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Getting work out there

Getting work out there:
Publishing research findings as an RMA student

by Thomas van Gaalen


The word “publication” alone sometimes conjures up an atmosphere of feverish eagerness. With the “impact factor”—a scientific score that takes publication rates as a measure of success—still determining many academic careers [1], this is hardly strange. Over the last two years, it sometimes felt as if this publication thirst trickled down towards students—but rather than just functioning as an incentive to get my research work out there, it sometimes also gave me an uncomfortable sense of pressure. Still, taking a chance and sending out some of my findings had many benefits. Publishing a piece here and there helped me in clarifying arguments and sharpening conclusions. Moreover, as cultural studies scholar and Birmingham School founder Stuart Hall argues, researchers have something of a moral duty share their knowledge of societal dynamics that may affect anyone with anyone, and not only with academic peers. [2] Why, you could wonder, shouldn’t this apply to RMA students as much as to “real” researchers?

There are many, many platforms that are interested in the work of RMA students. At Utrecht University, there’s student platforms such as historical magazine Aanzet, experimental academic magazine Paratext, and journals such as FRAME and Junctions. And in the wider world, there’s all sorts of high profile magazines and platforms to try out. There’s the LA Review of Books, for the cutting-edge “intellectual.” Black Perspectives, for those who work with black diasporic studies. Jacobin, for the (rightfully) cynical left-leaning student. The Flemish-Dutch Rekto:Verso, for those who have a point to raise about the arts. And there are so many newspapers. Some international platforms seem like big shots. Nevertheless, I found that it never hurt to shoot them a message and cheekily send them a piece.

Trying to adapt the findings of papers written during my master’s to suit a particular platform helped me in fleshing out an argument as well as in developing my own writing style. After unsuccessfully e-mailing an idea for a specific piece to several magazines, I was struck by the fact that my article was overly long and complicated compared to other pieces on the platforms. As such, I thoroughly cut out words. The cleaner text was accepted—but the editors of the platform I reached out to still had a few poignant critical remarks. In the end, their criticisms made it all the way into my thesis, so I’m still grateful for their points. Opening yourself up to feedback can, as we all know, be very productive—and for me, sending out my work was a great way to receive some extra criticism.

That said, I also fell into several pitfalls when trying to publish findings that hadn’t fully hatched yet. At a certain point, I started to experience writing public articles as particularly rewarding, and more of a “quick fix” than doing actual research. If you’re lucky, it’s possible to write something in a day, look over it again a day later, send it out, and have it published in a week. One particular case of rushed publication proved a tipping point for me. After seeing the concerned piece published, it struck me that I really hated the title the editors had given it. I e-mailed them to request a title change. Luckily, they edited the digital article title straightaway—but the physical publication could not, of course, be undone. In the subsequent weeks, I found myself thinking about the piece, asking myself: did my point come across as too harsh and unnuanced? And more importantly, was this even an important point to make right now? As in, what did it add to current discussions? Those with a lot more experience than me didn’t help in lifting these doubts. Stuart Hall, for instance, underscored the importance of public knowledge—but he also argued that it is essential to perform elaborate and nuanced research before trying to score cheap points through a catchy public piece or a sharp-edged academic article—even though doing so can be very appealing. [3]

For me, a helpful way to take this assertion on board was co-operating with other students. I shared my doubts with a student from the RMA Comparative Literary Studies, which sparked a productive conversation. Subsequently, we decided to collaborate on a piece and see how we could complement each other’s insights while also, as it were, keeping each other in check. Overall, getting some of my work out there felt like a balancing act between thoroughness and a quick rush, between career individualism and collaborative work, and between public engagement and public lecturing. Like any balancing act, it was definitely frustrating at times. But it was also rewarding. It rarely actually hurts to try and get published—and I learned a lot from doing so.

 

[1] Though no longer at Utrecht University, it seems; as of 25 June 2021, the University seems to have given up on the “impact factor”-system.

[2] Stuart Hall, “The emergence of cultural studies and the crisis of the humanities,” in October 53 (1990), 11-12.

[3] John Clarke, “Conjunctures, crises, and cultures. Valuing Stuart Hall,” in Focaal 70 (2014), 117.