Faculty in Focus: Conjuring a Reader

Emily Steinmetz, Assistant Professor of Anthropology

In addition to “Introduction to Anthropology,” Dr. Steinmetz teaches courses such as “Sex, Gender, and Culture” and “Prisons, Punishment, and Social Control.” In her FYS “Liberation,” students correspond with women incarcerated in a Delaware prison while exploring larger questions of what makes us free and unfree. Her current scholarship includes a collaborative book she is composing with a visual artist and women serving life sentences in an Ohio prison.

In order to write and communicate well, what do students need to do? What are some principles or characteristics of effective writing and related forms of communication that you emphasize in your courses?

Imagine a reader. 

While working on a recent essay, I imagined my mom as my reader. She is smart, curious, open-minded, and not an expert on the topic. I wanted my writing to reach her and convince her. I wanted my ideas to be accessible to her. When I write for a (real or imagined) reader, I make decisions with more intention. 

To write well, we should ask ourselves: Who am I writing for? Who are my interlocutors? And write with them in mind.

We already do this unconsciously in our everyday interactions. We “code-switch,” for example, when we use different vocabulary with a grandparent than with a college roommate. Human beings have great capacity for cooperation, sociality, and empathy, and these aid us in our interactions with each other. So we need to become more aware of these intuitive communication skills and apply them to our writing practice. Becoming a good writer is, in part, about becoming better at perspective-taking. Look at the world through your reader’s eyes. Visualize yourself in conversation with that person. 

In my FYS, I encourage students to conjure a specific person, a smart non-expert like my mom, and write for her. Which words will you use? Which terms should you define? How much background information does your reader need (or want)? How will you capture her imagination? What might she wonder about? What authorial voice will pull her in? How will you engage with your interlocutor?   

Also, a quick second point. Writers should read. A lot. Read all kinds of things, regardless of what you study or which genres dominate in your field. Read poems and opinion pieces, journalism and ethnography, scientific articles and social theory. Maybe you will be inspired by new ideas. And perhaps you will start to decode “effective writing” for yourself. 

What is something you learned about writing as a student that guides you now as a writer and teacher?

I still remember when a mentor wrote this to me almost twenty years ago: You are such a good writer, but your sentences are very long. It might be the most valuable feedback I’ve ever received. It transformed my writing. Plus, she offered it in a kind and gentle way that allowed me to hear it and act on it. It was a lesson not just in writing, but in offering constructive and compassionate critique.

Like my younger self, some students write long, complicated sentences that have too many clauses, twists, and turns. Even if they are grammatically correct, they can be confusing. There is no shame in short, simple sentences! Reading your draft aloud to yourself is a great strategy for identifying and fixing those too-long, too-convoluted sentences. I do this all the time.

As school became more challenging and more stimulating, I learned that writing is a process through which I work out my ideas. I do not always know where I am headed, and I often write my way to a solution to an unresolved problem. While my inclination is to avoid writing when I am uncertain, putting pen to paper, so to speak, helps me find my way through it. 

What is something that you learned about writing later in your career and wish that you had been taught earlier as a student? 

Sending our writing out into the world is a courageous act. We make ourselves vulnerable, we open ourselves to others’ appraisals, and it is hard to disconnect our ego from our creative/ scholarly production. Be brave! And build a community of people who will support you, challenge you, sharpen your thinking, and be honest about your works in progress.

Also, I learn over and over again the power of “mindless” time. Ideas magically manifest when I’m walking alone, driving (usually with the radio off), or taking a shower. And they are ephemeral. I have to scribble them down or speak them into a voice recorder before they fade away. Maybe others share this experience? Because we live in a society that valorizes overwork and “productivity,” it can be hard to give ourselves permission to be mindless. Do it anyway. Take a break, go for a walk, lie in the grass, take a shower, or just stare out of the window.

What writer or scholar (any genre or field) would you recommend as a model of a good writer, and why?

This is an impossible question. I agree with Michael Harvey that good writers are everywhere. 

I recently binged on Luis Alberto Urrea’s books, so he comes immediately (and deservedly) to mind. He is a master of levity, fashioning worlds and characters that fold together tragedy and humor, beauty and horror, the believable and fantastical. Every sentence is an inventive arrangement of words: no clichés, no tired stereotypes, no predictability. I relished the surprises of his prose and I was compelled to share his work with people around me. I followed my partner through our house reading passages aloud so he could laugh, cry, and marvel with me. 

Taking Urrea as one of many good writers, I offer a few tentative thoughts on “good writing.” First, as an anthropologist, I am drawn to the profound humanity of his work. His stories connect us to each other. They help us fall in love with people again, even as we despair about the state of the world. So perhaps good writing fosters connection – with each other, with ideas, with the natural world, with ourselves. Second, I presume that Urrea considers every single word. Is it the right word? Is it necessary? How can these words work together in new ways? It is easy to fall into ruts with our writing, to use worn phrases that we have at the ready. Good writers attend to words carefully and intentionally. And third, as I reflect on my experience reading Urrea’s books, my intellectual and emotional responses were tangled together. Perhaps good writing does not captivate just the intellect or just emotion, but both. How can we engage the whole-person reader? I don’t know if that last point generalizes to all genres, but I offer it for consideration.

What are you currently working on in your own writing and scholarship?

Like many writers, I have several projects underway and in various stages of development. One is a collaborative book that I am dreaming up and assembling with several women serving life sentences in an Ohio prison and with Forest Bright, a visual artist at Antioch College. The book is nascent, but it builds on three years of working together during which time we produced content for a museum exhibit and published an illustrated essay. Through our projects we hope to connect people across experiential differences, both perceived and real; to transcend, with stories, walls designed for silencing and control; to ask human questions about what prisons do to people and why they have become our default response to complex social problems; and to envision alternative futures that are oriented toward compassion and healing. The incarcerated contributors are composing poems and short essays, lists, science fiction, commentary, and vignettes. Forest experiments with visual expression, conveying the spirit of our group’s work in novel ways and nudging us all to use art as a process of working through. And I am drawing from interviews, group discussions, news, scholarship, and my own ethnographic insights to develop a series of short essays that will form the backbone of the book. 

We are imagining a range of public readers, and one of them is my mom.

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