‘Put down the red pen’: Some thoughts-in-progress on feedback-giving

I haven’t posted anything in ages, for a range of reasons, mostly to do with just having a super tired brain that can really only do what it has to do and nothing extra. I try to make writing blog posts part of my weekly work, but I do also need some creative oomph to find a hook and be myself and share some thoughts (hopefully wisdom) on subjects I am thinking about and think readers might be interested in. And that oomph has been in ever-shorter supply lately. Mainly, I have been spending a lot of my time giving writers feedback on their own writing, and have run out of steam for mine in the process. But, the upside of this is that I have been thinking a lot about feedback-giving and reflecting on doing this online (as opposed to pen-and-paper). Specifically, when do you jump in and track changes, and when do you back off and highlight errors for writers to fix themselves, and how much feedback is too much in the average 10-12 page paper or chapter draft?

There is a large amount of very good research out there on feedback: what and when and how and why and how much. There are many differing viewpoints, of course, but one thing much of the research in recent years can agree on is that feedback works best when it invites dialogue and conversation between the feedback-giver and the writer(s) receiving it. In essence, this means moving from telling writers what to do, to offering advice, prompts, suggestions and explanations that enable and encourage them to sit with their writing and work in revising and correcting it themselves. In this process, they hopefully gain greater insight into and understanding of themselves as writers and not only what they are writing about, but how they are writing about it too, and the effect of their writing on a reader. This is the “critical friend” position: as your feedback-giver, I am here as a friend, but not one who will tell you your writing is perfect (because we know there is no such thing, right?) I will point out errors, gaps and so on from the perspective of a reader, and advise you as best I can on how you could improve the next draft (at least).

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But, the question then becomes: How? How do I offer advice, suggestions, explanations and so on? How much feedback is too much feedback for a writer to make sense of and work with? How many times might I get to read this piece? How do I hold myself back from just re-writing parts of this for them (especially if the writer is my student)?

These How? questions are the subject, again, of much research and fraught conversation in academia, especially as we have moved more and more online in the recent past, and more than perhaps ever before in 2020. We are not necessarily marking by hand, which limits the amount of correcting we can do and comments as can offer, because margin space is limited. I find that I tend to be more discerning when I mark by hand about what to focus on and what to leave, and then how to explain to students the feedback and ongoing revision work. Online, in Word or PDF, I can comment on every error, every line of text if I want to. I don’t have to discern in the same way because space is not as limited in an online text. I can cross out your writing and write my own version over it, potentially taking your ownership of your text away (you can reject my changes, but how many students do this?) I can delete parts of your text, even.

This is where the How? questions can become tricky, and require some introspection on what you are trying to do with your feedback to your students or peers, and what they need to get out of it. If you see feedback as mainly about producing a “perfect” text, then you may well track changes, type over the author’s words and, in the process, assert yourself as part-author of that text. If they don’t understand the thinking or grammatical rules and so on behind the changes you have made, and they see you as an authority, they may just “Accept All” and send it back. But, whose work are you then assessing: yours or theirs? Whose ‘voice’ comes through the text? I have given into the temptation to do too much of this, and have ended up reading revised writing that sounds way more like me that my student in places. It’s an uncomfortable feeling because I know they are not learning and growing as much as they could if I pulled back and tried something less directive (even if that would take more time all round).

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If I see feedback, then, as helping students and writers to become more authorial, more in control of their text, their meanings and the knowledge they are creating – and this is certainly the case when you are working with postgraduate and postdoctoral students and writers as I am – I have to work differently. First, I cannot jump on every error and correct it. I try to find two or three examples of the error, if it is repeated, and in the comment bubble, I try to explain as clearly as I can why this is an error and how they can fix it. Sometimes they copy and paste my words from the bubble into the text without thinking too hard, but often, what comes back is a step forward. I have to offer my advice as questions, prompts, suggestions rather than instructions, so that their input (even if this is not shared with me directly) is invited and prioritised in revisions.

Second, depending on how many times I am going to get to see this draft, or where this assignment is placed within a whole assignment plan, I have to be discerning about how many things I comment on and how I approach the feedback process. Do I highlight all of the confusions I see, every missing link between sections and paragraphs, every muddled/long/obtuse sentence, every claim that has no evidence or elaboration behind it? If I do, with that be 20 comments over a 10 page piece of writing, or 40? And, even if it is only 20, will that be too much for this writer or this student? How much time do they have to sit with the comments, make sense of them, ask for clarification, have a meeting with me on Zoom? If this is a doctoral or Masters student writing a thesis, that’s probably an okay amount, because we’ll chat about it in supervision and they’ll likely have a few weeks to work on the next draft. If this is a writer working on a paper for publication, they may, too, have time to rework the paper.

But time is not the only factor, right? We also have to think about the level of confidence of the student, and how much they can actually cope with, mentally and emotionally. Will this feedback really help this student/writer, or will it paralyse them? We all experience anxiety and a bit of paralysis when we get feedback and have to start revisions, no matter how confident we may be as writers. But, the more experienced writers who have gone through the process of getting things wrong, being guided to a more sound position and getting their writing there through revisions and redrafting, may be less overwhelmed by critical feedback given in larger amounts. They know it will probably be okay in the end, even if it hurts and is hard to work through now, and will take time and effort.

But the average student has not yet been through this process enough to know that the feedback doesn’t mean they are stupid, or should not be writing a thesis or paper, and that if they do the work it will probably be okay in the end. So, I try to be conscious of my tone, and also how much feedback I offer and what I offer it on, to try not to overwhelm and paralyse the writers and students I work with. This is the hardest part of online feedback for me – pulling back and leaving things I know I could comment on but that perhaps are not so important right now. I tend to over-comment, to be honest. What I have started doing is forcing myself to just read a few pages without making any comments and changes, and then think about what most needs to be done to improve the next draft. Then I write one or two longer comments on the pages, rather than 10 small comments. This is hard, but it feels better to me in terms of the presence I take up in the text. Of course, this always depends on what I reading, why I am offering feedback and where the writer/student is, but as a general practice, it prevents me from going overboard.

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I have also started sending my students and writers small summary voice-notes. This is partly because I get lazy about typing long summary comments, and partly to moderate the tone of my feedback in this online life where I don’t always get to meet the writers and students on Zoom to explain the feedback to them. I have found a free audio recorder app that works on my laptop and creates small files (about 3mb for a 5 minute recording), and I talk my summary feedback. I say ‘hello’ and offer them an overview of my impression of the text as their reader, and then highlight 2 or 3 main things I think really need to be part of the next draft. I always sign off with an encouraging comment, so that when they then open the text file, that’s hopefully what they hear in their heads.

The feedback from my students so far has been that they like the voice notes, and that these do indeed take the sting and fear out of the feedback a bit and make it a bit easier to ‘hear’ my voice in the comments encouraging rather than scolding them. We never really know all of what writers and students have experienced around their earlier writing, reading and feedback outings before we work with them; even if you have encouraging intentions, your feedback can still be heard in a negative tone in their heads. The voice notes may help to mitigate this over time. Maybe, if they hear an encouraging voice enough in a voice note and in the written comments it may over-write any mean voices telling them they can’t do this. I hope it will.

Feedback-giving online is tough, certainly for me. I really battle to put down the metaphorical red pen in the form of tracked changes and multiple comment bubbles, and focus on ‘higher order’ concerns around argument, understanding, cohesion and sense-making. It’s much easier to over-write and fix small mistakes, especially when you are tired and longer explanatory comments are hard to express clearly. But, I try to stop myself when I feel I am heading in this direction, take a break from the feedback and come back to it with a clearer head. This doesn’t always work out, of course, with deadlines and many tasks on the weekly list and too much last-minuting and fatigue. But, where I can take this time, I do, and where I can’t I try to be more conscious of what I am doing. Usually, this takes the form of going back over the writing before I send it, deleting or editing overly long or ultimately unnecessary comments, and composing an encouraging voice-note.

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I feel like the bottom line here is that I will always be fallible and get it wrong in parts, and maybe even come across as terse and mean when I never have that intention. Feedback is a conversation, and you cannot control what people hear, how they hear it and even what they do with it. But, I can control my responses and my own learning and improving. With this online life being where we are now and into the future, all I really can do is keep learning how to fail better with each student and each draft. And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I have to get back to doing exactly that!

Making my peace with ‘good enough’ writing

I’m a patchy perfectionist. This basically means that I don’t have the energy to be a perfectionist about everything (just ask Lovely Husband about all the random, tidy piles of clutter on surfaces that should be empty and pristine), but I have a lot of energy to be perfectionist about some things. Like writing. I really struggle to let go of my writing when I am not sure it’s exactly right or amazingly great. For me, my whole life, there has never really been such a thing as ‘good enough’ when it comes to academic work and ‘products’ like papers, dissertations, reports and presentations. It must be the Best Ever or it’s nothing.

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This is, quite obviously now that I write it down, a recipe for immense frustration and quite a lot of stress. Especially when the career I have chosen requires me to write at least two papers every year that can be published, and requires me to carefully and supportively mentor other writers and thinkers through teaching and supervision. I would never place this much pressure on my students; in fact, my advice to them to is become more realistic and pragmatic in their plans and expectations of themselves, because the perfect, Moste Amazingly Goode Paper is a fiction. It does not exist.

What does exist are lots of decent papers, many good ones and a few really fabulous ones, and these measures are not really very objective. Case in point: I once submitted a co-authored paper to a journal based abroad. I was corresponding author, and after revisions had been made, I mistakenly uploaded the revised paper to the wrong part of the submission site (for new papers). I emailed the editor and we sorted it all out (or so we thought) and the paper was published (with minor revisions, which was lovely). But, two months after it appeared in print, we got two more reviews from two different reviewers, recommending rejection. Obviously, the paper had been published and that was a done deal, but what the experience showed me was that I could send any one of my published papers to different reviewers and readers and get quite different, and quite possibly less positive, feedback that I did from the original reviewers and readers.

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So what, then, is ‘good’ or even ‘great’ in a published paper? How do you know when what you have written is good enough to send to a journal, a supervisor or a critical reader whose opinion matters to you? How do you tame the perfectionist who wants it all to be Best Ever, and let go of it? How do you trust the feedback you get and believe the positive comments? I have many thoughts on this, some of them contradictory depending on how loud the perfectionism is and what I am writing and who I am writing for. But I’ll focus on a couple here that seem to be pretty settled across all of these variables. They mainly have to do with my sense of my voice and my writerly self, and my groundedness in the field I am contributing to.

I have published a number of papers and book chapters and have just finished a book that is now in press. So, I have a fairly clear sense now of when my writing sounds and feels like ‘me’ and when it does not. I think of this as my authentic or real writerly voice, and this has been very much a work in progress over the last ten years. I have to mostly play by the rules in terms of layout, style, grammar and so on – I can’t just freeform or stream-of-consciousness my papers or they won’t make any sense – but within those rules I can assert my agency to make sure that I use words, terms, turns of phrase, examples and arguments that sound and feel like me, my scholarly self. This is a big thing for me. It’s really hard for me to be excited about telling people to read my paper if I feel like a fake on the page or if the voice sounds stilted or ‘off’. Sometimes, editors make suggestions that push the writing in that direction which even five years ago I might have just accepted without thinking about it too hard. But now, I really stop and think and try out the suggestion in my voice. If it fits, cool; if it feels like something I would not say or write or like someone else’s voice, I politely disagree and defend my original choice. I don’t always win, but I win often enough that I can (just about) let the losses go.

So, when I get to the stage where the paper or chapter looks and sounds and feels like me on the page, and it’s an argument and a piece of work I am proud of and excited about, that’s a point where I can believe it’s at least a decent paper or chapter. The more you write and send your work out and get feedback, and work with it to become conscious of what you are learning and the effect of that learning on your writing and thinking, the easier it becomes to believe you can written something decent, good even. Practice does not make perfect, but it does improve your feel for your voice and for what readers within the fields for which you are writing will respond positively to and what they will likely critique or challenge.

At that stage, I really then turn my attention to the contribution, and look really carefully at the quality and clarity of the argument. I try to ask myself hard questions about how clear my claims are, how strong the evidence is, how useful the paper is or what kind of contribution it may be able to make. I have a less pressured sense of trying to say Something Really New and Huge with my papers than I used to when I started writing for publication, and try now to find angles that shed a different, new-ish light on topics that my peers and colleagues are talking about and interested in. This means I have a clear conversation to join, and I have something small but valuable to say. This doesn’t always mean a ‘yes’ from journals, but it does make it easier to aim for ‘good enough’ rather than Best Ever.

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Writing is hard enough without all the added pressure of trying to make every paper or dissertation or report or presentation the Best Ever. There are literally thousands of papers published every year and thousands of M and D degrees awarded, by and to scholars who are smart, capable, doing interesting work. If you choose academia as a career you are most likely a small fish in a big pond, unless you are in a very niche field or area of study, perhaps. What this probably means, pragmatically and in defence of your mental and emotional wellbeing and work-life balance, is that your career will be full of writing that is decent and good enough with hopefully high points of great in the mix. This is a long marathon, and looking at your career as a whole rather than paper by paper can help to mitigate any over-stressed perfectionism.

I drew this one 🙂

Realising and accepting this was harder for me when I started publishing than it is now, with a few papers and some pretty mean peer reviews behind me. So, I realise that if you are still trying to publish your first paper or are earlier on in your career this can sound like it is easier than it may feel. It is not easy, and it does depend on how much is invested in the paper or project you are working on. Sometimes, with a paper we are less invested in, it is much easier to accept ‘good enough’ and let go of ‘great’ or ‘amazing’. Other times, this is much harder because so much more of our scholarly selves and time has been invested in the project. I guess it might also depend on the stakes – is a promotion or probation riding on getting a publication in a ‘top’ journal, meaning it probably has to be pretty good or even great? With each paper and project, you may need to work out the stakes involved and also figure out what you can live with and let go of and what you need to hold on to and fight for.

For me, learning to be okay with ‘good enough’ has been – is still – hard. That academic over-achiever is never really satisfied and she still rewrites bits and pieces of early papers that had too many long sentences and too many compromises in her head. I have learned, more or less, what I would regret and rewrite in my head if I let go of it too soon, and what I can live with. This has been a process (ongoing, of course) of being increasingly conscious of what feels and sounds and looks like me on the page and what does not, staying up to date with new research and writing in my field both in peer reviewed journals and the more popular presses, and focusing on what revisions, edits and changes made using feedback from critical friends and reviewers do to my voice and the clarity and impact of what I write.

The more conscious I am of the craft of scholarly writing, and of the mark I want to leave, the easier it is to be okay with the ‘good enough’ papers, because I have realised that they are actually much less awful that I think they are and that no one is harder on me than I am on myself. I need to take my own advice and focus on pacing myself for the longer race I am running, and learn to trust that sometimes ‘okay’ is more than okay and ‘good enough’ is actually pretty great. If I stay as true as I can to my own sense of scholarly self and to my own voice, it’s hard to regret anything I have written, even those long sentences!

Hitting the wall: Finding some space to have space

I read something the other day about surviving crises and how about 6 months after the initial crisis starts we hit the wall. We have adjusted, more or less, to a new normal but there is still no end in sight, and we’re not completely sure we can let go of the old normal yet. So we’re kind of stuck between accepting that this is our life now and not wanting this to be our life now and we’re tired. I think I have hit this wall. I have more or less made my peace with teaching online (but I long for face to face classes again), I have kind of liked not having to get on planes and go places and be away from my kids and my cats and Lovely Husband (but I kind of miss lazy evenings by myself in a B&B watching Netflix and all the hustle and bustle of traveling). I am in this in-between space, trying to find a way to have some space for just being.

Mainly, I just need a break. I need some actual proper space and I have been grumping around the house feeling cross that I have to get up every day and stare at my screen all day and be there for other people all day and, like, who is being there for me? Where is my time and headspace for being creative with my own writing? Where is my sleeping in and reading my chick-lit novel all morning in my PJs while my boys make me pancakes? I’m whinging, I know. But, I’ve hit this wall hard and I can’t have a break because I am teaching three courses right now and have heaps of student work to read and comment on and weekly teaching prep and a journal to manage and people to be responsible to and for and I just want it all to stop.

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So, I am grumpy and tired and I feel guilty all the time because I never get enough done in a day. And I feel bad for wanting everyone to go away and leave me alone, especially my students. But, one thing I have learned is to own my feelings, the ones that I am happy to share and the ones I am not, because pretending I don’t feel those feelings only leads to feeling invisible and therefore more resentful and grumpy. So, I’m owning them. I’ve hit the wall, I’m tired, I’m cross, I’m grumpy, I need some space in a part of the year where taking space for me makes me fall behind in my never-ending to-do list and then feel guilty and bad. It’s not good, basically.

But then, I have a day like today. I read bits of drafts that students on my writing course are working on and see them using feedback and patience and perseverance to create clearer, sharper, such interesting paper drafts. And I know I am so lucky to do this work, to be part of helping early career and postgraduate scholars to publish and share their research. I get to make creative and fun learning materials for students that will help them with their writing—something all students struggle with, some far more than others. And that’s pretty cool too. And I get to go the wool shop and buy lovely yarn to start a new knitting project with. And it feels like, even though I did not get right to the end of my list for today or yesterday, I had a bit of balance. I knocked work off my list, I went to Pilates, I bought wool and got to chat for 20 minutes about knitting and yarn colours to someone I don’t live with, albeit behind masks. I created some space and I feel a little less frantic, even though that may be temporary.

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I am also falling back on some old reflections and some new advice:

These little soundbites of wisdom really help me to hang on and work through the grumpy days. As does the knowledge that days like this come around and lift my spirits. I think I am mostly learning that in order to offer others my energy, creativity and help, I need to make and protect my own little spaces to recharge myself and feel like I’m not a slave to my screen. I’m still going to feel bad when I let people down by missing deadlines, and hopefully get better at setting more realistic ones. I am still going to struggle to say no, especially to exciting and interesting projects I want to be part of but have no time for if I want to actually move forward on my own new research—but I’m going to keep trying. We all need space, but more and more these days that space had to be made and protected, sometimes fiercely and sometimes from ourselves. And it’s important to give yourself permission to have that space. Take care out there.

Becoming a more resilient writer/scholar

Recently, I have been reading and thinking quite a bit about resilience in academia. This has mostly—but not only— been prompted by my surprise at how difficult I found it to complete the corrections and final revisions of my book manuscript recently. The other prompts are next week’s post topic. For this post, I am focusing on resilience as a writer/scholar. Why was I so acutely plagued with self-doubt and so unable to even open files that contained feedback and notes on corrections? I consider myself to be a pretty rational, realistic and resilient writer. So, why was this all so very difficult when it should be been easy? And, how, or what, can I take away from this on my path to becoming a more resilient writer?

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There are a few ways in which resilience is conceptualised or understood in academia, specifically. The ‘mainstream’ notion of resilience seems to be quite individualistic in the sense that we are each tasked with finding our own ways to become more resilient. In this sense, I think resilience is cast as self-reliance and independence, and as scholars we must all be independent and self-reliant, able to motivate ourselves and sustain passion and interest in our work. As writers, we need to be able to create projects and see them through, writing every day or a few days of every week whether we are alone or in a group (mostly online these days). If we cannot keep this all up, we feel shame and anxiety: what if I can’t publish and thesis and be all independent like everyone else? Maybe I shouldn’t be an academic? I see this understanding of resilience echoed in so many tweets from PhD students, MA students and early career and precariously employed academics, particularly.

Firstly, everyone else—especially these days—is also anxious and stressed and struggling with these ‘alone together’, socially distanced, online or remote teaching, working and social lives. And, even in non-pandemic times, there are probably very few people around you who are totally self-sustained and intrinsically motivated superstars who never waver, or doubt or fall behind schedule or need help. Are there any academics like this? I doubt it. So, we can actively start to let go of the shame, at least, and the pressure we may put on ourselves to be solely responsible for being superstars. Academia, and success in this world—however you define that for yourself—is not a solo project. We need our communities of students, peers, colleagues, even managers, around us to create the environments in which we work, and hopefully thrive.

The problem is that academic institutions are part of the world and the world is largely run by some version of neoliberalism, which is highly individualistic and ‘every person for themselves’. We are told that we have to be independent and self-motivated and self-regulated to be successful and that relying on others for help and support is a weakness, rather than strength. Now, I know the whole concept of neoliberalism is complex and the debate about its effects in academia, on staff and students and management, is huge and complex too—I don’t have the space here to do that justice. But the basic trend is towards the self—you are responsible for finding ways to become resilient, and the system is not obliged to offer you help. You must change to fit the system, not the other way around.

What we need, then, is to lift up and develop the more more socially just, critical understanding of resilience, both what it is and how to build it. This is a more communal, systemic conceptualisation that holds that structures or systems, such as a Doctoral Studies Programme or a staff development programme for Early Career Researchers, need to actually be designed and maintained to help scholars—researchers, writers, lecturers, supervisors—become more resilient through being more, rather than less, linked into and connected with supportive systems. Asking individuals to become more resilient on their own or fall apart trying is probably why there is such an increase in peer-reviewed and more popular writing on wellness and mental health in academia, and concerns that academics’ mental wellbeing is under threat.

How do we address resilience-building as a community? How do we connect scholars with one another, and create more supportive writing development within our universities? This is part of my work, my career, and something I am exploring in a new research project. Resilience is about emotional wellbeing and resources as well as about mental and physical resources and wellbeing. I learned this again in doing the last round of corrections and revisions on my book manuscript. I had to fight feelings of self-doubt (the book is basically rubbish), Mehness (who cares, no one will read it anyway), frustration (why didn’t I see this the first 10 times I read it); I also had to battle against self-sabotage (I have many more far less important things to do first). And, I had to wage these battles tired from teaching online, reduced sleep quality due to staring at a screen all day, kids at home and needing to be checked up on and helped with schoolwork, and general anxiety and stress about Covid and the world falling apart around us.

The emotional toll of academic writing, reading, thinking, and all the associated processes of peer review, feedback, critique, revisions, rewriting and so on cannot be underestimated. Especially because we are all people with full-time lives outside of whatever work and studying we are engaged in. Add to my small story above that I have a nice house with a garden and space inside to work alone without (much) noise disturbing me and that my kids are in high school and that my husband is home and is a pretty supportive guy. What if I had been trying to do all this in a smaller flat or house with no outside space of my own, preschoolers or kids in primary school needing a lot more hands-on homeschooling, and no husband or partner to help me? Now, tell the first me and the second me that we need to have the same amount of resilience and strength to cope with day to day academic life, and that the systems we work in are not obliged to be considerate of the differences in our situations and support structures.

Women must publish as much as men and if we cannot (because we are bearing the brunt of the burden of having kids at home during lockdowns and school closures) then we are clearly not prioritising our work properly. Younger scholars must publish as much as they can so that they can compete for jobs in an oversupplied academic job market, and they are often encouraged to publish in paywalled journals, limiting the reach and impact of their research. Postdocs are overworked and underpaid, everyone is trying to work out how to teach and assess and supervise effectively and fairly online in environments with varying levels of internet access and familiarity with technological platforms and tools. And, we must be very resilient in the face of all of this, more so if we are women, and/or early career scholars, and/or black scholars, and/or scholars with a disability, and/or scholars caring for children and/or older parents or relatives. The system still values the free, unencumbered scholar who can live the life of the mind without pesky interruptions like parenthood, domestic labour or finding money to pay the bills.

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I think the issue here is that academia as a system tries to pretend it is fair and offers the same opportunities to all. But, when you cannot take up an opportunity because you are on contract and have no research funding or because you have young kids you cannot leave or because you don’t have university leave due to your contract conditions, then who or what is really at fault here? You, because you had the same opportunities and you chose not to take them? Or a system that wants to pretend that everyone is equally able to work at the same pace and in the same ways and under the same conditions? Do those in positions of power over the money and the way the system works change the system to make the opportunities fairly available to all scholars or do they keep prioritising those who don’t have to worry about funding, who don’t have to worry about making alternate care arrangements for kids and/or elderly relatives to attend late afternoon or evening meetings or seminars, who don’t have to figure out to publish from a PhD or MA with little guidance or overt help (like a short course or publication mentoring)?

In general, the system keeps on keeping on. Some universities (like mine) are making changes towards creating a more equitable system. But on the whole, academia still asks us as individuals to work out how to live and work and teach and write and supervise and research and compete for funding in ways that are not necessarily systemically supported or enabled; we must be resilient in spite of the system as it is, rather than because it creates more communal, enabling environments in which to become and be scholars. And this is a problem. We can neither experience nor create socially just and equitable higher or further education opportunities if universities continue to put the onus onto individual scholars to become and be resilient in the face of mounting pressures and demands with little commensurate support and recognition. That is not a sustainable situation, as so many early career scholars and precariously employed academics can attest, at the very least.

We have to do better. Universities have the power to change; to behave less like profit-making corporations and more like organisations involved in nurturing, supporting, and educating people. The mission and vision needs to be about an ethic of care and social justice, and it needs to start with the system itself as well as with the individuals within it. Of course, I am responsible for how I set up my work week and plan my time so that I can meet the work commitments I make to peers, students, colleagues. But, as a lecturer, I can acknowledge that my students have complicated lives, too and I can make adjustments to my expectations and teaching plans so that they feel that this is recognised. I can encourage them to create and sustain peer groups and make relying on and assisting their peers normal, and not a sign they they are not being ‘proper’ students. As a supervisor, I can offer feedback to my students in ways that encourage and challenge, rather than demean and hurt, them. As a mentor and colleague, I can make my own failures and struggles more visible and share with students and peers how I draw on my own individual and communal resources to overcome these, learn from them, and move forward.

Instead of hiding all the work that goes into doing what I do—which I am told makes me seem like I am super-resilient and organised and sorted—I can make this more visible, more open to those around me (especially students). What do we have to lose in doing more of this—in being more human and connected and supportive of ourselves and others? I think that this probably takes courage, especially in a system that associates failure with shame and anxiety, and it is not easy. It is so much easier in many ways to pretend that everything is fine and that I am fine and that I don’t need help. But, I do, maybe more now than I ever have. And I am getting better at not over-apologising and shaming myself for missing a deadline or needing more time or more help or more consideration. And I feel better. I feel less anxious and stressed and unable to cope. But becoming more resilient is a process and it is not linear: new and different projects create different needs and stresses and trigger different kinds of doubt and struggle. I do know that I cannot do this alone and I am so grateful for my communities and for their offers of help and support. Getting better at accepting them is one way I am becoming a more resilient writer and scholar, as is learning all the time how to be kind to myself as I walk this path.

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Book writing: Timelines, best-laid plans, and expecting the unexpected

Those who have been following this blog for a while will know that I have been working on my first sole-authored book for some time now. I am completing the final edits and corrections this week and then it will be off to the publisher for the next stage of the process. And what a process it has been. I had NO idea, in spite of reading other people’s blogs about book writing, exactly how long this process takes and how many different steps and stages there are along the way. This posts tracks my book-writing process, and I hope it may be helpful to those of you working on a large project of your own.

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2015: While working on my postdoctoral research and writing papers for journals, I start thinking that my argument is much bigger than a journal article, or even a few journal articles; that I actually need a PhD-thesis/book-length project to say what I think I need to say about knowledge-building and teaching in higher education. One of my two advisors is putting together a larger proposal for a series, so I run my early ideas past him. He’s interested and thinks it could work, so he says ‘draft a proposal and let’s see’.

2016-2017: I start working on early versions of the book proposal in 2015 and by mid-2016 it’s in a pretty decent state. I even have a basic draft chapter to go with the proposal and a few other pieces of two other chapters. But, I work on contract and I have kids and bills and a life to help pay for, so teaching and consulting work takes up most of my headspace and emotional and mental energy. The proposal writing process slows way down. Then my mum gets really ill mid-2017 and no writing or research of any kind happens for a while. My advisor—now the series editor —emails periodically, encouraging me to keep thinking about the book and working on it when I can.

2018: Buoyed by the encouragement from the series editor and from peers who keep telling me how useful the book could be, I start working on the proposal again in earnest. The series editor gives me really helpful, sharp feedback, and slowly we beat the proposal and a draft chapter into a shape and form that can go out for external peer review. This happens late 2018. The wait for feedback is extended by staff changes at the publisher. I get on with other bits and pieces in the meantime, including holding texts and bits and pieces of writing and thinking on most of the seven chapters.

2019: Feedback arrives finally in February and it’s a green light. Yay! And, OMG, now I have to write the book! I work out, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that with the bits I have already done, I can write the full draft by the end of October. I do not properly factor in how much work I actually do every year between my contract teaching, supervision, consulting, parenting and administrative tasks (life and work). I also do not properly factor in how much procrastinating I do around my writing and research. On top of this, I get pretty ill in July and August and am finally diagnosed with asthma, which is a pretty tiring condition when it is not being managed. I fall way, way behind.

I have written a couple of the chapters in full, sent them to critical friends, and have some useful feedback to work with in revising these one and writing the missing ones. But there is no way I am making that deadline. I have to send the email I don’t want to send and ask the editor for more time. He says: ‘Ok, how much? Be realistic’. Friends who have written books, including Lovely Husband, tell me this is normal: nobody makes their first book deadline. I am encouraged by all of this and set a new deadline: 15 January 2020. This feels mad, but I am also really keen to not drag this project on way into 2020.

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I spend most of November doing everything other than my book, even writing a full journal article on an unrelated topic. I am hugely frustrated with myself but can’t quite seem to make myself do more than a few floppy hours on the book each week. This does not bode well. December and school holidays arrive. I cannot possibly go on holiday: I have a freaking book to write, and I have maybe got about 40% of what I need. So, I write and I write and I write. The combination of shame (I do not want to ask for more time again) and motivation (I really need and want to move on from this now) spurs me on. Having my whole family ask me about my daily word targets also helps. Christmas and New Year pass and the thing is turning into an actual book.

2020: I make my deadline and off the book goes to the series editor. We decide that asking two colleagues for feedback would be a really useful thing to do, so the book goes off to them too. While I am waiting for peer feedback, I get my year going. The coronavirus reaches us in March and everything goes off-plan. My kids are no longer in school; my colleagues’ teaching and home plans change. Feedback finally reaches me in May and it’s all positive and encouraging. But detailed: there are now revisions to really sit with and take time over. I tell myself these will be done in two weeks. Two weeks later I have not even opened the files. It takes about four weeks, but I finally push myself into my chair, open and merge the files they sent, and get started. It is hard. These are not just corrections; they are revisions. New writing, re-thinking, careful responses. I’m exhausted.

July 2020: It goes, fully revised, to the series editor and now it is his turn to read it. He reads the first two chapters and sends detailed feedback. There are a few holes that need filling and lots of small corrections and edits (commas, referencing style changes, etc.) The usual sorts of things you have to pay attention to when you are preparing a manuscript for actual readers out there in the world who will pay for your work. This is fine. But, I am tired, emotionally and mentally. This year has kicked my butt. My asthma is up and down, so some days are full of energy and others are empty of it. I pick away, working backwards from the end of the book (my favourite chapter) towards the ones he has read, making all the small corrections to psyche myself up for the big ones. After completely freaking out about a couple of more critical comments which prompt new writing and actual revisions (not edits), Lovely Husband and a good friend talk me out of the spiral and I manage to get it all done.

Late August 2020: I get an email from the editor saying there’s not much more to do now, and I’m almost there. The relief is huge. The book will be finished (for now) before my birthday, which was my goal. The first major finish line is in sight at last: a finalised manuscript ready for the publisher.

I imagine, if I had to keep going with this timelines, that September and October will be spent waiting for proofs, which may arrive before the end of the year, depending on the publisher’s timelines and their own planning. I will then have to read the whole book again, dealing with all of their edits and corrections. This is a potentially tiring thought. One of the things I did not expect was how many times I would have to actually read my own writing. Of course, every time I do, I make corrections and improve it (especially my long sentences). But, these improvements are made only after telling the mean voice that says my writing is trash to please shut up. She can be pretty loud, especially when I am already tired and over it all. So, the work now is not just mental; it is also emotional and psychological: I have to use all my resources to get me across this finish line.

This is not unlike the end of a PhD-writing and research process. Doing any kind of significant project, even with the best-laid plans, means coming to terms with unexpected delays (e.g. waits for feedback, for examiner’s reports, and even dealing with yourself and various acts of procrastination and self-sabotage that you need to overcome). It also means being kind to yourself when things go awry or just take longer than you thought they would. This book project has taken, all told, 4-and-a-bit years so far. That is a lot longer than I—perhaps naively—thought it would. There have been many unexpected delays and parts of the process I wasn’t planning on or didn’t know to plan for. But, surrounding myself with people who believe in me and in this project has helped me to stay the course. Imagining that book in my hands with my name on the cover has inspired me to keep going. You can’t do any kind of significant project alone: you need your people and your sources of inspiration and motivation to keep you going.

If this process so far has taught me anything about myself, it is that I am more capable than I give myself credit for. I can do more than I think I can if I just get out of my own way and let myself believe what my friends and colleagues tell me. I can do this, and more. I think those things are probably true for all of us if we let ourselves believe them.