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How to combine academic and creative work in the same field?
June 8, 2011 12:44 AM   Subscribe

A case-study in journalism: after entering academia (j-school staff), will a feature writer say goodbye to creativity?

The story so far: I'm 27. Have freelanced with a (good) investigative weekly for some years. Considered myself quite a capable feature writer (hey, it's something I've wanted to do since 4th grade). Nominated for an kind-of-prestigious prize for that. At the same time, I don't despise academia either – that is, even though I from time to time regret having gone to j-school, I've always had a quirky interest in the theory of journalistic genres. And maybe even a, err, "vision" of how these should be "taught".

Hence, having the soul of an experimenter (yay), I've no plans to leave "real" journalism. But I'm quite seriously considering a parallel life in the academia. Studying and maybe teaching journalism.

Considering the latter, naturally I do see drawbacks – persumably quite adumbrative for anyone who's ever been involved in journalism. Sure, in a way, anything directly related to j-schools is floating at the top level of pointless occupations. But more than that I'm facing the fear that to place too much focus on "theorising" is literally to flush away all abilities to write creative stuff with ease – or, leastways, entering academia as early as age 27 will do that.

(For many of the best-respected pundits in the field of liberal arts seem to have "evolved" into an academic – rather than crucially "becoming" one. Which is what my current hypothetical path seems to be leading to.)

Then again: going for academia would – maybe – prop up my career as a freelancing journo. Enabling me to stay on longer pieces (which is kind of a luxury in the Baltic states where I'm from) and possibly try out producing radio documentaries as well (which is even more of a luxury).

And, okay, the only editorial staff I'd really like to join is somewhat hard up at the moment. So in a way I've simply my back against the wall.

Hence, some questions:

1. Has any of you managed to successfully combine academic and creative work (say, writing of any kind)? That is, without getting the feeling that academia is yet in a way "swallowing" your creativity?
2. If so, is there anything at all you – as "creative individuals" – have actually gained from doing academic research aside?
3. In case you did try but sort-of failed in combining the two sides, what were the reasons?
4. Or am I simply unable to think out of the (/my) box?

PS: Please excuse the poor grammar. Yes, it is really embarrassing – then again, offering a topic for my second MeFi post. Err.
posted by earthwormsleg to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
earthwormsleg: 1. Has any of you managed to successfully combine academic and creative work (say, writing of any kind)? That is, without getting the feeling that academia is yet in a way "swallowing" your creativity?

There are like a million published, successful novelists who are also academics at various colleges and universities. Nabokov wrote Bend Sinister at Wellesley and I think was at Cornell when writing Lolita and Pnin.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:01 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


You write: I'm facing the fear that to place too much focus on "theorising" is literally to flush away all abilities to write creative stuff with ease – or, leastways, entering academia as early as age 27 will do that.

Seriously? I don't know why you believe academic work is non-creative or why you think being involved in academia would "flush away" your capacity to do creative work in other venues. Take a look at writers you admire who have followed this path (if there are any). Off the top of my head I can think of Louis Menand, one of my favorite New Yorker authors, who is an English professor at Harvard as well, and Sylvia Nasar (author of A Beautiful Mind), a professor of journalism at Columbia. Menand's journalism, which tends to the intellectual, nicely dovetails with his academic work. On the other hand, Nasar hasn't been very prolific of late, but having a bestseller and an academic position may mean there's not much of a fire under her to put out more work.

Being involved in the academic world won't dim your ability to do creative work, I don't think. It's not going to rot your brain. On the other hand, doing one thing always closes doors to others. Naturally, your time and energy to do reporting will be less if you're devoting time and energy to academia. You have to decide what your priorities are and where the best opportunities lie.
posted by reren at 5:30 AM on June 8, 2011


My experience, as a lifelong freelance writer, is that when I've taken time out to work for a semester or two as a visiting professor of journalism or some such, I don't have much energy left after teaching to do much writing. Teaching is hard, done well. But when I returned to full-time writing, I found I was getting fresh ideas, and had more interest in working on them. Maybe some writers can "create" and teach at the same time; I never could. But alternating the two seemed quite doable. Each fed the other.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:54 AM on June 8, 2011


Sorry for the late answer. Thanks for your thoughts everybody. reren wrote:

"I don't know why you believe academic work is non-creative or why you think being involved in academia would "flush away" your capacity to do creative work in other venues."

Indeed. Right after having posted this sentence I realized its ridiculousness – especially considering these (albeit few) examples of prolific writer-and-academics you guys gave. (Btw I didn't even know this about Nabokov.)

However, just to make it more clear: the core of all my doubts seems to be an odd fear of getting "lost" or "trapped" in genre theory. This meaning that studying (and teaching) genres would make me write/report far too much "by the book" as well – eventually, and kind of unobtrusively.

I know, from one perspective, this might be considered a prime example of clichéd thinking – for ultimately it must all come down to the way I myself interpret the theory, right. How "canonically" do I see and take all the "ten rules for producing a profile".

Well, so it does. And yet I fear that when teaching journalism, this "thinking by the book" becomes kind of ineluctable. Something that to a certain degree simply goes along with any kind of didactics – for while teaching, you also need to formalize.

So. Is all this simply pure naivity of a "rookie" didactic? If there happens to be any writing coaches around here – I'd really appreciate your comments. Have you ever felt being "trapped" in the "writing rules" you need to talk about?

***

(By the way, this whole concept of academia "flushing away" a journalist's creativity seems to be a rather widely held belief in the circle of journalists in my country. Most probably due to wide influences of one somewhat canonical (albeit good) didacticist – while from another perspective it also appears an issue kind of "global". So, when you guys look at this through your culture's glasses – what do you say?)
posted by earthwormsleg at 9:19 AM on June 15, 2011


Your expectations of journalism school are not at all in accord with what I know of journalism education in the United States. Journalism schools here don't teach genre theory (that would be the province of English departments, generally) but emphasize teaching practical skills and ethical conduct. The standard structures are taught, but I would hope professors aren't demanding formulaic output. I know from experience that instruction in writing and reporting can encourage creativity and experimentation.

My advice is instead of speculating on how journalism school with affect you, put your reporting skills to work: talk to alumni, study the curriculum, sit in on classes. Once you've taken a hard look at the programs, you'll have a better grasp of whether they fit your goals.

By the way, it's interesting that you are worried about academia hurting your writing because your writing in English has a strange, distinctly academic feel. Since you seem to embrace that style already, maybe academia will suit you well.

Hope I've been helpful!
posted by reren at 1:42 PM on June 18, 2011


Well, at any rate you got me quarreling with myself. Thanks everybody.

Oh, and as to this:
"... your writing in English has a strange, distinctly academic feel."

Yeah. This is not the way I write in my native language. As mentioned, my English skills would deserve a topic of its own.
posted by earthwormsleg at 11:05 PM on June 21, 2011


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