Earlier this week, I participated in a tweetchat with #VirtualNotViral, a great initiative from Anuja Cabraal and Pat Thomson. On their site, you can find out more about their resources for doing doctoral work during a pandemic, including information on upcoming tweetchats. I was invited to discuss academic writing during these challenging times. I found it helpful to process what I’ve been thinking about writing right now, so I thought I’d share some of those thoughts here.
The key for me during these extraordinary times is that each person ought to be given space to reevaluate what they are able to do. Thinking that you should be able to carry on as usual or, worse, be more productive is to underestimate the effect of everything going on around you. If you need a break from academic work because your caregiving responsibilities have changed, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because your financial situation has worsened, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because your research plans just fell apart or because the incredibly difficult academic job market just got more dire, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because you are finding the state of the world traumatic, of course you should take that break. If you need more than a break and need support to cope through this time, I hope that support is forthcoming. Each of you is responding to a unique set of personal circumstances, geographic factors, and institutional policies, but nobody should be pressured to be productive during this time. I think this bears repeating: events beyond your control have dramatically altered the conditions under which you are working, and you shouldn’t be required to act as though that weren’t happening.
I’ve now said as many ways as I can that you shouldn’t feel pressured to write right now. But some of you may want to write. Writing may lend normalcy to your otherwise upended routine. Writing may make you feel better about not being able to pursue other elements of a research agenda derailed by self-isolation. Writing may keep you in touch with an important part of your identity that may be threatened by the current disruption of your life. Writing now may actually feel better than dreading the implications of not having written later. Whatever your reasons for wanting to write during this time, I do think it can be a valid choice.
While some of you may be choosing to push ahead with writing right now, I don’t have any great new advice. The new part is that you shouldn’t be pressured to do so. With that caveat in place, I think good writing advice now is pretty much the same as it ever was. Writing support should be, it goes without saying, supportive. Should recognize the full embodied person that is doing the writing. Should recognize that caregiving work is crucial and not always conducive to a consistent writing practice. Should recognize that such caregiving work is often gendered. Should recognize that writing in English is often obligatory, placing additional burdens on those for whom English is a subsequent language. Should recognize how the persistent whiteness of the academy complicates the writing identity of racialized people. Should recognize that academic writing is a source of anxiety for so many. This list could go on, but my point is that anything that I might put on this list now was already there two months ago. On academic Twitter, you are seeing a lot of thoughts that start with the phrase ‘now is not the time’: Now is not the time to be berating people, questioning their commitment, presuming that they are using the crisis to cheat or slack off in some way. But I’ve yet to see something that we shouldn’t be doing now that we should be doing the rest of time.
Now, as always, we should be talking about academic writing productivity as a matter of process. This shift away from a model of pressuring writers to produce and towards one of supporting writers in finding a productive process has two main elements: first, writers need to be exposed to a range of options to see what writing practices will work for them and, second, writers need access to writing instruction because expertise is crucial to productivity. Both of these interventions can move us away from a moralizing treatment of productivity that lays blame on the individual for what they aren’t getting done. If you were a better person, would that solve all your writing woes? That would only make sense if your writing woes were in fact the result of a deficient character. If, instead, your writing woes come from the fact that academic writing is hard and lonely work with high stakes and a pernicious lack of community, you’ll need productivity advice that recognizes those inevitable challenges.
One thing that may be unique to writing in this moment is the variability of your reaction to everything that is going on. At some points, everything may feel close to normal; at other points, you may feel genuine panic about these profound disruptions to the life you know and to the plans you had for the immediate future. In addition to this daily yo-yo, you may also have found that your reactions have shifted as these weeks go by. You may have felt energized through the initial rush of reorganizing your life but now feel a sense of lethargy. You may have been somewhat paralyzed by the shock of everything changing so quickly but have now adjusted to a manageable new routine. If your reactions are shifting, so likely are those of the people that you are responsible for. Parenting may present very different challenges one day than the next. Managing your relationship to loved ones who are now physically distant can shift over time. All of which is to say, as you think about academic writing during this time, expect that you will need to be flexible and gentle with yourself: what might make some sense one day may seem impossible the next.
So I have no particular “how to write now” advice because there is no singular experience of now and because I hope you are already following advice that tells you to be mindful of who you are and what you need. Be kind to yourself; write if you want to; write if you have to; temper your expectations of yourself; if others aren’t tempering their expectations of you, try extra hard to be kind to yourself. And reach out for support. I always tell my students, graduate writing may be done by you alone, but it needn’t be done by you alone. Now, of course, we are all more alone than usual, but I hope you’re finding the virtual writing community that you need.
Here are ten pieces on working through this time that I’ve found helpful:
Aisha S. Ahmad, Productivity and Happiness Under Sustained Disaster Conditions
Pat Thomson, Getting By and Getting On
Inger Mewburn, Should You Quit (Go Part Time or Pause) Your PhD During COVID-19?
Erin Wunker, Shifting Strategies
Christine Tulley, Resetting Your Research Agenda
Cally Guerin, The Year of Wonders: Doctoral Writing in the Time of COVID-19
Nadirah Farah Foley, Don’t Forget About Graduate Students
Chris Smith, Five Strategies for Writing in Turbulent Times
Fay Lin, What Not To Say to Grad Students During a Pandemic
Anuja Cabraal, When I Write, I Write for Myself
Thank you Rachel for the post, providing us – doctoral researchers – ways to navigate and survive through disruption. Could you please give some particular advice to PhD Moms who have to manage with kids during the lockdown? Thanks!
Thanks for reading, I’m glad you found it helpful. I’m not sure I have much else to add about trying to parent and write while under lockdown, except that it sounds really hard. Both the physical disruptions and the emotional labour of caring for small people who are themselves struggling with an upended routine must be intense. My kids are older, but I’m still finding that they need a lot more attention from me than usual. So definitely be generous with yourself if writing isn’t possible right now. But to the extent that writing still needs to be part of your routine, I would say focus on finding time for short writing blocks with appropriate chunks of work to go along with them. Thirty minutes of writing may feel too short, but if you set yourself a thirty-minute task, it may feel just right. It’s easier said than done, but I think it’s worth trying. And it can be better than aspiring to do three hours of work all at once, when three hours is simply unattainable. In general, it can be helpful to contrast making some progress with making no progress, rather than contrasting some progress with an ideal amount of progress. This isn’t the time to hold yourself to any pre-lockdown ideal standards. All the best with your work!
Substitute any consistent activity you may be feeling pressured to do and this blog becomes universal for what so many are experiencing during this time. Thank you for a great piece! Katharine Allen
Dear Rachael, I am a graduate student and came across your blog while searching for guidance on writing about my contribution in my graduate research project. I appreciate with all my heart your understanding and sharing of the challenges in writing and composition clearly. Best regards, Nadia