I know you curious folks and how you like to pry into other people's writing and researching lives.
How do they do it? You want details. Enter the newest series here at Paper Raven Editing,
Academics Unedited: candid interviews about writing and research.
Today I'm “sitting down” with a fantastic writer and researcher, Tristan Bridges. I attended Tristan's presentation at the annual American Sociology Association conference in New York last week, and I have to say, his approach to research is both innovating and inspiring. Tristan is an assistant professor of Sociology at the College of Brockport SUNY. He does compelling research on men, masculinities, family, and issues of gender and sexual identity and inequality. Even better, he blogs about his research at Inequality by (Interior) Design.
So, Tristan, let's dive right in. Since your early days of academic writing, what practices have you adopted that have made you a more productive writer?
One thing I’ve learned is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for writers. Some scholars I know are enormously productive by setting aside huge chunks of time within a single day (or overnight). Others need small amounts of time on a more regular basis. Here are a few tips that have worked for me.
- Find time to write (or think about writing) on a daily basis—If you don’t write every day (and who does?), it’s important to write yourself memos about what you were thinking about when you last stopped.
- Outline, outline, outline— Eviatar Zerubavel’s book on writing, The Clockwork Muse, is one that has really worked for me. He suggests guessing at the number of pages various parts of the piece you’re outlining might occupy in the actual outline. Each day you sit down and dedicate yourself to one or two of those sections rather than just trying to write as much as possible.
- Start writing in the morning—When I’m struggling letting go of other things I need to get done, I’ll often take 5 or 10 minutes to write out a list of all the things I’m thinking about doing instead of writing so that I can mentally let go of them for a while.
- Quit while you’re ahead—My best writing usually happens in about 2-3 hour chunks. After that, I start getting frustrated, uncomfortable, bored, etc. So, one trick I’ve learned is to not let myself get overly frustrated with a piece of writing. When I feel that starting to happen, I’ll write myself a memo about where I am, and come back to it next time.
- Write early and often—I set aside a small piece of time every weekday to do 2-3 hours of writing. I close my door, put on a pot of coffee, and do my best to stay off email, facebook, twitter, etc. and focus on a single piece.
When you think of your own writing style, what characteristics or components do you think are most important about the way you write?
I like a little flourish. This works for and against you in the academic review process. But, it’s something that’s important to me personally and I try to find ways to be creative in my writing, even for journal articles. One thing I like to do is play with the structure of academic writing a bit. In my first publication on some research I did with a group of male bodybuilders, the way I did this was to find an article with an interesting structure and to kind of mirror that structure. I tell students this all the time. Look at the structure of the writing you love. Often, the organization of a piece is part of what makes great work so great (though phenomenal and creative organization is by no means enough).
Another technique that I try to use is to highlight the nuances of my data and the participants in my research. Great qualitative work doesn’t only analyze what participants are saying; it helps you feel something about the people and processes being analyzed and discussed. It can make you angry, sympathetic, empathetic, happy, sad, etc. Presenting the world from someone else’s perspective is something I consider in all of my writing.
Since 2012, when you started your blog—Inequality by (Interior) Design—have you noticed any changes in the way you approach research or writing?
I initially started Inequality by (Interior) Design to keep myself writing as I started a new research project, with a new baby, and a new job. I was nervous that I wouldn’t have as much time to write and wanted to make sure that when I did have time to sit down and write, I wouldn’t be out of practice. I learned a lot of lessons as a new parent. One of them is a simple tip to help children learn how to sleep well. (If you don’t have kids, I know what you’re thinking. And yes, sleeping is a skill. Turns out, if you don’t learn it when you’re young, it has lasting consequences… or so the science says). A counterintuitive fact about infants’ sleep habits is a simple rule: “sleep begets sleep.” The more your baby sleeps, the more she/he will sleep.
I’ve come to think of writing in the same way. Writing begets writing. Lots of people ask how I have time to blog, and my latest answer is, “I don’t have time not to blog.” Blogging has been a fun way for me to test out ideas, to write about work I love, projects I’ll never undertake but with which I’m fascinated, collect my thoughts, and hone a different kind of writing voice. But it has also helped me gain more confidence in my writing, take some risks, and to keep me typing regularly.
Blogging has also been helpful when I start reading about a new topic. Just as one example, I wrote a series of posts on the relationship between sexuality and space (here, here, and here) that have got me increasingly interested in research on the status of “gayborhoods.”
What encouragement or cautions would you give other scholars considering starting a blog centered on her/his research?
It’s probably true that not every scholar should have a blog. I’m not sure how to decide who ought to and who ought to avoid the practice. I think anyone hoping to reach a wider audience with their work should at least consider blogging. But, perhaps rather than offer advice on that, I’ll present a few things I thought a lot about before starting a blog:
- What’s the topic? I am not a big fan of “anything goes” blogs that don’t really have unifying themes. I think if you want to blog, create some ground rules for yourself including what kinds of topics you hope to explore.
- Write your “About” page before you actually go live. I sometimes stray from my outlined vision for the blog, but it’s helpful to remind me of what I am (and am not) supposed to be writing about here.
- Titles are important. I think there are two ways to think about giving your blog a title: simple or clever. I went with the latter. But many great blogs use the former strategy (see here and here for two of my favorites).
- Write posts that have a clear purpose, make a succinct argument, and are well organized. While I don’t always abide by the rule, 600-800 words is a good limit, and roughly 4-6 paragraphs is a good goal as well.
- Think about how often you might be able to write for your blog and try to keep up. t’s hard to gain followers (if you want any) if you’re not posting on any kind of regular basis.
- Finally, consider how you might share your blog with others. Some people follow by email, but my blog also has a facebook page where I post content, and I started using Twitter (@tristanbphd) to share posts as well.
What would you say is the central theme that lies behind your research on gender, sexuality, and masculinities?
If I had to say it in a single word, the central theme that I’m interested in interrogating is “flexibility.” My work focuses primarily on the ways that men coordinate their gender performances and politics. My work shows that men do so in incredibly fluid ways. This is not a new theme in gender or sexual research. Many great scholars are working on discussing similar issues. But, my work has focused on a relatively privileged group. Most of my research has been with young, straight, white men. In some ways, I argue that this population is afforded the most flexibility in terms of gender and sexual identities and politics. And I’m interested in critically interrogating what this flexibility might mean as well as uncovering its wider consequences in terms of gender and sexual inequality.
What are you currently studying? How do you think it's relevant to sociology and maybe even society at large?
I have a couple different projects on the burner right now. I’m finishing up some of my work from my research with three separate groups of men (a fathers’ rights activist group, a pro-feminist consciousness-raising group, and a group of bar regulars) on gender-political identities, activism, and the ways that men consider, navigate, and discursively frame their relationship with gender and sexual inequality. In the meantime, I am working on a few separate projects about which I’m really excited. I’ll tell you about two of them here.
The first is a co-edited volume with CJ Pascoe, entitled (Re)Theorizing Masculinities. We’re collecting a number of key contemporary readings and research, along with some original writing, from scholars whose work bears on the ways we think about what masculinities are, where they come from, how they intersect with other identity categories (like race, class, sexuality, age, etc.), as well as scholarly work on whether and how masculinity can be analytically dislocated from studies of biological males or men. CJ and I are in the process of writing an introductory essay that will delineate the boundaries of contemporary theory and research on masculinities.
My second project deals with man caves in contemporary American couple households. I’m writing a history tracing the emergence of man caves in American homes as well as ethnographically interviewing couples with caves in their homes. While traditionally thought of as something like a sports bar inside the home, my initial research shows that what constitutes a “man cave” as well as the kinds of people have them is much more complicated than we might assume. I’m interested in how couples’ come to decide to use the space inside their homes for this purpose, how they justify the use of space in this way, whether both members of the couple understand the cave in the same way, as well as what is in the actual cave and why. This project has me interested in issues of gender and space, which is an issue that has pervaded a great deal of my research before (see here and here for some of my work that considers the effects of context on men’s gender performances and inequality).
Being a reader comes with the academic territory. Any favorite books you'd recommend?
I am a voracious reader. I love to read. I am usually reading anywhere from two to six books at any given time. Two books, in particular, are among my all-time favorites. Both deal with the complex relationship between gender and sexuality.
Peter Hennen’s Fairies, Bears, and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering the Masculine is a wonderful ethnography of three separate communities of gay men. All three groups of men are in some way negotiating the relationship between homosexuality and masculine gender identity. In a very basic way he asks whether any of these groups are producing what Judith Butler calls “gender trouble.” In different ways, Hennen illustrates how each group carves out meaningfully masculine identities in ways that both challenge and reproduce existing systems of gendered inequality.
CJ Pascoe’s Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School asks a deceptively simple question: what is the significance of high school boys’ use of “fag” when interacting with each other at school? While previous research explored homophobia as a really integral aspect of masculinity, Pascoe shows how boys’ use of “fag” does much more. The practice is part of a larger process of the interactional construction of gender, sexual, and racialized hierarchies within the school. Not every student said “fag,” and not every student who said it suffered the same consequences. In these ways, Pascoe illustrated how a relatively mundane—if wildly offensive—aspect of high school culture is an integral part of contemporary systems of inequality.
What's your favorite aspect of being an academic? What makes it all worthwhile?
I have absolutely no idea how to answer this question. I love being an academic. I love teaching students about sociological theory and research. I love publishing and participating in the scholarly conversations concerned with the issues about which I am most passionate. I love fieldwork, getting home after an exciting interview or day of ethnographic research, and writing up notes late at night. I love coming back to batches of those notes and trying to make sense of them, searching for patterns. I love books. I love to read. I love working with others who love to teach, learn, and write as well.
Thanks for your time and candid answers, Tristan!
Find out more about Tristan and his research at Inequality by (Interior) Design.