Open Books

by Meredith McGroarty August 17, 2011

Open bookAcademic discourse often sounds like a language completely foreign to that used in the newspaper, around the water cooler, or at the dinner table. The task of presenting academic research to the public in an engaging format largely falls to journalists and other professional writers. But every so often, a professor will make the leap from scholarly to mainstream, putting public research funding to use by producing work for, well, the public.

Regardless of whether their works will make the bestsellers list, UT professors Terry Leap, Jay Rubenstein, and Ernest Freeberg are each coming out with new books written for the public.

“There is a time and a place when academics should write for each other, but there should be a time for opening doors and trying to make a wider audience understand why we’re doing what we’re doing,” says Rubenstein, an associate professor of history.

Rubenstein is making his first foray into mainstream publishing this November with Armies of Heaven, which examines the role of the apocalypse in the First Crusade and follows the journeys of four crusader princes traveling to the Holy Land. Although the subject matter itself has broad appeal, the challenge for the author lay in presenting his research in a manner that would not confuse—or, worse, bore—his readers.

“When writing for an academic audience, you highlight arguments and not stories. With this book, I’m trying to tell a story while at the same time advancing ideas and arguments,” he says.

Originally, Rubenstein had envisioned writing a scholarly book on the First Crusade, but after he won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008, he was able to defer this project and pursue a book with broader appeal. At many universities, academic publishing is vitally important for career advancement; most professors cannot devote a substantial amount of time and money toward a project that will probably not help—and may even hinder—their career path. And given that the typical print run of an academic book is around 750 copies (sold mainly to libraries), there is little chance of recouping the costs from book sales. Winning the fellowship not only provided Rubenstein with the financial means to write the book, but it also drew the attention of an agent and a publisher interested in making it happen.

Unlike Rubenstein, Leap is not new to writing for the general public. Leap, head of the Department of Management in the College of Business Administration, had published Dishonest Dollars: The Dynamics of White Collar Crime in 2007, and his current book, Phantom Billing, Fake Prescriptions, and the Higher Cost of Medicine (published in April by Cornell University Press), stems from that topic.

“What health care fraud represents is a subset of the bigger world of white-collar crime. With my public health background, this book seemed like a logical extension of the previous one,” Leap says.

Phantom Billing examines the pervasiveness of fraud in the medical industry. According to some estimates, approximately 10 percent of all health care transactions in the United States involve fraud, costing approximately $250 billion per year; much of this cost is passed along to consumers through, among other things, higher prices for services and increased insurance premiums.

Leap’s book is a consumer handbook of sorts, pointing out illegal practices that directly or indirectly affect everyone in the country and advising readers on how they can fight such fraud. Leap hopes it will be beneficial to the general population.

“I owe it to the public to provide them with something that is useful and helpful,” he says.

Freeberg, an associate professor of history, traces the cultural history of the light bulb in his forthcoming book, tentatively titled Incandescent America: Electric Light and America’s Culture of Innovation. He has related experience presenting his work to a wide audience: He was a radio journalist for several years before attending graduate school.

“That job was wonderful training in writing for an interested, well-educated general reader,” Freeberg says. “Long and convoluted sentence structure and lots of abstractions do not work for a radio audience, nor do they work for a general audience.”

Freeberg’s last book, published in 2009, garnered significant public and media attention. Titled Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, it was lauded by The New York Review of Books and the Los Angeles Times, earning a nomination for a 2008 Times Book Prize in the biography category. His first book, The Education of Laura Bridgman: First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language, also was for a mainstream audience. Although both works were published by Harvard University Press, Freeberg says he was given a good deal of creative liberty in writing them.

“One of the great things for me about working with Harvard University Press was that they were interested and supportive of work that tried to reach a broad audience, and I had a bit of success in that, especially with the Debs book,” he says. “The goal in both cases was to tell a very compelling story—about the first deaf and blind person to learn language and about the great socialist leader jailed during a war for speaking his mind—and to use those stories as a way to explore some big questions.”

Mainstream publishing is not feasible for all—or even most—academics, and many research fields are too complicated and to convey in a single, general text. But sharing knowledge with the public is a vital part of a university’s mission, and Leap, Rubenstein, and Freeberg are trying to do their part.

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