What we lose when writing academic articles

What we lose when writing academic articles

Four years ago (!) I wrote an ethnographic research paper on missionary ethics that was, I like to think, well-written, complex, and faithful to the interviews.  But I struggled throughout the research — and I struggle now — with concerns about what writing does to our subjects, with the necessity of sharing the stories we hear, and about the growing government surveillance of our lives and relationships. I’ve rewritten this post several times over the intervening years, but perhaps it’s time to share:  


Going through my old field-notes a few years ago, I was surprised at what I found. Returning home from Asia, I had carefully combed through each line of diary, interview, and commentary, pulling out useful quotes. And then I set the memories aside.

Fieldnotes, by Tricia Wang
Fieldnotes, by anthropologist Tricia Wang

But now I’m viewing these notes anew. It’s the same way that blurry snapshots aren’t the ones we display, yet they carry a weight: the full-fleshed memories of kitchen conversations, private reflections and silly jokes.

Re-reading the notes, I feel what was lost in academic writing and publishing: we hardly tell stories in academia anymore. Commentary guts our experiences, carving them into chicken nuggets of meaning. Compact, faintly flavored, processed and re-processed through layers of analysis and conclusion.

In writing, I hadn’t distorted. Yet somehow, through distilling layer upon layer of fieldnotes into article, I had.

So I find myself pondering what I cut. And even now, editing and re-sorting each paragraph: What’s right to say? What is the point of this type of writing? What’s meaningful to my readers? Who’s watching? Who’s not?


What I will lay out, then, is one situation that I mentioned in early drafts of my article, a funny bit of dialogue between uncertain young missionaries I observed traveling through the country of Cherapak*:

Situation. We’re in a house in the rural country of Cherapak, possibly “safe,” possibly “bugged.” I’m sitting on the sofa with a group of American college students, come for six weeks to learn this language, teach English – and share their Christian ideology. Once or twice they’ve talked religion with the locals, but more often they feel the pressure of government eyes. They know I’m researching them. Mel’s dabbling with a sonata on the piano as Hannah explains in detail what I’d missed when stepping out the week before:

Hannah*: …and they were cranky because we were doing work on a tourist visa. But then they seemed to forget about it so we did it [taught English] anyway.

Lisa [the guide]: Yeah we might have round two of that, so you can be praying for that… I don’t know if we’re going to have issues or not. The fact that the immigration police came Friday… does not bode well. Jim got grilled for like two hours…

Me: What was their issue?

Lisa: They don’t need to have an issue, to have an issue.

Josh [looks up from his guitar, strumming]: Have you heard the KGB joke?

The others [rolling their eyes]: Yes…

[Half the room nods; they’ve been living with Josh for weeks and heard all his jokes].

Me [interrupts]: No! I haven’t heard it.

So, Josh gets up and tells a knock-knock joke to Zane, standing up and walking together into the center of the dark living room. The light from the window silhouettes their dark forms, two lanky boys in close conversation:

Josh: Knock knock…

Zane: Who’s there?

Josh: KGB.

Zane: KGB wh–

Josh: [a loud slap on Zane’s face] Why are you asking questions?!

He then rubs Zane’s face gently as everyone laughs.

Lisa [looks exasperated]: …So basically if we have problems with the police we’re going to let the nationals deal with it. This was our plan.


This makes me smile every time I read it. It’s funny, it’s earnest. It’s honest. It’s terrible. And it’s dangerous–should they be saying this? Should I write it?

What’s more, it hits at the pressing fears of each participant: What are we doing here? We think we’re doing what’s right, but are we breaking the law (“Hannah”)? Even if we think we’re acting ethically, will the authorities still hound us (“Lisa”)? If we met the police, could we even reason with them (“Josh”)? Are we under surveillance (“Zane”)? Even with an IRB and informed consent, should I really be writing with texture, opening these shaded parts of life (me)? And where do we go from here?

… And After.

After trimming down to my key arguments, of course, this is what made it into my final presentation:

“Summoned to a government office, they were interrogated and reprimanded for teaching English on a tourist visa.”

After the After

And so it goes with fieldnotes. Five hundred pages of life, negotiating over rent and tomatoes, stupid meetings, sweaty kisses and scratchy cheeks, joking and reassuring and analyzing people as you write down the texture of their lives… and it all becomes a twenty-page addition to the literature that tries to extrapolate relationships into theory.

I’m a bit fuzzy on the contribution-to-knowledge part, because I tend to focus on the life and story part of anthropology. I really believe that’s a contribution to knowledge in itself.

And perhaps for this reason, I left a funded PhD program in 2011, moving into the “alt-ac” world outside of academia. Now I’m back, in a way, as an academic librarian. But from others still in the tenure-track path, I’d love to hear:

you write the academic articles, but what do you do with the rest of it?


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