Talking to Anne Helen Petersen About Leaving Academia for BuzzFeed
Did I hear this headline correctly?
YES: I’m leaving academia. And second: I’m leaving it for BuzzFeed—more specifically, to be a full-time features writer at BuzzFeed.
[8 minutes of screaming redacted] Well, I am chock full of emotions but this talk is resolutely not going to be about how much the Hairpin is going to miss you, so let me first ask: how are you feeling right now, and how long has this been in the works?
I am feeling totally excited and totally terrified. I’ve known for some time that my work, and the sort of audience I love writing for, is not a very good fit for academia, but I thought that I could wedge/force/hipcheck my way into a position that would reconcile the type of work that I wanted to do with the teaching that I love. But as a friend of mine said amidst her time on the market, “academia is drunk”—not belligerent or irresponsible so much single-sightedly focused on things that may or may not ultimately matter.
In other words, no one wanted to hire me! I want to be super explicit about that because I think people will assume that because of all the writing I do, both on and off the internet, that I somehow had some cornucopia of choices and was like “show me the money.” OH MAN I WISH. I get so much satisfaction from teaching, but there was no way to keep doing so—and continue the writing I find fulfilling—and make a sustainable salary. BuzzFeed gives me the platform and support to do the type of writing (and reach the type of audiences) that I love, but can also provide me with a living wage.
This is very interesting, starting with the “good fit” thing. What makes your work not a good fit for academia? You yourself seem like a great fit. You love teaching; you’re a great teacher; any media studies department would be lucky to have you. What feels off, and how did it feel to simultaneously love something, be excellent at it, and have it feel seriously unsuited?
Oh man, this is a sensitive subject, and I might burn some bridges with it, but here goes: much of academic writing prides itself on being as inaccessible as possible, and I mean that both literally and figuratively—you can’t understand it unless you’ve had at least five years of graduate school, and you can’t actually get your hands on it without affiliation with a major institution. But I come from what’s called the cultural studies tradition, which prides itself on studying the things that vast swathes of people actually consume, and how they make meaning out of that consumption. So there will always be people who study Iranian cinema from the ‘70s, and that work is really important, but it’s equally important to study things like soap operas, and Two and a Half Men, and celebrity gossip, and try and figure out how/why these things matter.
Media studies has really embraced cultural studies, but having people as a whole think your work is awesome is very different than having a hiring committee, especially one made of people who aren’t necessarily in your field, think that celebrity gossip is worthwhile, if that makes sense. So for me it’s a combination of what I study, but also the way that I write about it—I study something feminized and devalued, and I do a lot of that work on the internet, which is still considered to be not “real” scholarship. I was always doing “real” scholarship alongside this internet work—I’ve published eight peer-reviewed articles—but if my time on the market is to be believed, it simply didn’t matter. Same with my book: because I got paid to write it, and because it’s with Plume/Penguin instead of a university press, it’s not legit.
I feel you on a lot of this. I was reading yesterday that 50% of academic papers have no more than three readers? But so, you’re saying it’s not the structure of academia that didn’t fit—not the teaching, publishing, research cycle; it’s the content, the state of things, the work that’s currently valued.
Right. I want to be very careful and emphasize that there are a lot of people in academia fighting the good fight to make work accessible (in tone, in form), but that’s the sort of work you can only do from the inside out. I’m proof that cultivating an online presence, blogging my way through my dissertation, and writing “hybrid” (public/quasi-academic) scholarship freaks job committees out.
It takes so long to prepare for this career. Let’s back up for a second. How long had you wanted to be a professor? How long have you been teaching since you finished your PhD?
I wanted to be a professor since I was an undergrad: I loved everything that I was learning, and I was basically like “how can I think about these things all the time?” It wasn’t until I started actually teaching that I realized I was good at it. I taught all through my MA and my PhD and I’ve been teaching for three years since that—which means I’ve been doing this stuff for nearly a decade.
Does it feel strange to just pull the wheels up on it? What’s the reaction been among your friends in academia?
It feels totally weird to be jumping ship. Other than two years nannying after graduating, this is the only life—the only work schedule, the only value system—I’ve known as an adult. Could I have been the writer I am today without a PhD? Sure; maybe. But the specific angle that I take (namely, adding lots of history and context and critical feminism to contemporary celebrity)—that’s absolutely the product of my time in graduate school.
I’m actually at this huge media studies conference right now—our international, signature, super nerdy conference—and almost everyone is psyched to hear the news. They know the realities of the market, and they know how hard I’ve worked. But some are also skeptical, or think that I’m going to end up writing “advertorial” about bone density, which okay, fair point. I feel like I have to prove that you can leave academia and still lead a rigorous intellectual life and manifest that on the page.
Right. It’s not like you’ll be dropping any of the way you read and think and write.
Or the loans. Which is another story.
Were you not at a fully-funded program?
Oh I was, but “fully funded” is a myth, especially at state schools, even “state Ivies” like the University of Texas. You have a salary, but that salary just about pays your rent, and then you get nickeled-and-dimed for all sorts of fees, insurance, buying food that’s not rice, and somehow surviving the summer, when you’re not getting paid but are expected to do scholarship and research. DON’T GO TO GRAD SCHOOL KIDS.
So academia had to work fairly hard to push you out, and it really, really did.
The system is broken. There’s no other way to put it. There are too many PhDs—which the schools need, because they’re such incredibly cheap labor—and very, very few jobs.
Even if you do everything right (get amazing evaluations, publish your ass off, go to a billion conferences, network like crazy, work with the top scholars in your field) it can still yield nothing.
But then, there’s the other totally amazing side of all the things about academia that are terrible—the freedom you get to really pursue your own very specific interests at an esoteric, detailed, heavily researched and theoretically structured level.
Oh totally. I’ve had a tremendous amount of intellectual privilege and latitude, and it’s crucial to acknowledge that.
And yet it doesn’t always translate to a larger audience. One of the things I loved most on the Hairpin this year was this academic series we ran, a thing on international reproductive rights that almost nobody read—the pieces got hundreds of likes on Facebook and barely a click, no eyes reading. Was and is that a worry for you?
I think that you’re asking if I’m scared that I’m going to have to sacrifice rigor for the privilege of being paid—and the extensive platform that BuzzFeed will provide….yes?
Yeah. I mean, what I’m talking about here is not specific to BuzzFeed at all per se; I feel like I can do anything I want here, but also that it’s very different work than what I’ve been doing critically at Michigan. I think that there are a lot of people and places who are facilitating great critical work for large audiences, but I guess the real question I’m asking is, do you anticipate the focus or tone or anything about your work changing, and how?
When it was pretty clear that I was going to leave academia, I was weighing options from several outlets—and what I really loved about BuzzFeed was just how committed they were to giving ideas space to breathe. In his piece on “longform” a few months back, BF’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith said “the story should be as long as it should be,” whether that’s 200 words or 8,000 words. With digital publishing, there’s just no excuse not to let things expand (or condense) to the “right” size.
So when I write a feature for BuzzFeed, it can be as long, and as intricately researched, as a piece I’d have written for a scholarly journal. The best example of this is the piece I wrote for BuzzFeed last month on Jennifer Lawrence and the History of the Cool Girl: I’ve already thought a ton about all of those stars, but I spent several weeks sifting through magazine articles, stuff I bought on eBay, etc., before writing the piece. Now, there won’t be a lit review or footnotes, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not drawing on all of those things when I write the piece—that’s the benefit of the PhD. Plus I get a team of editors—and one in particular, Summer Anne Burton—who are totally on the same page as me in terms of the type of work they’d like to see.
SUMMER, you’ve hopped in to say hello: let me ask you, what’s the biggest draw about having AHP at BuzzFeed?
Summer: Oh my gosh, so hard to pick one thing! I have been a huge fan of AHP’s writing for a long time but never really imagined she would leave academia, so when we first started talking about the possibility of her coming to BuzzFeed I was immediately psyched to make it happen without really having any idea what her role would look like exactly. The Jennifer Lawrence piece was kind of the first step of that, and it gave me a really clear argument for why she was the perfect fit for us: it was the perfect case study for something we say all the time about how creative, interesting work we’re proud of can also be our most successful, shared, “viral” content.
There’s this internet myth that you have to make this low-hanging cheap fruit in order to subsidize the “real” reporting/writing that no one reads, and that those “real” writers should never have to worry about the fact that no one reads them. Annie is the antithesis of that: she writes smart pieces about things that people care about, in a way that is accessible to a broad audience. Her Jennifer Lawrence piece got over a million views, almost all from people sharing on Facebook and Twitter, and it’s been gratifying to have such a perfect example of what we’re striving for at BuzzFeed.
AHP, I am curious—what was/is it like being able to shift registers from an academic audience to a big online one? Does each feel like a separate muscle to you? Or has it always felt natural to take one subject and be able to transpose it however?
At first, it was hard. If you look at some of my earliest blog posts on Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, you’ll see that I’m using a fair amount of jargon and what I always call “constipated” writing. Therefores, hences, lots of passive voice. But writing the Scandals series here at the ‘Pin really helped me figure out how to wed my ideas with a more passionate, less formal tone that still managed to convey complex ideas (usually with just more CAPS LOCK).
For the first chapter of my book, my editor (Kate Napolitano, who is just AMAZING) wanted me to strike a less “bloggy” tone, but I went too academic. She sent back the edits and was like “TOO. DRY.” And I was psyched: I had felt totally dry (and uninspired) while writing it, so she basically gave me the go-ahead to write passionately while still building on the months of detailed research and theorization I had done about each of these stars and their scandals.
I think the J-Law piece really underlined just how natural this mode has become. Summer provided me with some excellent cuts and places to expand, but the tone was right where it needed to be.
And with your wheelhouse being contemporary celebrity—this subject that will always be simultaneously sexy and critically fruitful—you’re really the ideal writer to bridge whatever gaps may exist between the two systems you’ve already been jumping back and forth between for so long. So, looking ahead: are you going to be mostly on a celebrity beat? What sort of stuff do you want and intend to be writing?
Well, celebrity is always going to be my entry point into talking about basically everything—feminism, masculinity, sexuality, class, race, etc. But BuzzFeed has made it clear that this is going to be an evolving position—if something’s compelling, and I can find a compelling way to talk about it, let’s do it. I don’t “officially” start until mid-May, but I already have a billion ideas.
Summer: Anne’s role is kind of an experiment for us, too—her title is “Features Writer,” which will be a first. At the beginning, we tried to figure out if there was a really specific beat we needed to pair her with, if she should be on the “celeb team” or the “entertainment team,” but it was more important for us to have her voice on the site than it was to shoehorn her into a specific role. She’ll have room to experiment with different formats and subjects and hopefully never get bored, while we’ll have her expertise and voice as an entry point for all kinds of topics.
How often will you be publishing?
I’m really excited about my schedule: we’ll always have a piece or two in motion, but I’ll have a few weeks to research and a week to write, so something every two to three weeks, which is just totally optimal for me—but also smaller pieces in between, if we want, and who knows.
That is… a pretty enviable schedule!
I’m also going to be working in a real office, which is so crazy and new.
WAIT, you’re moving too? You’re moving to New York???
I AM MOVING TO BROOKLYN. PLEASE FIND ME AN APARTMENT.
Have you already been in the habit of watching traffic for Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style?
The social is TOTALLY EFFING ADDICTIVE. I love stats; I love watching people react in real time to what I’ve written. For every person who misses the point, there’s at least one (or five!) who find it really fascinating, or ask me questions, or go further with their own points. That’s why I’ve always loved The Hairpin’s commenting space, and while no place (save The Toast) can replicate that, it did teach me that you can, in fact, read below the comment line…. and feel really gratified for doing so.
And so the class you’re teaching right now is the last one for at least a long while. What are you going to miss? What are you most happy to be leaving behind?
I have such ridiculous love for my students. I am going to get super cornball here but they’ve absolutely make me the scholar/writer/thinker that I am today, and the only reason I’m any good at writing about complex theoretical concepts and historical events is because the classroom forced me to be equal parts clear, cogent, and engaging. My students are hilarious and weird and awesome and open to new things, and I always hope that at least some of that rubs off on me and the way that I approach media.
I find solace, though, in the unexpected ways that my Twitter feed (and my blog’s Facebook page) have come to resemble a different sort of classroom environment. It’s never going to be as interactive and intimate as the actual classroom, but then again, it opens these ideas and conversations to those who might not be able to pay $50,000 a year in tuition.
The collapse of the PhD market, combined with the rise of digital publishing, has ironically yielded an exquisite, flourishing community of public intellectuals—people who write for places like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, sure, but also those who write for places like Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, n+1, Avidly, and, of course, The Awl and The Hairpin. As more and more people with PhD behind their names find themselves in situations similar to mine, we’ve been forced to radically reconsider what we thought “teaching” and “dialogue” looks like. But I think that might ultimately be for the best?
Do you think this is the future? Do you think that a significant number of people currently in academia will start moving to digital publishing, pushing more and more into the mainstream?
I guess I just don’t see the need for strict boundaries of what’s “academic” or “public” work, what’s “pop” or “intellectual,” what does or does not “belong” on sites like BuzzFeed. My work tries to be all those adjectives, and I think it belongs wherever people will support and ask questions about it. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep training writers to think critically, and do a shit ton of research; ultimately, I think BuzzFeed’s willingness to embrace this type of work says a lot about them and their conception of what it means to produce knowledge on the internet.
I’m so excited and terrified, but I’m also so glad that we got to do this announcement here—The Hairpin was the place that first convinced me I could do this type of work on a large scale, and I hope all of you will be part of the conversations created in this new role, or figure out what I should write about…. or, you know, just find me an apartment in Brooklyn.
We will. Thank you for the enormous amount of amazing writing you’ve done here. And we’re going to miss you.
Previously: AHP on True Detective, Sex and the City, Lilith Fair (with Simone Eastman!), The Returned (with me!), internet labor, Top of the Lake, Downton Abbey, her mother the scientist, Wayne Koestenbaum, Christian summer camp, and of course, all the scandalous Old Hollywood stars.
Alternate title: “Talking to Anne Helen Petersen About Leaving ‘No Job’ for ‘A Job’.”