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A few years ago I wrote a post called ‘Making time to write‘ in which I argued that we need to actively and sometimes creatively make time to write. This is, to my mind, a more active act than finding time, which seems to me a bit more passive. If you say “I can’t find time to write” it implies that the time just wasn’t there. But, saying “I can’t make time to write” implies that there could be time but you are giving it away to other people and other tasks or projects. So, I think that if we want to really get writing and stay writing to finish a project – paper, thesis, report, whatever – we need to be making time to write, carving it out, protecting it, prioritising it. But what do you write when you have made that time? Do we also need to actively make and protect time to read, and crucially, time to think?
I have been working on something new research-wise for the last year or so. I have pretty much worked on shades of the same large project for the last almost-10 years. I have written about other things, but all of the writing has focused on different angles of the same larger issue or problem and has used various applications and parts of the same theoretical toolkit. This new project is not a complete departure, but I am working with different theory, different data, and a different set of issues or problems. This means, then, a great deal of reading and writing in my reading journal. This is expected. And I am mostly able to make time for that, mostly. But, what I am finding I need to be far more active about, and strict with myself about, is making and protecting thinking time. And I have been wondering: ‘How much time do we need to think, and how do we use this time effectively?’
It should go without saying that being an academic, a scholar, a researcher implies being a thinker. You cannot write anything original, novel, pathbreaking or well-argued without doing a good deal of thinking – about what you are reading, about the connections between theory and data, about what kinds of data you have and how they may speak to one another, about the field you are part of and the different conversations that are happening in various places, such as published literatures, the media, in your research community and/or university. Thinking is part of everything we do. But, thinking is not as visible as writing and so we often underestimate how important it is and how much time we need to make for this vital labour.
In the present measurement-and-results heavy culture gripping academia (to differing degrees depending on your context), many of us feel increasingly pressured to “publish or perish”. You have to produce a certain number of research ‘units’ and win grant money and have an ‘impact’ to justify your university keeping you around. It feels like a relentless hamster-wheel that just spins faster and faster, threatening to throw you off at any minute. There is no time. There are just tasks, one after another. The lack of time is even more evident now in this pandemic-shaped world we all live in where many of us are still unable to work outside of our homes in offices, libraries or even cafes where we can create a space to sit and think or read or even write in a slower, quieter way.
But even in a non-pandemic world, time is pressed, right? And what we do spend our time on has to count. It has to be impactful. This means it has to be visible. This is, I think, why so much airtime is devoted to writing: how to write, when to write, what to write about. If I spend a whole day writing I (should) have something tangible to show for it. We talk and talk about writing, but we spend far less time, comparatively, talking about reading and thinking. These activities are core to academic knowledge-making, though: what do you write about if you are not reading and thinking, before and during the writing process? It seems to be that the reading and thinking work is assumed – of course we all know how to read and how to think. These are less difficult, less quirky and strange, less stressful than the act of writing. Or are they?
I ran a seminar recently online on how to critically and forensically read a journal article to obtain and create for yourself meta-knowledge about how knowledge is created, positioned and shared in your field. It was very well attended and there were a lot of questions in the chat that showed me that the acts of reading and thinking are not quite as stress-less and straightforward as some may think. Knowledge is not neutral; it can be specific, arcane, technical, theoretical, often-strange if you are new to it (and even sometimes when you aren’t). Why then would the practices we use to come to know and create knowledge be assumed to be simple or straightforward or even generic? Reading is not just picking up a text and looking at the words. It is an active process of engaging with an argument, with evidence, with methodology and findings, with underlying principles that shape what counts as valid knowledge and also credible ways of sharing that knowledge with other researchers and readers. It involves connecting what we are reading to the research or the practice work we are doing and either fitting the new knowledge into an existing frame of reference, or adjusting our frame of reference if it is challenged by this new knowledge.
This means, then, that thinking is not a general or straightforward process either. Thinking, too, is an active process of meaning-making: we think with texts, we think about problems, we think within and sometimes against existing conversations and frames of reference. We often think with others – “real” others like supervisors, co-researchers and critical friends and “imagined” others like the authors of the texts we are reading and working with. This work is not quick, either. It takes time to read deeply, think about connections, create these and find evidence to justify and strengthen them, put the pieces together into a shape and form that is novel and makes a contribution to the field. And, for a portion of the time we are working on a thesis or a paper, it appears invisible because it happens internally, in research and reading journals only we read and in conversations with others to which the outside world is not privy.
This invisibility to the outside may mean that we struggle to really make time for it and protect that time. We want to rush ahead to the parts that are visible – being in the field and gathering or generating data, writing drafts we can show to people and send to supervisors and editors, doing the teaching and tutoring, and so on. We stress when the reading and thinking bits slow us down and take more time because it means we might not have a ‘unit’ to upload into the university portal to show them that we are serious about being an academic and playing the game. We might be seen to not be doing anything. How many times have I spent a day reading and writing in my reading journal and thinking and then caught myself thinking that I have nothing to show for a day’s work? Too many.
I think we need to push back against that kind of thinking. Taking time, making time, to think and read and talk through our ideas with critical friends is incredibly important and valuable work. Slowing things down to do this work carefully is a valuable act. It helps me to see my research trajectory as cyclical rather than a straight line, especially when I get frustrated at the pace of my current labours. There was so much reading and thinking that went on during my PhD and early postdoc years and not many papers, but then there were a few years of several papers and a book. But this “productivity” was only possible because I took that time before (and also to a lesser extent during) all the writing and publishing to read, scribble, think with others and for myself. Now, starting a new project, I have to make that time again and be patient with myself and with the process. I know that the writing will come and, when it does, that it will be sharper and more meaningful – and feel more authentic to me – for having emerged from this slower development and creation process.
It’s not easy. The push to publish, publish, publish is strong and the discourse of productivity becomes internalised over time. This is more marked in some contexts than in others, but all around the world we are pushed to start publishing earlier and earlier in our academic careers, and also to begin diversifying where and how we publish so as to have the greatest demonstrable impact with our research. I am not making an argument against this, necessarily. I write papers and books because I want to have an impact. Research findings can be powerful and important in shaping fields of practice and knowledge and need to be shared, within and beyond the university or academia. But, I do think that what counts for me as impact and what counts for the NRF or the DHET or some other oversight body may not always align. Their understandings often seem to me to be narrower and more instrumental than mine may be, and thus they focus overly much on products and underestimate the extent of the processes that lead to these products being created and shared. This is where I want to try and push back a little, make time for different kinds of thinking and writing work, and help others to do the same so that we have a wider and more nuanced understanding of impact. This may enable us to develop and hold a more conscious understanding of all the work that goes into creating novel contributions to knowledge and thus offer more empathetic and careful support and development to scholars doing that work.
I found this really interesting and helpful, and I know I’ll want to come back to it in future to find some encouragement. I think I tend to put most of my thinking work under “writing” when it comes to planning out my time, and then wonder why I’ve ended up with so few words after a whole afternoon of “writing”. Your point about conversation and needing to speak with others in the development process also resonated. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for your comment, Isobel. I do the same thing – thinking and writing are hard to separate but it’s useful to try, especially when we plan time for a paper or a project.
Thanks for writing this, Sherran. We need more people reminding us that the raw material of our work is so intangible. I often think of this scene from Big Bang Theory (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5SDv1l9DCo), which perfectly encapsulates how ridiculous we all are.
Thanks, Michael – I enjoyed re-watching that 😀
“[T]he acts of reading and thinking are not quite as stress-less and straightforward as some may think.” Yes, yes, so much yes to this statement. “This invisibility to the outside may mean that we struggle to really make time for it and protect that time. We want to rush ahead to the parts that are visible.” Oh no, I am in this post and I don’t like it. I’m currently in this stage and it’s been really rough mentally and emotionally. I feel guilty for not being go go go with experiments but I also need to make time to analyze, to think, to plan. So thank you for this excellent piece and concretely spelling out why I need to be less hard on myself when I am in the meaning-making stages and not the tangible product stages.
[…] Making Time to Think [How to Write a PhD in a Hundred Steps (or More)] “[T]he acts of reading and thinking are not quite as stress-less and straightforward as some may think.” Yes, yes, so much yes to this statement. “This invisibility to the outside may mean that we struggle to really make time for it and protect that time. We want to rush ahead to the parts that are visible.” Oh no, I am in this post and I don’t like it. […]
[…] conversation about what writing a thesis is all about, and the thinking work that goes into it, and the time that thinking takes. Link this to drafting, and normalise the idea of writing and thinking as practices, not skills; […]