Tag Archives: Research

Adopting a New Research Identity

Most people find it easy to accept that graduate writing challenges are connected to the profound shift in identity that often accompanies graduate study. The novel challenge of graduate-level writing can be so much more than just a technical challenge, more than just a simple matter of not having done something before. In fact, a sense of incomplete identity can manifest itself in the quality of writing and even in the ability to develop a productive writing practice. While I have long believed all this to be true, the idea became much more real to me after I had the experience of needing to adopt a new research identity. When I took my first sabbatical, I was doing so in a field that I hadn’t studied as a doctoral student; as a result of this disciplinary transition, I was embarking on a research project without much relevant experience.

Over the course of this research, I undertook the ethics review process; contacted potential interviewees; learned how to make and manage digital recordings; conducted interviews; arranged for transcripts to be made; completed the data analysis; and drafted an article based on the research. Many of these activities may sound benign or even routine, but they were fundamentally different from anything that I had done before. It is unsurprising that learning these various skills was difficult, but what was striking, at least to me, was how deeply uneasy I felt throughout. Being reflective about this uneasiness was crucial both because I needed to overcome the discomfort in order to complete the project and because I could tell that understanding my own experience would help me to understand the challenges facing doctoral writers. We are all aware of the transitions that this group is making: from generalist to specialist, from student to researcher, from novice to expert. Making comparable transitions myself and experiencing a sense of being unmoored from my usual sources of professional authority emphasized the potential vulnerability of academic writers. As a teacher of writing, I benefited from this tangible reminder that the weakness of doctoral writing often come from the enormity of the identity shift that students are undertaking.

To characterize the transition from student to doctoral researcher as one of identity formation rather than as simple expertise development is a powerful way to go beyond popular—and often facile—explanations of the weaknesses in academic writing. Writing problems are occasionally straightforward matters of convoluted syntax or arcane vocabulary or disorganization, but are more often indicative of deeper struggles. To take two common examples, think of an introduction that fails to emphasize the significance of the problem under discussion or a treatment of the literature that reads like a laundry list of what everyone else thinks. Weak introductions are a consistent issue for the thesis writers that I work with; novice writers often fail to remind the reader of the significance of the current research. This omission can result from the over-familiarity that sometimes causes us to leave the most obvious things unsaid or from inexperience with writing sophisticated academic texts, but it can also result from the absence of a conviction that our contribution is worthy of being highlighted. Similarly, novice writers can struggle to manage literature reviews in a manner that conveys the preeminent importance of what the current writer has to say. Students can be taught to write better literature reviews, but the ability to do so has to be grounded in an underlying sense that they have the authority to synthesize the existing literature in support of their own project. In other words, they have to believe that their own project is a legitimate successor to the literature under discussion.

These sorts of writing problems can, of course, be addressed at the level of technical expertise: it’s entirely possible to give students a range of straightforward strategies to counteract common academic writing problems. However, delivering that advice in a way that also addresses the underlying identity tensions can provide novice writers a way out of their writing difficulties that is grounded in improved self-understanding. Once we accept that the work of identity formation will be inscribed in the texts that we write, we can seek out both technical solutions and a deeper understanding of the source of the difficulties. In my experience, students are more able to assimilate technical solutions into their own writing regimes when they see their problems as connected with a legitimate professional shift rather than simply as symptomatic of their own inadequacy. Since the challenge of inhabiting a novel identity can then be framed as an inevitable part of the scholarly development process, we can increase the chance that graduate writing support will be seen as essential. Such a framing can move our perception of writing problems from a model of deficiency to one of professional development, helping writing support to gain institutional traction. If we see the limitations of a novice academic writer as a natural by-product of the process of shifting from student to scholar, we may be better able to advance a framework for doctoral writing support that goes beyond notions of remediation to become an integrated part of doctoral education.

Unpacking Professional Development for Graduate Students

The work that I do on this blog is generally designed to support my work in the classroom, which involves teaching academic writing and speaking to graduate students. When graduate students attend these sorts of workshops or courses, this undertaking is often characterized as professional development. In order to understand that characterization, it’s essential to think about what is meant by the term ‘professional development’. Most of us first became familiar with the term as something designed for already-working people. That is, professional development was necessary precisely because the original training or education was complete. After a number of years in a job, we benefit from professional development because it can offer us innovative ways of approaching what we do, thus making us more confident, competent, or engaged. When we start thinking of professional development for graduate students—that is, for people who are currently in school learning how to do something—we have to confront an obvious question: Why do we need ‘professional development’ for people who are still in school? Isn’t that what the school is for? If we are to offer professional development for graduate students, we clearly have to be reflective about the process.

Whether or not professional development initiatives act as an implicit rebuke of existing graduate education, the growth of such initiatives highlights what generally isn’t happening within graduate programs. Traditionally, graduate programs have been good at training students to do a certain sort of academic work, but less good at supporting a wider range of ancillary skills. Before looking at these ancillary professional skills in more detail, I’d like to make a distinction between professional development and professionalization. My anecdotal sense from my own university is that professional development tends to be offered centrally while professionalization initiatives are coming out of departments themselves. While the two things are similar, they are also significantly different. Professionalization is something that happens to the field of study whereas professional development is something undertaken by the individual. That is, professionalization reflects an awareness that graduate departments themselves have an obligation to offer initiatives—that are often part of a degree program and possibly even compulsory—to support students’ eventual ability to thrive professionally. In contrast, professional development has an individual dynamic: the student can decide to develop their professional skills on their own time and away from the department. While I think the structural integration of professionalization is valuable for a range of reasons, I’m going to focus in this post on the training offered centrally under the auspices of professional development. In what follows, I am going to divide these skills in three categories: integral; professional academic; and professional non-academic.

Integral skills are those that allow us to communicate our research effectively. The ability to explain research to a wide range of audiences in a wide range of formats must be seen as integral to the educational goals of a graduate student: research that can’t be conveyed to others in an appropriate fashion is inherently lacking. These integral skills—writing effectively, understanding how to make presentations, being able to communicate research to different audiences—will indubitably help students in their professional lives, but they are different from other forms of professional development because of their inherent connection to being a successful student. You can’t thrive as a graduate student without developing these skills, which makes them different from the skills necessary for moving from being a student to being a professional.

Professional academic skills are those that prepare students first for the academic job market and then for an academic job. The key element here is, of course, teaching; as so many have observed, a PhD is often expected to prepare us for teaching despite the fact that the actual teacher training component of doctoral education can be pretty hit and miss. Supporting graduate students as nascent teachers rather than just fostering their research skills is a crucial way to prepare them for academic jobs. Similarly, talking about how to apply for funding and how to prepare for scholarly publishing can help with the transition from student to professor. However, given the current state of the job market, preparing for the job of being an academic isn’t sufficient; graduate students also need to be prepared for the travails of an increasingly fraught job search process.

Lastly, professional non-academic skills are those that bridge the gap between graduate training and the jobs that many graduate students are going to find—by choice or by necessity—outside of the traditional professorial role. We know that doctoral training is often extremely transferable, but we need to clarify those pathways and facilitate the translation that allows graduate students to frame their existing skills as valuable for a wider range of professional opportunities.

These three species of professional development obviously involve a great deal of overlap. Some of the skills will operate in all three areas because they are fundamental skills. Some of the skills will be readily transferable: a good understanding of oral presentation skills, for instance, will allow us to make many different sorts of effective presentations. And some of these skills themselves will assist students in understanding the very nature of transferable skills. As an example, when I teach students about writing for different audiences, they are learning two things: at a basic level, they are learning to adjust their writing to suit its potential audience; at a higher level, they are also potentially learning to be more reflective about the nature of the skills that they are developing in graduate school.

Accompanying all these species of professional development, of course, is the need to provide holistic support for graduate students. Supporting graduate students means acknowledging both that they have issues—financial, familial, medical, emotional—affecting their graduate experience and that the task of building the necessary research and ancillary skills is inherently difficult. We need to give graduate students access to the skills they may lack while also acknowledging the complex stress of graduate study. While it doesn’t replace providing concrete emotional support for graduate students, providing these three types of ancillary skills can have the effect of normalizing their challenges. Graduate students, who so often struggle in their dual role as advanced student and novice scholar, can be reassured by the very existence of this sort of professional development. I’m often surprised by the fact that a frank discussion of the intellectual and emotional challenges of graduate writing is met by relief from many graduate students. Despite the prevalence of that narrative, many graduate students have often internalized a different and more damaging narrative about their own deficiency vis-à-vis the expected work of a graduate student. These psychological costs have tangible implications for the students themselves and also play an important role in rates of attrition and lengthy time-to-completion.

As we think about these three species of professional development and the complex demands of graduate study, we also need to think about the diverse needs of different graduate student constituencies. We can divide graduate students by discipline; this division can be a broad one between the sciences and the humanities or something finer that recognizes the unique professional demands of different graduate programs. We can divide graduate students by linguistic background; some students are learning to write suitable academic prose in their first language while others are accomplishing the same task in a subsequent language. We can divide students by degree; the needs of doctoral students are often different from those of Master’s students, especially from those in terminal Master’s degrees. In order to tackle needs spread along so many different spectrums, it is very helpful to have a deeper understanding of the types of things we are trying to impart. Clarifying our understanding of what professional development might mean for graduate students can help us to design suitable offerings and explain those offerings in terms that make sense to the many constituencies involved. In the end, offering these professional skills is one way of ensuring that all graduate students—each of whom represents a unique spot among many overlapping measures of identity—can have the chance to thrive in graduate school and beyond.

I would like to thank Dr. Jane Freeman for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post.

Academic Writer as an Identity

Since this is the 100th post on Explorations of Style, I thought I would allow myself to return to one of my favourite topics: the notion that someone who engages in academic writing is, in fact, a writer. The most common search terms that lead people to this blog involve the words ‘identity’ and ‘writer’. As a result, the post in which I first looked at this question is one of the most popular on the site.

In the original post, I discussed how graduate students often embrace the category of ‘bad writer’ with an ontological fervour while still disavowing the simpler category of ‘writer’. But can you be a bad writer in any meaningful sense without being a writer? In other words, surely ‘writer’ is an inductive category: if writing is an essential aspect of your life, then you are a writer. Needless to say, this move from activity to category doesn’t work in all cases; doing something regularly doesn’t automatically turn that activity into a category. But while you may not want to adopt the personae associated with all your daily tasks—think how unwieldy that would make CVs and obituaries!—the transition from writing to writer is special. Being a writer may flow inductively from the act of writing, but it also doubles back and changes the act itself.

Writing can be changed by the explicit adoption of the writer persona in two ways. In the first place, being a writer suggests a particular practical orientation towards the way writing fits into your life. And, in the second, being a writer suggests a more conscious awareness of writing as an intellectually complex process of transforming inchoate thoughts into meaningful text.

At the practical level, identifying yourself as a writer makes the act of writing more intentional and thus more than just a necessary evil. As a writer, you will have a reason to seek out explicit writing support or devote time to improving your abilities as a writer. My students often say to me that they would love to work more on their writing, but that they are too busy with their work. To some extent, I take that invocation of an artificial dichotomy between writing and work as a sign of my own failures in the classroom. My job isn’t just to provide helpful insights into the writing process; it is also to convey the urgency of the writing task. But I try to focus more on the helpful insights since those who do buy into the urgency are poorly served by a continual harping on that theme. I continue to work on finding the best classroom balance between exhortation and instruction, but the fact remains that people who don’t accept writing as central to their identity often continue to devote insufficient time to the task and to feel a commensurate frustration at their lack of improvement.

At a deeper level, accepting the role of writer means accepting that you are constructing meaning through your arrangement of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. If the role of writer is slighted, nothing is left but text and reader. And readers are rarely going to be satisfied with those sorts of ‘writer-less’ texts. Those sorts of texts are notoriously light on the sort of signposting and metadiscourse that the reader needs to appreciate what is being presented. If you are in the habit of thinking of your text as self-explanatory or if you tend to frame writing as a purely responsive act of ‘writing up’, you may be neglecting the role that you ought to be playing as writer. As the writer, you must perform the essential act of framing what is being read according to the overarching demands of your project. I read so many selections of graduate student writing that are brimming with insight and fortified by an impressive amount of research but that lack an authorial voice to help the reader manage the text. Deepening the connection to the persona of writer is one way of reminding ourselves that our job as writer is to go beyond the provision of helpful content to the more complex task of structuring that content in a way that anticipates how the reader will experience the text.

While I do believe that there is a manifest benefit to identifying ourselves as writers, I’d like to close by considering a possible downside to accepting this identity. Could identifying as a writer actually make things worse by hindering some students from getting the writing support that they need? Unfortunately, I think that possibility exists. Some students have bound their sense of self-worth so tightly to the activity of writing that they may resist accessing writing support; these resistant students have often accepted the widespread notion that graduate students should ‘already know how to write’. Similarly, these students often have trouble resisting the urge to compare insides and outsides; they may end up with a wildly inaccurate sense of how their writing actually stacks up because they are constantly making invalid comparisons between their own initial drafts and other people’s final products. On the other hand, I see some students who are very receptive to what I have to say precisely because they don’t see their writing as expressive of their truest professional selves. I think the answer to this dilemma comes from how we think about what it means to identify ourselves as writers. Ideally, adopting this persona will actually help to undermine the sense that we ought to be good writers already. Saying ‘I am a writer’ isn’t like saying ‘I was born a writer, but am somehow failing to live up to this legacy’. Rather, adopting the persona of writer means making a commitment to learning how to be a strong and confident and competent writer, a writer who is able to meet key professional responsibilities with clear and assured prose. This goal is hard to reach and remains, for most of us, aspirational. But the goal cannot be met either by undervaluing the writing process and thus neglecting its development or by overvaluing it to the extent that the weakness becomes a crisis of confidence. Taking hold of ‘academic writer’ as an identity means devoting ourselves to writing and doing so because that devotion is the only sure-fire way to become the writers that we all want to be.

Autonomy and Doctoral Study

In addition to writing about the topics on my mind, I enjoy using this space to talk about the topics on other people’s minds. Pat Thomson had a recent post on methods assignments and methods chapters that was fascinating to me. She was writing about the possibility that a certain notion of doctoral training might have deleterious consequences for how doctoral writers conceive of their intellectual task: “I’m worried that in instituting doctoral ‘training’ courses, we might have extended the under and taught postgraduate assignment genre, and everything it means, into doctoral research.” The specifics of her concern are connected to the shape and conditions of the doctorate in the UK, but the question of how much disciplinary training ought to be given to doctoral students is of broader interest.

My own doctoral education was pretty much a matter of trial and error; the overwhelming message was ‘we trust you, you’ll figure it out’. We were, by many measures, neglected, although we preferred to think of it as European (sounds better). From the very outset, we were expected to come up with our own topics—and our own due dates, but that’s another story—and our own reading lists. Those who finished the program (and many did not) were generally ready to take responsibility for an autonomous research agenda. While that sounds positive, the fact remains that the time-to-degree was unmanageable and the attrition rates were unacceptable.

It is with this slightly Darwinian back story that I now teach academic writing to graduate students. My biggest initial adjustment in this position was grasping the degree of support and scaffolding that my current university provides to doctoral students. To be clear, I think the growth of a supportive infrastructure surrounding doctoral education is an excellent thing. And so I was intrigued by the suggestion that doctoral training could have the unintended consequence of diminishing the extent to which doctoral students are able to inhabit their new role as researchers. I realize that this is somewhat dicey territory. I have absolutely no desire to be the person blathering on about my uphill walk both ways! Nor do I think that suffering should be replicated out of habit or misplaced ideas about its value. But I also know some of the frustration I see in some doctoral students comes from a certain stasis in the role of student. The shift away from student toward researcher can be facilitated but cannot, by definition, be taught. Autonomy will come from experience, not instruction. As I have discussed before in this space, I believe that doctoral writers need to avail themselves of a range of resources in order to gain the confidence and competence to occupy their new role.

As always, I will end this links post with things that I have recently shared on Twitter; since my last links post was in mid-December, there’s lots of great stuff!

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @StanCarey, a strong endorsement of the singular ‘they’. Bonus: you won’t be forced to use ‘thou’ for the sake of consistency!

From @thesiswhisperer, having a key word to act as a theme or rubric for the year. My word: habit.

From @joshmkim, how inbox=zero has worked for him. A great way to make more rational decisions about what tasks to do when.

From @thesiswhisperer, a great @DocwritingSIG post on “working in the deep end of the methods pool”. Very helpful!

From @PhD2Published, a summary of the January 24th #acwri chat on the value of Twitter for academic writing.

From @phdcomics, a brutal comic on the perils of conference presentations. Don’t let any of this happen to you!

From @ntos, a great cartoon about blogging in academia

My favourite non-academic blogger (from the Dinner: A Love Story blog) has great advice about starting and managing a blog.

From the Lingua Franca blog, William Germano gives you all the ‘catfish’ puns you could ask for.

From @scholarlykitchn, a useful discussion of the systems in place for pre- and post-publication peer review.

From @ThomsonPat, a post on blogging identity: crafting private ‘texts’ (for instance, teaching conversations) into public and enduring ones.

From @professorisin, tough, helpful advice on crafting a teaching philosophy that doesn’t rely on emotion, aspiration.

From @GradHacker, an argument for the cognitive benefits of using pen and paper.

From @utpress, a new grammar feature on their blog: When to use a semicolon and a colon?

From the Academic Life in Emergency Medicine blog, reflections on becoming a peer-reviewed blog

@MacDictionary asks whether adverbs imply ill-chosen verbsCould your writing stand to lose a few adverbs?

From @fishhookopeneye, an argument for vibrant presentations regardless of disciplinary dictates. Here’s my take on the same question.

From @PhD2Published, a short discussion of typical patterns in research article conclusions.

From @raulpacheco, a great Storify on how academics can benefit from Twitter.

From John Tierney in the New York Times, an account of ‘positive procrastination‘: can you trick yourself into getting the important stuff done?

From @thesiswhisperer, thoughts on concentration, energy, laziness, adrenaline, and completion in our academic work.

From @StanCarey, a discussion of prepositions at the end of sentences, with the best example ever.

From @GradHacker, thoughts about the fine line between pernicious and productive anxiety.

From @AltAcademix, suggestions on expanding career preparation during doctoral study.

People are always trying to get forestall usage that irks them. I love this project to revive neglected words instead.

From @scholarlykitchn, interesting comments on online comments and the lack thereof.

From Inside Higher Ed, Barbara Fister on the way excess negativity can preclude much-needed rational responses to real challenges.

From The Onion, 4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence

The first #acwri chat of the year talked about resolutions and motivation.

From @MacDictionary, a useful discussion of nominalizations and communicative goals.

From The Monkey Cage blog, JSTOR Cracks the Door.

From @UVenus, lovely reflections on superstition amidst rationality in our scholarly routines.

From @StanCarey, the need to question but not demonize nominalizations.

From McSweeney’s, some irreverent writing advice.

From @qui_oui, a great take on the balancing act performed by contemporary graduate students.

From @poynter, an entertaining list of media mistakes, corrections, apologies, hoaxes, typos, &c from 2012.

From @PhD2Published, a Storify of #AcWriMo success stories.

From the Crooked Timber blog, an excellent defense of Erik Loomis.

From the When in Academia tumblr, an accurate depiction of me and today’s blog post.

From @ThomsonPat, how to prepare to write a conclusion by returning to the commitments made at the outset.

This piece in The New Yorker made me think how a thesis can alternate between being a focal point and being a distraction.

From @PhD2Published, reflections and a Storify on conference presentations on social media and academics.

From Inside Higher Ed, a great round-up of a year’s worth of MOOC-related commentary.

Writing at @DocwritingSIG, @thesiswhisperer has some recommendations (including some kind words about @explorstyle).

From @ThomsonPat, a precise and perceptive account of what can go wrong in a thesis conclusion.

AcWriMo Reflections

Before getting to my AcWriMo reflections, I’d like to say thanks and welcome to all my new subscribers and followers. November was the busiest month ever on the blog: there were nearly 5,000 views and we passed the 50,000 views mark overall. Thank you all for reading and commenting and linking and sharing!

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As anyone who reads this blog knows, November was AcWriMo, an exercise in public accountability and support for academic writing facilitated by the lovely people at PhD2Published. As I discussed in a post at the beginning of the month, I decided to participate as an experiment. Looking back over the guiding principles set out by PhD2Published, I see that I basically kept to them. I aimed relatively high; I certainly told everyone; I thought a lot about being strategic in my approach; I checked in over the course of the month; and I did work hard. What I didn’t do was meet the target I set for myself. I committed to writing a weekly blog post (five over the course of the month) and turning a conference paper into an article. I did do the former, although that was no more than I would have done anyway. I started working on the paper and even managed to create an initial draft. But by the middle of the month, I hit a wall: to finish the paper I needed to engage more deeply with the literature and didn’t have time to do that. So I carried on blogging and following the AcWriMo activities of others and using what extra time I had to plan the literature review I need to do. (I was assisted in this planning process by an amazing series of posts by Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn (of The Thesis Whisperer) on Pat’s blog patter; in this series, they detail and reflect upon a work in progress. It is a rare and welcome thing to see people trying to give voice to how complicated and unruly the research process can be. For me, that was AcWriMo at its best: a public discussion of writing challenges in a manner designed to demystify the process.)

Engaging with AcWriMo confirmed one of my key assumptions about writing: we all need less how-to and more self-knowledge. The ‘right’ way to write is elusive, considerably more elusive than a lot of writing advice seems to grasp. To get a sense of the vastly different ways that we experience writing—brought into focus by the artificial pressure of an ‘academic writing month’—I recommend looking at some of the great post-AcWriMo reflections that have been written thus far. Here are a few that I’ve enjoyed: Raul Pacheco-Vega; Peter Webster; Liz Gloyn; Lyndsay Grant; Ellen Spaeth. And PhD2Published has begun the process of reflecting on AcWriMo through a series of Storify posts. If you read these posts, think about what resonates for you as a writer. What writing practices works for you? What holds you back? Can you distinguish between psychological and practical barriers to writing? Does technology help or just displace the problem? When has writing been best for you? Academic writing is hard enough—trying to do it according to the dictates of someone else’s process can make it even harder. Self-knowledge is key. In that spirit, I offer my own reflections. They are unlikely to be interesting in and of themselves, but I hope they serve as an example of how to develop a better understanding of oneself as a writer.

So what did I learn about my academic writing process from AcWriMo?

1. That concrete and demanding writing goals are essential. Writing is so easy not to do; I start many days wanting to write and having to do any number of other things. Anything I can do to move writing into the obligatory column is valuable. I have found it helpful to think about the imperative to write in two ways. First, I need to conceive of what writing means to me for professional satisfaction, development, and advancement. For most of us, writing is crucial, but I found it useful to identify its precise value to create more motivation. Second, with that sense of my broad priorities, I need to create a concrete writing schedule. Working backwards from a target means that I can see exactly how much needs to get done right now and prevents the sort of magical thinking that allows me to imagine I’ll pull off miraculous feats of writing in an unspecified future while remaining hopelessly unproductive now.

2. That committing to a certain amount of time spent writing works better than committing to a number of words/pages per day. In particular, short Pomodoro-style bursts work best for me. The 25-minute period, short enough for even my appallingly bad powers of concentration, helps balance writing with the rest of my life. I can be out of touch for 25 minutes, from my co-workers, from my kids’ school, and from social media. The five-minute break spent catching up on email and messages gives me the sense of connectedness that I love as well as the ability to stay on top of all the little things as I go along. Which leads me to my next observation.

3. That getting behind on everything else for the sake of writing makes me unhappy. My central professional commitment is teaching, which means class preparation, reading student writing, meeting with students, and—needless to say—lots of email. I need to get these things and any associated administrative work done in order to be comfortable writing. This prioritization is not something that always works well; if writing is put last, it will sometimes be left out. Taking AcWriMo as an opportunity be more aware of how I spend my time allowed me to see that my days fall into three basic types: days when I genuinely can’t write; days when I can and do; and then days when I could except that my inefficiency and inattentiveness mean that I’m unproductive. Accepting the first type as legitimate helps me to turn my attention to reducing the third type.

4. That making myself read is always my biggest challenge. Reading makes me impatient; the ideal pace for reading is slower than I like things to be and requires more intellectual flexibility than I naturally possess. Writing, on the other hand, allows me to be active and creative. Of course, good academic reading must be active and can be creative, but it’s still not an activity that comes easily to me. When AcWriMo begins in 2013, I’ll need to have a well-researched project in hand, ready for a month of intensive writing. In the meantime, I hope to turn my attention to solving this persistent weakness in my research process.

5. That my writing process is unduly hampered by pre-emptive anxiety. It doesn’t speak well of me, but I have come to accept how easily I am thrown off my game by potential problems. Current problems would be one thing: it is genuinely hard to write when you hit a conceptual roadblock. But I am dissuaded from writing by the mere possibility of problems in the future. What if I’ve chosen the wrong approach to this issue? What if my observations are completely trite? What if my argumentation doesn’t fit my desired conclusions? The sane reaction, obviously, is to keep writing until the potential problem becomes a real problem or fails to materialize. I’m working on getting better at blocking out the ‘whatifs’ when I write. Do you know that Shel Silverstein poem? It’s one of my favourite kids’ poems: Last night while I lay thinking here/Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear/And pranced and partied all night long/And sang their same old Whatif song:/Whatif I flunk that test?/Whatif green hair grows on my chest?/Whatif nobody likes me?/Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?… 

6. That blogging is a lot more than just writing. I was so struck this month how much time I spend preparing each post (beyond the time spent writing) and how much time I spend in general maintenance and social media engagement. This entire process is one that I love, but it is time spent and not exactly time spent writing. When thinking about how to allocate appropriate time to writing, I need to think about all the facilitation and administration that goes along with having a blog. (Pat Thomson had a very interesting post this week on blogging and social media participation as a complex form of academic labour that breaks down any simple dichotomy between work and leisure.)

7. That traditional academic writing can be restful after the immediacy of blogging. At the beginning of the month, I felt a little uncomfortable to be writing in other than a blogging or microblogging format. The lack of feedback felt strange; like when you put an actual letter in an actual mailbox and then wonder, six hours later, why you haven’t heard back yet. But once I got over the strangeness, I found it very restful. Once again, I could take advantage of the ‘nobody ever has to read this but me if it’s awful’ strategy that got me through my entire dissertation. That’s a hard strategy to employ in blog writing; knowing that I’ll be publishing in the coming days (or even hours) means that I have to be fairly committed to what I am writing at the moment of composition. It was lovely to write with a broader time frame in mind, knowing that I could finish the whole article with the luxury of returning to it with a critical eye later.

Overall, AcWriMo was a great chance to focus on what both writing and not writing look like for me right now. In particular, this month gave me a unique opportunity to reflect on the role of writing in this phase of my life: without the pressure to produce a dissertation, without the anxiety that accompanied my recent promotion process, and with the very different rhythm of maintaining a blog. I look forward to continuing to reflect upon the experience of academic writing amidst the wonderful online academic writing community; thank you to the people at PhD2Published and all the AcWriMo participants for the encouragement and all the engaging commentary. I hope you are all able to continue to, in the memorable words of an AcWriMo participant, ‘write like there’s no December’.

Can You Write Too Early?

The Thesis Whisperer had a guest post this week with the headline Why writing from day one is nuts.* The suggestion that writing early isn’t a good idea runs directly counter to a great deal of thesis writing advice (including that given in this blog). The post, written by James Hayton (who blogs at The Three Month Thesis), posits that writing from the get-go is unproductive. Hayton argues that writing done early isn’t useful because the writer will struggle to know what to say, will produce weak writing, and will end up with a morass of text that will be hard to transform into something usable. He also claims that early writing can be an ill-advised attempt to impress, but I think this is more a personal experience than a general problem. Finally, he talks about the danger of too much writing—and, yes, I did find that a difficult phrase to type!—because writing without an immediate goal may get us in the habit of not finishing our projects. I will return to this point below, after looking at his main point: that early writing will be poorly informed, weak, and hard to work with. I agree that this might happen (who hasn’t found themselves with exactly that sort of writing?), but I think that the value of the act of writing outweighs those weaknesses.

Hayton’s estimation that early writing is likely to be flawed is based on a notion of writing as product: according to this view, we write simply in order to get a text for some purpose or other. Needless to say, writing to get a product is a very common experience, and I agree that the most efficient way to get the right product is to work from the clearest possible understanding of the task. For instance, if you need to write an article response, starting to write before reading the article or grasping the goals of the assignment would be a terrible idea. But waiting to write a thesis until you have a clear understanding of the task will mean that you won’t use writing as a way of figuring out that task and that you won’t be practicing crucial writing skills. This is where Hayton loses me. Most thesis writers that I see—from across all disciplines—need to write more, not less. Bad writing, of a sort, will come from early writing, but so will a growing understanding of the underlying issues. The key is accepting that early writing will take work or may even be unusable.

What about Hayton’s claim that early writing gets us into the bad habit of writing without finishing? I’m afraid I can’t see any way that makes sense. So much of academic writing is part of a process that will lack an immediate connection to finishing. (Blogging, it must be said, is awesome for the amount of finishing there is.) Writing is common; finishing is rare. And the one thing that would improve the lives of most of the academic writers I know is the habit of writing. Comfort with the writing process gives us confidence and creativity. We can experiment and push ourselves and avoid writer’s block. In my view, cultivating the habit of writing tops the list of reasons to write early.

I’m also a little uneasy with Hayton’s tone. While he began his post with a genial statement about his own willingness to be corrected, he also expressed a clear commitment to an approach to writing and research that transcends disciplinary difference. I am always concerned when advice to graduate students is both highly contentious and narrowly informed. To put it simply, I have no problem with Hayton relating an anecdote about writing too early in an attempt to impress, an anecdote that I am sure will resonate with lots of people; I do object to his suggestion that this possibility is a reason why others—who might have very different motivations—should not be writing early. Overall, I think it is important to give doctoral writing advice that is limited and that helps novice academic writers to understand their disciplinary conventions and their own temperament as writers. I think Hayton does his own argument a disservice by overextending it; taking his experience with scientific writing and suggesting that he has a cure for what ails the humanities is an over-reach that threatens to undermines the value of his insights.

All that said, I do think Hayton sounds a useful note of caution about the call to write early. If you write early, you need to be aware of two things. First, you need to understand that your fundamental task will be to make your thinking concrete in order to allow you to advance that thinking; if you make the mistake of trying to create the final product too soon, you will probably be frustrated. Some students do write ‘too early’ in the sense that they try to create a finished product too soon; early writing, in my view, must be characterized by a certain openness, a willingness to change, discard, and move into new and more productive directions. Second, when you are writing as a process, you need to be able to work with the product. Hayton is right that there is always an artifact of the act of writing, and we all need strategies for doing something with that artifact. If we lack those strategies, we may end up in the situation he describes: with a messy provisional document that is—in its current form—unusable. But rather than concluding that we should put off writing, I would argue that we should deepen our understanding of the writing task. We should be writing early and writing often because doing so can deepen our intellectual insights and strengthen our writing skills.

*James Hayton has removed his original post from The Thesis Whisperer site; he explains his reasons for doing so in a comment below. You can find a helpful list of all his posts on his own site here.

 

Putting it in Your Own Words

My six-year-old son loves this blog. Well, not the actual blog itself, but the stats page. And he’s merciless about slow days. On Sunday mornings, he will often report, in a tone of morbid satisfaction, “Only nine views! You are doing terrible today!”. (I hope in your head you can hear the word ‘terrible’ being stretched out for maximum emphasis.) He understands that the spikes in activity—which are the whole point, to his quantitative way of thinking—are caused by new posts, so his suggestion is usually that I should sit right down and write something. Unfortunately, his desire for me to write is in direct conflict for his desire for me to play endless games of Monopoly. Even more unfortunately, I don’t have the heart to tell him that blogging is actually way more fun than Monopoly.

Given all this, you can imagine his pleasure when I told him that I might be able to use a new joke he’d repeated to me in the blog. Here goes:

Q: How can you fit a 10 page article on milk into 5 pages?

A: You condense it!

Hilarious, right? Welcome to my summer vacation!

As summer vacation slowly turns into preparation for fall, I’ve been mulling over how to improve the way I teach one of my least favourite topics: paraphrasing. I’m sure my discomfort with this topic is connected to the fact that paraphrasing necessarily brings up issues of plagiarism, a topic that we all feel anxious about. The immediate stakes are high for students when I talk about effective paraphrasing, in a way that isn’t the case with discussions of transitions, semicolons, or strong verbs. If I’m wrong about those topics or even if I just do a poor job explaining my intent, the implications aren’t particularly significant. But if I handle paraphrasing badly in the classroom, a student might go on to provide a weak paraphrase in their own writing, an act that can have consequences.

It is also the case that explaining a good paraphrase can be pretty hard to do; even if you ‘know one when you see one’, it can be hard to craft enduring principles to use in future writing situations. The classroom conversation often ends up centred around whether sufficient changes have been made. This is a legitimate issue for students to worry about, but I think that the notion of ‘sufficient changes’ is ultimately a problematic one. Conceiving of any writing task as a matter of making sufficient changes to someone else’s text seems risky to me.

To address this risk, I like to shift the focus away from the whole notion of making sufficient changes. Of course, the idea of putting something into your own words is a commonplace in academic writing, but I think the resultant emphasis on changing words can lead students to feel that they are engaging in a meaningless technical task. What’s worse, students who don’t write in English as their first language often feel that they end up with something less elegant and effective than the original formulation. But what if we were to think less about word or phrase replacement and more about how we can effectively use someone else’s ideas in our research; that is, not so much just ‘put it in your own words’ as ‘reframe the idea in your own words so that it helps you to explain your research aims’.

For sound advice on paraphrasing, you can try the OWL at Purdue site or the Writing at U of T site. In keeping with my advice to think about paraphrasing as part of a broader issues of talking about the literature, I also suggest looking the Academic Phrasebank from the University of Manchester. This site is one of my favourites, and I will return to a discussion of its many merits another time. For now, I point to it because it provides a helpful range of ways to talk about the scholarly  literature. Asking ourselves why we are talking about another person’s work is often the first step to deciding how to phrase our explication of that work. The Phrasebank, by offering a range of sentence templates, can help us to decide whether we are interested in a text because of its author, its methodology, its topic, its time frame, etc. Those decisions can help us with the broader issue of how to structure a lit review, but they can also help us talk effectively about other people’s work at the sentence level.