Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal, contributing editor and lecturer at Boston University. Today, he explores what academics — especially those of us writing about timely topics like alcohol and drugs — should consider when thinking about their audience(s). Public or academic? How do we reach readers? How can we make our work matter? Read on and find out how Dr. Blumenthal considers these questions when analyzing his newest book project.
As I have written on this blog about my brush with marijuana politics, the suburban contest over legalization has exposed fascinating generational and cultural differences within these communities. What accounts for this wide range of opinions about this issue? I propose to look at the role of public school education in shaping the many mythologies surrounding cannabis. Considering this project’s scope, three audiences—academic, policy and education experts or students, and the wider audience interested in marijuana history– emerge as the target readership for my proposed project, Just Say No: A History of Drug Education in American Public Schools. Recently, historians have reconsidered the wider appeal of their scholarship and sparked a robust conversation about reaching a broader audience. To be sure, the specific approaches each of these audiences require are not always compatible, but the topic of drug education provides a unique opportunity to reconcile the differences.
First and foremost, the study aims to fulfill the professional standards of scholarship and original historical research for an academic audience. As a historian focusing on the intersection between conservatism and youth issues, this topic offers an example of ways in which suburban spaces evolved to foster conservative attitudes on drugs, even in the most liberal states such as Massachusetts. First, for the academic and scholarly contributions this project considers the potential for this topic as a classroom text. This book could be useful in undergraduate classes studying history, education, public health, and policy. So, what other similar books have focused on this intersection, conceptually? The best model, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s study of the controversy over bilingual education and sex education, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex and the Making of Modern Political Culture, lays out a useful framework to explain drug education’s potential scholarly significance, as she argues: “…fights in and about the schoolhouse—classroom wars—formed the crucial crucible in which the powerful political notions ‘family values’ was contested and constructed.”
This academic audience raises questions about conceptual framing, but also pushes the project to carefully consider the archival sources that address the original research so intrinsic to this genre. While I will address these sources in a future post, this research will include local school sources concerning curriculum debates, but also rely on papers from the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, and the Drug Enforcement Agency’s files in the National Archives.
Developing a proposal that also emphasizes the project’s utility, however, calls for a more careful examination of audience. I intend to emphasize this book’s influence on those individuals and institutions responsible for the implementation of drug education today, from bureaucratic and political leaders to the teachers in the classroom. Making the book accessible and informative promotes the historical context to inform policy. This audience concretely influences the writing style and substance. While this means avoiding jargon-y rhetoric that can be specific to one discipline, this audience also motivates the project’s local archival focus and an oral history component to include the voices of those I intend to reach. In addition, archives from local records and newspapers will also capture the perspectives of actors on the ground level, including parents. Thus, while this is a national story, my focus on making the book accessible also shapes the scope and pushes for a bottom-up history. This solution, of course, raises new questions about choosing the most revealing and compelling hotspots in suburban politics. Conveniently for me, examining local newspapers and school records in Boston’s Metro West region provides a perfect example of so-called liberal communities that built and challenged consensus on drug education. After all, Massachusetts was the first state to prohibit marijuana, and is now one of the first to legalize it.
Last, as the project considers its appeal to an even wider audience, or develops a “trade” appeal, it requires a more direct “so what?” that gives the general public the most compelling and relevant aspects of this story. One article on writing in the humanities for a wider audience explains, “As the outgoing editor of Sociology of Education wrote in the newsletter of the American Sociological Association, most papers submitted to the journal ‘simply lacked a soul — a compelling and well-articulated reason to exist.’”
This project admittedly takes its inspiration from contemporary tensions over marijuana legalization and the growing interest in the history behind cannabis prohibition. As this trend continues, more Americans are wondering what is changing. Connecting the past to the present becomes even more important with an issue that is so rapidly evolving in American politics right now, begging for a historical context that explains a current development. Balancing that wider audience and the dangers of teleology that come with it, this study reconsiders the longer term and lasting lessons about the ways drug education for youth criminalized drug use to reinforce suburban parents’ spatial and racist notions shared by Americans across the political spectrum. Thus, when planning a proposal, considering audience early in the process can help inform the study’s sources, style and scope.
- https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/06/07/difficulties-scholars-have-writing-broad-audience-essay; https://tah.oah.org/august-2016/writing-history-for-a-popular-audience-a-round-table-discussion/