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How modern thinkers are expanding their ideas on Substack
Academics on Substack are testing ideas, building a community and forging new opportunities
For many academics, Substack is becoming the best way for new ideas to take flight.
Beyond the confines of traditional academia, writers can test and share their work directly with readers, expand their reach to a broader audience, and make a sustainable income.
It’s not just the heavyweight academics building a home here, such as renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who joined Substack this month. Researchers, educators, PhD students, and tenured professors alike are creating a new career path outside traditional routes, on Substack.
In this post, new and seasoned academics from a wide range of disciplines share their tips and findings from publishing on Substack.
A place to test and share ideas
On Substack, academics can workshop new ideas as they unfold. This offers a way to gain critical input away from the peer-reviewed, post-published model of receiving feedback., a fellow at the University of Oxford, writes on Substack. She says:
The thing I value most about Substack is that it’s an ideas laboratory for getting feedback on work as it’s taking shape. The Rethink community helps me sharpen and improve ideas that are currently in the “greenhouse,” so to speak.
While I’m in the process of developing my next body of work, I’m using Substack as a testing lab for ideas that are still in their infancy. It’s something I wish I could have done in the past. Communities can sense when you’re genuinely on a journey with them vs. creating topical content and just moving on to the next thing.
Before joining Substack, Rachel published two acclaimed books, gave three TED talks, and created Oxford’s first course on trust in the digital world at the Saïd Business School. On Substack, however, she finds the back-and-forth discourse with readers its most powerful asset:
Big ideas take time—often years—to develop. And you don’t know how people are going to react and respond to an idea until it is published in a book, featured in an academic journal, or perhaps even delivered as a TED talk. Universities in many ways are not collaborative. Academics are often like elite islands. There is a shift that needs to take place to get academics thinking about how they can reverse engineer the traditional journey of developing an idea by building a “mainstream” community around the work, and not the other way around.
When readers take the time to write a considered and thoughtful comment in response to an idea, I take this as a powerful sign that there is something there for me to pursue further. The most useful feedback is when someone disagrees with me or points me in a new direction I hadn’t considered. I’m not looking for readers to just “like” or validate ideas but to help find the signal in the noise.
There is a shift that needs to take place to get academics thinking about how they can reverse engineer the traditional journey of developing an idea by building a “mainstream” community around the work, and not the other way around.
After getting a PhD in psychology at Harvard,says his Substack, —which covers psychology, science, and culture—has been a liberating path outside of a traditional system:
started to share her academic research on parenting, social media, and mental health outside of the “bubble” of scientific journals and Brown University, where she’s a professor. She values being able to share rigorous research with accessible language:
Academia is extremely hierarchical, and nobody really cares what you have to say unless you have a tenure-track position at a prestigious institution. Writing on Substack short-circuited that for me. When I went to a conference a few months ago, strangers stopped me to say they read Experimental History. Professors who would have previously ignored an email from me now tweet about my post. One of them gave me my current job.
I also talk to folks I never would have met otherwise: criminologists, physicians, computer scientists. . . They send me emails, they argue with me, they invite me to give talks. None of this happened when I was writing for journals. Not all of the attention is positive. There are people who completely disagree with what I write…but that’s what success looks like in academia: when people think you’re worth disagreeing with, you’ve arrived.
Most academic writing is pretty inaccessible to most people, and the alternative is often short sound bites in popular news outlets or on social media, which can never tell the whole story. On Substack, I can write about the research in a way that’s honest and nuanced, and I can try to do it in a style that engages people, with humor and stories. Substack is one of the only venues I’ve found that’s allowed me to communicate research in a way that feels accurate, authentic, and—most importantly—actually useful to the public and, particularly, parents.
My Substack has been really helpful for me to clarify my thinking on different ideas. Sitting down to write about a topic in a way that’s coherent and easy for people to understand forces you to be crystal clear on the research and your thoughts on it.
Jacqueline says Substack has been a game changer in reaching more people:
, an English historian and professor at Columbia University who writes , adds that his newsletter expands on his ideas:
It’s helped me get my ideas out to a broader audience, showcased my expertise in different areas, and led to a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I consistently get approached by journalists and for partnerships and interesting projects related to my work. Most of those people reaching out mention Techno Sapiens. It’s also been really fun to meet and collaborate with fellow Substack authors who are incredibly talented and whose work I love!
The open-endedness, the mélange of different styles and materials I am using in the newsletter, is allowing me to achieve a synthesis of interests and ideas that has eluded me in my work to date. I am delighted that so many readers have decided to follow along.
Academics find Substack allows for greater interdisciplinary collaboration, as well as exposure to ideas outside their primary field of study:
Creative writing teacherinterviews notable writers, many of whom she meets via Substack, in Beyond.
- notes that Substack is an ideal base for connecting his audience of health teachers to the work itself.
- ’s Substack gives her a reason to go deeper into her research area.
Professoralso describes how his Substack allows him to bring ideas to broader audiences.
An additional source of income, who writes on Substack, was recently promoted to full professor of English at CUNY, where she also has tenure. With a paid-subscriber offering on Noted, she is able to focus on further writing and research trips:
As an English professor at a public community college, I teach 3-4 extra courses a year—in addition to 6-7 contractual courses—to supplement my salary and to make living in NYC more affordable. Paid subscribers allow me to spend more time writing Noted, instead of teaching extra courses.
Additionally, because funding is always tight at my college, I usually don’t receive funding for archival research. So I’ve been using some of the proceeds from my paid subscriptions to fund research trips.
Jacqueline ofwas surprised by the additional income her Substack provides:
I recently turned on paid subscriptions and have been pleasantly surprised with the supplementary income it’s generating for me. I don’t see it replacing my work, nor do I want it to. As it continues to grow, it may command more of my attention, but for now, it’s a fun side gig where I get paid to do something I love on my own time. I’ve come to think of it as really complementary to my day-to-day academic life.
Examples of academics earning significant income on Substack:
- went paid with on the day he resigned as a professor from Tufts University. His post explaining his decision is illuminating in many ways:
- , who we profiled here for Grow, shared his Substack earnings and numbers with subscribers after a year of writing on the platform:
Author and economics professor, who has tens of thousands of paid subscribers to her publication, , talks about the scale of her Substack growth and the income it has produced on an episode of The Active Voice (from 40 minutes in).
A new kind of classroom
On Substack, academics and professionals of all kinds are creating a new type of online classroom, creating opportunities for more supplementary income., a creative writing professor of 15 years at the University of Iowa and Northwestern University, says:
My life really changed when I brought my teaching to Substack. Heather Cox Richardson was the first to inspire me to do so. Then George Saunders started teaching the short story on here, and I thought: we all (i.e. teachers and professors) need to be doing this. Each of us has that special area (or areas) we can talk and write about forever. (Whoever is reading this, that’s your Substack.) My areas of expertise are serialization and the art being a writer. I feel like Substack is the university of the future, where students get access to great professors for five or ten dollars a month.
Substack is the university of the future, where students get access to great professors for five or ten dollars a month.
This new learning forum allows educators on Substack to have a direct connection to smart readers, which in turn can rejuvenate their work.
Adam ofgets energized by the commenters who contribute, and celebrates their input:
People judge my work by its merits, not by the name of the journal where it’s published. Most of the people who comment on the research I post on Substack actually care about the questions I’m asking, and they want to help me find the answers. If you scroll to the bottom of “Things Could Be Better,” one of my recent papers, for instance, you’ll see I’ve acknowledged every commenter who helped me improve it.
Sarah Fay says the direct discourse—including disagreement and questioning—is integral to moving ideas forward:
Postingon Substack has allowed me to field questions and comments from my subscribers about what mental health recovery is and isn’t. My subscribers have questioned some of my ideas, which helped me refine and perfect them. It’s been amazing. And now it feels like Cured really is starting a movement. It’s reaching more and more people in a way I never could have done before.
There are plenty more examples of writers teaching classes and courses on Substack:
New-to-Substack writertakes subscribers through new classes and seminars in his Substack, :
- started offering an online Southern food course.
- is running a short story contest for young writers.
- writes about the brain and behavior in :
- , renowned for his challenges to traditional economic thought, recently began teaching his widely acclaimed “Wealth and Poverty” course on Substack, making use of Substack’s video tools and Sections. In the opening lesson, he sets the tone with the following thought:
“Don’t expect to learn by just watching and listening, though. I want you to be an active learner—which means answering questions I pose and putting various puzzle pieces together. I’m not going to tell you what to think. I’m going to try to provoke you into thinking harder and more deeply.”
A tool for writing and selling books
Rather than waiting for the finished manuscript to receive feedback, academic writers are finding a new way to develop their material in real-time with active readers.recently completed a book alongside writing her Substack and relates in a post to subscribers how the two projects frequently intersected:
sees his Substack as integral to the process of writing two books—sharing theoretical findings and questions to invite criticism before submitting the final manuscript, rather than after the book is published.
Because I was writing so much else, I could never focus on the book exclusively as I have done for previous books. I would write in the mornings, but every afternoon I would have to pack up whatever was in front of me and start working on the nightly letter. When one chapter was done, I would throw it aside and ignore it while working on the next. It was almost as if I was seeing the project only in my peripheral vision while looking intently at what was in front of me.
I took a break from the manuscript before picking it up for the second draft, and when I did turn back to it, I discovered something curious: it was almost as if the chapters had been chatting together while I ignored them, and they demanded an entire reworking. In the end, I rewrote close to 80% of the manuscript and developed a much different thesis than I had set out to write two years ago. It was rather as if I had seen things more clearly out of the corner of my eye than if I had been looking directly at them.
Sarah Fay uses Substack as a nontraditional publishing model for her memoir, Cured:
Traditional publishing puts too much stock in a single publication date. Your book comes out, there’s a few months of attention, and then it’s over. Then the paperback comes out, and it’s the same thing. Serialization creates an ongoing relationship between a book and the world. Plus, publishing houses don’t consider writing on Substack “previously published,” so there’s a better chance that Cured will become a successful book because I’ve serialized it here first.
Writing on Substack can even lead to potential book deals. Adam’s work, for example, has led to connections with agents and publishers:
Two things have happened in the 18 months that I’ve been writing Experimental History. First, I’ve developed enough ideas that I’m starting to see what comes up again and again, and what could become a longer work. And second, literary agents and publishers have reached out asking if I’d like to write a book, which makes it seem possible.
When it comes to promoting the book, many academics are using Substack to promote their books via their posts and the link on their reader profile, which can lead to steady sales after the book’s launch.
Examples of academics involved in traditional publishing along with or following their Substack:
- shares news of his new book with subscribers.
Brian Albrecht is using previous newsletters in a book introduction:
Advice from academics on Substack
Don’t be afraid to “own” your community! Value people’s engagement in your work, because that will return value over time.
I’d love to see more people doing science on Substack. Not talking about science; doing it. I know a few people doing this already: Erika DeBenedictis, Aella, Experimental Fat Loss. More of that, please! The greatest promise of Substack is that it creates a space outside of academia where scientists can flourish. That might just change the world.
Don’t let fear hold you back! Writing for a public audience was nerve-racking at first, but I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by how supportive and positive the community of readers on Substack has been, and it’s been amazing to see the opportunities that come up when you put yourself and your ideas out there. It’s also just really fun to have a weird little corner of the internet where you can connect with this awesome community you’ve built.
Bring your teaching to Substack. As any creative writer with an MFA knows, there’s a glut in the academic market. The days of landing a tenure-track teaching job are pretty much over for the majority of writers. I love academia, but if you’re an adjunct professor, you probably already know what it’s like to be a really, really great at your job—as good as any tenured professor—and not be compensated for your talents. Substack offers an alternative—an exciting and empowering one.
Read more: Grow interview with Rob Henderson
Are you an academic or professional thinker keen to start sharing your work and ideas with Substack subscribers? Your first post is a few clicks away: