Fast and slow: can we manage the pace of academic scholarship?

I am a knitter. I used to mostly knit scarves and blankets made up of squares, and I have a large-ish collection of Outlander-inspired arm warmers. The benefit of knitting these kinds of items is that they knit up quickly. You can make a scarf in a couple of days, and a blanket in a week, depending on the size of the squares. If you use less complex patterns and stitches, you can go even faster because you’re less likely to need to pull out your mistakes and start over (sometimes a few times) before it starts looking like it should. But recently I have challenged myself to start making larger garments – pullovers and cardigans. These take time: several weeks. Not all of the stitches are fancy and complex, but it certainly is not fast fashion. It is a slower form of fashion, which can be both rewarding (and soothing to make) and also frustrating at times when you just want to wear it already and you haven’t even made the sleeves!

I am going to parlay this metaphor into reflections on the pace of academic scholarship, especially my own need at the moment to work out a different approach to managing the external and internal pressures to publish my work even as I am not yet ready to do so. These reflections, and pressures, connect out (or in) to other related issues that are spoken about quite a bit at the moment, here in the UK and around the academic world: work-life balance, mental wellbeing, mental and physical health, and (the lack of) pleasure in research, writing and publishing. In short, I am struggling perhaps more than I ever have to find a balance and advocate for myself. I know I am not alone in this.

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There is huge pressure to publish in academia: “publish or perish” is a well-known maxim in higher education. If you want to get ahead as an academic, you have to do research and you have to publish it, often and preferably in “high impact” publications. Whether these are journals, books or other forms of media usually depends on the field you are working in and where its researchers tend to share the knowledge they make. There have been reformulations of this maxim in attempts to reframe this culture that pushes many academics to the brink, especially those in early career trying to get onto the academic ladder (or hamster wheel) “Publish and flourish” is a well-known counter-maxim, with several books and papers being written about how to grow your productivity as a writer and enjoy doing it (see here and here for examples). I haven’t read any of them, but the titles and blurbs don’t seem to suggest a push back against the neoliberal, audit culture tide that is sweeping across academia, creating a culture in which everything, and everyone, can be measured, weighed, found wanting (or succeeding). The focus is still on productivity and efficacy as a scholar, but perhaps with more of a focus on enjoying the process and finding meaning in it as opposed to seeing it as a box to tick or a chore to do. I wonder, in all this talk of “productivity” and “increasing your outputs” where the talk is about creating a research pace and plan that is personally meaningful and sustainable. Many researchers usually have to find a way to carve out a pace and plan that works within and against this “publish or perish” (or “publish and flourish” as a super-productive researcher) culture, feeling all the while powerless to actually change it.

I have worked for a long time now with postgraduate and early career researchers, helping them turn their thesis research into publishable journal articles and book chapters; helping them to find a place within the ranks of publishing scholars so that they share their important and worthy research, and so that they can start to carve out their space and work out the shape and size they want, or need, it to be. One of the tensions we deal with in our work together is between getting a paper (or papers) out so that there are beans for the university to count, and making a contribution to knowledge that is meaningful/useful/relevant to readers. This doesn’t have to be a tension, of course: you can publish a paper which makes a useful contribution to knowledge – that is the point, after all (right?). But, because of the pressure to publish, often before we even know what knowledge we are contributing or what we want or need it to say and to whom, there is sometimes a real tension between ‘getting a paper out’ and writing something that may take more time and thought and revision than we feel we have.

This is where I feel I am right now: caught in this tension. I have had a productive few years by my own reckoning and in terms of the metrics of the universities that count my research and claim it against government funding. This is largely thanks to rich practice-based work I could reflect on and write about, really rich collaborative work that has resulted in co-writing, and my own PhD and postdoctoral research, which provided quite a bit of material to work with. It is much less challenging to meet the demands of the university you work for to publish, publish, publish when you have material to work with and things to say. But, I am now in an ebb of sorts in my own publishing/knowledge-making work, starting a new research project that is connected to my previous work ontologically, but is engaging with new theories, new methods, new data, and therefore new knowledge entirely. This takes time. It’s not a quick knit. There are new stitches to learn, new patterns, new yarns – the whole shebang.

But, and this is where I feel the tension, I don’t have a 2022 publication on my CV yet. If I don’t get something out this year there will be a gap in my publications list for the first time in several years, and I worry about how that will look. I have to worry about getting onto the radar of those who have to worry about ‘productivity’ and ‘outputs’ at an institutional level, who may then begin to exert pressure on me to ‘get a paper’ (or three) out, which may then be at odds with the time I need to learn, think, write some rubbish, think a bit more, generate and make sense of data, grapple with theory. I’m not ready to write for public consumption, as the unfinished and half-baked words and rejected abstracts attest to. What do I do? I don’t think I can just say ‘Leave me alone, I’m thinking. Come back later’.

And really, very few scholars/researchers can get away with that (usually those who can have big grants and funding, established credibility and enough institutional standing to push away that kind of pressure if they need to). Lower down the ladder, especially in early career (including now doctoral and even Masters levels), those who want an academic career have very little if any room to ask to be left alone, and feel the pressure to publish intensely. But writing a paper when you are not sure yet whether you have anything to say – anything you want to say or can say – is really hard. It takes a long time, and it’s painful; many revisions, critical feedback, rejections. Ironically, it is easier to publish when you’ve done a fair bit of thinking and scribbling, when you’ve got ‘stuff’ to write about. But, this also takes time to accumulate and organise.

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Another apparent push-back to the publish or perish culture and the ‘fast scholarship’ hamster wheel is the ‘slow scholarship’ movement. (You can read the manifesto here, and an excellent critique here). The idea, as I understand it, is to take time to really work out your ideas, to write many drafts, not to be pulled in by the pressures of the publish or perish culture, but to push back against it; to become a more effective scholar by taking your time, by tweeting slowly, blogging slowly, thinking and writing slowly. Slow scholarship seems to have emerged from the slow food movement; I think slow fashion is an offshoot too. But, and this is a big but, this slowness does privilege some and not necessarily many others. Not everyone has all day to shop for local, organic ingredients and prepare slow meals; not everyone can afford pricey yarn and needles and take the time to knit their own clothes in front of Netflix in the evenings; not everyone can afford to have years where they don’t publish anything because they are busy thinking and writing drafts no-one but a few critical friends may see.

Critiques of slow scholarship have pointed out that this is not actually the radical push back it may at first seem to be, because very few researchers can probably pull it off successfully, and many things in their personal lives need to be taken care of or taken away to manage the kind of slow scholarship the manifesto calls for, like child (or elder) care, housework, school runs, and so on. Also, as some critics argue, there is nothing inherently wrong with faster scholarship – in many fields you have to move faster to stay ahead of the curve, to make novel contributions to knowledge, to keep abreast of the pace of knowledge-making. Tweeting and blogging are excellent ways to try out new ideas, to work them out in real time with an engaged audience, to ‘take the pulse’ of your readership.

What we need, I suppose, is a balance – that word again – between scholarship that is meaningful to us and possible for us within the structures we create for life-work-PhD-self, and what is required of us by our universities (and by our fields of research and practice). What can we do to manage the pace at which we create our scholarship – research, writing, speaking, thinking work? What can I do, I am asking myself, to keep the publish-or-else wolves from the door and also create the time to be patient with my emerging ideas and arguments? I don’t want to write a paper just for the sake of having a ‘unit’ or an ‘output. Of course, I might have to, but then perhaps I can work out how to share this labour: collaborate with someone who wants to make a similar argument. That may be both fun and also pragmatic; a way to create something meaningful and create a bean to count or a tick for a box. Maybe. Co-authoring can be a lot of work, but that’s a post for another day. I think right now what is helping me is being aware of this tension and how it is making me approach and feel about my writing. What is helping is giving myself permission to (at least try to) hold the line, for now, and do the work I know I need to do to create the flow that will come after this ebb, where I will have created things to say, knowledge to share, writing to be excited about.

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I know not everyone can do this, at least not in one way; the pressures of early career are significant for many scholars and if you really want an academic career that is not tenuous, precarious, underpaid, undervalued, then the reality is that you do need to get your work out there. Maybe, though, take a step back: think about the work you are doing, where your readers are, what you want to say to them and how, what that all means to *you* and not just or only to your department, faculty or research office. Even if you cannot say no or take time out, you can still, I hope, create a plan for publishing that feels like it fits you, works for you, and enables you to find and express your voice as authentically as possible, at a pace that feels like it will lead, ultimately, to flourishing rather than perishing.

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