What To Read: Ida Yalzadeh is mixing academia and culture

This week, we interviewed Ida Yalzadeh, a visiting assistant professor at Northwestern University who writes tiny driver, a newsletter about research, education, and culture. This interview has been edited for length.

What's your Substack about in one sentence?

I write tiny driver, a newsletter about research & teaching in the humanities, and how it intersects with current events and popular culture.

Pedagogy sounds like a fancy word. What does it mean and why do you find it so interesting?

Haha, I promise it's not that fancy! It just means the way that you teach and mentor students. As a professor who teaches multiple courses per quarter, I want to make sure that I am intentional and effective in my work with students.

Classroom dynamics [are] an example. Traditionally, college courses are lecture-based, where there are hundreds of students, sitting in those chairs with the little desks, as they write notes based on what the instructor is saying. In this scenario, the instructor is seeing as holding the knowledge, going in a singular direction to students.

Instead, my pedagogical practice sees students as collaborators in the process of learning and knowledge acquisition. I've found that moving in this direction has created a greater sense of community, which leads to students investing more in the class and enjoying the time they spend learning.

How does writing a newsletter play into your research practice?

I have found that writing this newsletter every week has been insanely helpful for my research practice. [It] keeps me writing and reflecting on how my week-to-week work fits into the larger picture of what I work on. Whether I’m writing about the books I want to read or the conundrum of doing historical research in a pandemic, the mere act of writing out my thoughts has allowed me to make progress, however small.

I’ve [also] spent so much time in graduate school writing for academic audiences, that I needed to get back in touch with my own voice – the one I had long before what I’m doing now. I’m hoping to strengthen my writing so that I can communicate more effectively to all kinds of folks.

How do insights from academic research make their way into the mainstream today, and how do you think this process could be improved?

Sometimes I feel like academic research moves into the mainstream way too slowly! Think about "intersectionality," for instance. I feel like that term has really only come into the larger cultural conversation in the past few years. But, what's wild is the fact that Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in 1989!

One of the most important ways that this process could be improved is by having academics write more publicly. (Of course, most academics don’t necessarily have the time to write longer pieces because of which publications count for tenure.) We need to collectively think more about making our ideas accessible and digestible, particularly for the communities that we are trying to serve with our scholarship. There are a lot of scholars that do this amazingly well (Zeynep Tufekci and Lauren Michele Jackson, for instance), but it’s difficult at times to write at so many different registers.

In your view, what makes for a good college course?

That is such a good question, and one that I’ve thought about since we’ve transitioned to teaching online because of the pandemic.

I think a good college course is one that allows students to feel like they are collaborating in their own education. I know that, for the most part, a majority of my students will not go into academic research. They might be on their way to doing organizing work or going to law school or a corporate career. But I hope the courses I teach inform the way they see the world – whether it's through the content they learn or the written & spoken communication skills that they practice.

I've also found that students are more invested in their learning when they are able to collaborate on how they want to apply their knowledge, whether their final project is writing a zine or recording a podcast or creating a digital exhibit.

What do students frequently misunderstand about professors?

That we all love wearing tweed jackets and embody the "dark academia aesthetic" 24/7! I'm joking, but in all seriousness, I think that frequently – and this goes beyond just students – we have a very specific image of who can and cannot be a professor. I wrote a short article about rethinking what a professor looks like that I think gets to the heart of this.

Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?

Oh my goodness, could I pick two?!

Sara Campbell's Tiny Revolutions (which was also part of the inspiration for my own newsletter name!) is more of a personal one that talks about mental health and links to things that are absolutely lovely. It's something I love getting in my inbox every Sunday because it feels like I'm putting on a cozy blanket.

And for folks who are interested in how to turn a love of humanities into a tech career path (or anything in the more "corporate" world), I'd recommend my friend Emily's newsletter Hired Humanities, where she devotes time to "helping humanities students build careers on their own terms." She has a lot of practical advice for people looking to make a career transition!

Subscribe to Ida’s newsletter, tiny driver, check out her website, or follow her on Twitter @idyalz.