A PhD Gets Wired, or How I Traded the Podium for the Mouse
By Deborah Siegel, fellow, the Woodhull Institute; author of Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild; and blogger at Girl with Pen
Technological innovation can transform a culture, but it can also transform a career. It did mine. When I started out as a PhD student in English and American Literature at the University of Wisconsin--Madison, I could hardly imagine that fourteen years later I’d be calling myself “Girl with Pen” in public, living in New York City, and writing for The Guardian. That pen, really, is a keyboard. But I like mixing it up.
My route has been circuitous. Constrained by academic writing even as I learned to master it in the early 1990s, I sensed that I would not follow the conventional academic path after finishing my preliminary exams. I was young and impatient, and there was too much going on outside of academe. Even as a graduate student, I longed to participate in the popular feminist debates then being reinvigorated by polarizing figures like Katie Roiphe and Anita Hill. I felt the tug of technology as online zines by women and girls and web communities with names like Webgrrls and Cybergrrl made their mid-decade debut, pulling me farther from the pages of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf. I thought I could contain my restlessness by incorporating e-zines into the last chapter of my dissertation. It didn’t do the trick.
The dot com boom was rumbling. New York City’s siren cry to writers, beckoning me back to my pre-graduate school home, was louder still. When Madison started closing in on me and I hit a prolonged writer’s block, I took the road much traveled: I took a leave.
Becoming Dottie (and Jane)
I have always loved E.B. White’s prescription for would-be New Yorkers: "No one should come to New York to live unless he's willing to be lucky." Upon moving to Manhattan, I found my own luck when a cousin’s friend hired me to be the content director of his e-commerce start-up. I happily traded the jargon of poststructuralism for the jargon of html. I joined Webgrrls NYC, a networking organization where women from different fields helped each other reinvent themselves by learning new web skills. The friend’s start-up sadly went under, but I had learned enough to find work as a content consultant for a number of existing companies then migrating online.
Around this time, I, too, migrated online. With a like-minded friend from graduate school, I adopted a pseudonym and built a website, “Dottie and Jane’s Adventures Out of Academe”: “Dottie and Jane have brought their favorite books and their goldfish to the Big Apple and are giving themselves career makeovers. Follow their escapades as they check out alternatives . . . meet others who've successfully crossed over . . . and unearth a world of resources along the way!” “Dottie” was inspired by Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch, but I felt more like a cyber-era Jo March.
The career makeover being partial, I still wanted to write books. So on the days when I wasn’t consulting, I finished my dissertation--“what better way to learn to write a book than to finish a dissertation,” I thought then--and proudly earned my PhD.
From Webjournals to Blogs
I’ve learned over time that some of the most innovative thinking on campuses happens at women’s research centers. (And that a dissertation is not a book, but that’s another story.) Seeking an affiliation from which to hang my hat as a writer, I jumped at the chance to become a Fellow at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, where Janet Jakobsen, the director, had a vision of creating a living archive for their events and discussions. Merging what I knew from my days at dot coms with what we knew about academia, together we launched The Scholar & Feminist Online (SFO), the first online-only, multimedia women’s studies journal governed by a policy of peer review. Our hope was to archive Center happenings while giving scholars nationwide an opportunity to fuse scholarship, activism, and the creativity of the web--and to use this new dissemination tool to bring their work widespread visibility. SFO has attracted cutting-edge scholars, new and seasoned, and each guest editor has offered her innovations. One issue of SFO became a book. Another became a blog. My ongoing hope is that publishing in or guest editing the journal becomes a highly regarded opportunity, one that allows women’s studies scholars to publish leading scholarship while pushing themselves to learn more about the web--that ever-changing medium that some say is the future of publishing.
New technology entices entrepreneurial spirits. Revisiting E.B. White, I would add that a cybercitizen, not unlike a New Yorker, is she who is willing to embrace the unfamiliar. When I learned upon publishing my first two books (Only Child and Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild) that publishers often expect authors to generate their own publicity, I decided to start a blog. I didn’t know what a blog was. I just sensed that I needed one, and I found mentors (women under age thirty) to guide the way. What started as a space to promote my books morphed into a forum through which I now work to bridge feminist research, popular reality, and the public audience--turning me into the Girl with Pen.
The blog has taken off, and I plan to use it to test ideas for my next book. Meanwhile, other scholars have begun to join me, penning guest posts in their own areas of expertise and learning to write in new voices. My next step on Girl with Pen is to share more of what I’ve learned about “crossing over”--through blogging, commercial book publishing, and journalism--in order to help more feminist scholars reach wider audiences. Through organizations like the National Women’s Studies Association, I hope to offer more seminars and workshops on writing for the web; and I plan to help the National Council for Research on Women create a web-based timeline of milestones in the history of women’s research.
Virtual Opportunity, Virtually Unclaimed
The under-representation of women’s voices and the lack of women- and girl-centered topics in mainstream media coverage continue to astonish me. Feminist scholars have an incredible opportunity to frame popular debate when they go online--if they know where and how to participate. My own engagement with the feminist blogosphere has opened doors too numerous to recount; networking opportunities are plentiful for scholars seeking to extend their reach. I recently attended BlogHer, a conference of over 700 bloggers from around the world and from all fields. Born in 1969, I missed the sixties, but participating in this new community of smart, creative women writers committed to social justice takes my breath away.
I’m heartened by the fact that there are increasing numbers of feminist scholars analyzing our virtual world and increasing numbers of women bloggers creating it. Yet only a handful of women scholars blog without pseudonyms. As of yet.
I understand why. Universities do not yet see this kind of online public participation as mission-critical to scholarly careers. It’s hard enough to publish in the traditional venues and write that first academic book. In many cases, the kind of public participation the internet offers may have to wait until after tenure. Regardless, it is well worth the plunge. Tenured scholars who bring attention to their institutions are often rewarded. More often than not, the scholars in that spotlight are male. I’d like to see more women enjoy that spotlight, too.
We scholars are often quick to dismiss blogs as nothing more than fora for self-indulgent, self-revelatory journaling--the kind that can jeopardize tenure or embarrass professors in front of their students. But many blogs are different. They are places for cultural and political critique, venues where writers apply thoughtful, self-aware analysis to pop culture and politics. In my opinion, they are venues for some of the most vibrant feminist theorizing and commentary that takes place today.
In face of the naysayers, I look forward to seeing more women scholars using blogging and other online forms of publication to solidify their positions as public thinkers and enter the popular debate. All it takes is courage, conviction, and a sense of curiosity about our increasingly wired world. And, of course, a keyboard of one’s own.
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