Image: University of Chicago
If Eve L. Ewing were a superhero, her special power would have to do with words. She is that rare academic able to combine scholarship, poetry, and writing for Marvel Comics.
An assistant professor of the sociology of education at the University of Chicago, Ewing published a poetry collection called Electric Arches in 2017; a nonfiction book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, in 2018 about racism and school closings on Chicago’s South Side; and a year later, a second poetry collection, 1919. She also writes the Ironheart series for Marvel, tweets prolifically under the nom de plume of Wikipedia Brown, and has a forthcoming book for elementary readers, Maya and the Robot.
A proud product of the Chicago public schools, she and Nate Marshall co-direct Crescendo Literary, a partnership that develops arts events and educational resources in Chicago. And in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, she has spoken about race and social injustice both on Twitter and in interviews like this one with NPR.
In short, she was a perfect candidate for the Scholars Talk Writing series to discuss her work and her approach to academic and nonacademic writing.
Ghosts in the Schoolyard is political, passionate, and personal. For whom did you write this book?
Ewing: Audience is always the first, and most important, question for me. Having an audience in mind helps you stay accountable to what you’re trying to do. It helps keep you honest, and it helps you decide the terms of your success or failure in advance, before the thing is out in the world. I think it’s important to every aspect of the writing process, from conceiving an idea to revision.
One challenging aspect of Ghosts was that I knew from the beginning that I was trying to write for multiple audiences whose needs might be at odds with one another:
- I wanted my academic colleagues in sociology and education to read the book and to respond favorably, and I wanted to do all the things you have to do as a junior professor in a first book — flex my muscles a little bit and show that I had some command of the conversation intellectually.
- I also knew that I wanted the book to be useful as a teaching text for graduate students and undergraduates, and to be a textbook for people who are trying to teach about racism or urban-education policy. So there were a few concepts I had to make plain and transparent for them.
- And I wanted the book to be useful to people who care about education and don’t know where to start, folks who don’t necessarily see themselves as experts but who want to be informed citizens.
- The final and most important audience was school folks themselves — organizers, teachers, community members. I wanted this book to be useful to them, to articulate things that they already know in a convenient and accessible way. I wanted to offer a tool to save them from having to marshal the same arguments over and over, and allow them to just skip a step and get everyone on the same page.
In writing the book, I made a conscious decision: If I ever found myself at a fork in the road regarding those audiences, it would be that final group that would win out. I really needed the book to work for them. And that was scary because I truly didn’t know if academic colleagues would regard this book with disdain or disregard, or think I just wasn’t very smart because I didn’t write a much more opaque book.
For some academics, inaccessibility is the coin of the realm. For some you prove your expertise by restricting your own legibility to as few people as possible. I just took a deep breath and accepted that this was the choice I was making and if those people didn’t like the book, c’est la vie.
What was your process for revision?
Ewing: I always try to think of specific people. For this book, I thought about my mom. She read the first chapter, and then I asked her to basically recount it back to me. When she was able to do that, I felt like I had achieved something. And I thought about the principal at the school where I had been a teacher. When I revised it, I would stop and ask myself whether those two people would understand what I meant or whether I had to clarify something.
The first people to read a full manuscript were my students at Stateville Correctional Center, many of whom grew up in the places I write about. They’re not shy about sharing their opinions, so I showed up in class ready for them to tell me all the things I needed to fix, and they were so laudatory. One of them said, “Thank you for writing this book about my life, about my history.” So then I was able to tell myself that — whatever happens — if no one else likes this book, at least the people whose lives have been most impacted by these injustices liked it.
You fully inhabit the first-person in the book. Can you talk about refusing claims of “objectivity”?
Ewing: Well, the obvious point that nevertheless bears repeating is that nothing anyone writes is objective — it’s just that some people have the privilege of maintaining the facade of objectivity because their bodies and their perspectives and their beliefs and their epistemologies are seen as neutral and normal, not as deviant, or even really as noteworthy.
Not only do they seem hell-bent on convincing other people of the charade of their own objectivity, but some of them actually seem to really believe it about themselves. I find that amazing. I think it’s a funny thing to still be litigating in 2020.
Of course my work is subjective. I’m drawing on the legacies of generations who did this work before me, drawing on critical race theory, drawing on Black feminism, drawing on lots of phenomenological thinkers. The fact that this is still a point of dispute — or that it’s even worthy of comment — is its own fascinating bit of sociological data.
One of your major influences as a writer was Gwendolyn Brooks. Which academic authors have been models for you?
Ewing: So many. One thing I don’t like is when people refer to “academic” versus “creative” writing. Academic writing is a creative act! I’ve learned so much about writing from so many types of scholars. Of course, the most obvious is my graduate adviser at Harvard, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who is renowned as a brilliant writer and who deeply values beauty in writing and always encouraged me to do the same, both in word and by example.
Also, when I was in graduate school, I took advanced statistical analysis with a professor named John B. Willett. He thought very intentionally about his pedagogy, and one thing he always drove home was the importance of clear writing — even in a statistics class. Especially in a statistics class, where your imagined audience is less likely to have the context or expertise to evaluate your work, so you need to be really honest with them. He always told us to imagine “a naïve but intelligent audience” — people who maybe don’t have the technical background, but they care and they’re sharp, so if you explain things they’re going to follow you. I think about that idea a lot.
Mary Pattillo was the person whose work I read and thought, “This is the book I want to write.” Not just in terms of content, because she writes about the South Side, but in terms of style, her flexibility in moving across discipline and drawing on whatever tools she needs to make a point.
Then the ethnographers — Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández’s Educating Elites is an ethnography that I love. Laurence Ralph is a good friend of mine, and when it was time to write the index for his first book, Renegade Dreams, I convinced him to let me do it. I had never written an index before, but I just thought I could figure it out, and he let me take a shot at it. So I got to know that book intimately, and it taught me so much.
This feels lofty or self-important to say, but The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, has been a big influence on me because of the way Alexander is able to draw a compelling narrative in that book. She took ideas that were fringe and radical to many people, and lots of scholarship both from her own work and that of her predecessors, and she wove it all together in a way that has been so convincing to so many people and, I believe, truly changed society.
And then of course, the OGs: Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells. They were “interdisciplinary” before anybody, and they wrote for so many audiences because they understood that that’s a necessary practice for our liberation.
So … Marvel comics?
Ewing: Writing for Marvel has been a lot of fun, and it’s just a totally different sense of scale. The number of people who bought Ghosts in the first year was considered a really big success for an academic book. If I sold the same number of comics, it would be considered a failure. It’s just a good reminder to not put too much stock into things like that because it’s all so arbitrary and relative.
It’s also been fun because there are quite a few sociological topics and ideas that I sneak in there, especially in my new work Outlawed, which is about Congress passing a law that makes it illegal for young people under 21 to be superheroes. Lots to unpack there!
Any advice for grad students about writing?
Ewing: You know, one thing I find odd is that — even though the majority of academics have to make their way in the world by writing — a lot of scholars don’t think of themselves as writers or think much about the craft of writing.
Even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer, just attending to it a little bit is something all scholars can benefit from. Just that mental shift is a useful intervention.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane, and a former acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press and Duke University Press. Her website is Racheltoor.com.