Tag Archives: Scholarly publishing

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.

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AcWriMo is At Hand!

November is Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), an entire month devoted to the fostering of academic writing, brought to us by the great people at PhD2Published. If you’re bothering to read this blog, academic writing is already central to your life. You may even feel a little sceptical about a month dedicated to academic writing. Academic Writing Year (or Decade) might seem more accurate. Isn’t the creation of ‘days’ and ‘weeks’ and ‘months’ just about raising awareness or raising money? Most of us are all too aware of academic writing, since we think about it all the time. And we know it won’t make us any money. So what is the value of assigning a month to academic writing?

The value, in my opinion, comes from the way that AcWriMo leads to so much talking about writing. Talking about how badly it’s going. Talking about how great it’s going. Talking about the reasons—the totally legitimate reasons and the slightly suspect ones—that we haven’t written enough. Talking about the new strategy that has made a difference to our writing. All this talk means that academic writing isn’t hidden away. Instead, it is out in the open, and this openness makes it harder to believe that our writing struggles are a sign of our own uniquely deficient selves. When you are exposed to a lot of chatter about academic writing, you quickly learn that most people think they are ‘bad at it’. Over the course of the coming month, we will see evidence that most people are either struggling to write enough or else managing to write enough by employing some sort of strategic gambit such as software, time management approach, peer support, or unholy external pressure.

This evidence acts as a useful reminder that academic writing is consistently difficult; our weaknesses are not primarily the result of a lack of will power or ambition. In fact, most academic writers are trying extremely hard to do consistently challenging tasks. Even leaving aside the tremendous time constraints that many academic writers face, the act of academic writing is inherently hard. AcWriMo is a chance to prioritize writing and to do so in an instant community. On the road to becoming successful academic writers, I think we can all benefit from the honest company of our peers.

The people at PhD2Published explain AcWriMo in six simple rulesDecide on your goal. Declare it! Draft a strategy. Discuss your progress. Don’t slack off. Declare your results. We can all do that, right? The key to making AcWriMo work, in my estimation, is to be sure that it is different than any other month. Here’s my take on the three adjustments that can help make AcWriMo valuable:

Set manageable goals: In real life, many of us have vague and/or unrealistic writing goals, leading us to write consistently less than we want to. AcWriMo is about facilitating your ability to write the amount that you need to write this month. It is essential that your goals fit your time and objectives. I’ve already seen people on Twitter worrying that they’re not able to aim ‘high enough’. There is no high enough: the goal of this month doesn’t have to be spending more time on writing than makes sense in your life right now. Make this the month that you get reasonably close to the smart and accurate goals that you set for yourself. 

Tell everyone: This imperative is one of the best ways that AcWriMo is different than other times. We usually avoid complete honesty with total strangers about our writing goals and productivity. But the single biggest academic writing problem—in my experience, anyway—is the way that it slips noiselessly down our to-do list, elbowed out by the clamour of the everyday. The email, the marking, the student appointments, the meetings. Those things all make themselves heard, and we conscientiously attend to them while neglecting writing. Declaring our goals can help us to move writing into the must-do category. Telling everyone also means telling everyone how we are managing as the month goes on. This decision to keep in touch with a community of academic writers online is also probably the most dicey part of AcWriMo. For some of us, getting more writing done and spending more time on social media will feel like incompatible goals. Be aware of the line between finding community and squandering valuable writing time; the fruitfulness of the online writing community means that it is easy to spend too much time there without feeling like you are procrastinating.

Be strategic: Another important difference is that you can’t approach AcWriMo the same way you’ve always approached writing. If writing is going to be better for you this month, what strategies will you employ to make that happen? A writing group? Timed writing sessions (à la Pomodoro)? Rearranging some aspect of your working schedule to make writing more prominent? The strategies will be different for each person, but the key is making a change that will allow for more productivity.

Still interested? The accountability spreadsheet is the easiest way of getting started. If you are not sure how best to structure your goals, you can scroll through to see what other people—like me!—have planned. You can also declare your intentions on Twitter, using the hashtag #AcWriMo. Any questions? Feel free to ask in the comments below or on Twitter. Good luck everyone—I look forward to writing with you!

My AcWriMo announcement post from 2012
My AcWriMo reflections post from 2012

Links: Germano’s Snow Globes

Sometimes I choose articles for my links posts because I have something particular that I want to add to the topic. This week, however, I just want to be sure that as many people as possible see this great piece by William Germano. Even the title is interesting: Do We Dare Write for Readers? Germano, as most of you will know, is a wonderful writer and an insightful analyst of developments in academic writing and publishing. In this piece, he discusses the role of the reader and the way that academic writing, as it is often practiced, fails to serve that reader well. His analysis is informed by recent technological shifts in the way we read, but I think his argument would work just as well without the historical specificity: academic writing that strives for complete self-sufficiency can end up excluding the reader to the detriment of its overall vitality.

To convey this point, Germano characterizes academic writing as a snow globe: a smooth impermeable shell over a carefully staged scene with limited action. What I love about the snow globe image is the way it conveys the sealed-off quality of so much academic prose. Have you ever gotten inside a snow globe? Me either, but you can imagine that the experience would be messy and toxic, rather than interactive or instructive. Germano wants to supplant this notion of academic writing as artifact with a more dynamic notion of academic writing as a tool. A tool, of course, is something the reader can use, something that, as he says, “has consequence”. Germano uses the image of a machine to convey the more dynamic sense of writing as a tool. In keeping with his souvenir motif, I immediately found myself thinking of it instead as a map, one of those ones with a route traced out with little stylized footprints. A map of this sort tells its audience the truth as the creator understands it and yet leaves room for the audience to use that truth as it sees fit.

Germano concludes his piece by describing his conception of academic writing as less polished and more engaging:

I’m advocating for a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production, but not for sloppiness. I’m convinced, though, that the scholarly book that keeps you awake at night thinking through ideas and possibilities unarticulated in the text itself is the book worth reading. It may be that the best form a book can take—even an academic book—is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry for which the reader’s own intelligence can alone provide the unwritten chapters.

It’s a challenging model, especially for novice academic writers who may be looking to replicate rather than challenge existing norms. But it’s also a compelling vision of writing as essentially open to what it does not itself contain. And however we choose to orient ourselves to this issue, we will be better writers for having reflected on Germano’s artful elaboration of the tensions within academic writing.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @scilogscom, an interesting account of the many ways in which jargon is a relative term.

Congratulations to the U of T participants in the Ontario Three Minute Thesis competition. Well done! 

From @nprnews, using ‘yo’ as a gender neutral pronoun: ‘Yo’ Said What?

From @evalantsoght, the different types of writing we can do ‘from day one’.  My take on writing early.

I’ll believe anything that advises me to get more sleep! From @GradHacker: Sleep in Graduate School.

From Lingua Franca, a very fun post on ‘slash’ as a written out form of punctuation.

From @NewYorker, a lyrical account of the existential mystery at the heart of the decision to do a doctorate.

From @literarychica, a great post on the dearth of options for writing support for doctoral writers.

From @ProfHacker, a profile of the Digital Public Library of America.

From William Germano, a must-read on academic writingCalling for writing that is engaging, open, and consequential.

From @ThomsonPat, part two of her discussion of PhD by publication.

From @ThomsonPat, an important post on the shift towards ‘PhD by publication‘ and the role of the integrated thesis.

From Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint blog, insightful advice on words that may betray a weakness in presentation slides.

From @DocwritingSIG, thoughts on writing the acknowledgement section of your thesis.

From @fishhookopeneye, helpful advice on how to explain academic work experience in a non-academic world.

From Lingua Franca, William Germano addresses the question of academic titles and rank.

From @sciam, encouraging graduate students to blog for the good of their writing. 

From @evalantsoght, a list of common mistakes. Every thesis writer should be keeping a list like this!

From @chronicle, “Why STEM Should Care about the Humanities”.

From @GradHacker, advice on thinking strategically during graduate study: going beyond ‘creativity and hard work’.

From @UVenus, interesting reflections on different models for publishing doctoral dissertations.

A question about originality posed to Leiter Reports generates an interesting conversation in the comments.

From @tressiemcphd, a great analysis of why “don’t go to graduate school” is problematic as a blanket prescription.

From @qui_oui, an excellent post on what it means to say that we are producing ‘too many PhDs‘.

Love this @ProfHacker post on Inbox Zero. It’s not about the Zero, it’s about limiting the power of the Inbox.

The Pace of Academic Writing

Chances are, if I praise a graduate student’s writing, I will hear something like this:

“Thanks, but it takes me so long.”

“It should be good, I worked on those two pages for three weeks.”

“Sure, but I’ll never be able to write a full thesis at this pace.”

It is rare, as I discussed last week, for anyone to express contentment with their academic writing. And it is common for those who have produced something they are happy with to feel that they spent too much time on it. Since the amount of time spent on writing is such a common concern, I thought I would suggest a few ways to think about the pace of academic writing:

1. Try to speed up by working towards a first draft without allowing yourself any early editing. There are, of course, many different strategies for making the initial drafting process more fluid. Even if you aren’t going to use a true freewriting approach, you can still force yourself to keep moving forward without giving your inner critic a chance to mess you up. Since writing more freely can leave us with a more chaotic document, I recommend using the ‘rough edit’ approach to make sure that you’ll be able to work with your text later.

2. Try to appreciate that writing simply is often a slow process. To figure out what we need to say, most of us have to produce a lot of words that may not end up in our final document. If you view that creative process as simply inefficient, you may end up feeling that your writing process is too slow; if, instead, you try to think about that process as both positive and inevitable, you may be able to change your own attitude towards efficiency and efficacy in your writing process. Since it can be hard to pull the plug on ‘perfectly good writing’, I suggest creating a repository for material that doesn’t appear to have a long-term future in your text.

3. Try to see how speed differs depending on what you are writing. Some aspects of your writing will take a long time, while others will yield to your attempts to speed up. Unfortunately, starting—for many people—can be the slowest part. These initial molasses moments can be frustrating in and of themselves and can also lead writers to extrapolate a dismal future: if it took me this long to write this much, my entire thesis will take a million years. Understanding and accepting the slow start without projecting the same pace throughout can help you persevere.

4. Try to identify the appropriate amount of time in the context of a given project. In other words, maybe there isn’t such a thing as too fast or too slow. Instead, it may be helpful to do a serious accounting of how much time you can give to a particular project. Some parts of our writing will simply take longer to write. But the pace of writing can also be affected by the amount of time we have; we may write the first three-quarters of something at a leisurely—or even torturous pace—only to find ourselves with no option except to pick up the pace to meet a deadline. This pattern can be instructive since it lets us know just how fast we can write. It also highlights the value of apportioning our time more rationally. The end stages of writing are the most significant, and we don’t want to shortchange them just because we are out of time.

If you do want to write more quickly—and again I’m not sure that is always the best aim—I suggest starting with your own writing temperament rather than with someone else’s notion of productivity. Last year, as Academic Writing Month wound down, I wrote a post in which I tried to provide an example of how to reflect on one’s own writing challenges. Once you have a better understanding of your own writing predilections and pitfalls, you can then take advantage of other people’s insights into productivity. Much of that advice will fall flat if it is taken as abstract truth; instead, we all need to figure out what productivity means to us and what strategies will get us where we need to go. The best pace for you may be faster or slower or some combination of the two depending on your writing temperament and the demands of the particular project.

Writing and Enjoyment

A recent post on the Doctoral Writing SIG blog addresses the idea of writing aversion. In this post, Susan Carter discusses her work with an academic who has an actual phobia of writing. Most of us don’t have such a dramatic disinclination towards writing, but it’s still rare to find much in the way of real enthusiasm. And this general lack of enthusiasm poses an interesting teaching challenge. What is the best tone to take when discussing an activity that has such high stakes and that poses so many emotional and intellectual challenges? Obviously, an important and difficult task like writing isn’t best met with mindless positivity. But reflexive negativity can have costs, too.

If I focus on that half-full glass, I know that I run the risk of annoying graduate student writers by potentially minimizing a genuine struggle. The last thing most graduate student writers need to hear is how super fun writing can be. Indeed, telling the truth about the difficulties inherent in academic writing is essential. Students will often tell me at the end of a course that they hadn’t previously realized that others were struggling as much as they were; they clearly value the opportunity to get away from their usual disciplinary spaces to a place where the real challenges of academic communication can be discussed honestly. Even if I accomplish nothing else as a writing teacher, letting novice writers know that everyone struggles with writing is worthwhile.

While I’m in favour of this sort of honesty about the writing process, I have no wish to contribute to a dismissive attitude. If you can’t talk about a love of writing in a writing classroom, where can you? In part, I’m looking to disrupt any narrative that equates unhappiness with profundity. Loving to write does not preclude taking it seriously or doing it well; writing needn’t necessarily involve opening a vein. The writing classroom should be a place where enjoyment of the writing process gets discussed. It should also be a place where the centrality of writing to the academic endeavour is acknowledged. Not everyone needs to love writing, but everyone who is heading down a career path based on writing needs to make their peace with it.

There is a natural middle path here: the pleasures of the writing process and its challenges are two sides to the same coin. To talk about the pleasure is not to deny the pain. But for those who are sure that writing is just a necessary evil, any discussion of enjoyment can seem naive. I recognize, of course, that academic writing is not an engine that will run on love alone. The hard work of writing needs to go on  with or without inspiration, but that doesn’t mean we can’t approach it as a crucial professional commitment that must be something more than just an unfortunate obstacle. I’d love to hear how others talk about the writing process in a way that respects the inevitable frustrations without giving in to a narrative of negativity.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @ThomsonPat, using your allotted word count well in order to meet the needs of your reader.

From @DocwritingSIG, developing good habits of academic writing early in graduate study.

From Inside Higher Ed, thoughts on automated grading of student writing.

From Lingua Franca, Geoffrey Pullum explains his distrust of Orwell on the topic of clear writing.

From @StanCarey writing in @MacDictionary blog, a great post on ‘whom’: where it will fade and where it will persist.

From Inside Higher Ed, advice on making writing instruction part of all undergraduate instruction: Teaching Writing Is Your Job.

From @ProfHacker, a set of questions to help us be more mindful in our pursuit of productivity.

From @ThomsonPat, a discussion of the politics of characterizing the practical impact of your scholarly work.

From Lingua Franca, a great look at an editorial prejudice:  can you have an ‘on the other hand’ without an ‘on the one hand’?

From @scholarlykitchn, a consideration of the new relationship between Elsevier and Mendeley.

From @cplong, an interesting post on using Twitter for collaborative note taking during presentations.

While I don’t entirely agree with this take on academic writing, the reminder about the author’s role in constructing meaning is apt.

From @OnlinePhDProgs, a great list of thesis and dissertation resources.

I think this is an interesting idea: Taking a Class I Usually Teach

From @UVenus, the relationship between inspiration and distraction.

From @evalantsoght in @GradHacker, good advice on working with an unmanageable amount of scholarly literature.

From Henry Hitchings in the New York Times, a nuanced take on nominalizations: what they are and why we use them.

From @AltAcademix, advice on what to do if you are “alt-ac curious” during graduate school.

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!

 ♦

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’.

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.