In talking to Amy DeRogatis, I wanted her to explore the question of genre and of the role of both teaching and community outreach in Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism. I had spoken with her previously about some of the joys and challenges of writing for a broader audience and wanted to ask her to reflect publicly on those challenges. She was gracious.
What audience did you hope to reach?
My hope is that I reach a wide audience of my peers and the interested general public. Two aspects of my professional life and my institutional context have shaped me as a scholar and informed my writing of this book. I have taught at Michigan State University for 16 years and during that time I have primarily worked with undergraduates. As I wrote this book, I kept them in mind, reflecting on the types of books that work well in my classroom and the lessons I have learned from my students about presenting challenging material and initiating fruitful discussions. I hope I have written the kind of book that will engage undergraduates and inspire meaningful conversations and further research. The second important aspect of my professional life is that Michigan State is a land-grant university and outreach to the community is an important part of my job. Over the years I have devoted a considerable amount of my time to speaking with local religious and non-religious groups, translating my research to interested members of my community. I’ve enjoyed these opportunities and valued the responses I have received from the general public. These interactions have made me a better scholar and writer and I hope that I have provided a useful service to my community. Both of these aspects, that I primarily work with undergraduates and that I have devoted a lot of time to outreach, came into play as I thought about the type of book I wanted to write. I would like conversations about my book to happen in classrooms and coffee shops. I hope that I have struck the right balance between addressing some significant scholarly issues about American evangelicalism and sexuality and offering my own unique contribution while at the same time inviting interested non-specialists into the conversation.
You mention your own students. Did you assign pieces of the manuscript to them in draft form?
Yes, I did. Not the final version, of course. But my mid-level and upper level courses read parts of my writing. And I really benefited from the kinds of questions that they brought up and the things that did not make sense to them. It was helpful to see what they needed explained to them, and how to do so without causing them to shut down or become too uncomfortable.
But let’s admit, going to your students for feedback is a weird thing to do. There is a definite power dynamic in play and on some level, what can they say other than “I loved it?” But I tried to create a comfortable atmosphere and be attentive to how they experienced it. But of course, it creates a different kind of conversation. They can’t be as critical as they could be with someone who isn’t grading them.
I take teaching very seriously. I worked very hard on that part of my job, and thinking about what kind of books work inside and out of the classroom. And I wanted this book to be usable by a wide range of people, not just a small group.
My first book was only read in graduate programs. It got great reviews; it got me tenure. I have always recognized that it has a real place but it is also true that my own parents did not read it. And it was weird for me to put so much time into something that was not widely read. Because this book, on evangelical sex, seemed like one that would be broadly interesting, this seemed like an opportunity to write the book I wanted to write. So I strove to make it very accessible, but it also does work on evangelical sex culture than no one else has done. It was a difficult balance, but I really hope that I have achieved an accessible tone while advancing new research that will be useful to other scholars working in the field.
As you sought this balance, what was the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was when my mother-in-law informed me that she had downloaded the Kindle version. When I imagined a wide audience for my book about evangelicalism and sex I neglected to include my in-laws in that vision! Joking aside, the other big challenge was the writing. The manuscript went through multiple drafts and even when I thought I was done, I wasn’t done. Through the process I realized that I had to accept that I could neither qualify all of my statements in the text nor could I rely on copious footnotes to show the extent of my familiarity with the topic and other scholarship. I worried a lot about presenting the material in an engaging way that demonstrated my deep knowledge of the subject but didn’t distract readers from the sources. I had to develop the confidence to say things boldly that I knew from my research reflected what was in the sources and was a fair interpretation of them. It took me a while to let go of the need to qualify all of my statements and to feel confident that ten years of research has put me in the position to make bold statements. My fears revolved primarily around being criticized by academics in my own field whom I imagined would disapprove of this form of scholarship.
Has that proved the case?
No, not really. But I think people are pretty clear on the kind of book that it is. With any book, you will have positive and negative responses, but so far, no. I have been surprised by how positive the response has been.
And for me, once I decided that this is the book I wanted to write, and there is plenty of room for other scholars to publish other types of books on the topic, the writing process became easier. Also, I had confidence in my editor, Theo Calderara, who worked closely with me and took my concerns seriously. I am delighted with how the book turned out and I am really glad that I wrote the book they way I did. It was hard work for me, but it was worth it.