Image: The Graduate Center, Cuny
By Rachel Toor
I don’t know if Cathy N. Davidson thinks of herself as a cool girl (does anyone?), but I’ve always seen her that way.
Davidson’s academic appointments show much about the breadth and depth of her interests: She is a distinguished professor of English, the digital humanities, and data analysis and visualization at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She founded and co-directs the Futures Initiative, a program dedicated to advancing equity and innovation in higher education. She also cofounded and co-directs Hastac (“Haystack”) — Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory — one of the first academic-social networks.
The most recent of Davidson’s 20 books is The New Education: How to Revolutionize Higher Education to Prepare Students for a World in Flux
(Basic Books, 2017), with another due out next year. She tweets frequently and is currently obsessed with TikTok. Here’s what she had to say in an email chat to talk about academic writing for the Scholars Talk Writing series.
You were the first vice provost at Duke for interdisciplinary studies, and just about everything you’ve written has crossed disciplinary lines.
Davidson: Writers grapple with and transform the world. The world doesn’t come with neat disciplinary boundaries. What “discipline” solves the problem of climate change? Or the extreme racism and inequality exposed by the current pandemic?
Like my writing, my work as vice provost for interdisciplinary studies always started from the premise that every challenge we face requires the complex collaborative talents of all of us, and great educators seek out the full range of those talents, assumptions, methods, and expertise. I love being able to read extensively and deeply within an array of scholarly fields and then to translate that into a continuous and compelling narrative that makes sense to people who aren’t in those fields.
To be frank, the idea of “disciplinary” writing seems limiting and artificial to me. What is compelling is addressing complex problems and ideas. If I could create the U.S. university of the future, I would shake up and remix all the disciplines institutionalized before World War I. They’ve overstayed their welcome.
That approach is reflected in your earliest book — a revision of your dissertation on Ambrose Bierce. It was more than just a literary study.
Davidson: My first year of graduate school I began working on the first writers, readers, printers, and booksellers of early American fiction, in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War. I was interested in alternative visions of a post-revolutionary America, and how new technologies of mass printing and machine-made paper and ink were conveying those ideas to new, mostly non-elite readers. These scrappy early novels advocate abolitionism and feminism, for example, in ways the Constitution failed to do. My advisers insisted no one was doing anything like that kind of work, and they were sure it was a 10-year project.
Since I hated grad school, and since all of Bierce’s fiction fit into one volume, I wrote the fastest dissertation I could, literally six weeks from coming up with a topic to handing in the first draft. It wasn’t great, but it earned me a degree.
I spent a decade revising it into a book, editing a volume of Bierce’s stories, and editing a collection of scholarly essays on Bierce while also doing the archival research for Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (Oxford University Press, 1986). The issues I was interested in for that book shaped my postinternet occupations: the complex interdependence of technology, culture, communication, ideology, social-justice movements, and education. Mass printing in one era, the Mosaic 1.0 browser in another.
You are dyslexic. My hunch is that it has played a large part in your empathetic approach to teaching, and is perhaps even more necessary at a place like CUNY than it was at Duke. How has being “differently brained” affected your writing?
Davidson: I lucked out as a preschool child and took a Chicagowide aptitude test that proclaimed me a math prodigy. “Learning disabilities” weren’t really a thing then. While I could do complex math in my head, I couldn’t add. I could read adult books in first grade but not children’s picture books and was unable to read anything out loud.
My school transcripts must have carried those test results because I was labeled “rebellious” and “obstinate” rather than “stupid.” It fed my defiance, not my defeat. School, though, was a nightmare. I was kicked out of high school four times. My high school paid me to tutor other students in algebra but I never bothered to do my math homework so I don’t think I earned a grade over C. Except in writing, which came without effort.
I was already 26 or 27, and an assistant professor, when a colleague took me along when her 6-year-old daughter was being tested for learning disabilities. I ended up returning and taking a lot of tests. “Diagnostic relief” is the term people use for that feeling of everything suddenly making sense.
At Duke, I had plenty of students with learning disabilities, and they had been tutored, coached, and given special accommodations for tests their whole lives. At CUNY — and there is abundant research on this — many of our students from low-income backgrounds feel almost as if it is cheating to get special help. They are the opposite of “entitled.”
How have you managed your dyslexia?
Davidson: I write rapidly and revise relentlessly. Between drafts, I like to hear my writing but reading out loud is still difficult for me. So now I upload Word documents to an automated educational service out of Denmark called SensusAccess that converts text into any number of accessible formats (including Braille). I order the MP3 audio version. There are many systems that read text but this is the best I’ve found and I love hearing this pretty decent “robovoice” in my headphones as I’m on the 6 train (pre-Covid) or walking down the street. When I return to work on the next draft, I’ve had the chance to hear it almost as if it’s someone else’s writing — and that means I have the distance to revise.
A few decades ago, you were in a writing group at Duke and you’ve done lots of collaborative work. What are your thoughts on that?
Davidson: I began my writing life, in my 20s, as a playwright. In that amazing writing group at Duke, Alice Kaplan, Jane Tompkins, and Marianna Torgovnick pushed me to dig deep and recapture the playwright’s voice and attention to the way people move through space as they speak and interact with one another — gestures, stances, facial expressions, posture. Without them, I’m positive I wouldn’t have been as attentive to embodiment in 36 Views of Mt Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan (Penguin, 1993).
Now I’m writing a science-fiction novel, and I’m fortunate to be in a fabulous science-fiction writing group started by scholar, poet, and science-fiction writer Margaret Rhee at the University at Buffalo. It has the perfect mix of love and toughness.
In addition to the science-fiction novel, I’m finishing the third book in a “How We Know” trilogy that began with Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Penguin, 2011) and the 2017 follow-up, The New Education. I’m co-writing the third book, tentatively titled “Transform Every Classroom: A Practical Guide to Revolutionary Teaching and Learning” (anticipated from Harvard University Press in 2022).
The last thing I wanted to do at this advanced stage in my career was be one of those “wise old pundits” sharing outmoded, irrelevant observations. So I’m fortunate to be writing with a brilliant, newly minted Ph.D., Christina Katopodis, who taught for years as an adjunct instructor and has experienced firsthand the crushing burdens of current academic life, for profs as well as students. We champion active or participatory learning, which has been shown to be more effective than traditional methods in any field, benefits students at any kind of institution, works equally well for elite students and first-generation students, and rests on a solid foundation of egalitarian, democratic social principles. We cover everything from co-creating a syllabus with students to “ungrading.”
Any writing tips you want to share?
Davidson: I haven’t taught writing very often but I spent a decade editing the scholarly journal, American Literature, and often give feedback on writing to students and colleagues. I warn anyone whose work I’m reading that I use the “architect’s method.” An architect I once worked with designing a meeting space was shocked that humanists kept serving up criticism of his drawings without offering any alternatives to build upon. He handed us paper and had us draw our ideas. So now, if I come across a section I am confused by, instead of writing “This is confusing,” I write: “I’m not sure I’m reading your intentions here. Is this a good paraphrase?” And then I propose a rewrite — not for them to copy but to have an alternate vision.
I write every day. Like going to the gym, if you get out of the habit, you feel it. I tend to wake up before dawn, and I try to get in four or five hours of serious, dedicated writing before my administrative “work day” begins.
I also like to distract myself for a few minutes if I’m stuck — it’s easy now, switching to Twitter or TikTok, then looking back at what I’m writing. I know many people say never write when you can be distracted. It’s the opposite for me. Distraction is important — it allows me to return with fresh eyes.
In fact, I do not believe there are any rules for writing except one: “Know thyself.” If you are a night person, write at night! If you need to write with a certain kind of pen longhand on a certain kind of paper (the way President Obama writes), make sure you have a good stock of those pens and notepads. If you need to be isolated, shut out the world. In other words, the only right way to write is the way you write right.
Oh, gosh, Bierce wrote a book called Write It Right! I guess that brings us full circle.
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.