Turning your writing ship around: pushing back against individualism and isolation

In 2014, while I was deep into reading Cressida Cowell’s How to train your dragon series to my boys, I blogged about PhD theses and ocean crossings, likening the early stages to small, leaky, slow boats, and the end stages to faster, sleek racing ships. Writing can be a lot like this, as I also argued in a more recent post: that slogging is really necessary for sailing – the ‘bad’ writing says where the words are clunky and awful and the process is painful need to be worked through for the less common, but completely lovely and faith-restoring days where the words flow from your fingers and the ideas all work and you feel like a writing goddess. Last week I wrote about my AcWriMo fail, so far, and how I was trying to just write – anything, really – to get the month and the book back on track. These posts all touch on two things I want to blog about today: work ethic and resilience, and community, and pushing back against individualised, isolationist notions of success.

I currently work on a consultant basis, attached to different projects, teaching contracts and so on. This means that I work a great deal from my home office (aka the couch, most days), and that need to work between my own deadlines, and externally set deadlines. This requires a pretty decent work ethic, as the work I do is varied, and often amounts to a little bit more than a full-time job, because of the way the deadlines and workloads are distributed (i.e. it’s more like feast and famine than steady labour). But, my work ethic, like my workload, is not consistent. While I am super-capable of pulling rabbits out of hats close to a deadline, I find this immensely anxiety-invoking. The downside of this ‘feast or famine’ workload and concomitant work ethic is that I have more anxiety than is healthy, and this spills over into other parts of my life, causing me to snap at my family, or yell at drivers being stupid on the roads, and so on. In other words, the work anxiety feeds social and personal anxiety, and the cycle can become pretty nasty and stressful.

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The upside, though, is that in working through all the anxiety and getting the work done anyway, often on time but sometimes with kindly granted extensions, I am developing researcher resilience. I am learning to be resilient in two key ways, I think. The first is that I am learning that, as a friend says often to me, my work is not life-or-death. If I have a day in my pjs where I do no writing or productive thinking, no planes will fall from the sky or something equally catastrophic. Thus, I don’t have to treat every email and every request and every sentence as urgent. I can moderate, and balance, and take time. This is really important, because as the current Twitter threads around the UCU strikes in the UK are showing, balance and moderation are in short supply, especially for academics working on contract and in precarious income positions, as many consultants are. If I say no to this job, will I be closing the wrong door? Will more work and money come, or not? These are questions those in a contract-y space constantly battle with, meaning we probably don’t say no as often as we need to, to protect our own physical and mental well-being. We may also not often-enough say yes to help, for fear that the work and money may be diluted or assigned elsewhere in future.

This brings me to the second thing I mean by resilience. I am learning that I cannot, and should not, try to be Wonder Woman. I cannot do all my work things on my own, without help and support. I think those of us working in or around university contexts that are strongly influenced by shades of neoliberalism and corporate culture are pushed into different forms of a bigger liberal-capitalist notion of individualism. To achieve is to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, work really hard, take no hand-outs or favours, and claim all your achievements for yourself, as the product of your hard work, focus and so on. So, we slog and slog, telling colleagues and friends we’re fine, and refusing offers of help because we’re fine, and because we need to claim our work and any success than emanates as our own. And if we have help, then is our success really ours alone? If you can hack this, you are pretty resilient, but at what cost? Like Wonder Woman, I can do it on my own, but I have more fun, I’m more able, and I probably recover faster if I have the Justice League with me to share the load.

While some disciplines have collaboration built in, such as in many of the natural sciences, where I work in the social sciences and humanities in South Africa, we still have to fight to justify collaboration and co-work, especially in relation to published papers, books and so on because of government funding formulas that reward sole authorship. As an early career researcher, with less symbolic capital and clout, it can be hard to fight against these systems, and the individualism they seem to encourage and reward. But, this brings me to the other factor my earlier-cited posts were about, and a key aspect of building resilience in research: community. The colleagues and peers you are able to surround yourself with and actually lean on and draw help from is a crucial part of pushing back against this overly individualised culture in academia. It’s not enough to have peers who will believe you when you say you are fine and are actually not fine. These peers need to be people who will offer some form of help and support that you can, and will, accept and also offer back.

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Community needs to be active and reciprocal to really work in helping researchers, especially earlier-career researchers, build resilience and a workable work ethic. Ideally, the community you connect with also needs to be composed of peers in a range of positions, in terms of empathy but also power and influence – your own form of the Justice League, if you like. If you are all early career researchers in precarious labour positions, you can offer a great deal of moral support and empathy, which helps, but you need people on your side who know the system and can help you find the means, courage and tools to push back where you can. For example, a big help for me has been joining projects on recommendations from my former supervisor, who has connected me with different scholars and enabled co-writing and co-researching projects to take shape and happen. I now have connections for new projects, and an experience of not working alone to bolster me in creating and running new, collaborative projects in the future. We need to seek out and nurture these connections.

This week I have turned my writing ship around with the help of a new online community, which I joined on recommendation from a new friend who found her way into this space during her PhD. My community is working for me this week, big time, but in a way that enables me to reciprocate and offer mutual support. I have gone from no chapter to an almost finished chapter, partly because the anxiety has finally turned from paralysis into action, as this rabbit must be pulled from the hat or else, but mainly because I have been brave enough to admit I am not fine, I cannot proceed on my own, and I need help to get writing and keep writing. This new community, in conjunction with my existing community, is helping me immeasurably to find my own inner strength and resilience and work ethic, and put it all into my writing. It has not been easy. I am slogging, for sure, and will have to keep slogging. But I am hopeful that this ship will become sleeker and faster as the finish line approaches, and that my communities – online and face-to-face – will be there with me as I cross it.

Hashtag AcWriMo fail (so far)

So, it is AcWriMo again. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, it stands for Academic Writing Month, and is a global phenomenon with academic writers all around the world committing to putting words on pages, and tackling writing goals within both face-to-face and virtual communities that offer encouragement, support and accountability. My own university has a Facebook group (although I am avoiding Facebook for mental health reasons right now), and we have a Google sheet where we have written down our writing goals, and update the group weekly. So far, my updates have read: I did nothing, and I did nothing. So, thus far I am basically a #AcWriMo fail.

I think I am starting to actually feel very badly about this, because yesterday I woke up with chest pains, and my mood is declining. I could say it is impending end-of-year-itis, as Lovely Husband and I term it, and that I am always tired and grumpy in November, in the middle of the kids’ exams and last minute requests from people to ‘just quickly please look at X and send some feedback’, and, and, and. But, because I actually know myself better than this (damn it), I have to acknowledge that I feel crappy because I am supposed to be writing, and I am not.

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I have done that thing you’re not supposed to do as a writer and left it all alone for too long. Now it is properly feral, to borrow from Annie Dillard, and I am very afraid of what I will find when I open that door. And even thinking about opening the file, and reading and revising and writing fills me with tiredness and dread. I am in a proper state about it all, and am therefore quite, quite paralysed. Which, you know, sucks. I have chest pains just writing this. Seriously.

I have no magical solutions, and no grand plans. I think the time for these kinds of delusions has passed for 2019. It’s too late in the year for that. What I have is me. I have to dig deep (very very deep I fear), and find my resilience and my strength and just actually sit down and write. Write terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad words (thank you Judith Viorst), and just let them come out of my fingers and settle onto the page. I’ve been seeing all these tweets about how you can’t edit a blank page, and I tell writers in my own courses this exact thing: you can’t make sandcastles out of air. You have to shovel the sand into the sandbox first. You have to have something to work with.

But, you also can’t really work effectively and efficiently with complete nonsense. So, not just any sand will do. You have to have the right kinds of sand, or words and ideas, to actually create a paper or chapter that readers will find useful, interesting, and so on. I think this is the problem, for me. Well, this and the fact that I am just over it all right now. I have kind of lost my faith in my words and ideas. I feel like they’re just blah and meh and ugh. And this prevents me from actually putting them on any page. I don’t know how to get over this. I have tried bribing myself, but it turns out I don’t have anything I want badly enough. I’ve tried being mean, but that just makes me feel worse, so I’ve stopped doing that. I’ve tried gentle cajoling, which sort of works.

Mostly, I just need to write. Write the trash words, which are probably not nearly as trashy as I think they are, and then work them into the shape and form they need to be in. And just keep cajoling, with kindness, because I think most writers actually respond better to kindness than any other form of ‘motivation’. Well, at least in my experience. And I need to not feel like I am the only one having a #AcWriMo fail so far. Because I’m pretty sure I am not. So, solidarity friends, if you are stuck in the molasses like me.

November isn’t done yet, and tomorrow is a new day. Every day is a new day to try and fail and try again and fail better, as Samuel Beckett said. And in failing better, we succeed. But we have to be brave enough to fail. I am not very good at this, and never have been. I hold myself to rather impossible standards, really, and it’s not helpful – certainly not always well conducive to a step-by-step, word-by-word approach to writing. But you know, I’d rather not miss my deadline, and miss this chance to write this book and say these things I think I need to say. This failure would be so much worse than writing a crappy page or nine en route to the finished Thing. So, tomorrow, I will write. Rubbish, brilliance, averageness – I will write it all and then see what I have, and go from there. Who’s with me?

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Contributions to knowledge and the ‘knowledge gap’

If you have spent any time reading advice or ‘how to’ books on writing a thesis at any level, you will almost certainly have come across some version of this concept: the ‘knowledge gap’. And you will likely have been told that you have to create a research project or study that will find knowledge to fill a gap in your specific field or discipline’s knowledge base. This idea of filling a gap or hole in what your field knows or does freaks out many students, at all levels. The idea that you have to say something new when you are still learning your field and what it knows and does can be overwhelming.

But, after a conversation with colleagues who work with researcher development starting from senior undergraduate level all the way through Masters to PhD level, I have begun to wonder whether this concept of a knowledge ‘gap’ is actually not all that accurate or helpful as a starter about the purpose or goal of postgraduate research and knowledge creation, even at doctoral level. Maybe, we need to actively reframe the conversations we have with students doing research about how we can and do make different kinds of contributions to knowledge that grow and challenge knowledge in our fields.

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The most common starting point for students beginning a research process is in the field itself, reading other studies, papers, research findings and so on. This enables them to see what research is being done, what the current trends are around theory and methodology, substantive findings that support or challenge their own research problem and so on. The literature review is almost always the first thing we ask students to focus on when they are developing a research proposal, especially at doctoral level where there is a firm requirement of a ‘novel’ contribution to knowledge. So, you kind of are looking for a gap, of sorts. But you’re not looking for it in terms of a total silence on your own research problem.

The first problem with the notion of a ‘gap’ or hole in the field that your study can fill, conceptually or empirically or methodologically, is that many students seeing this as meaning exactly that: silence, as in no one has ever done this research before. They feel they must claim that there are no existing studies like theirs for their study to be ‘novel’ and to fill the identified knowledge gap legitimately. In most fields, it is almost never the case that no one has ever done your kind of study before, or asked a similar kind of research question. And you really don’t want that either, because what you are really trying to do with your research is join a field that exists, and push it a tiny bit further; you’re not trying to strike out on your own.

This leads me to the second problem with talking about knowledge gaps and the need to fill them with original or novel claims to knowledge: in essence this can prevent many students from really seeing that they are writing about their research in relation to the field, to join an ongoing conversation, rather than writing about their research as an extended proof of claims that are completely new. We need to reframe teaching about the aim of research as being focused on joining an existing conversation as a new voice that has something of value to add to the field, rather than needing to say something radically new that has not yet ever been said. I think this may help student researchers in two main ways.

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The first is with the way they read. Rather than reading every paper looking for a hole or a gap or silence and zeroing in one this, they may begin to read with a greater consciousness of how the field has already addressed similar questions, but perhaps from different angles, or with different theory, or with different methodology. They can then consider how this helps them to build and substantiate a space in which to position their own emerging claims to knowledge. Keeping a reading journal to keep track of these arguments, how they are made, and how they speak to one another or challenge one another (this bit is crucial) may then help students to begin to see the conversation emerging, and where they might be able to join in. Who is saying what, how, and why? Who is critiquing the dominant positions and why? How? Where does my work fit into all of this? What is this ongoing conversation all about?

Thinking and reading like this may then feed into a different, less defensive form of writing. Rather than trying to address every paper or article included in the literature review by showing what it doesn’t say to shore up a claim to the originality of their own research, student research writers may begin rather to craft literature reviews, and perhaps also theoretical and methodological frameworks in their thesis writing, from a different position: as one who is joining an existing field and conversation, unthreatened by all the work that is currently being or has been done. Rather, these sections will be written with the understanding that all the existing work is a resource for substantiating our own claims to knowledge, so that we can show how what we have to add builds on, extends, and perhaps may critique the current arguments dominating the conversation in the field.

Reframing the ‘knowledge gap’ as joining a conversation with a new voice and a small contribution to the field may also help researchers at other, lower, levels of study, such as Masters, Honours and senior undergraduate levels, where the knowledge gap can be particularly alarming. This is perhaps mainly because students typically do less reading, and are not required to make a novel contribution to knowledge to attain their degree. Obviously, the more you read the field, the deeper and more nuanced your sense of the conversations in your field will be, as well as how they connect and challenge one another. But students can join a conversation even at the lower levels, in a more modest form, if they are enabled to see this as what they are doing, rather than using their study to fill a gap that their reading load will not show them adequately.

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Making a contribution to knowledge and filling knowledge gaps is spoken about a great deal in postgraduate and researcher education, but I wonder how often we stop and think about how students hear this, and what impact this has on their reading and writing behaviors and choices. I hope this post will help that process along, and help us find different ways to talk to students we work with about their own research purposes and goals.