Academic mobility: Nomads, migrants and adventurers

I have been really absent on this blog for a while now, much to my chagrin. I really enjoy writing these posts – they are, as I have commented before, a form of scholarly therapy for me, and an important creative outlet as well. But, Big Things have been going on in my personal and professional life and I just have had no energy, headspace or ideas to spare. But, I am learning – always learning – that if I want things that are important to me to be things I can actually do, I have to make time for them deliberately. So, here I am.

The Big Things centre around me getting an amazing job, one I have worked towards for a long time now. The catch, though, is that this job is in another country. So, the last 4 months have largely been consumed by obtaining visas, packing up our home, and relocating ourselves and our cats from the south of the world to the north, with several complicated steps due to the pandemic and all the travel restrictions that have been in place. It has been stressful, anxiety-provoking, exhausting to say the least. That the job is actually as amazing as it sounded on paper, and my new colleagues as kind and helpful as I hoped they would be, makes the professional part of this whole process exciting and energising. But the personal stuff has been all-consumingly hard. I miss my home, I miss my books, I miss my garden and the beach. I miss things that are easy and familiar. I miss being trusted as a known citizen and person with a credit history and a track record and full rights and recognitions. Being an immigrant is a big thing to get my head around. And I have to acknowledge as I write this that I am a very privileged immigrant. I can’t imagine how hard it is to do all of this when you don’t speak English very well, or have friends and networks in the new place already, or have to move away from, rather than with, your close family.

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All of this has, of course, got me thinking, mainly about academic mobility and how so many academics and postgraduate researchers move around the world every year in search of new opportunities, PhD scholarships, postdoctoral fellowships, jobs. I have several colleagues who have relocated for various academic roles and reasons: fellowships, short academic exchanges, sabbaticals, permanent roles. I have moved in the past to undertake a Masters degree (10 months abroad) and also with my family for a 6-month sabbatical (Lovely Husband’s). In some cases, the move is pretty easy – you are helped with accommodation and setting up a bank account; there’s a network or space set up and waiting to welcome you. This removes a significant source of stress and time. Also, if you’re on a fellowship or sabbatical, you know you have not left your home for an indefinite period of time, maybe for good. It’s just a break from regular life – an adventure. This also removes a huge source of stress, which is having to make peace with a massive life change, really committing yourself to learning new systems, making new friends, creating a new home somewhere else.

Academic mobility is a significant feature of modern higher education. Until perhaps two or so decades ago, there was, anecdotally at least, less movement of academics – there were fewer postdoc fellowships around, for one thing, certainly in the context I have moved from, and there was more of a sense of getting a great role and climbing the ladder of your academic profession in one university, maybe two, rather than actively looking for new roles in other contexts and universities and going for these. Now, though, there are many more opportunities to study abroad, to take up shorter and longer-term fellowships, to find new and different roles in your own or other higher education sectors. I have noticed a significant increase in movement just in my own scholarly community over the last 20 years that I have been working in higher education.

This is likely partly linked to larger trends in higher education: postdoc fellows, for one thing, do research and teaching work, but if you can hire them on short-term contracts and convince them that a postdoc in an excellent career move, you can hire quite a bit of relatively inexpensive labour. Academic work is becoming increasingly precarious around the world, with growing proportions of researchers and teaching academics on contracts, rather than in permanent or tenured roles. Universities run like businesses now, thinking in terms of cost-benefit analyses and bottom lines, and this precarity combined with increased numbers of doctoral students exiting academic with PhDs and hoping for academic work (which means increased competition for relatively fewer positions) means that you probably will have to move to secure work that you want to do, that links to your research, that will be meaningful and also support you (and probably also a family) financially.

But the whole idea of work has also changed, and in many industries there have been changes in the ways in which we work, particularly in terms of changing roles and even changing career paths. In academia, I have noticed a growth in conversations about alternatives to academia, about leaving academia for other kinds of work. Much of this seems to centre around the toxicity in academia: the intense competition for jobs, funding, PhD studentships; the long hours and inevitable burnout; ongoing and unresolved gender pay gap and equity issues. So much of this – the overwork and burnout especially – has worsened over the last 18 or so months since the pandemic started, and there is as yet no clear end in sight. So, just in my network there are more visible conversations happening that involve different ideas of mobility, both within academia to new universities, new roles, new countries, and also out of academia in to different parts of the private or public sectors.

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I never thought I would be an academic migrant, much less an adventurer. I thought, after finishing my studies, I would find a great job, dig in and climb the ladder. Moving home, moving my kids from their schools and friends, leaving my friends, asking Lovely Husband to move and possibly also change jobs: this was all much too much. So much easier to just plant roots in one place and nurture them. But that great job didn’t materialise the way I had hoped it would: academia changed and the possibilities I did have meant precarious contracts or moving. I opted for the former, and have spent the last 7 years cobbling together a full time job from several different pieces of contract teaching and consulting. And it worked pretty well for the most part. But, over the last year I have realised that I do want more: more scope to innovate and create, scope to have an impact and make real changes, scope to grow myself as a scholar and researcher. And, in spite of many changes – especially around pushing so many more academics into precarious contract roles – academia still rewards permanence, tenure. It’s hard to get access to the opportunities if you’re not ‘on staff’; why should they invest in someone who can take their labour and go without even having to give formal notice? It’s a crappy Catch-22: you can’t really grow and progress with institutional help unless you have tenure, and you can’t get tenure unless you’ve done the growing and progressing. So, in the end, the only real choice was moving. There seem to be more people like me moving, migrating, and thus more people doing additional physical, mental and emotional labour which can take a great deal of time and energy that is not then fully available for other academic work, like thinking, reading, writing, research.

I would love to tell you how exciting this move has been and how energised I feel. I can’t do that yet. This move has taken a huge toll, emotionally, financially and physically. I have had to leave my older son behind because he cannot get a dependent visa; I have left a very ill mum behind who is not doing well; I have left wonderful friends and a beautiful home behind. It has really struck me how incredibly brave academic migrants are, all the more if they have to move alone, leaving partners, children, family behind. Academic mobility is premised on opportunity, on exciting growth and development, and can indeed offer this. But I think we also need to acknowledge how hard it can be and how much headspace it can take up trying to get settled into a new space and place. As a doctoral educator, this is something I’d like to acknowledge, especially as it pertains to helping international students as they settle into a new space, a new researcher role, a new research culture.

Part of research culture making has to include an acknowledgement of the additional labour academic mobility can create so that we can more consciously and deliberately include students who are far from home in their research communities, and help them to manage all this additional labour as they also take on a new research project, new supervisors, and new academic demands. This has been meaningful for me: having colleagues who acknowledge that I need extra time and headspace to settle, which has helped me not to put undue pressure on myself to be settled before I am; having a small community around me to offer me advice, help, a shoulder to whine on when things are just too hard and I want to go home; having people to remind me to be patient with my impatient self so that I manage my stress. I think those of us working with academic migrants can be more mindful of how much work goes into moving countries, universities, homes, whether these are our students or our colleagues and peers, and in doing this, create more supportive researcher development and collegial cultures in academia.

Making it in academia: holding the tension between vulnerability and imperviousness

*You can listen to this post as a podcast.*

I was reading a piece on Medium last week about the mysteries of packaging and writing academic job applications, especially for scholars from contexts very different from those they are applying into. In amongst all of the very true and useful points in the piece, I was struck by one sentence that has stayed with me: “Making yourself vulnerable to critique is a central part of academic life”. Vulnerable. That’s a scary word for many people. Especially, if you have had experiences of making yourself so and feeling trampled on by harsh feedback, neglect or even overt unkindness. Academia is not the same boat for everyone; it may be the same sea but there are many different boats and also different kinds and sizes of crews that we are sailing with. For some, being vulnerable is much more scary than it is for others and I think that needs to be recognised and talked about. In many cases, we may feel that we need to rather be impervious, invest our energies in developing that thick skin people are always telling us is vital to survive in an academic career.

This has got me thinking about all the ways in which academics are made vulnerable or have to make themselves vulnerable and what happens when they do. What do we do about the tensions and contradictions inherent in all these processes and acts that ask us to be vulnerable but at the same time tell us to pull it together, be tough, be impervious to the feelings of hurt, frustration and sadness that the different forms of feedback can cause? Can we make this act of making ourselves vulnerable less scary for those already in more precarious positions, like early career researchers, casual staff, women, scholars in minority groups on campus?

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One of the main ways we are asked to, and have to make ourselves vulnerable is through asking for and getting critique, as suggested in the quotation. We write thesis chapters for supervisors and a final thesis for examiners, we write papers for journal editors and reviewers, we stand up in front of peers at conferences (or sit down at our screens in front of peers, these days). We also, if we are teaching academics, have to ask students and sometimes peers to evaluate our teaching, our course materials, our knowledge of what we are teaching. We may also write funding applications for committees internal and external to the university. We apply for jobs and submit ourselves to committees of strangers for evaluation. There are many ways, then, in which we are made to be vulnerable, open to rejection, to criticism and judgement, to both kind and unkind feedback responses.

But, we are also told that, at the same time as we have to make ourselves vulnerable and open in so many ways and to people we know and do not know – often people relatively more powerful than we are – we must be tough, impervious to being hurt and feeling rejected and sad. We need to have a thick skin and be resilient, make peace with rejection and head back out again to ask for more critique, feedback and possibly more rejection. Over and over this seems to be the cycle. I ask for feedback, it’s not good, the paper needs more work, the grant or the job is going to someone else, the opportunity is lost. And instead of wallowing and feeling sad and sorry for myself, I have to pick myself up, be philosophical about the whole thing (Ah, academia, such is the life), and move forward as if I’m not all that bothered. This imperviousness makes me seem successful and strong; it may even be admired, especially if I don’t share my failures or feelings openly.

But I am bothered, and not just for myself. I am bothered for the casual staff for whom one bad course evaluation or loudly unhappy student can mean no more contracts. I am bothered for the early career scholar for whom one harsh and unhelpful peer review can mean giving up on a paper that could be useful for readers in their field. I am bothered for all the postgraduate students studying outside of their more familiar ‘home’ contexts and feeling misunderstood, misheard, misrecognised by homogenous systems that reward conformity in various ways. I am bothered for non-mother tongue writers of English for whom not-so-subtle comments about needing to have an English speaker ‘fix’ their paper may mean feeling pushed aside or put down by an institution that finds many ways to create us and them groups, insiders and outsiders. I am bothered for every academic who is asked, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways to conform to an elusive way of being, speaking, reading, writing, dressing that somehow marks out belonging and not-belonging in academia. And more and more in this cycle it is the individuals doing this difficult emotional labour who are asked to shoulder the responsibility for responding “appropriately” to this system. Individuals who have relatively less power to set the rules or change the state of play. Don’t cry when your supervisor is unnecessarily cutting in a meeting or in their written feedback. Crying is not appropriate. Don’t talk back to peer reviewers or journal editors who use their power to break down instead of building up or helping. That’s disrespectful. The unequal ways in which the system itself works thereby become normalised and when individuals or groups break with this system to try and push back, ask for more or different or better, they are the ones who are the problem, rather than this system itself.

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I think this makes for a pretty unfair and biased game, myself. It’s becomes quite clear, over time, that academia is not a game created by everyone, for everyone. It’s a game that a few people created for themselves and a few select others a long time ago, and while they have over the years allowed others to join in, they have been pretty slow in sharing all the rules and sharing the field. Even more so in being open to making real and meaningful changes to the rules so that the game isn’t quite so uneven, opaque and frustrating for so many people to play.

There are very big changes that need to be made – many of these beyond ordinary people like you and me, perhaps – at the levels of funding policy and allocations, challenging biased ranking systems, creating more just policy and governance environments and practices. But there are smaller, meaningful changes we can start making, us ordinary folk. One clear change is in how and how often we give feedback and to whom we offer it. I have seen several Twitter threads about grant applications that take so much time and work and when they are rejected have no feedback attached that can help applicants be more successful next time. Perhaps that’s a starting point: offer some feedback on unsuccessful grant and job applications on issues that can be worked on, like how the project is framed, the extent to which the criteria were and were not met, writing style & jargon use, etc. Even a few clear lines can make a big difference to the applicant and their chances (and confidence) on the next try. Another change is peer review and how editors manage this process. I see far too many threads on social media about unkind peer review and editors just letting the unkindness happen. As an editor myself I know we have the agency and the knowledge to both encourage and guide better peer review and to mediate (or even choose not to share) poor, unhelpful and even spiteful reviews.

These may seem like too-small changes, but they may begin to make a meaningful impact if we commit, more collectively, to two things, at least. The first is to commit to creating openings for new voices, new scholars, different knowledges, different bodies, rather than making efforts to diversify seem more cosmetic than truly transformative. But to do this, we need to make a second simultaneous commitment: we need to look long and hard at what we make legitimate and reward or reproduce – what knowledges, what ways of being, speaking, writing and acting, what bodies and histories, whose stories. And then we need to start thinking about how we use critique to punish some forms of vulnerability and reward others, and in so doing, continue to set up the game to favour those who already know how to play it or have the means to somehow figure it out. We continue to make vulnerability core to academic life, but this act is not rewarded for everyone who undertakes it. That’s a problem we need to address, together. And we can. This is not utopian thinking. I think that undertaking the kinds of work, individually and collectively, that make genuine steps towards transformed ways of being an academic and working in this space is crucial to keeping university connected and relevant to the communities and societies it is part of, and to taking the academic project forward with and for the many, rather than the few.

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

*You can also listen to this post as a podcast.

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 that you had 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.

Overcoming or rather managing my imposter syndrome

This semester I taught a research methodology module for Master’s students and one of their assignments was to ‘blog’ about an aspect of their experience of the course, their writing or their learning. Over the next couple of months, I have the honour of sharing their writing with you. This first post is by Amina Hamidou, who is researching the politicization of black hair in South African schools.

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In the process of preparing for my written October exam, I started to second guess myself and feel a certain way. This feeling is a mix of excitement and longing for the year to end and crippling panic and self-doubt. I experienced this same self-doubt before when I was accepting my undergraduate degree. I did not feel like I had earned my degree, especially in regards to my grade, and my accomplishments felt like nothing in comparison to those of my peers. I felt like a fraud.

I came into my undergraduate already somewhat knowledgeable of what was to come and expected of me, as my mother is a senior lecturer; she gave my sister and I helpful ‘insider’ information and guidance to thrive at university. The first few months I felt lonely in the area of friends, as my twin sister and I were in different courses and only saw each other at the end of our days, but I felt confident in my work. However, this confidence came crashing down when the first test and assignment results came out. I felt like I should have done better than others because I have a parent who is an academic. So, I deduced that it was clearly me: I had all the advantages but still did not get the results I thought I would or should get. I felt like I was not good enough or smart enough and this feeling has come rushing back since I started my master’s program this year.

Is this feeling familiar? This demobilising fear of being unmasked as a fraud, filled with self-doubt, I have come to know is imposter syndrome and its quite common in postgraduate students and academics, especially women. So much so that there are counsellors that you can talk to at the University and information on this topic targeted specifically at postgraduate students. So why do I feel like a fraud? From my research and own experience, imposter syndrome can happen to anyone, but high achievers and perfectionist are more likely to suffer.

From how I have experienced it, imposter syndrome feelings include:

  1. Feeling like a ‘fake’: fearing that you will be confirmed to be a fraud or falling short of your own or others’ expectations;
  2. Downplaying your success: feeling that your achievements are not a big deal and pushing away praise;
  3. Attributing your success to luck: giving credit to everything else but your own abilities and hard work.

Imposter syndrome often drives people to work harder. But overcompensating can lead to unrealistic expectations and burnout, anxiety and possibly depression. However, I seem to do the opposite. Instead of overcompensating by working twice as hard, I decide that since my writing is not good enough anyway, I don’t have to try my best. This way, when I get my results or feedback I can tell myself, “Well, I know this wasn’t my best anyway”, which allows me to feel less hurt and inferior than I would do if put my all into my writing. This thought process leads me to become complacent, underachieving and adds to my procrastination.

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Can you ‘overcome’ imposter syndrome?

  1. The first step is to recognise it as a problem or feeling that has a name. To recognise and name this feeling is a major step. This can help you to realise that your expectations might be too high and adjust them.
  2. Talk to someone – your supervisor, mentors or friends and family about your self-doubt and ask them to help in you in setting and managing more realistic goals.
  3. Realise that there is no such thing as perfect. You have to come to terms with realising that no one is perfect and in postgrad studies, as my lecture keeps saying, “Done is better than perfect”. No one expects perfection from you or expects you to know everything. As academics, we are always learning and we never stop being students, which has helped me take the pressure off myself.
  4. Admit and own the role you play in your success. For me, this has been vital. This ties in with your academic goals. You need to look to where you want to be and realize that you need to play an active role in achieving those goals, by taking it a task a day and not overestimating yourself (or the opposite!).
  5. Take credit for your achievements and do not downplay yourself and your accomplishments. It means that someone has recognised your work and capacity. You deserve to feel proud of that.
  6. Manage your stress. For me, creating a flexible timetable and schedule has helped me keep my stress down and feelings of impending pressure; this has helped minimize my imposter syndrome feelings as well.

Honestly, I am managing imposter syndrome and not overcoming it because I think we all have a little bit of imposter syndrome in us. As much as I try to overcome it, I have come to realise that, for me, it is triggered by stress. So managing imposter for me also comes hand in hand with stress management. When I have reduced the stress in my life I feel less fraudulent and more secure in myself and my work. Nonetheless, as is life, stress comes and goes and so does this feeling of being an imposter. During times of high stress, such as the end of the year, my feelings of inadequacy come creeping back. So each day I write down two to three tasks to accomplish which help me reach my weekly and then monthly goals for assignments and writing. These flexible daily tasks have helped make my writing more manageable. When I receive my writing back from my supervisor I take two to three days to go through the comments slowly so as not to overwhelm myself with negative feelings. If this experience has taught me anything, it is that my thoughts and comments about my writing are far harsher and more cynical than my supervisor’s. We tend to be harder on ourselves than others do.

At the end of the day, I have to remind myself that I made it through undergrad and honours with a degree. As my mother keeps telling me, “Not everyone is privileged to go to university and much less persevere and finish with a degree. Having a Bachelor and Honors degree shows that you have done what many cannot and could not, you should be proud and I am proud of you”. Those words are what I remind myself of when feelings of inferiority and inadequacy want to rob me of my success and accomplishments.

Remember you have ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY, you are PROUD of YOURSELF and I am PROUD OF YOU.

Writer, know thyself

Lao Tzu said to know others is wisdom, to know yourself is enlightenment. Enlightenment is insight, awareness, understanding; to be enlightened is to have a deeper ability to see and understand yourself, and why you behave, think, and act the way you do. It is a significant goal of humanity, to achieve an enlightened state within oneself. I am going to argue in this post that enlightenment should also be a significant goal for writers: to gain greater insight into their writerly selves, behaviour and choices.

In my writing courses, when we do catch-up plenaries at the start of the sessions a month and then two months after the first session, I ask writers to think about not just what they have (and have not yet) achieved, but what enabled or constrained their progress. My thinking is that if you can look deeper, to see what helps and hinders you as a writer, and reflect on that with other writers, you can become more enlightened about your writerly self. And, ideally, if you can see more critically how you help yourself, and how you sabotage or hinder your writing, you can try to move the obstacles out of the way.

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This is a lesson I am constantly learning, as a writer and also as a writing teacher, with my students. And, while I certainly feel more enlightened than I did when I started out on my scholarly path, I have a ways to go. The overarching lesson I am learning, with smaller sound-bite lessons along the way, is that I need to know myself – my energy, my concentration span, my levels of interest in different tasks – and, crucially important, accept myself as I am. This is not to say I cannot and will not change as I learn and grow – of course I will – but if I go into any writing, or life, task already admonishing myself for not being more focused, more energised, further along in the task, etc., it’s not going to be a rousing success. And even if I get it done, all that negative self-talk is only going to breed resentment for the writing (and life) tasks down time. And that’s not good for me.

So self-acceptance and positive self-talk is super-important, alongside figuring out your own writerly habits, preferences and energies. A big learning for me since I turned 40 last year is that my energy levels have changed. I can’t write and write every day for 2 or more hours and have enough in the tank for all the other work I have to do. My work life has changed in the last few years as I have physically gotten older, and alongside having less energy generally, I also have to spend significantly more time reading other writers’ work, offering them my energies through feedback and advice. So, the lesson here seems to be this: work with, not against, your energy levels.

It sounds super-simple, like ‘duh’, right? But I struggle to accept that my energy for writing has changed, and I keep trying to make myself be more energised. This only serves to make me feel bad, and then shamed that I can’t be more pepped up, and then I’m just a bit paralysed about everything I have to read and write. So, very consciously, I am trying to keep track of the times of the day I most feel like I want to, and can, write. It’s not first thing in the morning, although that would be most convenient. It’s really more like mid-morning to early afternoon. That’s my peak focus time. What I need to do then, to really take advantage of that focus, is rearrange my day so that I have 2-3 hours for my own writing between 10 and 1. The rest of the day can be for other people’s writing and for email and admin. Yesterday and today I am managing this, and I feel so much better. It’s unlikely I will keep it going indefinitely, but I have figured it out, and that’s a big step in the right direction. Forcing myself to sit down at 7am and be erudite and focused is not going to work. I have to accept this about myself and work with it – for the time being, anyway.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The other lesson I am learning has to do with my reduced concentration span. I am sure social media has something to do with this – flitting from one post to the next – but I think it’s also probably got to do with how interested I am in what I am reading or writing, and what else is going on in my life and in my head. It would be brilliant if we could just turn off the rest of our lives when we write – the kids being sick and keeping us up half the night, unwell family members, stress about the declining state of the country we live in, annoying issues at work, etc – and just focus only on the writing. I hear rumours about people who can do this, but I am not one of them. Life and writing happen together, and sometimes the former completely messes up plans for the latter, for days on end.

I used to tell myself I could not write at all unless I had a big block of time, like a whole morning or day, and complete silence and calm. I can hear you chuckling. It’s cool, I can see my error now. Advisors would tell me to take what time I could carve out, even just 30 minutes, and dive in. It took me a long time to learn how to do that usefully, but now, even one good pomodoro a day can push a paper or chapter forward measurably, if I can use my reduced concentration span cleverly for that 25 minutes. Rather than making myself feel bad for not being able to focus for hours on end, I use what time I can create, in small bursts, and I praise myself for writing instead of curling up in a metaphorical ball until a whole chunk of time magically presents itself to me, with no distractions or stress or life to get in my head and in my way.

Underneath learning how to know myself as a writer is self-acceptance, and self-love. To know yourself is to be enlightened – to have understanding, awareness, insight. But using that insight to berate yourself for not being more – more like others, more focused, more energised, more clever, more anything other than what and who you are – can be an obstacle to your writing progress, rather than a push forwards. Like I said earlier, we can and should be open to change and growth: I am not the writer now that I was 5 or 10 years ago, and I have worked hard to change some bad writing habits. What I am saying here is that trying to make yourself a morning person when you just are not is not productive or helpful. Trying to make yourself like a colleague who can write in the middle of the night, or on a train, or super-fast, when these things don’t work for you, is not helpful.

You need to track your own energy and focus patterns, and make adjustments to your day so that you work with, rather than against, yourself; you need to look at what is taking up your time for writing, and work out where to put those things on your priority list so that writing comes out much higher up. And you need to be kind to yourself, and encouraging – as kind and encouraging as you would be to a peer or student struggling with their own writing. Learning about your writerly self is a powerful step towards becoming a happier writer, and happy writers are generally more successful writers too*.

*This insight is borrowed from Helen Sword’s book: Air and Light and Time and Space. How Successful Academics Write. Harvard University Press, 2017.