While I may come back to this blog site in the future, for now, I will be posting in a site specifically focused on my upcoming year of sabbatical.  Yes, I crossed the finish line of tenure and now am looking ahead a year for reading and writing, free from teaching responsibilities (and joys).  We’ll see how it goes.  I have set up a site specifically to focus on the sabbatical year, so if by chance anyone came here to check up on me, you can read more at

amsterdamsabbatical.com

All best,

L

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This morning I tried to synthesize what I have read and experienced as a writer thinking about AUDIENCE.  When I write, I am writing for someone.  One of the foundational truths about effective communication is this:  Know Thy Audience.  In one of the earliest texts about effective communication, On Rhetoric, Aristotle offers an analysis of different kinds of audiences.  His point is this.  If you are trying to persuade a group of elderly men, remember that they are nostalgic for the past.  You will persuasively communicate with this audience if you ” “.   If you are trying to persuade a group of young men, remember that they are hot-headed and full of vigor.  You will communicate effectively with them if you ” .”

Aristotle does what we now see advertising agencies do as the first step in their work.  They analyze their demographic.  They get to know their audience.  Once they know their audience, authors can effectively persuade that audience.  Knowing is the first step.

Sometimes, when I write, I write for myself.  However, I am not a journal-keeper.  I know that I don’t want to read a daily record of what I did every day.  I know myself.  I do, however, like to write to myself to deepen a fleeting insight and to synthesize disparate insights–like I am doing right now with my ideas about audience.  I like to write to myself to remember some events, some things others said.  This is particularly true now that I have children.  I want to remember them at 3 and 6.  Even for myself, I am only motivated to write if I have a purpose.

As our classmates each filled sticky-notes with possible audiences for our writing this summer, I saw a lot of family members on those colored bits.  We also write willingly for those we know and love.  We write to create shared memories of our times together.  We write to communicate love.  We write to say, “I notice you.”

Writing for an audience of our family members is made easier because we know them (through writing well is never easy).  Not only do we know what our family members sound like when they use language, we know what they know and don’t know, like and don’t like.  We can address them specifically, making reference to shared memories, in a style that they will “get.”  My husband, for one, loves it when I talk to him as him.  He likes it when I anticipate his sense of humor, when I make inside jokes, when I don’t tell him something he already knows.  My kids are the same way.  Even my three year old likes it when I talk to her in ways that address how old she perceives herself to be.  With some regularity she turns a corner, and ways of addressing her that were ok yesterday become “too babyish,” like counting to five when I brush each side of her teeth.  “Mom, don’t do that.  That’s for babies,” she tells me.  Know Thy Audience.

There are two things that make knowing your audience difficult for our students.  First, teachers know more than their students by definition.  The student doesn’t really know everything that the teacher knows, what the teacher likes.  They only know what we reveal.

I think “They grow up so fast” is the cliche I hear most often during this phase of my life.  While I know this to be true, I am amazed again today at how fast my life seems to be going.  Warp speed.  I think being a working mother (in my case with pressing deadlines and the constantly looming duties of teaching) compounds my sense that life is rushing out from under my feet no matter how hard I work to catch up with it.  My children are aging.  My parents are aging.  I have a conference paper to write.  I have student papers to read and respond to.  I have classes to prepare.  It’s all beautiful, but there’s a sense of panic that I tune into during quiet moment.  The beauty feeds the panic because everything that I have right now–beautiful little girls and two healthy parents–will be different.  Before this year I knew all of this was true.  Kids grow up.  We all grow old.  I knew it.  But I didn’t know how deeply I would feel the loss.

As I’m writing this it’s Friday night and I still have work to do.  I haven’t taken a day off with the girls in two weeks, so maybe my panic and sadness is just a signal that I need Sabbath.  I need to be with them, rest with them, play with them.  I need to listen to them talk and brush their hair long enough to feel a little bit of boredom at what is static rather than panic at what is fleeting.

I’ve written previously about one of the many dilemmas I face as a writer: not being good at every necessary step.  I can’t “synergize” with my teammates and their unique strengths when I write.  I’m a team of one, and I’m stuck with the skills and abilities that I have, which do not offer comprehensive coverage.  I can think, imagine, and draft an outline.  I can revise sentences and wordsmith a final draft.  I am not a strong writer when it comes to the middle part: the writing of a good enough draft, sentence by sentence.  It feels so tedious after the expansive work of outlining.

Well that’s a recap of prior posts.  In order to get the middle part done, the actual drafting of linear sentences, I’ve been trying to do several things.  1)  Review my outline and notes.  2) Imagine my audience carefully, emphasizing or fictionalizing how nice they are.  3) Begin speaking to this audience, imagining myself on the stage or over a cup of coffee with a smart friend, and 4) typing with my eyes closed what I would say to this friend over coffee about my topic.  I try to write without getting bogged down in revision (I have my eyes closed so I never go back to edit–yes it’s messy), but to follow my logical outline, imagining the connections among ideas and paragraphs that I need to spell out if my audience members are going to follow my ideas.  I make so many connections; I need to slow down and make the case for these connections implicitly or explicitly  in my article.

This visioning-writing is key for me.  I hope to find out soon how hard it is to revise this form of freewriting into conference-worthy prose.

As I compose a new draft of my research article today, choosing where to put each idea that I’ve carefully crafted or hastily sketched over the last year (gulp) and a half, I realize how much I appreciate a good introduction.  I have written many introductions to this paper over the last year and a half, each of them trying to find the right framing technique for the ideas to follow.  The color of the frame matters, it trains the eye to see what’s inside in a particular way.  It forms expectations.

I enjoy reading narrative more than exposition, and so I am drawn to introductions that launch with anecdote.  My last draft began that way.  It, sadly, has to go.  The frame was too loose.  It lacked force of focus.  This draft needs a lead that focuses the eye on the political, on the cost of teaching undemocratically.  I think it needs to bring the word “dictator” to the fore.

But my teachers at U of Chicago taught me to begin with common ground, with an idea that readers would identify with–or with some conflict that the paper will contribute to:  “there has been much debate….”  Creating this sense of “oh yes” identification at the outset draws readers in and establishes your credibility as “on their side” or at least “relevant to their concerns” and therefore worth reading.  Do I therefore want to begin by stating the value of teaching democratically in a way that readers will affirm?  I can continue with details about process syllabi, which I know many of my readers will be unfamiliar with and skeptical of.  I could also save this for later.  OK, I think I’m–once again–back to outlining.  It is a comfort zone for me.  Am I procrastinating again by returning to outlining again?  Or have I identified, through my drafting process, that my former outline wasn’t right and therefore I need to return before I can move forward.  Writing is certainly recursive for me.

I feel like a kid who has disassembled a radio and the parts are lying all around on the ground.  My article has enough ideas.  It has enough data.  It even has enough words.  Currently the ideas, words, data, and references are a pile on the page.  My job is to give them order and craft.  This takes self-confidence.  Do I know where to start?  What word comes first?  Can I say what I mean coherently?  It seems not so hard when someone else is doing.  As the kid with the radio parts, I wish I could call an adult radio-fixer over just sit and watch while she reassembled it into working order.