Columnist balances academic and popular writing

‘Slate Magazine’ writer emphasized that more esoteric articles can find their way into the public eye

· February 11, 2011, 4:40 am   ·  Updated February 11, 2011, 12:00 am

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Columnist Stephen Metcalf addresses the tension between academia and popular writing during a talk at Kelly Writers House.


As they contemplate their post-college careers, many students with a passion for both academia and writing face a tough dilemma — go on to graduate school and publish research for the eyes of a knowledgeable few, or “dumb down” their intellectuality to have wider readership.

While it seems hardly possible to combine the two, Slate Magazine columnist Stephen Metcalf spoke on ways to strike the balance. He talked to more than 30 students and faculty members at a Kelly Writers House discussion Thursday, organized by Penn professor and Writers House Faculty Director Al Filreis.

Having finished graduate school at the University of Virginia and tested the waters of the English graduate program at Yale University, Metcalf asserted that even in academia, students can find their own voice and are not limited to pursuing a series of publications in niche scholarly journals. While he said that there is “no perfect midway, where you enjoy esoteric essays and are able to engage with a wider audience,” he believes that it is possible for students with high intellectual ambitions to adjust “[their] genius to the pitiless market.”

In case they are not ready to attain a doctoral degree “from the first moment ex utero,” Metcalf suggested finding a hero as a way to decide on a career track. He also proposed starting college-level work from the sophomore year of high school, which would give students enough experience to know if they want to do research at a post-college level.

But even in graduate school, it is never too late to turn back. “Everyone hugs some shore and later regrets it,” Metcalf said.

While pursuing his Ph.D. at Yale, Metcalf became disillusioned, gave up on his thesis and moved to New York to become a freelance writer. He initially worked as a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton, he began writing book reviews for The New York Observer and The New York Times.

Metcalf is now a columnist for Slate and the host of the weekly Culture Gabfest podcast — where, according to Filreis, he discusses culture at a high level without being “didactic or pedagogical.” The podcast covers topics from Stephen Colbert to 20-somethings and offers a mix of gossip, general knowledge and cultural theory, usually discussed with little or no preparation.

Since the podcast often requires him to explain complicated theories “through the keyhole of 45 seconds,” Metcalf also addressed the modern journalistic tendency to condense information. He likes a shorter pamphleteering style, but also believes that long-form journalism is here to stay through established publications such as the Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic. “Post-apocalyptic roaches will be sitting there with a copy of The New Yorker,” he prophesied, adding that there is no need to adopt a “doom mood” about the future of writing.

Wharton senior Colin Lee came to the event to “broaden the scope of what I usually read.” He added that he had read some of Metcalf’s reviews and found him to be “very funny.”

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