Be a Paratext: Authoring from the Acknowledgments
Iâ€™ve always been fascinated by acknowledgments and dedications, and what they say about people. Acknowledgments help me to get a sense of an authorâ€™s â€œvoice,â€ of whoâ€™s speaking to me. Several times, for instance, Iâ€™ve been taken aback by the gushing, lovey-dovey dedications to spouses or family members from scholars who Iâ€™ve only ever seen as quiet, austere, and reserved. One of my undergrad profs, meanwhile, thanked his wife in a book for doing all his typing for him, a tidbit of information that just confirmed for me what a sexist old dinosaur he was (I could see him sitting in the living room drinking sherry, calling out, â€œhurry up with the typing, honey, I want my dinnerâ€). Acknowledgments also tell me better than do the index or bibliography what kind of paradigm a person works in, and hence what to expect in a book. Their tone tells you what the writer thinks of their own book: is this a major achievement, is it just another tome, or is it speaking to a very specific audience? And they can betray other quirks: one book Iâ€™ve read, for instance, begins by actively not thanking all the people who didnâ€™t agree to be interviewed for the book, showing something of a mean streak in the writer(s).
Part of my interest in acknowledgments and dedications springs from, I think, my slow reading speed. I read almost at speaking pace. So when I know a writer, I can imagine them reading it aloud. When I donâ€™t know the writer, the acknowledgments and dedication can help set the tone for the voice I should pick for them.
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Given this, youâ€™d think that I wouldâ€™ve been all over my own acknowledgments. But when I finished my PhD dissertation, I realized I needed to sit down and write them. My mum, my dad, my girlfriend (now wife: no, Monica, this isnâ€™t an admission of some elicit affair, donâ€™t worry), my brother, my supervisor (and super he was: all hail Dave Morley): these were the easy ones. My interview subjects too. Then I made a big list. And then the fear set in that Iâ€™d missed someone really important. Iâ€™d sit on buses and compulsively sketch out the list again and again, checking it against the saved file at home later, I scoured through my address book and email contacts list, I even went through the 2003 ICA program.
Learning from this experience, Iâ€™ve since kept running lists of acknowledgments as I write a book. (Which I shouldnâ€™t admit, I realize, since it means that if Iâ€™ve left someone out, I now seem all the bigger an asshole, right?) Iâ€™ve started to think about acknowledgments all the more when writing my current book, on extratexts/paratexts. After all, part of my argument is that all those things that surround texts (including other texts) often create the meaning of a text as much as does anything â€œinsideâ€ the text itself. So it only makes sense to consider acknowledgments as paratexts. But it also only makes sense to consider who and what have been my and my bookâ€™s own paratexts. And before anyone furrows their brow, thinking, â€œwhereâ€™s this jerk get off making himself the sun, and everyone else the planets and stars that circle him?â€, just remember that Iâ€™m arguing against fetishizing the text as the center of meaning and value, and I conceive of texts serving paratextual functions for other texts, so, hey, we can all be suns in my version of the universe (everyone gets a â€œmy kid is an honor roll studentâ€ bumper sticker to take home to mom and dad).
As with my thesis, there are the usual suspects: wife, parents, brother, co-authors, etc.
But if youâ€™ll permit me to take a self-indulgent turn, let me list three others, who deserve thanking, who have been powerful paratexts for me in one way or another. If youâ€™re choking on my self-indulgence, thereâ€™s a conclusion I want to draw from this, which you can skip to.
Nick Couldry: I donâ€™t think anyone has believed in my work so consistently as has Nick. Right from my MA days, when I was doing media studies as an experiment (my second MA, and on the heels of teaching English Composition, working at a brokerage firm, and running Vancouverâ€™s special needs integration services for kids. So, in other words, I was a bit lost), he saw a trajectory for me and my work, and was excited by that trajectory. He also introduced me to everyone he knew at every conference we both attended, always with glowing praise. A lesson to all supervisors and mentors out there: do this.
Janet Wasko: At my first ever conference, the 2002 Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) conference in London, I was stuck with a crappy timeslot â€“ the last panel on Sunday. Most people were already on the train home. Everyone else was watching Morley, Robins, and Lull elsewhere. My panel had me, the other presenter, the chair, and Janet Wasko as the lone audience member. She couldâ€™ve left. But she stayed, she asked thoughtful and engaged questions, she was charming to talk to, and she never checked her watch once. I couldâ€™ve walked away from my first conference presentation totally dispirited and disillusioned, but she rescued the day.
Matt Hills: Matt visited Goldsmiths while I was doing my MA there. Conquering significant shyness, I approached him after his talk to ask him some questions and share some ideas, and he was really keen to keep talking. When I later went to Crossroads in Finland, I knew nobody except one grad student friend (maybe Nick wasnâ€™t there?) and hated the feeling of people passing me in reception rooms, checking my name label, and moving on unimpressed. Matt took me in, and I soon realized that Matt often spends conferences hanging out with younger scholars whose work heâ€™s interested in (I still remember Matt glowing with enthusiasm after hearing Derek Johnson at Console-ing Passions 2004), not trying to schmooze his way to the top. Itâ€™s what makes him a classy gent.
And there are, of course, many others who deserve profuse thanks: this is just a selection here. I list them to try and make a point.
My point is that I think we all need to put more time into being better paratexts. Yes, universities reward us directly for being texts, and for making texts, but I didnâ€™t choose academia because of the pay. Heck, most of my undergrads make as much as I do their first year out of a BA! I chose it because I care about the development and refinement of knowledge and of understanding. And I refuse to accept that knowledge is individualistic. Itâ€™s dialogic. Just as texts are created, made meaningful, and given value by hundreds of paratexts, so too are academics as texts created, made meaningful, and given value by hundreds of other academics-as-paratexts. Even if the prevailing academic economy is capitalist-individualistic in its fetishizing of the Great Mind (alas, all I can offer is an Addled Mind), thereâ€™s room for value to be found, to be created elsewhere too. Letâ€™s remember to author from the acknowledgments rather than solely from the manuscript or the conference podium.Tags: academia, acknowledgments