Writing Reflections: Cutting Back the Forest

This week, I had the pleasure to contribute to Nursing Clio‘s “Bites of History” section.  For those unaware, Nursing Clio is a collaborative academic blog that has gained a great bit of traction in the academic world.  It is a site for innovative academic writing and for bite-sized (pun totally intended) blog posts engaged with current events/culture using historical primary source material.  I learn so much from posts on Nursing Clio.  Those who manage the site also have a great commitment to accessible writing, which makes it a great source for budding historians (my undergrads love this site!).

One important caveat to good, accessible academic writing is knowing when and where to end a conversation.  As I was writing “Milk: A History of Tasting What Cows Eat,” I had to make some very difficult decisions on what to include and what to cut.  Why is this so hard for academics to do?  Because many of us are managing many different kinds of information at once, often forgetting that the debates and conversations held in the ivory tower do not always translate to a general audience (or sometimes, even, to the larger discipline)!  We get stuck in the details of our own interests and the interests of the people we want to readily speak to.  It’s hard to zoom out and see the forest instead of the moss on the trees – as one of my advisors so eloquently put it.

 

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Taking a birds-eye view is tough!  I’d rather get to the nitty gritty of this rock, mildew, or the people in those houses.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger (Albuquerque 2015).

 

For the past few months, I’ve been sitting in coffee shops reading and studying for my comprehensive exams.  This is why the personal blog has been so neglected.  My brain is not only filled with more information than I can handle, but I’m constantly having to consider and re-consider what my dissertation is and who it will be speaking to.  I find myself constantly caught in the weeds of the details of my agriculture history literature, not to mention the mass of data I’ve already collected to start writing the first few chapters of my dissertation.  How the heck am I to write a succinct blog entry when I’m reading through four lists of different historical and anthropological material?  What makes it all connect, and how do I make these connections in a brief, but clear, way?

The advisor who asked me to consider my forest suggested I pitch to Nursing Clio‘s call for histories of nutrition.  As a historian of animal nutrition, I had so many ideas and I didn’t know where to start.  I knew I wanted to speak to historians of medicine and agriculture historians, but I also wanted to consider environmental historians, historians of technology, and food scholars.  This was way too ambitious, and I knew I couldn’t write explicitly, “as these scholars have suggested, and you, and I’m also talking to you, and you, and you, and you, and you!”  I wasn’t going to make an interesting argument AND sing a rendition of La Vie Boheme in 1,000 words or less.  So I went simple and started with a movie scene many people were familiar with from Napoleon Dynamite.

The movie, in all of its awkward tendencies, heightened the awkwardness with the decision to make Napoleon and his friend, Pedro, members of their high school FFA program.  When the movie was released, I couldn’t quite make sense of this decision.  My hometown was not only familiar with FFA but very supportive of the program.  My parents were in FFA.  I almost joined FFA (a story for another time).  But for those unfamiliar with the organization, this narrative decision made the outcast characters in the film pushed even more to their high school’s periphery.  So I decided to bring the FFA milk tasting scene from this film back into context using history and current events.  Thus, my Nursing Clio article was born.

I could have expanded on the subject of milk tasting in many different ways, but I’m happy I stayed with the history of tasting contests, how tasting “tests” continue today, and how tastes may be perceived differently with the advent of animal-free milk.  You’ll have to read the post for the details!  As a complimentary writing reflection, however, I want to reveal three other points I wanted to engage with but that didn’t make the cut for accessibility/organization/clarity purposes.  I hope this illustrates how purposeful writing is and can be, particularly when trying to craft something for a wider audience.

  1. My hometown and personal FFA/4-H background.

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This was an alternate way to speak to the wider audience.  I had to make the decision to either use my personal story to get readers engaged, or to use a more popular source like the film clip.  As my first post with Nursing Clio, I decided to go the popular route.  This helped me form a catchy introduction, and stay focused with the purpose of the piece.  Personal reflections, though helpful, can sometimes get the “TMI” mark rather than the “ICYMI” on Twitter.

2. Feeding cows (or, uh, giraffes?) Skittles is a big deal right now.

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The great Skittles debate has gained some traction in the news.  But, I felt I talked about animal feed in enough detail for the purposes of the post. I mean, my whole dissertation is about animal feed!  I actually made the decision to use the room in my post to speak briefly about animal-free milk instead of this.  This is because I have been making efforts to use my academic work to speak to environmentally conscious food consumers, including vegans.  The questions I pose at the end of the post are, in ways, meant to be an open-ended reflection for this group.  If I talked about Skittles, I wouldn’t have had time to talk about animal-free milk.  Too many ideas, not enough room!

3.  The science of animal-free milk may impact the formula v. breastfeeding debates.

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Nursing Clio has a commitment to discussions on the history of gender and sexuality.  I really wanted to speak to this more directly in the post but decided the subtleties would be enough.  With cows as female animals and men (problematically) dominating the science of milk for so long… the gendered labor and gendered animals backdrops are there.  But, I could have gone into this formula/breastfeeding topic in a few ways.  Some of my primary sources noted that women (really, secretaries) at the extension schools preferred “silage milk,” and one historical interpretation for this inclusion in the scientific reports may be because milk, in general, was being marketed most to mothers for feeding children.  This seemed like an unnecessary tangent for me to get into, so it was cut.

Human milk is also being tested to make synthetic breast milk, and they are using similar processes developed by the bovine-focused Muufri/Perfect Day.  But these tests are still “beta,” as human milk proteins are much more complex than bovine ones.  Getting into the weeds of this feminist/reproduction angle, I had to ask myself what the purpose of my particular post would be: connections between human and animal milk?  Animal welfare? Milk tasting?  I decided to focus my writing on this idea that tasting milk has historically meant tasting a particular feeding decision/relationship.  This doesn’t have the simplest history, but a quick snapshot, I believed, could get readers thinking… at the very least about the Napoleon Dynamite clip being part of a longer history.  Readers could get to some of these other topics I wanted to talk about on their own with some digging.  Perhaps they could even be the subject of future articles.

 

What is your writing process, and does it change with the genre?  When have you made the decision to cut out ideas in your writing for the purposes of clarity?  Would love to hear your thoughts!

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