Talking yourself up: Being bold in sharing your work (and self) with the world

I am launching my first sole-authored book online tomorrow. I am half excited and half terrified. What if people don’t like it? (Read, what if they don’t like me – my ideas, my arguments). What if they just don’t come at all? I have been promoting it on Twitter and Facebook, I have been writing to journal editors, I have created a ‘Featured Authors’ profile on the publisher’s website and even made a YouTube video about the book. I do want people to read it and get out of it something of what I tried to put into it for them. But all this publicity stuff and talking up the book and the contribution I think it could make is not something that comes easily. It does require a conscious boldness on my part and some stern self-talk; I suspect that I am not alone in this.

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Many people struggle to talk up their achievements in public spaces. This is gendered, with women struggling more than men, on average, to ‘blow their own trumpets’. Certainly, this is also affected by ‘race’ and position in the academy; spend any time on academic Twitter and you will see that early career and postdoc scholars and Black scholars and women don’t feel quite as comfortable sharing their achievements as widely as men (especially men in positions of power/influence) do. There’s a whole book or more about why this is so, but for me it goes back to being told when I was little and then at school and then at university, that sharing my achievements was ‘bragging’ and that this was not what polite women did. There was something a bit ugly and unbecoming about telling people about things you had done well, or achieved something great: these ‘gifts’ should be received with modesty and humility, rather than ‘boastful pride’. Don’t take up too much space or be too loud or too full of yourself and people may let you stay. This has to do with belonging: if you are trying to get access to a space you have not historically ‘belonged to’, if being there is seen by those who have always belonged as some kind of transgression or aberration, it is even harder to take up that space, claim it, be in it as fully and comfortably as those who are already there.

This is, of course, a problem in higher education environments and spaces, and also wider social environments and spaces, because it creates limitations: limited diversity of voices, knowledge, ways of being in the world, limited representation of those who are women and/or Black and/or early career and/or disabled and/or LGBTQ+ and/or not what counts as the ‘status quo’ or a member of the dominant group in that education and/or social space. These limitations and silences protect, rather than challenge, unequal statuses quo that value some knowledges and voices and ways of being more than others. If we don’t work actively and consciously to change that, these inequities and silences are likely to continue. One of the ways we can do this is by telling people about who we are and what we do and why it matters, especially if we are part of one or more of the groups that is not the dominant one. We can also follow, connect with and amplify the work and contributions and people who are reshaping, challenging and changing the dominant ‘way things are and have always been’ in our contexts. In academia, we can start changing the way we organise events and conferences, consciously choosing speakers and panelists who represent a greater diversity of listeners and knowers in that context. We can seek out, read and cite the work of women scholars, Black scholars, scholars from the Global South, scholars who help us widen our understandings of the world and challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions and ways of being or knowing.

This work requires emotional labour and emotion work though, so it is not easy. Emotional labour, in a sound bite, is explained by Arlie Russell-Hochschild as the work we do with and for others – putting on a brave face when we don’t feel brave, arranging ourselves to take up less space when we sense that we need to be smaller, being polite in the face of rudeness so as to keep the peace or not be seen as ‘difficult’. Emotion work is the work that we do with ourselves, self-talk about our work or our relationships or ourselves – positive and negative and everything in between. These two forms of labour are connected because what we tell ourselves (you can’t brag too much about this book, just be modest, you’re being too ‘big’ and ‘loud’ about this) will affect how we relate to others (I wrote this book but you don’t have to read it, it’s not that great, just leave it, forget I said anything, I’ll be quiet now). One of things I have been working on is changing my self-talk: telling people that I wrote something or did something or achieved something that I am proud of, that represents hard work and effort, that I believe in is not ‘being too big for my boots’ or any such nonsense. Telling myself that I can just be me and that is more than enough and I don’t need to bend and break myself to fit other people’s shapes and ideas of who I should be. I am allowed to be (proud of) myself; I am allowed to share that and revel in this achievement for a while.

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But, I am constantly mindful, in becoming more conscious of these shifts in both my own inward-facing emotion work and my outward facing emotional labour, that I need to be part of creating and widening spaces for others who struggle as much as or more than I do to belong and to shift the status quo because of contemporary and/or historical inequalities and discriminations. I need to make sure that my own colleagues and students don’t have to do unfair and unnecessary emotional labour and emotion work in relation to me and my reactions to their work. I need to be mindful of creating more consciously equitable supervision spaces for and with my students and collaborative spaces for and with my colleagues. It is important to amplify the work and the voices of other women, Black colleagues, Queer colleagues and more, but it is not enough to do that as performance of creating more equitable environments in which we can all work and live. We have to move further to actually change the spaces in which we live and work so that, down time, we don’t have to work as consciously to amplify these voices and the knowledges and ways of knowing they represent and share. Many different people, knowledges and voices will belong and be visible and valued. I am starting to really think about this in relation to new research I am trying to embark on.

For the time being, I am going to keep working on me: on becoming more conscious of the spaces I create for myself and also for students, peers, colleagues I work with to take up more space, to be loud and proud about our work and ourselves and our contributions; on actively seeking out and sharing the work of those who challenge me and encourage or exhort me to critique myself and the world around me; on learning as I go and being open to that, even as it poses emotional challenges and new labours and work.

Coping with rejection, criticism and self-doubt: making academia kinder

I have read a few threads recently on Twitter and in academic Facebook groups I am part of about rejection and criticism, especially how to cope with both and not become beaten down, sad and hopeless. I was directed to a lovely article by Evelyn Deplazes on LinkedIn about this, which started me thinking about this issue. Also, I have a book coming out next month and I can already feel myself tensing for the critique and criticism, for the people who don’t like what I have to say. I am half terrified and half excited to share this book.

Generally, I don’t deal with criticism of my writing well. I am much better, now, at actually opening emails from editors are reading feedback at least a few days after they arrive (rather than avoiding these emails for a week or more), and after the initial shock of the more negative issues or big changes, I can make myself step back, look afresh at the paper, and see how and how much the feedback can improve my thinking and often my actual writing, too (all those commas and long sentences!). But, I have a tendency to obsess about the meaner things that are said about my writing, especially when they are not said with care or concern for helping me be better. One reviewer, several years ago now, commented that my long sentences felt “hectoring” and even counted the words in one. (There were a lot, let’s not go into that now). But, even though we revised that paper and the revisions were not huge or very hard to do in the end, that comment, and others like it over the years, stayed with me. They are part of the story I tell myself about who I am as a writer and a thinker.

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In Evelyn’s article, she argues that taking this step back and seeing that you are not your ideas is a crucial part of managing criticism and rejection in academia and supporting your own mental wellness and resilience. This is a hard one, though, for many researchers. My ideas, my arguments are what I believe and what I think. I am, like so many researchers, deeply invested in and passionate about what I write. Why else would I spend so much time on it? So, when my ideas are critiqued and even rejected, I feel personally criticised and also rejected. I feel, in that initial read of the reviewer reports, like they are saying: ‘You are not (yet) good enough’, rather than ‘Your ideas and arguments are not (yet) good enough’. Managing this and not getting swept up in spirals of negative self-talk means that learning to separate your self from your ideas is important. You are not your ideas. They are part of you, but not the whole, and there are always ways to make your writing and thinking sharper, clearer, deeper, better expressed. Hearing that your ideas need some work is not the same as hearing that you are not good enough.

Another thing Evelyn mentions is that old adage in academia about the fact that rejection and criticism is part of the ‘game’ so you’d better grow a thicker skin. She comments – and I am with her on this one – that being vulnerable and kind is part of how she is an academic, so the idea of ‘growing a thicker skin’ doesn’t feel like her or something she would want to do. I, too, prefer (as you can probably tell if you are a regular reader of this blog) to choose kindness over indifference and vulnerability over a stiff upper lip. I don’t have a very thick skin, which is something I regard as a strength in my work, rather than a weakness. It enables me to connect with a greater diversity of students and peers with empathy, rather than moving through my career impervious to the needs and struggles of others. I don’t want to be impervious. Even though the hurt of rejection and criticism is hard to feel and work through, I would rather feel that than not. I think academia as a whole is far too indifferent and impervious, and has forgotten how to be kind, empathetic and vulnerable. I think this is a problem, seen in large part in the significant increases in stress, burnout, mental health crises, and the general unhappiness of many students, lecturers and university leaders across the global North and South. We don’t need thicker skins to cope with academia; academia needs to become more mindful, kinder, more just and fair.

My part in this, as a teacher/reviewer/assessor/supervisor of diverse groups of postgraduate, postdoctoral and early career writers, is to be mindful and kind. Kindness, as I have reflected on here, is not the same as niceness. My feedback may be tough at times, but it is not mean. In my mind, mean feedback does not try to help the writer see a way to a better idea, a sharper focus, a clearer way of expressing their arguments. Mean feedback is cutting, unconstructive, brusque. It may be easier to write and take less time and emotional or mental energy, but its effect on writers is usually negative, hurtful and demotivating. What’s the point of that? To weed out the ‘weak’ who probably should not be part of academia? When did this become a version of Survivor? I have no interest in being part of that mindset. I try, even as I sometimes get it wrong, to be kind and honest, to offer advice, choices and opportunities for improvement. Even when a paper is not ready for publication or a chapter needs a lot more work, the aim has to be to offer the kinds of advice and feedback that a writer can use to get to that goal – a published paper, a completed thesis chapter (and thesis, eventually) – in the process learning to become a better writer and thinker. This has been my model, from my own supervisor, from colleagues I teach and supervise with, from many of the peer reviewers who are part of journals I have worked on. These inputs have made – are making – me a better teacher, researcher, person and I am so grateful for it.

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So, my job, as I see it, is to pay it forward; I think this is a job for all of us. If you struggled, why not use what you have learned to make someone else’s struggle less awful? If you had it really tough, does that mean your students have to walk that same road? Wouldn’t you have liked someone to come along and make the tough road smoother or at least be a supportive companion? We may feel like academia is too big to make any meaningful changes. The system, structures and cultures need to change, for sure, and this requires much more than just individual efforts. But, I believe that in the lives of students, grant applicants, article or book/chapter writers, offering a kinder, more constructive, considerate approach to giving feedback and issuing rejection letters, which are not unavoidable, can go a long way, over time, to creating a more just, fair, kinder version of academia that we can all be a meaningful part of.

The exhaustion is real: a different kind of ‘ new years’ post

It’s January. A new year. New things to do and people to teach and papers to write and lessons to learn. Not, it seems, new places to go, unless I somehow find a space in my house I’ve never spent time in before (maybe the storage space/Harry Potter cupboard under the stairs might count?). And not, it seems so far, new energy and verve. I am tired. I have wished people happy new year in emails and in WhatsApps, because that’s the thing you do each January, and because I want it to be a happy new year. What am I going to write instead: Here’s hoping it’s less shite than last year? Holding thumbs that we all make it? This, as you may have guessed it, is not a typical ‘here’s to the new year’ post. But, I need to write it. And I hope it helps you if you are in a similar boat.

Usually, a couple of weeks of hard relaxing in December and early January – gin & tonic sundowners in the pool, feet up and head buried in a novel, walks and long lunches with friends, alone time, your pick here – are enough to recharge the tired batteries and give me a boost for the new work and life year. I come back ready to pick it all up again and get going. But, this year has been different. My two weeks was not long enough by any means, and the relaxing was curbed by a super-stressful news cycle here and abroad that was hard to turn off, kids missing their friends and unable to really socialise, adults missing their friends and unable to really socialise. It wasn’t very relaxing, really. So, I started January much the same way I ended November and December: tired, a bit sad, flat, cynical, angry. And I’m struggling to let go of those negative emotions and get excited about this work and life year. It all just feels like too much. And in the face of so much global panic and stress and dying animal and plant species and awful people and divisive racism, sexism, homophobia and violence – it’s like: What am I doing? No one needs another paper on higher education or another project or another blog post or another anything I do. Who cares? The world is on fire. I’m going back to bed. Wake me when it’s over. Except it feels like maybe it’ll never be over. The pandemic will – please gods – end at some point, but climate change? Racism? Misogyny? Divisive rhetoric, misinformation, disinformation, people just being horrible to each other – when will all of that end? Will it? And what I am doing about any of it that matters?

I have this lovely warrior friend who joins these awful groups on social media spouting nonsense about microchips in vaccines and satanic cabals stealing children and controlling Washington and more awfulness, and she takes on the liars and spreaders of disinformation and challenges them and tries to give them different information (truth and evidence, mainly). It is so inspiring. I am in awe of her ability to do that. I cannot. I just don’t have the mental strength to take on wilfully ignorant and stupid people whose lies and divisive rhetoric are quite literally doing harm to real people in the world. But, I feel like I should be doing something like that: not staying silent to protect my mental health, but being brave and taking on some of the awfulness and trying to challenge it, change it, at the very least add my voice. It is hard to be human when that means, as Glennon Doyle argues, advocating for others to have everything you want for yourself, not seeing yourself in competition with everyone else for rights, resources, citations, students, awards, recognition, but seeing yourself as an ally, a co-traveller, at the very least, a co-human. It feels, most days, like it takes more and more emotional and mental energy to be present, to be engaged … to be awake and dressed.

I cannot go back to bed. I have kids and students and courses to teach and papers to write and thesis projects to supervise and a journal to manage and people to talk to and be present for and with, albeit online. I cannot stop doing what I do – I cannot stop being me. So, what do I do? How do I turn this from ‘Here’s hoping but I’m not holding my breath’ to ‘Happy new year, let’s make it a good one’? How do I find meaning and purpose in the midst of so much chaos and mess and sadness and loss all around me, around us? How do I – we – hold on?

Well, I started by writing this, and in doing so by tacitly asking you to indulge me as you read it, because I needed to get this out of my head and heart and I don’t currently have a therapist. So, blog therapy. I drew a picture of what I want my inner PhDgirl to look and feel like going forward. I am acknowledging that, right now, I am not okay. But I want to be. I am tired, but I want to be energised and excited about my work and my life. I have said ‘yes’ to teaching and writing projects that I currently feel overwhelmed by, because I know they will add shape and meaning to my life and will give me something positive and energising to focus on and goals to work towards. I took a day on Thursday to have a swim, play silly games on my phone, and watch Netflix. I did not check email. I did not make myself feel bad about that. I am no longer telling myself I am behind. I am where I am, and that has to be okay so that I will be okay. I cannot live on a hamster wheel anymore, even one of my own making. I want to choose to make myself a priority in my own life and I want to stop apologising for that. So, I’m starting today. I am going to write this post and publish it, even though the shame voice in my head is saying ‘TMI! No one wants to read this self-indulgent crap! Just suck it up and get on with it!’ I don’t want to do that anymore. If last year taught us anything, it has to that it is okay to not be okay and it is okay to say ‘I was wrong but I am open to learning’ and it is okay to ask for help and take it and be grateful that there are people who care enough to help.

So, here we go, into a new year. I read somewhere on social media that January is the 13th month of 2020, so that means new year’s day in actually Monday, February 1st. I like that – it gives me a bit more time to work through some of this exhaustion and meh-ness so that I can really start this year with more energy and purpose than I feel right now. I do wish us all a happier new year, a safer and healthier new year, a less isolated and lonely new year. Thank you for reading this, and for being part of my global tribe. Your support means more than I can say.

The year 2020 in writing and research: a review (of sorts)

At the end of the year for the last few years I have written a “what I learned about writing this year’ kind of post (see here for 2019, for example). But, this year has been quite unusual in many respects, not least because after March, all bets were off for meeting early writing goals and Being Productive on the research front. Some people has a super-productive year, if my Twitter feed is to be believed, but this was not the case for many and I include myself in this group. This post, then, is a musing on the year that has been, and a stock-taking review of sorts.

I started this year sending off a full draft of my book to colleagues for peer review, and thought: Fabulous! That’s Done. Now I’ll write All The Other Things in my queue (mostly co-authored papers with students and colleagues and starting a new research project – long reading list – and applying for ethical clearance so I can start gathering data – yay). First thing, the book was by no means done (what was I thinking?). It came back in May with lots of constructive critique, which was great but also meant a whole-book revision and some rewriting and new writing and reading. This was now 2 months into Lockdown, and the world was a whole new place. I was moving all my teaching online, which was so much more work than I thought it would be, preparing to teach a Master’s module online, and trying to make my children do their schoolwork at home and not watch YouTube and play online games all day. So, the paper writing and new research reading I had started was paused (really stopped, but let’s say paused ’cause it sounds better).

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Second thing, do you know how long reading brand new theory and substantive research takes? I didn’t. I should have, having done an MA and a PhD in the last 15 years. But, somehow, I forgot that reading with concentration, and reading Theory, is flipping hard. It takes time and energy, and by the time I had revised the whole book and sent it to the series editor in July, both were in short supply. So, there was more pausing and putting the new project off, and I couldn’t do fieldwork anyway, so it was all moot, it felt like. The book came back, more revisions and corrections, more emotional and mental energy. But, by now my kids were back at school at least part of the week, so the homeschooling was a bit easier, and my lovely co-author was teaching a full semester online and I was teaching two professional development courses alongside the MA module. So she didn’t mind pausing the paper a bit (or a lot) longer. Writing and research, what’s that? Just making myself wash my hair and get out of my PJs for Zooms-with-no-cameras was a lot, most days, in August and September.

The book went back in August and passed muster, and then went off to production. Big milestone. Big relief. But short-lived. It came back rather quickly, copyedited, and the whole thing – all 177 pages – had to be re-read very carefully and corrected, edited, checked. There were many long-sentences I missed as well as puzzling typos and referencing mistakes. That was hard. I read that manuscript just hating it and feeling very strongly that no one would want to buy it, let alone read it, and what on earth possessed me to believe I could write a book? I really dragged myself through the revisions and sent it back. But, the process of doing that oddly gave me a second wind for working on the one paper I had paused earlier in the year. It helped that my teaching and marking had started winding down, too, in early November. We signed up to present a work-in-progress at an online colloquium, which gave us both a bit of a boost. Although it now all on hold again, because we are pretty finished in terms of energy and brain-power.

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So, now it is December and I am three days away from activating my out-of-office on 3 email acccounts, after which I will be deleting my social media apps and my gmail app from my phone for the 2.5 weeks I am on leave. Last night at 10pm I sent back the proofs and index for the book – I had to read the whole thing again and make more corrections and comments – and it’s back in the production queue. The co-authored paper is still in a paused state, but the argument is becoming less opaque and we hope, with fresher brains, we can finish it early next year. The new research project is not anywhere, really – no further along than it was this time last year. Maybe 2021 will be more productive on that front now that the book is done and that research chapter is effectively closed. As to the other papers in the queue? I don’t know. I have no idea what next year will look like. Am I still going to be teaching online all year, part of the year? Will I be allowed or brave enough to travel? I know I will have to make time to promote my book – I have no idea what that will look like yet as South African university campuses have not announced clear plans for being “back at work” in any kind of old-normal way yet. Just thinking about that makes me want to take a long nap.

I am anticipating unforeseen emotional labour and drains on my energy, maybe more consciously now that I have in the past. I am trying not to make too many plans that will be a basis for being mean to myself for not Being Productive, and I am trying to have looser, less formal plans for 2021’s writing and research. I mean, I probably say this every year, but the craziness and upheaval and fatigue of this year has really driven home the need to pay attention to my energy, to accept rather than rail against it, and to work with myself kindly and gently, rather than holding myself up to some external standard that may be fine for someone else, but not for me. This is not easy: I had to actually stop myself from berating myself for only uploading two publications into the university database as proof of my research “output” this year (both written in 2019). Two publications in any year is just fine, and in 2020, it’s great. I suppose, what I am learning more and more is to work at my pace, not someone else’s pace, and to celebrate all the small milestones, like papers read and proofs edited and productive, fun co-author meetings that push the process a few steps further, even if the finished draft itself is a way off. Focusing on the steps rather than only on the big product at the end seems to be a healthier way to Be Productive, in this or any year. So, that’s what I am taking forward with me. That and a resolution of sorts to embrace slower forms of scholarship and self-care that give me time for rest and recharging and eating properly and sleeping better and exercising (not my best thing).

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I wish you all a merry, safe and restive end-of-year break, and a happy festive season if you are celebrating. I am grateful to all of my readers out there for your support – thank you, and see you in 2021!

Adapting my reading journal to be ‘fit for (my) purpose’

Last week I posted the first in a series of posts contributed by Master’s students in a research methodology module I taught this past semester. Their final assignment was to ‘blog’ about an aspect of the learning or engagement in the course that represented a kind of ‘aha’ moment or challenge they are working on. This second post is from Jodie Bougaard, who is researching Russia’s cyber-meddling in the 2016 US elections.

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As a master’s student in the process of designing my study, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time engaging with literature related to my area of interest. Throughout the preliminary stages of thinking about my study, I’ve encountered challenges in this regard. I wondered if I was doing a sufficient amount of reading; identifying key themes in the material I engaged with and if it was relevant to my proposed research. Conventional wisdom suggests that conducting a sound literature review at the outset of the research design is essential not only to formulate a hypothesis and research questions but also to broaden your knowledge base as a researcher and identify gaps in the existing discourse.  

With this in mind, I proceeded to read and scrutinise any material I could find, waiting to have a grand epiphany about what the original ‘angle’ on my research would be or what I could add to the academic conversation. I had already identified an area of interest and developed key research questions. My chosen topic relates to electoral interference in the U.S. election in 2016. I knew that I needed to identify the key themes throughout my literature, organise concepts in accordance with the key themes, and create a general structure for my inquiry.  In practice, I was still spending an inordinate amount of time reading, searching for the grand knowledge gap, which continually eluded me. I began feeling that I was using my time unproductively, and this realisation induced anxiety. If you are an inexperienced researcher like me, it is not always easy to see what’s missing and it can be discouraging to read large volumes of material and not have any ‘a-ha’ moments along the way.

As a remedy to this angst, I have realigned how I approached literature by developing insight into what kind of reading I was doing. I started by going back to the beginning, reading as an objective viewer or a passive receiver of information. Instead of frantically trying to identify gaps in existing knowledge from the outset (which puts a considerable amount of pressure on you as a researcher) I found that reading to familiarise myself with material related to my study was a far more effective use of my time in working on my proposal. I didn’t force myself to evaluate the author’s arguments or the underlying assumptions of their propositions straight away. I know that critical engagement occurs further along the process, and through critical engagement knowledge gaps would emerge. In some cases, such as mine, knowledge-gaps may not be quite so apparent. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I understand the aim of pursuing a master’s degree not to necessarily to produce the most original and exciting or innovative study, but rather to demonstrate competency as a researcher. Through proper research of any subject you can build upon existing knowledge, which is still a valid contribution to your chosen discipline.

So, I collected literature, categorised it using a reading journal and qualified it in the context of my study. This process made reading in the preliminary stages far more pleasurable experience. I stopped stock-piling papers to read in future as doing so only fuelled my core belief that I was not reading enough. Instead, I skimmed abstracts and introductions, bookmarking papers I wanted like to read when I had sufficient time. I found that doing this daily over a three-month period provided an extensive reading catalogue, where I was building my own library or repository.

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I have learned to distinguish between the types of reading I am doing. I am growing to understand that there is room for focused, critical and intentional reading; however, there is also a time for general and unconstrained reading. Much like writing, there are variations, each with their own merits. Writing should reflect academic rigour and express critical insights; however, it’s also useful to do freewriting exercises throughout the research design process. Similarly, reading can also be approached in this manner.  Designing a study isn’t a linear process. Making notes or distilling themes and concepts in the literature becomes less arduous when you allow room for exploration through reading. Understanding which kind of reading you’re doing helps lift the fog of confusion and resultant panic that emerges when you read without thinking. Reading comprehensively means casting a wide net and then making conscious choices to either consume or discard what has been collected. Reading thoroughly means engaging with material within a narrow and deep construct, and through this finite scope, expertise is developed. The latter cannot occur without the former. Thus, I am not suggesting that anyone should read indiscriminately. I am, however, stating that building a knowledge base necessitates reading extensively to develop a sound background understanding of any topic.

By the time I completed my literature review, my research had become a case study situated within a larger conversation about meddling as a foreign policy strategy. I certainly did not anticipate structuring my study in this way. Prior to engaging properly with literature, I had entirely different working questions, none of which considered meddling as a foreign policy strategy. My point is that reading is not merely a means to an end. What I included in my literature review didn’t represent the extent of the material I had spent previous weeks reviewing. Adopting a mindset which prioritises reading as a fundamental part of your responsibility as a researcher, with no apparent start and end point, alleviates some of the stress associated with what to read and how to engage with literature. And adapting your reading journal to enable different kinds of reading, note-taking and organisation can help you in this process.