My NativeAdVantage: Writer, professor
Yellowlees Douglas is currently Associate Professor of Management Communication and a faculty member in the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, both at the University of Florida. Through her career, she has straddle multiple disciplines in translational and clinical science, managed advertising and pubic relations for biotech clients including AstraZeneca, Abbott Laboratories, and GlaxoSmithKline, as well as ICL, the RSPCA, and Cunard Seabourn.
In academia, she was among the first researchers to spot the potential of hypermedia to transform communication in the mid-1980s, and teaching her first online-only writing course at New York University in 1986. Douglas has held appointments in sociology, English, management communication and medicine. Unsurprisingly, her research leverages disciplines from anthropology and behavioral economics to cognitive psychology, linguistics, and affective neuroscience to understand how users make sense of novel technologies—and how all of us make sense of the writing we’re bombarded with daily.
Douglas is the author of several dozen articles spanning nineteen disciplines, including ophthalmology, genetics, women and negotiation, the adoption of innovations, how hypermedia works, and the neuroscience of writing. Her fiction appears in Post Modern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology (1997), while her books include The End of Books or Books without End? Reading Interactive Narratives (University of Michigan Press, 2000) and The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer (Cambridge University Press, 2014.)
What do you do best?
Treat the world as about 95% signal and only 5% noise. I’ve used discussions I had as a sociologist in the UK to inform publications on the design of innovative technologies a decade and change later. I attended the University of Michigan during the peak of calls for divestment in South Africa and so was able—while I was grocery shopping after work—to sketch out an article on corporate activism, political and social responsibility, and shareholder values with a colleague…while I was still squeezing the grapefruits. Very few things fail to interest me. My attitude is: I never know when I’ll call on a piece of data or a theory from another field. In my work, I’m mostly attracted to gaps in knowledge or our understandings of the world or how things work, so a nearly insatiable sense of curiosity is particularly useful.
What makes you the best?
I’m fearless, and I’m always willing to leap into the unknown. I realize that, every time I go into a consult or to pitch a proposal or to write an article, I’m stretching about 18-20% beyond what I know I can safely or easily deliver. That way, I end up creating a benchmark for what I’ve done that seemed improbable when I began working on the project. Furthermore, all discoveries begin with a leap into the unknown, where you extrapolate from what we already know. Extrapolation is always a high-wire act. You can get things wrong, and only time and effort will prove you right or wrong. But you have to be willing to take that leap and worry about whether you’ll land on the other side, safely or not.
How will you stay the best?
I keep accepting work or setting myself goals that scare the hell out of me. My biggest nightmare is knowing what my life is going to look like in even six months. I can’t think of a bigger waste than continuing to do the same thing every day. If you already know how to do something well and can replicate it, where’s the fun in doing it again? When I play, I avoid a level playing field, if I can. Not knowing how things will work out is the majority of the pleasure.
What are your aspirations: business & personal?
Personal: I’d like to get my French to native fluency and finish a few creative projects I currently have in the works. I’d also like to commute the way I once did—New York and London, with maybe a dash of Miami or Le Midi for working breaks.
Business: I’d love to have access to a lab, where I could test some hypotheses I float in my book, The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer that go far beyond what I was able to write about, given the paucity of studies on the connections between reading and writing. Based on the research I’ve already conducted I’m ready to work on a book that ties the advantages of reading (a claim that makes English departments particularly relevant even as STEM starts to cause English faculty to lose sleep over its status in the academy) and to also explore the challenges researchers and labs face in writing in the biomedical sciences.
What fascinates you?
The gaps between things, and taking methods or theories from one field and using them to explain things that have previously eluded explanation. And anything that's difficult. One of my other favorite mottoes comes from a Yeats' poem: "The fascination of what's difficult..."
From Kafka’s The Trial, a final thought occurs to Josef K, as he’s being taken to his execution: “I always wanted to snatch at the world with twenty hands.” He’s realized that people barely snatch at the world or life at all. If they grasp it, they do so with one hand. Or none. If I have an epitaph, I want that quote on it.
Maggie Smith, the perfect role model who raptured me out of an abusive home environment and also taught me the pleasure of always working. Teddy Roosevelt, who had a voracious appetite for life, racing through reading, keeping up voluminous correspondence. In the midst of so many American “firsts”, TR found time to command the American fleet on a sail past of Molokai to display the flag and sail by the leper colony on the island, all based on his correspondence with a long-serving brother who worked with the children there. Winston Churchill, who not only wrote his own speeches—and speeches vastly better than any speechwriter could ever have produced—as well as volumes of history. Churchill is a Renaissance man par excellence: a visionary politician, a terrific historian and writer, and a painter. And, I imagine, a bloody good storyteller who ran his associates to exhaustion with his speed, conversation, and sheer volume of activities.
Nice and most of Provence, the islands on the Firth of Clyde in Western Scotland, New York, Oxford, and London. The Connecticut Shore, especially Guilford and the Thimble Islands. A tiny patch of Miami I won’t mention because it’s really unlike anywhere else in Miami.
My MacBook Air, which I carry with me everywhere. My iPad Mini, ditto, so I can read and work no matter where I am. I wrote an entire book chapter, using WiFi on a Virgin Train from Edinburgh to London, pulling data from a library in the US, and using my e-books. My Polar, which records up to several months’ worth of data, and some new gadgets that haven’t come out yet, purchased via Indiegogo that will enable me to monitor the efficacy of workouts that involve weightlifting and coach you on your forms and reps. I use working out to solve problems I’m working on and as a form of mental hygiene, so the fewer people around, the better. My books, which I find to be a shackle, as I’ve 52 bookcases stacked with them. Whenever I buy a book now, I ensure that it’s an E-book.
Kayaking, riding, when I get a chance, since I was a Thoroughbred breeder and miss having horses around. Losing myself in a film, play, music, or a novel, where I become so absorbed that I frequently forget who I am. It’s a skill—and a blessing. Skincare and hair-care products, and makeup. I love change—and you can make yourself look however you want to, if you’re willing to make the effort to learn how to do so properly.