New University Administrative Fellow: Elizabeth Durham

My parents are journalists. They prize clear, concise writing and disdain jargon. Years ago, flush with excitement, I called them to say that I had been admitted for a PhD in anthropology at Princeton University. For a while, they cooed and congratulated me, but then my mother, who is delightfully incapable of being earnest for too long, laughed despite herself. “Academia’s really great,” she chuckled, “if you want to become a professional bad writer.”

That joke stayed with me. It came with me when I attended the Princeton-Fung Forum on Ebola in Dublin, Ireland in 2015, the first year of my PhD. There I listened to, among others, the Director-General of the World Health Organization kid around about how medical anthropologists had (apparently) poorly presented and adapted their work amidst this epidemic. At the risk of reading too much into the Forum’s numerous anthropology jokes, the gist of it seemed to be that anthropologists (and here I felt myself hailed) were terrific at contextualizing Ebola and terrible at communicating that context beyond the narrow academy. More recently, in 2018 and 2019, my mother’s words went with me to Yaoundé, Cameroon, where I conducted dissertation fieldwork on wellbeing. Because my research was based at a public psychiatric hospital in a country where healthcare is heavily financed by the development sector, I had to communicate, in person and in writing, the aim and value of my work to a diverse set of actors. This included not only a bevy of healthcare providers and patients but also officials at local ministries, project managers at local and transnational NGOs and similar institutions, and, yes, journalists. One correspondent read my writing and said, gently, “cutting is brutal, just to warn you.” One anthropologist later read the same piece and urged me, gently, “to expand just a bit.”

Experiences like these have driven me to pursue a University Administrative Fellowship with Princeton Writes. Cutting, expanding — as my studies progress, I (and many of my peers) increasingly notice this idea of an oppositional relationship between so-called “non-academic” and “academic” styles of writing. Now, there are good reasons for different kinds of writing. Writing is a fundamentally social act not only because people write to share information with others, but also because the choices people make during the writing process help signal and stake social allegiances. But what is a graduate student to do with this opposition and its frequent valorization by both sides? With this question as a jumping-off point, I will be assisting Princeton Writes with the “Tell Me More: Humanizing Your Research” dinner conversation series, which features senior scholars reflecting on how to effectively communicate research results in and beyond the conventional academy. I will also be interviewing notable campus writers from all walks of life for our new “Community of Writers” series. Finally, I will be teaching two workshops, one on interviewing and one on grant writing, which will be open to all members of the Princeton community — students, staff, and faculty alike.

I look forward to joining Princeton Writes this year and invite community members interested in the above projects to, well, write me: edurham@princeton.edu. Because from Princeton to Dublin to Yaoundé, one of the takeaways of my PhD experience so far is that there is simply no shortage of bad academic jokes out there. Here’s to writing better ones, together.

— Elizabeth Durham, 2020 University Administrative Fellow, Princeton Writes