realized pretty quickly that he had no way to harness these volunteers effectively given funding and staffing constraints. The easiest and most efficient solution was to build a social network so that these volunteers could identify themselves to one another and mobilize. The network grew rapidly, spawning chapters across the country, eventually becoming a very critical arm of the nonprofit. That was my introduction to how social media could be used to help an organization achieve its goals and improve its operations. Since then, I’ve consulted for numerous nonprofits and higher education institutions.  Each client has different objectives and focus but essentially my role is to help them think strategically about new media and what aspects of it make sense to implement given their specific goals.

RK: When you were an undergraduate did you have a firm idea of what you wanted to do? If not, how did your interest in women and minority issues evolve?

ZK: Not at all. I’ve always been interested in social justice and how inequality affects different populations. Looking back, those interests were continuously reflected in what I studied, what I chose to research and what I write about throughout college.  After college, those academic interests became more active and I pursued them through my work –whether that work was focused on youth, low-income residents of my city, or my faith community.

RK: How have your interests in media evolved over the course of your career?

ZK: Beyond being a consumer of news, I wasn’t very interested in media. I enjoyed writing but only for myself. I only began to think about my potential contribution in the field after graduate school. I think my interest came through a combination of realizing that writing was one of the most effective ways to make an impact in tandem with my field work (with various nonprofits). I also think it took time for me to become confident enough to even start trying to write publicly.

RK: You recently were selected as the first runner-up in The Washington Post’s “America’s Next Great Pundit Contest.” Your work was subjected to criticism and praise from both the American Public and professional members of the media. How was that experience? What did you learn from it?

ZK: Being subjected to the feedback of the WaPo editors and readers from across the country was one of the best experiences about the competition. I recognized from the start that not everyone has the chance to have the entire country be their writing coach and I took full advantage of it. Positive feedback encouraged me and substantive negative feedback only helped sharpen my writing. And I learned pretty quickly to let the baseless nasty feedback roll off my back.  All in all, I grew a thicker skin and I walked away more confident in my writing.

RK: Was the televised aspect of punditry at all limiting? I noticed Jonathan Caphart’s critique on your not smiling enough. Was that frustrating at all—being told to smile when you wanted your work and the issues it spotlighted to be the focus?

ZK: Talking about the news off the cuff in front of a camera with very limited time is definitely a new experience for me. There is so much more at play than your thoughts or your argument and with barely any time to express yourself, I found it to be a pretty challenging medium. As for Jonathan’s critique of me not smiling enough, it bothered me initially. I thought to myself, how can anyone smile when talking about unemployment, war, healthcare, etc? But ultimately, it is television and you need to engage the viewer. You’re not going to achieve that through scowling, no matter how informative you are. That’s not to say a big cheesy smile is good either but I’ve learned from my experience and from talking with seasoned pundits that slight changes in facial expressions can translate in big ways on camera. There are ways to smile without actually smiling.

RK: Have you had any encountered sexism in your professional life?

ZK: I can’t say that I’ve ever dealt with any sexism in my line of work. I think that might have something to do with the fact that much of what I do is online… a far more democratic space than a traditional work place.

RK: What is the one thing that helped you to get where you are that you didn’t expect?

ZK: Certainly my family and close friends have been supportive of me and I know their support has been immensely important. What I didn’t expect was what a profound effect the OpEd Project seminar with Katie would have on me. One amazing seminar at the right time made me determined and confident enough to submit my first pieces to national print and online papers.