Kate Ott, Drew University

Academics often muse about audience. For those of us with explicit social justice commitments, we often live in a shame cycle waffling between how much time we devote to writing for campus-wide tenure committees, the guild, lay folks, public communities, or even policy makers.

We have a tradition at our institution that has led me to reflect on this question of audience. Faculty members upon returning from sabbatical give the Matriculation Address which is set in the context of a worship service and both welcomes new students and evidences for colleagues sabbatical research. The audience of the address is theological school students and families, faculty and staff, and University administrators.

The process of crafting my Matriculation Address helped me wrestle with looming questions of audience and my justice commitments. I share my reflections as one approach among many and an attempt to push back on the presumed hierarchy of publishing formats.

A central question animates all of my work: “How do we educate for moral formation in the face of structural or systemic barriers that create oppressive conditions limiting or deforming moral imagination?” For me, all writing has a pedagogical purpose. In our current cultural and historical context we face paralyzing ethical issues related to ecological degradation, global wars, racism, epidemics of sexual violence, and so on. We desperately need to consider this question as we respond to these issues.

In my matriculation address, I used the Hebrew scriptures in the book of Habakkuk (2: 1-3) to articulate my approach to social ethics as an opportunity to name, create, or propose shifts in moral vision. I suggest that small shifts in moral vision bring new understandings – sparks of change – to subvert or shed the grand scale systemic stuckness of our current circumstances that suppress human flourishing. These small shifts arise in and develop out of everyday ethics.

Write the vision;
   make it plain on tablets,
   so that a runner may read it.

Habbakuk 2:2, NRSV

Ultimately, what I argue for in all of my writing, and hopefully my living, is that our everyday actions matter to how current moral crises will continue or subside. I have seen a new moral vision sparked by a 140-character tweet as well as a 250-page book. Thus, I know my scholarship needs many audiences if it is to have an impact beyond my own job security. I write for my colleagues in academic journals, for the church through curricula and books, and for a justice-seeking public on blogs and social media outlets.

I will admit that I do not consider my peer-reviewed research contributions my primary success. Rather, my acumen at translating ethical scholarship across audiences and publishing in a wide variety of styles and outlets impacts a diversity of individuals and communities who are seeking new moral visions. As an activist-scholar, my commitments require new forms of publication, like popular Christian magazines, blogging, and curricular development, reaching broader audiences in addition to historic modes of publishing.

For me, no singular approach to teaching and scholarship is adequate when seeking partnership with communities of accountability. For example, I want my work related to sexual ethics to impact the children and youth for whom I claim to speak. That means I cannot only write for their parents (Sex + Faith book) or Christian leadership and the academy (chapters and articles that address the moral obligation for sexuality education in churches, revisioning concepts of moral agency and children, theological renewals of sexual ethics). I also write curricula that will be used directly in youth programming and test it out with kids I meet all over the United States. I am at work using a similar process to address moral imagination and digital ethics.

This process of writing in different styles for different audiences yields creative and integrative knowledge production. For me, cultivating such a professional life is a vocational stance that responds to a call to seek justice in our world and to bring about communities more closely resembling the common good.

Others may choose to create partnerships, where a few individuals with various writing specialties translate material for various audiences. No matter how we go about expanding our audiences. A variety of publication styles should be valued in the academy, and we need to do more to teach emerging scholars how to write in different media and mediums. 

Kate Ott is an Assistant Professor of Christian Social Ethics and University Scholar in Everyday Ethics at Drew University. She publishes on issues of sexuality (including reproductive issues), children and moral agency, technology and feminism in religion – and she writes for many audiences.