Scabs: Academics and Others Who Write for Free

Yasmin Nair:

In February, Nicholas Kristof bemoaned the fact that academics don’t write for larger audiences.

The piece was inane and sloppy, typical of Kristof’s writing, but its central thesis struck a nerve. It was subsequently critiqued by several people, including Corey Robin, who kindly pointed me out as one of those who do in fact write for non-academic audiences, but that’s not the only reason I cite his response. To the best of my knowledge, Corey’s piece is the only one which considers the issue of academic writing within the material conditions of academia today. He writes, “The problem here isn’t that typically American conceit of “culture” v. nonconformist rebel. It’s the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It’s the job market. It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism.”

I’ve been following these kinds of conversations about academia for a while, and watched as they’ve dovetailed with questions about writing for “the public.” Over the years, I’ve steadily embarked upon a career of freelance writing, and the bulk of my livelihood comes from writing.

So when there’s a conversation about academics writing for the public, I’m as hopeful as I am anxious and trepidatious. Hopeful, because voices like Corey’s situate such writing within the economic conditions of neoliberalism, but anxious and trepidatious because more often than not, such conversations eventually paint academia in unrealistic terms, hewing to Kristof’s wild fantasy about it as a quiet, cosy corner where the life of the mind continues unabated and untouched by trivial concerns like rent and bills. In this Shangri-La, writing for “the public,” a barely understood entity amongst most academics, is seen as an act of public service.