Beyond the Bright Lights

By Imagining America | September 15, 2016

heather_radke-copyBy Heather Radke, an M.F.A. candidate in Nonfiction at Columbia University and a 2016–2017 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of intersectionality and public scholarship, important topics of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 6-8, 2016, in Milwaukee, WI.

During my time working as a curator at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago, the staff often talked about measuring success outside of the usual metrics. Instead of asking how many people attended a public program, we would ask if there were multiple perspectives in the room. Instead of asking if visitors learned the names and dates of the Progressive Era, we asked how the museum made visitors feel and how it inspired visitors to action.

Now, I am a full-time student and writer in an MFA program, and the notion of “success” is inescapable. There is always a rumor circulating of a book deal about to be made, a movie option for a novel around the corner, an article about to be published in The Paris Review. It is the stuff of green-eyed nightmares. It is also a definition of success that emanates from a highly individualistic understanding of art.

As I seek to measure the success of my own writing, and the work I do in literary and scholarly communities, I have tried again and again to return to an approach centered in my values as a community-engaged artist and cultural activist. Rather than focus on the number of online page views, getting the most prestigious writers to contribute to the Columbia Journal, or landing the fanciest agent, I try to ask other questions. How can my writing engage multiple publics? How do I make sure readings are interesting and relevant for diverse audiences? How do I teach in a way that opens up conversations about race, class, and gender? How do I question my notions of what constitutes “good writing” to take into account the fraught history of the literary canon as a space dominated by white men?

Of course, I cannot help but crave the bright lights of literary stardom. But alongside those Byronic capitalist fantasies, I try to actively redefine success for myself, my students, and my colleagues to include the ethic of a publicly engaged artistic practice.