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.

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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.

Creating bigger rooms for different bodies and beings in academia

In a small break from writing a very scary application for something I really, really want, I saw this tweet on friend’s Facebook wall:

This was pretty much exactly what I needed to hear, but it got me thinking a bit about all the rooms I have earned the right to be in over the years (and how I have felt like I should apologise for my presence in too many of them) and also rooms I have been allowed into not yet having really earned the right to be there, because of ugly things like structural privilege and systemic hierarchies (but this is for a different post).

As a woman (in academia, and in the world), I have learned over the years to take up just the right amount of space, or maybe a bit less than that. I have learned to be clever, but not so much so that the men in the room get uncomfortable (and some of the women too!); I have learned to be assertive, but not so much so that I am accused of being pushy and aggressive; I have learned to be ambitious, but not so much so that colleagues are threatened by me and don’t want to work with me; I have learned to dress so that people take me seriously, but not too seriously because then I’m not feminine enough, or fun enough. It’s #$%&ing exhausting. And it never ends.

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I enter many rooms because I really feel I have earned the right to be there, because of my years of study, my writing, my patience and endurance through poorly paid and not-very-inspiring contract work, tolerating obnoxious colleagues and public put-downs, surviving obscure bureaucratic mess-ups with contracts, salaries, student issues, and so many other things. But, and this is the thing that got to me about that tweet, I almost never really feel like I can just be, in many of those rooms. There are a few rooms where I can expand and grow and just take up the space I take up, and those spaces are all too rare, and wonderful. I protect them fiercely, and never take them for granted, because there are way more rooms in which I am taking the temperature, reading the crowd, judging how much space I can take up, and whether I will be allowed to even stay in the room.

Imposter syndrome is part of this perhaps – that sense that you really don’t have the right to be there, and that you’re faking it by even trying, and someone will know that and call you out and expose you for the fraud you are. But this is also what this tweet speaks to, for me: to speak back to that imposter syndrome, and argue that you actually are not a fraud. You have worked hard, and paid your dues, and you actually do have a valid voice that should be part of the conversation. This is not easy, because the Imposter voice can be loud, mean, and quite insistent. It’s harder to push back against that, and just walk into the room and stay there, and be just you. Especially if you are not someone who is already ‘in’ by virtue of being part of the dominant and overtly valued ways of being in the academy (i.e. if you are black or queer or a woman or a trans person or disabled or working class or non-mother tongue, etc. – and many different combinations of these things too).

I know too many younger scholars and academics just disillusioned by the ways in which academia continues to try – apparently quite hard – to gatekeep and police who gets to enter which rooms, when and for how long. There are too many people in my extended circle – in person and on Twitter and Facebook – who are just tired of having to fight to take up space they have earned the right to take up, many times over. It’s exhausting, and it flattens you the longer it goes on. We have to change the story, meaningfully, and open academia and the work it does – research, teaching, publishing, supervision, and so on – to new bodies, voices, knowledges, ways of knowing and being.

We can’t say ‘socially just education is vital’ and then keep pushing out people who would actually be able to enact that in new, interesting, challenging and meaningful ways. We can’t say ‘we value social inclusion’ and then shut out people who don’t conform to some tacit, unexamined notion of what the ‘right’ kind of scholar or academic is. That’s not meaningful, and that’s not change. This change has to come from all sides – from university management that has to actively enact policy change (see here for an interesting take on this broader issue); from academics already in the system who have the power to make changes in their practices, contexts and departments; and from us – the scholars bravely walking into rooms and refusing to apologise for taking up space in them, and for being who we are. It cannot all be on those already fighting to just be part of the conversation, and this happens all too often.

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For me, I am reminded that I have a voice, I have something to say and offer, and I need to just keep working on walking into the rooms I want and need to be in, and staying the course. And, as I do that and move through the system and accumulate relative power and freedom, to follow Toni Morrison’s exhortation to all of us who have measures of power and freedom within structures and systems: to use that which you have to empower and free others, to enable them to pay it forward too, and slowly but surely dismantle the systems that reinforce rather than challenge the status quo. It may sound idealistic, but in our current global moment, I don’t think a little pragmatic idealism is such a bad thing.

Not ‘that’ kind of doctor

On a flight home from a teaching block last week, there was a medical emergency on the plane. The crew, as they do in these situations, asked for a doctor to make himself or herself known (and then asked for any medical professional to come forward). A Swedish doctor sitting next to me stood up, and spent the rest of the flight with the passenger, until we landed and she was handed into the care of paramedics. This was my first such experience, and I fly often. I found myself, for a brief moment, thinking: ‘I wish right now I was ‘that’ kind of doctor – that I could help out here’.

But, I am not that kind of doctor. I call myself Dr. I have a right to that title. But, as a friend of mine said of his own similar title, after a similar experience on a flight last year, ‘It’s not the useful kind of Dr.’ I was talking to my son about this yesterday, and he asked: ‘well, what is the use then?’

This, of course, got me wondering: what kind of ‘doctor’ am I, and what can I help you with, in that role?

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Maybe a good place to start is thinking about what having a doctorate means. What can you do, or be, that you could not without one? The main aspect of the qualification, and the work involved in gaining this, is research capacity. Whether by ‘big book’ or publication, or art installation, the average PhD project is a research project. You are creating an argument in response to a research question, and that research question is asked because there is a knowledge gap in your field that needs to be filled. The main requirement of any PhD, at its core, is a contribution to knowledge in your (and perhaps even an allied) field of study and/or practice.

It follows then, that doing a doctorate enables you to expand your knowledge of a slice of the world – that related to your area of study, and your research problem and questions. But, to expand your own knowledge, and build on what is known to say something new, and valid, you need to do an awful lot of critical reading, writing, speaking and thinking. A doctorate, then, also enables you to gain, and develop, scholarly skills and practices. You learn to become a more efficient reader, and writer; you learn to make deeper connections between allied ideas and arguments, and critique those which seem incorrect or incomplete; you learn to articulate, in writing and speech, what you think and why you think it, and what it could mean in relation to other meanings. You learn to create a whole, and build that whole through creating and connecting parts – theory, literature, methods, data, and so on.

All of this work, then, over the 3 or 4 or 5 years it can take to research and write a doctoral thesis – in whichever mode you are writing yours in – offers you a sustained opportunity not just to actually do research and write about it, but also to reflect on the meta-level work involved. What forms of writing are more effective and persuasive than others? What kinds of verbs signal your intent in argumentation best? What kinds of structure work most effectively for different parts of the argument, to weave it all together? What does not work at all, and why? In other words, you have opportunities to work out not just what to write about or research, but also how and why to research it and write about it, following certain rules, or bending certain rules about doing and writing research in your field.

As a qualified ‘doctor’, then, you have the insight, learning and ability to offer other researchers, and postgraduate student writers, help with their own writing and research processes.

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You can do this as a formal supervisor, taking on the role of guide to your own postgraduate students, as your supervisor was a guide to you. You can do this as a writing coach or peer writing consultant, either in a writing centre, or in a more informal or private capacity. You can blog, as I and many others do, about research and writing, sharing what you have learned. There are different roles you can play, with a doctorate, to step up alongside a student who is struggling – experiencing some equivalent form of the medical emergency in my flight – and offer advice, an empathetic ear, guidance, and even direction where this is needed.

There is, then, quite a lot of usefulness in doing, and having, a doctorate. I may not be able to help you if you are having a heart attack, but I can help you create and carry through an argument in a paper; I can help you work out what you want to say in your paper or thesis, and follow a structured process that will enable you to say it more clearly and persuasively. I can offer broad-level advice, and fine-grained feedback. I can draw on my own learning, to walk alongside you as you work through similar learning, and hopefully help you learn from some of the missteps and mistakes I have learned from (even though I may have to let you make these too).

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In a higher education sector that, globally, seems to be marked increasingly by academics and scholars feeling isolated, overwhelmed, alone in their struggles, those who have the ability, and capacity to put their hand up and move forward when called on are increasingly needed, and valued. The more we are able to step alongside one another, as peers and as mentors, the less lonely and isolating the PhD journey will be – or any other research, writing and learning journey for that matter. I am not ‘that’ kind of doctor, then. But I can put my hand up, and I can help.

Publishing and thesis-ing: finding the courage of your convictions

Lovely husband and I have been talking lately about a group of new research students he is working with. He observed yesterday that part of their struggle with writing up their research projects is that they lack confidence in their claims. This got me thinking about making arguments in academic writing, and putting ideas out into the world. A great deal of the advice out there has to do with how to do this, and why we do this – craft persuasive, well-written, well-substantiated arguments. But, in this little post, I want to reflect a bit on a less written-about aspect of publishing writing, whether in paper or thesis form: finding the ‘courage of your convictions’, and being confident enough to stand by these. 

A friend and colleague who works with postgraduate students has a lovely saying: she says that a big part of writing at postgraduate level and beyond is being brave enough to ‘put your hands on your hips’ and make your claims with that level of conviction. This is a lot easier than it sounds. With a group of writers I worked with late last year – postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars writing journal articles for the first time – the issue of confidence came up in one of our sessions on argumentation. One of the scholars commented that it’s hard to know if you are saying the right kinds of things, and if people will agree with you. He added that writing at this level feels risky, and scary. I am sure this feeling of fear, and trepidation, is familiar to any of you who have had to write for a supervisor, or peer reviewer, or lecturer who will judge your work. You know that, pretty much always, some aspect of your work will need revision, further work. You(r writing) will be found wanting, to a greater or lesser degree.

I try to see this as just my writing that needs work, but the truth is, my writing is always personal. And critique of my writing is personal, and it feels like it is me who has not measured up. After all, those papers contain my thoughts, my convictions, my take on what is interesting and important to my field. And when a reviewer says ‘nope, not quite there yet’ – even nicely with constructive suggestions for improvement – it hits my confidence. I lose some of the courage of my convictions, my hands slide off my hips and I wonder: ‘how did I get this wrong’?

My initial reaction, because I am me, is always to go to the extreme: they hated it, it was a terrible paper, no one likes my ideas, I should not be an academic. Then after a day or two I calm down. I moderate this mean voice in my head, and see that, actually, the reviewers did not hate the paper, and they don’t think my ideas are rubbish. Mainly, the reviews I have received thus far, even the most negative ones, have pointed out positive aspects of my work, and have given me food for thought and revision.

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But getting back up again takes a while, especially when the reviews seem mean, and ask for a lot of extra work in getting the paper on track. It’s hard to keep those hands on my hips, and believe that my argument is valid, and interesting to others, and necessary to have in print. It’s too easy to just give up, shelve the paper, and wallow in the sense that my ideas are boring (and, of course, that I am too).

I think, therefore, that a significant part of writing for publication, or writing a thesis at postgraduate level, has to include confidence-building. Supervisors and reviewers need to be aware of this in their feedback, and focus on phrasing feedback in ways that indicates clearly the need for revision and further work without breaking the writer’s confidence so much that any further work feels impossible. Writing courses need to include discussions that recognise, openly, how difficult writing at this level can be: not just technically, but emotionally and psychologically.

Putting yourself on paper – which is what every argument is – and putting that part of yourself out into the world for others to read, critique and argue with takes courage. If you are new to publishing, or have a shaky supervision situation where you don’t get useful or encouraging feedback very often, it is even harder to be brave. And more than that, to believe that you have something worthwhile to say, that other researchers and readers in your field will want to know about.

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BUT: you do have something worthwhile to say. You(r efforts) are valuable. Finding, and holding, the courage of your convictions is not always easy. But, it is worth the effort.

On sexism in academia

When I started this blog in 2013, my primary audience was working women in academia, balancing work, PhD study and the demands of family life. I am so honoured to have a  wider readership now, and in so many different countries and academic spaces, but as a woman in academia, a mum and wife, a researcher, and a feminist, one of my chief concerns is still helping women, like me broadly speaking, to navigate at least some aspects of their personal, professional and PhD lives as they traverse these spaces.

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I have been thinking a great deal lately about sexism in academia, and all the big and small ways it makes itself felt. I had an encounter, recently, where a senior colleague who works at the university at which my husband still works (and where I used to work) asked me to apply for a post advertised in his faculty. But, rather than approach me (and he does know me well enough to do that), he sent me a message via my husband to tell me about it. My husband replied that it would be better to approach me directly, but did come home and tell me about it. Not only was this, for me, unprofessional; it was sexist. I was pretty angry about it.

I would not, I am very sure, have been given a message to pass on to my husband, unless it was to ‘say hello’ or ‘give regards’. Before you think I’m being overly sensitive, this is underscored by several other messages male colleagues have asked my husband to pass on to me over the years, including when I still worked at the university. And a former line manager meeting me for the first time, in a job interview, with the greeting ‘So you’re the other half of [my husband’s name]’. No, dude. I’m the whole me. And that same line manager dressing me down in front of peers and colleagues in a high level meeting for not being at my desk when he stopped by the day before, because I was on family leave taking care of a sick child and trying to work from home. And then proceeding to tell us all about a male professor who works 7am to 11pm, 6 days a week, and publishes prolifically, and is the epitome of academic success and worth (and has no children, partner, ageing parents, pets … or life, it seems). Ho hum. Taken together, all of these events can have the effect of making you feel smaller, less self-confident and less able to take up the same amount of space as your male colleagues can.

So, sexism is alive and well in my lived experiences of academia, and in those of many other women around the world. A recent piece in The Conversation reported on research that shows that women get less funding than men in the biomedical sciences, and tend to apply for smaller grants; a further piece in University World News reports that women are under-represented in senior academic positions across European universities, and elsewhere, such as in South Africa, the same is certainly true. Most of the research I have read speaks a great deal about how to change all of this; far fewer stories celebrate significant changes happening, although we are taking steps forward, particularly in the social sciences.

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What interests me, personally, is what role I can play in celebrating my own and other women’s achievements in academic spaces, and in amplifying women’s voices, and research. What can any of us do? Here are a few of my initial thoughts:

  1. Amplify one another’s voices: Have you ever been in a meeting where 3 women will make the same basic point and the male chairperson will only really hear the point when a male colleague echoes it? I have. A lot of women I know have. So, one thing we can do practically is to amplify one another’s voices, using a fantastic tool women staffers working in the White House during Obama’s presidency put into practice: amplification. Essentially, how it works is that if one woman makes a point that is not heard or noted, another woman in the meeting will repeat it, giving her colleague the credit for suggesting it. If it is still not heard, a third woman will speak up, crediting the first two, and so on until the people in the meeting have no choice but to hear the point, and credit the woman who made it.
  2. Stop being so bloody modest: The male researchers and academics I know have no problem talking up their research, and promoting their achievements: grants won, books published, papers cited many times for being amazing, etc. No problem. But, and I am pretty sure this is not just me, I am less comfortable doing this. Women are taught to be modest, and not to be too brash, or self-congratulatory or in-your-face – it’s unladylike and makes other people [men, mainly] uncomfortable. The trouble with this learned behaviour, though, is that many women can also become squirmy when other women ‘brag’ on social media, or in person, about their papers published, or grants won or laudable achievements. We have to stop this, and start not only being less modest about our own achievements, but also add this to the amplification. ‘Did you hear about J’s grant – her stem cell research is really groundbreaking!’ Have you read C’s paper on a critical history of women resistance fighters in Africa? It’s really fantastic! Your students should read it too.’ And so on. We need to be our own, and each other’s, cheerleaders.
  3. Create and sustain supportive spaces: I am always encouraged, inspired and energised by meeting with other women colleagues and peers, spending time talking about our research, our lives, our writing and so on. I feel surrounded by people like me in the sense that they get where I am coming from, and what I struggle with, often without me even needing to put it all into words. We so often, in academia, feel alone. We feel we are the only ones not coping with PhD and home and work, or not writing papers, or not doing Impressive Research, or not winning grants, or not being Good Enough. We are SO not alone, and reminding ourselves of this, and learning from one another as we support and cheer on one another, is a really good idea. We need to be creating and sustaining supportive spaces and cultures in academia – formal and informal – so that we can give ourselves and one another this emotional and intellectual sustenance and support.

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It is  galling that we still have to read so many stories of women in academia struggling to reach the seniority of their male counterparts, struggling to balance the demands of childcare with those of research, teaching and administration – often without sufficient support from their university – and struggling to make their voices heard above the still-male-dominated din. But, we do, because sexism in academia (and in society) is alive and well. But, it can be fought – it is being fought, and gains are being made. To keep the momentum moving forward we  can all be doing our part where possible, amplifying, listening to, supporting, and learning from one another. We’re worth it.