A typical academic journal article runs about 8,000 words long and can take hours to read (for reference, the average American reads about twenty minutes a day). The diction of journal articles is discipline-specific; for instance, a sociologist’s training wouldn’t prepare them to read an article on literary criticism or econometrics, even though they’re all under the same umbrella of liberal arts. On the off chance someone outside academia wants to read an academic article, they may not have the time or disciplinary expertise necessary to muscle through a piece.
This resonated deeply: I write not only for other academics—I write for Filipino Americans, whether they’re from Daly City or Des Moines. I write for Filipino Americans, whether they grew up proud or ashamed of being Filipino. I write for Filipino Americans, young and old, whether they were born in this country or migrated here as adults.
A follow-up question I often get: How do you manage to follow these tenets when you exist in an industry that incentivizes the rigor of your research, but not the readability and resonance of your prose among public audiences? My answer is that, when I took a mental health break from academia, I skipped academic conferences for a couple of years and instead took creative nonfiction writing classes.
I didn’t always see the value of formally studying creative writing. Part of it had to do with my socialization as a PhD student. In graduate school, professors often assigned multiple books and journal articles to read for each class session (hundreds of pages of reading a week, per class). Once, a professor had us read Distinction, a 700-plus-page book by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose sentences I had to re-read, like, three times to decipher the main point. This was while I was also taking courses on advanced statistics and quantitative methodology. I wasn’t a statistics buff at all, but I sometimes found more solace calculating probabilities than powering through paragraph-long sentences. Numbers were clear; jargon was not.
And so, we learned very quickly to read for function, not the experience. We mastered how to skim readings so that we could mine the main argument. When it came time for comprehensive exams, my reading list included upwards of 150 to 200 works that I had to familiarize myself with and synthesize. Then, on exam week, I had to swiftly channel my knowledge of these works to write three twenty-page essays, showcasing my expertise on American race relations, US colonialism, and immigration policies. Months after my comprehensive exam, I ran into the professor assigned to grade it. I nervously asked him if I passed. He said I did, but the look on his face told me that he probably spent no more than an hour, if that, reading my essays.
In the final years of the PhD, as we prepared for the academic job market, we were told we had to publish peer-reviewed articles in academic journals in order to land a tenure-track job. Funnily enough, there were no actual courses in how to publish; we just had to figure it out ourselves. (Thankfully, my former department now offers a course on publishing.) In the academic peer review process, reviewers—usually super busy with their own research and teaching—spend just a few hours (sometimes just one) assessing whether a piece is publishable or not. Sometimes, that decision is shaped not by the rigor of the project, but rather the idiosyncratic research tastes or methodological inclination of a particular reviewer. And because we skim, the review process incentivizes scholars to frontload their findings in the first pages of their articles while couching them within an academic framework.
I mimicked this approach when I was trying to publish The Latinos of Asia. The book was based on my dissertation about the way Spanish and American colonialism shaped the racial experiences of Filipino Americans in Los Angeles. However, while writing the book’s first iteration, I kept thinking: Would a Filipino college student be able to understand this? Better yet, would my parents be able to understand this?
The answer was no. In truth, I wanted to write the book that I should’ve been able to read in college. As Toni Morrison put it: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written, then you must write it.” So when I finally secured a publisher in 2012, I told my editor that I wanted to write a “Malcolm Gladwell-style” book (please don’t judge me!). By that I meant I wanted it to be jargon-free, so that you didn’t need an advanced degree to read the book.
My book editor gave me my first lesson in creative writing. “You gotta get the reader to want to turn the page,” she said. This advice was antithetical to the logic of article writing, where the key takeaways of a research study are laid out in the opening pages, like spoilers to a movie.
“You gotta get the reader to want to turn the page.”
As I revised the book, I opted to remove the sociological jargon. I also inserted my own family’s stories in some of the chapters to serve almost like case studies—demonstrating theory made practice. One of my professors warned me that my book read “too personal” and “not academic enough.” In the months before the book’s publication, I was scared shitless about the risk I was taking by not writing in academic language.
My anxiety dissipated, however, once the book was published in 2016. Filipinos from all over the country—from high school seniors to senior citizens—emailed me about how much the book resonated with them. College students reached out to share they were pursuing thesis and documentary projects inspired by the book. A choreographer reached out to tell me one of his shows was inspired by the book. A curator hosted an exhibit of Filipino and Latinx artists because she’d read the book. My book won zero awards from my discipline’s professional associations, but the emails I received from these Filipinos were reward enough for me.
The job of the sociologist is to use research to accurately render the human condition. But because it’s a discipline built on studying social problems, “the literature” that centers people of color, queer and trans people, and other marginalized communities also tends to focus on trauma. The field too incentivizes trauma-driven narratives: Sociologists don’t get six-figure research grants, fellowships, and tenure-track jobs to study joy and laughter within marginalized communities.
But the reality remains: Alongside trauma, we experience joy; we laugh. Queer life isn’t just about the Pulse shooting. Black life isn’t just about police killings. Immigrant life isn’t just about deportation. Traditional sociology, in my experience, couldn’t capture the full humanity of the communities I was part of; by design, academia constrained that storytelling. Which is why, out of personal necessity, I turned to creative writing. I wanted to write another kind of literature.
Creative writing has freed me. Memoirs were my blueprints to help navigate systems of power. Fiction helped me reimagine my future when the present felt unbearable. Poems shepherded me to—and through—unknowable things. Ultimately, creative writing has made me a better sociologist; the tools it offers me—dialogue, sensory detail, rhythm, pace, the speculative—means I can render the beautifully messy contradictions of the human condition, especially for those who are systematically dehumanized. Like Kate Dibiansky, I’ve found that research can save lives, so long as the rhetoric in which it’s packaged resonates with those who need to hear it the most.
Anthony Ocampo is the author of two books, "The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race" and "Brown & Gay in LA." His writing has appeared in GQ, Colorlines, Gravy, Life & Thyme, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, VONA, Tin House, and Jack Jones Literary Arts. He is a Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona. Twitter: @anthonyocampo | IG: @anthonyocampo.phd