Friday, February 11, 2011

Who the heck is the audience for a "companion to" piece??

I have been tasked with writing a chapter for one of those "companion to" books, one with a *huge* charge: all of medieval British literature. So I'm writing a single chapter on a single very large genre (rather than, say, writing a more focused chapter for a guide to said genre). And worse, its word limit is 7500 words. (OK, that's 30 double-spaced typescript pages, but still, it's a big topic!) I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by the task before me.

But what most has me puzzled is just who I'm writing *for*. The style guide gives me some help, as it clearly privileges a synthesis of scholarly debates over an encyclopedia-like summary of the primary texts. But then it hilariously says it should be aimed at "undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars." Um, OK, then who the heck *isn't* it aimed at? (Well, a "general audience," I suppose -- but I kind of assumed that already.) And though it emphasizes scholarly debates over the primary texts, it also says I shouldn't assume too much detailed prior knowledge.


Can my wise and witty readers help me out here? I've got some ideas, but I thought maybe I could spark some discussion about what is and isn't helpful in these guides and companions. In the case of my subject, I see non-specialists in it get all sorts of things wrong because they rely on out of date scholarship (i.e., what they learned in grad school or college years ago), and imho, no subfield of medieval literary studies has changed its mind so much about the basic facts as this particular subfield has. So beginning researchers are entering a minefield of bad sources. I think I should perhaps keep that in mind in my writing, perhaps even make that one of the shaping ideas of it. That would be helpful to anyone turning to it for a crash course in the subject. But I don't want it to sound like my "how to do research" class for first-year grad students; I don't want to talk down to people.

And on the other hand, one of the problems I have with many of these "companion to" essays is that they don't start at the beginning, that they do, in fact, assume too much knowledge, especially for undergrads and beginning grad students, so that reading one is no different than diving into any random point in the scholarship. And I don't want my chapter to be one of those, either.

Oy, what to do? Any thoughts? And if there are models of what you think makes the perfect "companion to" essay, lead me to it. Of course, different series do it differently, but even without those series, there's a lot of variety, so any model is useful. And if you were trying to bone up on a field, what would you find most helpful?

(Yeah, I'm being vague, I know. But hey, now this post applies to ALL the fields of literary studies!)


Anonymous said...

I turn to *Companion*s for a quick boning-up on unfamiliar material -- esp. the large subject I can imagine you were asked to cover. Or at least that I hope you were asked to cover, because if it's what I think it is, I would read the shit outta that.

Perhaps interested readers who know some stuff about the larger topic but not necessarily about that particular entry?

[Capcha is "faeces," so perhaps I'm talking bullshit.

Bardiac said...

I think Companion to stuff can be aimed at different audiences. Russ McDonald's Bedford Companion to Shakespeare (or something like that) is very much aimed at undergrads, though also, I think, useful to high school teachers.

But most of the Companion to stuff I read feels aimed at me as a near expert/non-expert. I'm pretty expert in, say, Shakespeare, but now I'm teaching, say, Chaucer, or metaphysical poetry, or I'm teaching a survey and trying to catch up a bit on medieval drama.

I guess I'm thinking that as a non-medievalist who sometimes teaches medieval stuff, I'm your audience. And the grad student who's getting into stuff is your secondary audience. And the advanced undergrad maybe is your tertiary audience?

I think the idea of writing to a non-medievalist who's prepping to do better for a survey is likely to be pretty on the mark. And especially since so many of us are out here being asked to teach surveys and trying not to rely completely on what we learned 20 years ago.

Thanks for doing this! Sometimes, I find companions to stuff invaluable. (I find McDonald great, and would LOVE for something similar for Chaucer, by the way! That is, aimed at giving undergrads background info without being too in depth or complicated.)

Janice said...

In almost every case, a "Companion To" chapter should assume general familiarity with the field but not with the subject. I've read and/or used several of these in my teaching when I want to give my upper-year undergraduates or grad students a leg-up on a specific subfield or approach.

What I find is that even as a professor, these volumes are very useful. I'm not coming to them when I'm a subfield hotshot. I'm coming to them for help! The best chapters not only give me the "facts" on a subject, but even more importantly, round up the major arguments and interpretations about the subject.

I'd suggest you write this chapter for the imaginary senior project student or grad student of an academic buddy who works on a somewhat different subfield. That's probably the best "pitch" for your audience.

negativecapability said...

I recommend the Companions to undergrads who are interested in grad school and have no idea what they are getting into, and graduate students who are thinking about a particular subfield or studying for comprehensive exams. I use them myself when I'm thinking of writing about a new genre/author or text and what to know what the "must look into/cite" readings are.

I find them particularly helpful for the undergrads; the ones who are not cut out for graduate school get very turned off, and the ones who are come back with a list of things they'd like to read that they've gleaned from the Companion, and a better sense of the major questions driving that subfield. These students also come away with a healthy dose of awareness that they really really only dipped their toe in the water as undergrads, and are excited about it.

Dr. Virago said...

Ooh, thanks everyone! Even though you're saying slightly different things, you're helping me makes sense of the "aim it at ALL the people" guidelines! And you're reinforcing what my instincts were, too -- and I needed that reinforcement.

Flavia said...

What everyone else said.

I use these when I'm teaching stuff slightly out of my field (like, say, Ben Jonson's plays), or material that's in my field but not my specific area of expertise. So when teaching a Milton class, I might read a chapter on Lycidas or Comus to think through how to contextualize or explain their place in the elegy or masque tradition to my students, or to see what the latest trends in scholarship on those works are. The bibliographies/suggestions for further reading are also an invaluable resource, if the volume you're writing for includes them.

I absolutely do assign certain chapters to advanced undergrads or (more often) M.A. students. But that's usually after I've read the chapter for my own edification and determined that there's enough going on that they'd really benefit from it (rather than from my briefer distillation).

So, I think of them as a first-stop resource for teachers who are scholars in the field--but who maybe haven't thought about a particular subject since their comps or their coursework. Secondarily, they're a way into the subject for advanced undergrads or junior grad students.

Susan said...

I've written some of these, for both historical and literary volumes. And I turn to them, as others noted, when I'm teaching out of my field. I think of my audience as grad students and advanced undergrads, and because of my field, British undergrads -- who are probably more advanced than US ones in my area.

What was really interesting with the last one I wrote was that in putting together the bibliography, I realized how little was written about stuff that "everyone" knows.

Anonymous said...

You wrote:

And if you were trying to bone up on a field, what would you find most helpful?


So beginning researchers are entering a minefield of bad sources. I think I should perhaps keep that in mind in my writing, perhaps even make that one of the shaping ideas of it. That would be helpful to anyone turning to it for a crash course in the subject.

For me, I have to say, you're answering your own question there. If I'm in the audience, that's what I'd come to it looking for: enough assurance about the current state of things and the important facts that when someone hands me an essay on the subject, I could have some useful guidance to offer. But, yeek, 7,500 words isn't much for this job. Good luck!

Stephanie said...

I'm not a scholar of literature, so I'm not sure how helpful this will be, but I think of these pieces as providing a map to secondary literature. I often use these pieces myself when the interdisciplinary aspects of my own work have me in unfamiliar waters, and I find them to work best when they specify clearly, in the beginning, what the major problems are (on your analysis), and then sketch what the most important approaches/solutions to those problems are, and where one can find them.

Candace Robb said...

I know I'm jumping in very late, but I often use these to jog my memory. For my novels I range all over the place in medieval lit and history and I simply can't stay fresh on everything. So you're writing it for novelists, too. Thank you.

I hope you've had a great time in England!

Dr. Virago said...

Thanks, Candace (if I may)! I'll keep that in mind. And I'm still tickled that you drop by my blog. :)