The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences has a lively postgraduate community and many of our PGR students are involved in Engaged Research. In this series of blog posts, postgraduates reflect on their how their work engages with publics, uses co-creation and creates impact. In this month’s blog post, Music PhD student Jason Balzarano discusses sharing his research and altering his writing style for a public audience in magazine Jazz Journal.
It was always very clear to me from the start of my doctoral studies that I kept my options open in regards to possible future career prospects. An ongoing aim I have is to gain as much experience as I can in as many different areas as possible. For all these extra-curricular practices I have assigned myself, I have been keen to make sure that the transferable skills I have garnered from an autonomously research led program of study would not just benefit each of these tasks, but ultimately, be further developed and progressively consolidated. Many of the options on the table of a PhD student (and in my experience as a student in Music) often required many different levels of public engagement. The standard ‘presenting a paper at a conference’ conveyor belt that a student embarks on is one of the first compulsory/non-compulsory extra-curricular tasks of a PhD student’s life. As they almost always involve encounters with a restrictive audience, the way one presents their research and hypotheses requires a respectable amount of academic-writing-styled content. There is no mystique as to what constitutes an academic writing style. A clear and concise written structure using a wide range of vocabulary, comprehensibly getting a point across whilst avoiding everyday colloquial language or slang are the general points to adhere to. PhD students hone their writing skills through their undergraduate years, and for some of us, strengthen it more throughout Master’s Level thanks to the plethora of essays, assignments and dissertations required. For me, academic writing has become second nature; I have found my voice (I think). Detailed, quantified, and expressly written to reach all those specific to my field of jazz. Speaking personally of my experience of attending various music conferences, the writing is often a systematic assortment of theoretical terminologies and expressions that someone outside of the study would have difficulty grasping. There are times when even I have to google a term or phrase I heard in someone’s paper post-conference. The assortment can be that specialised and complex.
Because of this personal observation, I have tailored my conference paper writing specifically to suit such eventualities. Again the premise is to speak directly to those within my discipline, but I am always very aware to keep any restricting musical terminology and other specialised language from becoming too convoluted that it prohibits the understanding of an intrigued academic outsider. When I write a paper it is often a dichotomous battle between these two goals, toing and froing on my part during the creation process. My intention is always to create the perfect balance between specialised and non-specialised language so that I can engage with the widest audience possible (for an audience one might expect to be in attendance at an academic conference that is).
It came as a new challenge then when I had to write something about the topic I specialised in, to engage with an audience slightly different to those to be found inside the academic periphery. One of the extra-curricular tasks I assigned myself was to proactively approach periodical magazine publishers and enquire about doing some freelance music reviews. The esteemed and well-known publication JazzJournal were the first to respond to my request. On sending me six new release jazz albums to look over I set about writing my views on what I heard in earnest. I was confident that the style of writing that had served me well as a student and in my presentations to academic audiences, would translate perfectly to the specialised jazz loving readers of the magazine.
As the response from the magazine editor to my first submitted reviews came back, I was given a humbling lesson in understanding your audience. The request for edits was initially crushing to my self-esteem, but as I have since found out it was an important learning curve. It was interesting to be told to allow a little more subjectivity into my reviews. An audience of such publications want to know a personal opinion. It was okay for me to say that I loved the music of Weather Report, or didn’t think too highly of Wynton Marsalis’ views on the jazz avant-garde, and I could make comments like this without justifying it with a load of research-led quantifiable evidence to back it up. I could just say it. Or in this case, write it. Keeping my discussions on the music at a basic surface level investigation was also more than required for audiences of this publication, as opposed to deeper analyses of melodic, harmonic or rhythmic structure that permeate my academic writing style. As an example: “Surging improvisational lines of infinite quality are provided by Coltrane (unsurprising given his parentage), as are the roaring grooves of Garrison’s five–string bass guitar for each of the songs on offer” as opposed to something like: “Coltrane meanders through the complexities of Locrian and Lydian chromatic modes with aplomb, the intonation of each pitch resonating with all the essence of his father’s experimentations during the avant-garde of the 1960s, whilst the occasional ostinato phrases and proficient counter-melodic lines of garrison’s bass guitar fill out the sonic environment of this supreme quality recording”.
With now six months of experience reviewing for Jazz Journal, I am still learning how to juggle writing for two varied audiences. But it is a great challenge, and one that keeps me focussed and driven to the career possibilities that life after a PhD can offer. I can also add that as a trained primary school teacher, who also dabbles in a bit of side teaching here and there, makes for three different audiences I find myself engaging in on a day to day basis. Writing lesson plans for 4-11 year olds tends to be far more straightforward and uncomplicated though to be fair.
Jason Balzarano, PhD student in Music, Keele University