Thanks to Daniel Shea for inviting me! In the podcast we discuss my book, Literature Review and Research Design especially focusing on the scholar’s interactions with other scholars in their field.
A scholar in a fit of despair, writes “who cares about my work?” It is a poignant lament, and I do not downplay the emotional distress that would trigger such an outburst. This is, I think, a doubt that strikes many scholars—the fear that their work is unimportant and/or only matters to a tiny audience of specialists. Elsewhere, I have written about this from the angle of the inherent value of research.
Here, I want to look at this differently. I want to look at this lament as a possible starting place for an exercise of exploration, of scholarly/academic thinking, and of practical writing skills. Generally, I would say that, in the abstract, a true philosopher would be interested to explore any unanswered question: what is this, how does this work, and how does this interact with the world? Whatever your work might be—let’s call it “topic X” or just “X”—we can explore what it is, where it came from, how it operates, and how it interacts with the rest of the world. To an open, inquisitive mind, such questions can be asked about anything. A child doesn’t ask about the importance of some enthusiasm they find, they simply pursue it and try to learn more about it. The older we get, the more likely that we feel pressure to do something that others will think important, and thus we lose some of the freedom of inquiry that makes exploration not just possible but interesting.
Before getting into some of the specifics that I want to talk about, I want to note, generally, how value is at least partly dependent on those who perceive it. I say “partly” because I want to avoid debate over whether value is entirely subjective. For the purposes of this post, I am purely interested in the subjective aspect of value, which is what counts if your concern is that no one cares about your work or if your interest is to get published, sell books, and inform, educate, or entertain others. Things are valuable if someone values them. Of course, different people value different things, so values attributed to various ideas may vary widely. The fact that many people do not recognize value in some X does not mean that X has no value.
Many scholars pursue topics from personal interest/value, even though their interests seem unimportant to few or no other people. This propensity to study that which others think important contributes to the stereotype of the “Ivory Tower” divorced from the “real world.” Having an unusual perspective almost guarantees that someone will accuse you of being out of touch with the real world (even if your unusual perspective is based on empirical study of the real world). When doing independent and original work, there is always the danger that your topic, whatever its validity or potential value, will not catch the popular trend of whatever research is in style, and may not get the respect your work might have earned had research trends developed in a different direction. At the same time, however, doing original work also has the potential reward of other people recognizing value where they had not seen it before. Scholars are supposed to do original work precisely because that originality—that value others had not seen before—is how the research community evolves.
In short, value has a large subjective element. Being original means seeing value where others have not, and then working to make that value apparent to other people, too. But seeing value where others have not also brings up the danger that other people won’t care (at least until they’re convinced that there is real value).
As a cry of despair, “who cares about X?” is an expression of the thought “no one cares about X; X is not important.” But as a question, it is amenable to the kind of analysis that scholars tend to carry out, and can provide insight into the topic at hand.
What happens when we take the question “who cares about X?” as the start of an intellectual exploration? What happens if we do as scholars do, and enumerate those who fall into the category of interest (i.e., the grouop of people who do care)? And when we examine reasons that people fall into the category? We may never be 100% sure of the motivations of others, but as scholars we can absolutely explore the possible motivations of people (including ourselves) and thus gain some insight into the possible importance of a subject. Simply examining who does care can offer a lot of insight.
Caring about some issue that doesn’t interest others can feel selfish, especially if that issue is somehow related to personal experience. People sometimes talk about “me-search” as a bad thing, but a question that is important to one person is often important to many, so “me-search” about some experience that you had may provide insight into an experience that many others also have.
Saying “I care because of my history,” that’s a weak foundation for research and seems fraught with personal bias. But if you go one analytical step, and say “I care because of my history, and my history of has characteristics X, Y, and Z,” then you move toward an academic statement in which something more general is being defined. Those characteristics X, Y, and Z, each may be relevant to many other people. The characteristics themselves are also subject to further analysis or definition, which could indicate other issues of relevance. The more you pursue that analytical approach, the more likely you are to find some connection to other issues and to issues that other people have found important. Your life experience may be unique, but even so, it shares similarities with the life experience of others. In those similarities lie the elements of ideas that concern many people.
Face your fears: exercise
If you lament that nobody cares about your work, you might benefit from facing those fears directly as part of an attempt to objectively analyze the potential audience from many different angles:
- Are there authors who have written about your subject? Who are they? We can assume they care about your work, or at least would be interested in other work in their field.
- Are there any authors who have written about specific aspects of your work (e.g., using a method from a different field or in a novel way, methodologists might be interested even if they’re not interested in your general topic)?
- Are there any people who would benefit from your insights?
It’s possibly also useful to make a matching list of people who don’t care. But in making such a list, don’t assume that people won’t care; stick to people that you know don’t care (e.g., colleagues who have explicitly expressed disdain; friends who just have different interests). If you want to exercise your imagination, exercise it trying to think about who might value your work, rather than those who would not.
A lot of writers get stuck because they’re imagining a hostile audience as they write. They remember the worst feedback they ever received, or imagine even worse. The anticipation of cruel, harshly critical feedback had brought many a writer to a grinding halt. If you are such a writer, focus your attention and your efforts towards writing what a friendly audience would want.
Many writers start with some motivating idea to express, but the thought of a hostile, unhelpful response triggers defensive concerns (“how do I respond to that criticism?”) instead of positive ones (“how do I explain the part that I find interesting or important?”), which can trigger anxiety. But not all audiences are harshly critical. If you imagine writing to a friendly and interested audience, you might be able to reduce anxiety.
Real and imagined audiences
You don’t necessarily get to choose your audience. Often—especially if you’re a student—you’re forced to write for someone who has already demonstrated a harsh, unsupportive response to your work. Many writers get stuck writing in response to a critical professor or hostile reviewer. If you already struggle with anxiety, anticipating a harsh response can trigger overwhelming anxiety.
You don’t have to focus on writing for your real audience, however. Instead, you can imagine an audience that will appreciate and benefit from your work. It takes some effort to focus on an imagined positive audience if you have the habit of imagining a hostile response, but it gets easier with practice, as you develop a clearer sense of your ideal positive audience by repeatedly returning to the same idea.
Speaking personally, I know that my writing about writing and writing blocks (like this essay) simply isn’t relevant to a lot of people, most of whom would simply ignore it (while not exactly hostile, this is hardly encouraging). Other people, I imagine, would criticize or mock it as poorly reasoned or poorly executed or somehow detached from reality. I could imagine these people mocking me, as well as criticizing my own work. Sometimes, my mind wanders while writing and slips to people who have rejected or criticized my work, which does make it harder to keep moving.
But, instead of thinking of the people who wouldn’t want or like my work, I imagine people who might like it and who might benefit from it, starting with myself. I’m not sure I always like my writing, but I do benefit from the ideas I try to share. I have a lot of writing anxiety, and a lot of my ability to write depends on my approach, as I try to describe in my writing. I try to share these ideas because they helped me in the past and continue to help me in the present. To some extent, then, the audience I imagine is myself, or, more precisely, the part of me who would benefit and appreciate the ideas (not the part of me that would harshly criticize the weaknesses in my writing or reasoning). Additionally, I can imagine people I’ve helped—people who were stuck for years, overwhelmed with anxiety, and thinking of giving up, but who benefitted from the same ideas I’m trying to capture in my writing, and were able to complete their work and move on to new projects.
Imagining a positive audience
If I think about people I have helped (or about helping myself), it gives me focus and motivation: motivation because it feels good to help people who are struggling and even suffering because of writing-related anxiety, and focus because I try to imagine what I could say that would help (or remember what I said previously that did helped someone).
Most people aren’t writing to help people in the same direct way that I’m trying to help writers struggling with anxiety, but there are other ways of helping. If you’re a scholar, there’s a good chance that there may be a small group of other scholars who would benefit from your work—people interested in similar subjects whose research might be able to build on yours. Many scholars feel dismay that their work is separate from the everyday concerns of most people, and that their audience is only the handful of scholars who do similar work. But that small group of people—people who share your interests and with whom you can cooperate with and help in their work—are a good audience to imagine. Perhaps you’re not helping a vast number, but if you really help a few, isn’t that a worthy effort? (Doubt about the value in studying something understood by only a few is itself a cause of anxiety for many writers. A full discussion is outside the scope of this essay, but my short answer is that the value of a subject is not measured by the number of people who study it or care about it.)
It takes some optimism to believe that someone might appreciate esoteric research, but it’s not an unreasonable hope. Hoping for an audience of millions may be unrealistic for most scholars, but hoping for a small and enthusiastic audience is entirely within the realm of possibility. Who are people who might be interested in your work? If you’re having trouble imagining a positive audience, think about the authors of work that you like and respect. If you are relying heavily on the work of another scholar, there is a good chance that they will be both interested and a bit flattered. One way to find some motivation and focus is to imagine that you are writing to the author of something that influenced you in a positive way, and think about how they would appreciate your expansion of their work. (It’s an exercise of imagination, so you can imagine them being nice people just as well as you can imagine them being cruel.)
Who would be interested or even excited to read your work?
- What authors have you read who might be interested in your work? Does your work cite them? Why would they like your work/what would they like about it?
- In the abstract, what are the characteristics of someone who might like your work? What ideas are important to them? What scholars are important to them?
Write for the audience you want
Writing for the audience you want allows you to focus on the issues that seem most important to you, and if you want to be a writer or scholar, you need to learn to trust that intuition of what is important. Writers, after all, are valued for showing us new things (or at least presenting old things in new lights), and your best and only source for new, original perspectives is your own insight. When you are writing for an supportive and interested audience, your attention is more likely to go to the stuff that you care about most.
Consider what it’s like to talk about your research to a friendly peer: if you’re emotionally comfortable with someone, you can express your enthusiasms and pet theories. Those enthusiasms and pet theories are what you want to get down on the page. Imagine that you’re getting a friendly peer to help you with some part of the project: what would they need to know?
- What do you care most about your project? What do you hope to accomplish?
- What literature would they need to know to work on your project? Why do they need that?
- What methods would they need to know? Why?
- What data sources would they need? Why?
When should you write for a hostile audience?
Whenever possible, focus on writing for the audience you want. If you’re looking for publication, imagine your work going to a journal or publisher who is interested in material like yours. There are probably several options. It’s worth looking into such options, because knowing your audience provides guidance into how to shape your work. But why anticipate sending your publication to someone who wouldn’t be interested? Don’t let self-doubt creep in by imagining a hostile response: publishers and journals want material to publish, and are happy to receive material that they like. While writing, you can focus on asking yourself what they would find interesting and compelling, and imagine that they would be interested in the same or similar concerns as you.
If you’re writing for publication, why ever think about what a hostile audience might say? They’re not the people to whom your work will be sold. Admittedly, if enough people read your work, some of them will probably be hostile—large groups are like that. But if lot of people are seeing your work, some will also be friendly and interested, and they’re the ones to write for.
There are times, however, where you have a commitment to or investment in a project and a hostile audience needs to be taken into consideration. Graduate students are the most likely to face this problem because they don’t really have the option of submitting to a different audience. In such cases, although you need to take the hostile audience into account, you want to do so as late in the process as possible. Your first draft can be written to the audience you want, and then, once that progress has been made, revisions can attempt to accommodate the hostile audience. Aalthough you can’t avoid the hostile audience for ever, you certainly should ignore it if anxiety about a harsh response is stopping you from writing.
There are hostile people in the world, and no matter what you do, there’s a good chance that someone will complain. But don’t write for such people. It’s emotionally exhausting to imagine all the possible attacks that could be directed at you and to write trying to defend against complaints. Writing in that context becomes distracted from the main points and bogged down in detail. Yes, of course it’s good to consider weaknesses in your work and to try to eliminate them. And yes, it’s difficult to draw the line between reasonable self-criticism and a paralyzing focus on potential complaints. But if you’re struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, then you don’t want spend your time thinking about people who will give you a hard time. Think about a friendly audience and about ways in which they might appreciate your work.