adventures in writing for a larger audience

I’ve recently started writing for places that have larger audiences. Today a piece came out in Time, which will probably be part of something more regular (one a month) that I write on class, inequality, elites, and social science research. And earlier this summer I had an op-ed in the NY Times. It’s been a really interesting experience. Particularly because the editors at these places have a really strong hand in what you end up writing. I’m still very much an amateur at this stuff, so no big lessons yet, but a few things I’ve learned in the process: (1) your point has to be super straightforward. Being subtle, or, caveats, or, embedding your point within a larger argument isn’t really possible. So, for the Time piece part of what I was hoping to write about is “holding elite’s feet to the fire”: basically, that when elites felt constrained to pay taxes, they are likely to affirm their belief in such practices; but when they feel wiggle room to undermine this, they do. You can’t get that in 500 words. Especially if you’re trying to tell a story with some evidence that will appeal to people. So (2) this kind of writing is very different from academic work. Basically, with academic work you try to have a scientific attitude where you critically and skeptically evaluate your own argument. So if I look at the structure of my own book, in most cases when I make a claim the next section seeks to undermine that claim (or critically evaluate it). This isn’t what I’ve ended up doing in either of the pieces. You basically put your head down and bullishly make your argument. It can be kinda hard to do as someone who has been trained not to write like this. But still, it’s a good experience. (3) You have to deal with a huge worry of “what will my colleagues think of this?” Especially because of the second issue, no one will be terribly impressed by what you’ve written. And so it requires a little segmentation in your mind. “This is for a general audience.” (4) There is a certain degree of responsibility to your discipline when writing these things, because they’re not super common (we’re not political science or economics). And that can be heavy, and runs against the third concern. And finally (5) everyone has this line that writing these kinds of things is bad for your career — that you should be an academic first. I don’t have tenure so I can’t quite say what the ultimate effect will be. But so far, I have had no experiences that would support this view. People seem generally glad to see a little sociology in the more popular press.

kloppenberg, reading obama

This is the next in the series of posts on what I read this summer. A friend had given me a copy of James T. Kloppenberg‘s Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition a while ago, but I hadn’t cracked it till this summer. It’s an engaging, sophisticated account of Obama’s intellectual pedigree and the political and academic sensibilities he carried into national politics. Continue reading “kloppenberg, reading obama”

latex beamer is failing me – help!

I know some scatterbrains use LaTeX and the beamer class to produce lecture slides and notes. I have done so for years, using the following syntax at the top to produce the handouts:

\pgfpagesuselayout{2 on 1}[letterpaper,portrait,border shrink=5mm]

\setbeameroption{show notes}

But just today it’s freaking out on me, producing output with the page size clearly wrong such that pages don’t contain even the full slide, much less the accompanying notes slide. Anybody care to offer help? An example of the bad output is at