Monthly Archives: November 2012

Links: Finding Online Communities

This week, PhD2Published had a post on using Google+ by Daniel Spielmann. In this post, Spielmann argues for the value of Google+ as a way of creating an online professional community (or what some call a ‘personal learning environment’). I haven’t (yet) found a role for Google+ in my life; in fact, a quick check of my Google+ page shows that I have three in my circles and that I am in six circles belonging to other people. And I probably said that wrong because I don’t really understand how circles work. Spielmann makes a strong case for using Google+ as a way of structuring a space for professional communication, a space that falls between blogging and microblogging. In particular, he suggests that Google+ has real advantages over Twitter: no restrictions on length; a greater ability to track conversations; the wherewithal to include media and not just links; and, finally, integration into the broader suite of Google products allowing easy video conferencing and file sharing. He also provides a helpful list of steps to getting started with Google+. These suggestions are tailored to Google+, but also act as a good road map for getting started with any form of social media.

The particular type of social media that we ought to be using is well outside my expertise. I’m on Twitter because a critical mass of people interested in writing studies and doctoral education are there, not because I can make a sustained argument for its superiority. I use Facebook for fun and Twitter for work (although ‘fun’ and ‘work’ dovetail beautifully on Twitter), and I don’t feel an immediate need for anything else. But Spielmann’s account of why Google+ is useful works as a statement of why any social media can be useful for academics: social media is a place to learn and share without geographical or scheduling constraints. By allowing the creation of organic networks—both broad and narrow—where people can come together without structural barriers, social media can form a valuable part of the professional support we all need. Spielmann’s post stresses the value of Google+ but, in doing so, also ends up describing the overall value of finding the right online communities for you.

I’ll be back next week with my post-AcWriMo reflections, including an unflinching assessment of my dismal performance!

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @PhD2Published, a writing productivity app for academics: ‘It tracks your writing journey in a way that suits you.’

More from Inside Higher Ed on perfectionism: How we may be ‘over-functioning’ in some areas to the detriment of others such as writing.

@ThomsonPat adds some nuance to the ‘just write’ advice.

From @thesiswhisperer, a fun post on how to practice academic writing.

From @ACW, the first post in a new series from @readywriting sharing her experience with the academic writing process.

From @ThomsonPat, the sixth in her series on literature reviews—a rare and valuable glimpse into other people’s research processes.

From @PhD2Published, a delightful discussion of how to plan a writing retreat. I wish I could go on one right now!

From @MeganJMcPherson, a great Storify of an Anthony Pare talk at RMIT University in Melbourne.

From @ProfessorIsIn, a lovely post on creativity and confidence.

From @qui_oui, a great post on how little we know about the optimal training for doctoral students.

From Inside Higher Ed, the third in their series on perfectionism in academia: how to write more productively.

From @StanCarey, a renewed call to abandon the confusing that/which distinction.

@3monththesis disagrees with the conventional wisdom on academic perfectionism; I’m intrigued but still unconvinced.

From @ThomsonPat, the next entry in her great series on doing a lit review: ‘Stepping back to focus in’.

From @DocwritingSIG, a discussion of the thesis genre as a form of hospitality to the reader.

The only thing better than @AcaCoachTaylor is @AcaCoachTaylor getting iterative.

A cartoon to remind us that nothing gets people’s attention like making a mistake in your writing.

Could a project management approach help you with your thesis? @GradHacker has some ideas about using these techniques.

Are graduate students facing greater expectations today than in past? Interesting reflections from @fishhookopeneye.

Self-Expression or Adherence to Form?

Earlier in the fall, The Atlantic ran a series of articles about teaching writing in American schools. One of the major themes in the conversation was the tension between writing as a form of self-expression and writing as a matter of adherence to established convention. That theme as it pertains to the way we should teach kids to write in the first place, while fascinating, is obviously outside the scope of this blog. But I am intrigued by the way that this dichotomy can influence our understanding of academic writing. Does strong academic writing come from an authentic sense of self-expression or does it come from an adherence to the existing genre conventions in the field? This formulation may appear impossibly stark, but it does reflect a tension experienced by many graduate students.

Graduate students often feel that they must choose between expressiveness and convention, even though they are ideally doing both. They are looking to give expression to something profoundly important to them, and they are doing so within the confines of an existing form. Coming to a sophisticated understanding of that existing form is what ultimately makes the dichotomy false; our self-expression as academic writers comes from our ability to express ourselves through the productive limits of the established form. The perception that the form is a rigid imposition rather than a meaningful framework is often what causes graduate writers to feel that they are being asked to check their creativity at the door. A lack of  familiarity with academic writing can make a potentially productive set of limits feel like an arbitrary set of constraints. Increased familiarity with those limits enables writers to find the space they need to give full expression to their insights.

Despite these assurances, some graduate students express concern that I am offering a vision of academic writing that is worryingly conservative. My argument, however, is that adherence to form is something other than just conservatism. The established form supports and promotes conversation, thus allowing openness and engagement. Some would argue that this view of conversation is inherently inhospitable to radical views that will inevitably go unspoken or unheard. I am not, of course, trying to dismiss the idea that there is power entrenched in the academy in ways that can determine who gets to say what. But at the level of writing, I believe that established forms are more capacious than some give them credit for. Conversation always carries the potential for something radical. Starting where others are in order to move to a new space is different from just starting in that new space. Novice academic writers have many key decisions to make about how they will orient themselves towards the status quo in their fields of study, but joining the existing conversation won’t diminish—and may well enhance—the power and innovation of their ideas.

Comparing Insides and Outsides

During AcWriMo, PhD2Published has been running a series of posts from Wendy Laura Belcher, offering tips on academic writing. The post of Belcher’s that I have found most helpful thus far discusses the notion of social support for writers. Writing is so intrinsically solitary that finding its valuable social dimension is legitimately a challenge. Charlotte Frost and Jesse Stommel also had some great advice this week about writing more publicly. While increased openness about writing and its struggles is essential, such openness can unfortunately leave some people feeling even worse about their progress. James Hayton from The Three Month Thesis wrote recently about his concern that a natural reporting bias would make the AcWriMo Twitter feed a sea of positivity. In other words, we might hear more from those for whom it was going well; those of us (ahem) who aren’t being quite so productive might be keeping a low profile. While lots of participants are clearly making an effort to report the unvarnished truth, the Twitter feed has been pretty upbeat. I’ve certainly noticed some people commenting that the productivity of others has made them feel worse about their own lack of productivity.

So what do we say to people who feel worse when they see others doing well? There’s no point in moralizing, and there’s certainly no benefit in halting the sharing. But there is another option: maybe we should take other people’s good news in stride because, chances are, there is way more to the story than they are telling us. One of the most consistent practices that I see in graduate students is the habit of making harmful comparisons between their own ‘insides’ and other people’s ‘outsides’. At the simplest level, this means comparing our own awful first drafts with other people’s polished final drafts. I always ask student how many genuine first drafts (other than their own) they have seen; the answer is often zero, and yet they still believe their first drafts are uniquely bad. After I make my usual, run-of-the-mill, banal observations about the struggles of academic writing, I often hear in reply ‘Thank you for saying that—I thought I was the only one who felt that way about my writing’. Clearly, we need more honesty about the normal struggles of writing, so people don’t feel isolated and so those normal levels of struggle aren’t allowed to turn into something more problematic. However, in the context of increased openness, we still need to remember that we shouldn’t draw simple comparisons between our own private experience and the public face presented by others.

While I was thinking about these topics this week, I encountered a few other posts that relate to how we conceive of ease and struggle in our writing lives. (With all the different writing schemes going on, November really is an awesome month to be a reader—I don’t know how I’m supposed to get any writing done!) The Thesis Whisperer had a thoughtful post this week on the way that happiness tends to be the exception against which the more interesting struggles of life are measured. Jo Van Every had an interesting post this week on dealing gracefully with the unexpected and undesirable. Finally, Kathleen Fitzpatrick had a poignant post on the role of stress in our lives. I was particularly taken with her formulation that “Stress has become the contemporary sign of our salvation.” According to Fitzpatrick, not only are many of us managing stress poorly, some of us are even seeking it out as proof of our worthiness.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @fishhookopeneye, helpful advice on crafting strong conference proposals.

From Inside Higher Ed, the second in their series on perfectionism in academia: concrete advice on ‘breaking the cycle’.

From @GradHacker, thoughtful suggestions for how graduate students might think about plagiarism in their own teaching.

From @ThomsonPat, wonderfully concrete advice on starting the literature review process. (Note: This post on literature reviews is the first in an ongoing series.)

From @fishhookopeneye, an interesting take on procrastination: a way of prolonging excitement or possibility.

From @DocwritingSIG, a call for precision without perfectionism and an awareness of how your discipline values style

From the New York Times, a fascinating discussion of note-taking. Is it fair to compare excessive note-taking to hoarding?

From @GradHacker, concrete suggestions for thinking about how to build the graduate school support networks that you need

From Inside Higher Ed, a thoughtful piece on the particular perils of perfectionism for academics.

A new guest post from @thesiswhisperer distinguishes between normal malaise and insurmountable misery in doctoral study.

From @mystudiouslife, a great elaboration of all she has done to keep the #AcWriMo spreadsheet functioning. Thanks!

Advice from @PhD2Published on committing to writing. Most important to me: Don’t wait for long blocks of time!

From @UVenus, a discussion of the way that #altac career paths may be different than graduate students picture them to be.

From @MGrammar, an interesting discussion of the costs and benefits of grammatical rules: ‘Rules aren’t free’.

From @ThomsonPat, an excellent post about the valuable ‘social existence’ our words could have if only they were shared.

From @AcaCoachTaylor, my kind of #AcWriMo motivation.

Between Drafting and Editing

Over the weekend, I went poking around in my own archives to look for posts that might be helpful for other people embroiled in AcWriMo. What I found was a lot of writing advice that presupposed the existence of some sort of draft. Some posts were explicitly geared towards the editing phase: committing to extensive revision; reverse outlines; and remembering to edit. Many other posts concerned the sorts of things that I wouldn’t recommend attending to during the initial writing phase: making effective transitions; crafting strong paragraphs; creating clarity with clear subjects and strong verbs; working with problem sentences; letting go of passages we no longer need; reconciling our best laid plans with our actual drafts; and the perils of local cohesion.

I’m obviously not surprised that the bulk of my advice concerns working with drafts. I’m very hesitant to interfere with the beautiful mystery of getting words down on paper; I’ve got a healthy respect for the alchemy that allows us to turn thoughts into prose. Editing, on the other hand, is emphatically un-mysterious, requiring a hyper-rational attention to the principles of sound academic writing. So I began this blog with a recommendation to use writing to clarify thinking and then turned my attention to the more manageable process of revising our own work. The essentially ungovernable writing process has been left largely untouched. But in light of AcWriMo, I want to offer one piece of advice related to the early drafting process.

When we write as a way of clarifying our own thinking, we are often engaging in a somewhat chaotic process. We may not be writing to a specific plan, with a neat outline to guide us along the way. Instead, we may be trying things out and experimenting with different phrasings and switching course and just generally endeavouring—through trial and error—to find the best path. Later we can use various revision strategies to make sense of it all and turn it into something suitable for the reader. The value of separating writing and revising is clear: on the one hand, you get the full freedom of the writing process and, on the other, you get time to transform that text into something suited to its eventual audience. But this dichotomy between drafting and editing can be taken too far, so I want to talk about an intervening space: not quite editing, but beyond drafting.

Have you ever come back to a rough—emphasis on rough—draft and been unable to figure out what is going on? It’s great to free the writing process from the burdens of editing, but not if you are going to end up with a text that is ambiguous or opaque. Depending on your own writing processes and the demands of the particular project, the revision stage can be far removed from the writing stage. No matter how much we imagine that we’ll always remember what we know now,  we simply won’t. We all need to take steps to ensure that our future selves will understand what they are looking at. To this end, I suggest leaving a short block of time at the close of each writing session for rough editing.

This short block of time will allow you to do three things. First, you can clean up obvious errors so the text will make sense to you later. For example, during a recent round of rough editing, I found an errant ‘not’ in a sentence; it was obviously there because I had been experimenting with expressing the thought in a positive or negative way. I had chosen the positive expression but had failed to remove the ‘not’. Figuring this out took me very little time because I still remembered having struggled with this sentence. In a week or two, I might not remember and would have had to engage in a more complicated process to figure out what was going on. A quick read through—scrupulously resisting the urge to do any fine editing—can save you from great bafflement later. Second, you can take this limited time to record your quick reactions to the text so far. Switch to all-caps (or to a different font or colour) and comment on what you see. Have I done enough with this idea? Should this be here? Is the work of so-and-so relevant here? You may not have time to answer these questions right then, but you should have a system for capturing them. Third, the rough edit can be a great time to set yourself up to start your next session of writing. Whenever possible, leave yourself some sort of instructions that will greet you the next time you open the document. A concrete suggestion about the first thing you should do when you sit down to write will help you get underway and will make the prospect of returning to your text much more appealing.

I realize that this post is based on a particular assumption about AcWriMo. Judging from my Twitter feed (one Pomodoro, two Pomodoros, …), it sounds like lots of people are doing more drafting than editing this month. But that may or may not be true. I think the beauty—as I discussed last week—of the way AcWriMo has been framed this time is that anyone can use it as a way to spur productivity in whatever way they need. AcWriMo could be a month dedicated to intensive editing rather than drafting. However, since I do get the sense that lots of people are taking this month as a chance to embark on the initial writing of the texts they need to produce, I thought I would talk about the steps we can take to make sure that our eventual return to those texts isn’t too much of a shock. Happy writing, everyone!

Academic Writing Month

Yesterday was the first day of Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), a month dedicated to academic productivity and public accountability. The full ‘rules’ can be found at the PhD2Published site, but here’s the short version: Aim high, tell everyone, be strategic, check in, work hard. Even if you don’t have the flexibility to devote the whole month to writing, this approach is inspiring for its can-do spirit and its commitment to making academic writing less lonely. If you need convincing, The Thesis Whisperer has a great post about why AcWriMo is a better idea than you might initially think. In a similar vein, Anna Tarrant has an interesting piece in The Guardian’s Higher Education Network blog on the way that an initiative like this can create a much-needed social space for a sustainable approach to academic writing.

I didn’t participate in this project last year. In part, I made that decision because it was explicitly geared towards writing an academic book (it was actually called AcBoWriMo), something that I was mercifully not trying to do. More generally, I was also aware that I didn’t need that sort of productivity burst. There have definitely been times in my life—during some parts of the dissertation writing process, for instance—when it would have been very helpful for me to alter my life to achieve drastic writing goals. At this point, however, I need a more systematic approach. I definitely want to be more productive and consistent as a writer, so I am approaching AcWriMo as an experiment: what can I do to give writing the prominence in my work life that I so wish it had?

My goals will thus be of two sorts. In the first place, I have set some targets for myself: Five blog posts (which is the number I would have tried to write this month anyway) and a draft of an article (which will grow out of a conference presentation, so I am not starting from scratch). Prompted by the AcWriMo spreadsheet, I have set a target of an hour of writing a day, five days a week (the numbering may shift, but I am currently number 234 in the Academic Writing Accountability spreadsheet). My second goal will be to understand how participation in this project affects me. Should I have set a word count instead of making a time commitment? Should I have aimed higher or lower? Will social media accountability be helpful? I look forward to reflecting on these questions in early December.

But those questions are just about me and my own productivity challenges. The truly interesting thing about AcWriMo is the notion of people around the world engaging in academic writing ‘out loud’. What can be so inward becomes a bit more outward, which means that the usual frustrations can be a matter of public acknowledgement rather than private self-castigation. The shared sense of the intrinsic pain of writing—and I say that as someone who loves to write—can be a source of humour and encouragement. The #AcWriMo hashtag is already inspiring, funny, and enlightening: small triumphs, inevitable setbacks, lots of jokes, and a myriad of approaches from which to learn. I will be updating my progress here and on Twitter (@explorstyle)—I hope you’ll follow along.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @SDMumford, a call to study what you love (in his case, philosophy).

From @DrJeremySegrott, thoughtful reflections on a year spent using Twitter for academic purposes.

From @Margin_Notes, a great post on the research into the role of teaching in tenure decisions.

From @ThomsonPat, an interesting discussion of different types of post-experience reflection.

From @cplong, a Storify version of his experience live tweeting his own talk on Plato.

It may not be the most influential of his 40+ books, but Barzun’s Simple and Direct is one of my favourite books on writing.

From @ThomsonPat, a great response to the writing too early question: Writing the thesis from day one is risky.

From @readywriting, interesting reflections on different types of academic blogs: Profiling the academic blogosphere.

From Inside Higher Ed, an honest account of being miserable in graduate school and deciding whether or not to finish.

I love this! Lucy Ferriss (in Lingua Franca) argues that ‘this’ sometimes needs more than just a referent.

From @byagoda in the NYT Draft blog, a delightful endorsement of the em-dash for its versatility and its vitality.