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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hashtag AcWriMo fail (so far)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Contributions to knowledge and the ‘knowledge gap’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three “scary-ologies” revisited

A good while back, I wrote two posts about what I considered, in my own PhD, to be “scary”-ologies. These posts are here and here. In essence, I tried to write about ontology, epistemology, methodology and what I termed ‘theoryology’. In this post (on Hallowe’en), with the benefit of a few years of thinking and teaching on these -ologies and a sense that students really do find them pretty scary, I’d like to revisit them and hopefully make them a bit less difficult to understand.

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I am going to focus in this post on ontology and epistemology, how they connect and work together in research studies, and then point towards methodology. These three ‘ologies’ work in tandem – or should work in tandem – to create a coherent approach to framing and designing a research study. But, to get them to work like this, we need to be able to see them clearly, and see how they connect in research.

Ontology is often where we start with research, even if we may not realise it. Ontology is essentially our position and belief about what the world is like. It also closely informs the research paradigm we choose to work within (although it is not the only influence on this). If, for example, you believe that there is an objective natural and social world that exists independently of us knowing it, you may be leaning towards some kind of positivism. If, on the other hand, you believe that “reality” is wholly constructed by human words, deeds, beliefs, structures, etc, then you may be some kind of social constructivist. You cannot ignore your position on what the world is fundamentally like, or those of others (especially those who write the theory, etc. you will cite and use) because they shape what we think ‘counts’ as legitimate research and research questions.

Ontology is kind of wide-open – you can choose an ontology that makes sense to you, because this is usually the starting point in a journey of creating knowledge and becoming a knower. Choices here, though, start narrowing choices in epistemology, and then methodology.

If you lean towards a ‘positivist’ take on what the world is like, then you will only have certain options open to you in terms of your epistemology. Epistemology is essentially how we think we can come to know the world we think exists, so it makes sense that it is closely linked to what we think that world is like. To follow this example, if you think there is only objective reality then, epistemologically, your options are to believe that we can come to know that world through finding the right tools or experiments to reveal that objective truth or reality. This is an approach associated with many of the natural sciences.

To take the other example, if you believe that humans create or construct reality, and that there are thus multiple realities or competing ‘truths’, then you will have other epistemological choices. Your knowledge of what this world is like will also have to be constructed. You wouldn’t be able to know these multiple truths without having some way of also constructing or creating them, which may be guided by some form of interpretive or critical paradigm.

[These are, quite obviously, two points on a longer and more complex continuum of ontological and epistemological choices; I am deliberately simplifying this for the length and form of this post.]

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Epistemological choices, again, narrow your methodological choices, and influence your decisions about the kinds of data you will need to generate and how you will do that. To follow this, if you believe that the natural and social world exists objectively of humans’ actions, beliefs, and so on, then you probably wouldn’t design a qualitative case study methodology, and conduct in-depth interviews. That methodology would make more sense for a critical, interpretive or constructivist study.

There are two key points here: the first is that there are three distinct, yet connected, elements that have to underpin your own research project: ontology, epistemology and methodology. All research is underpinned or guided by choices around these three elements. When you are reading the field, reading theory, and engaging with other writers’ voices, you need to think a bit about where their research comes from, in terms of ontology and epistemology, and keep a critical eye on this. You can’t just put different theorists together, or thinkers together, just because they seem like they are saying the same things (e.g. they both talk about the effects of social structures). If one is conceptualising ‘structure’ as a constructivist and the other as a critical realist, you have two very different arguments, based on different views of what the world is like. So, to be accurate and critical in your own research, you need to pay careful attention to all three aspects of research.

The second key point is that these are choices that have effects or consequences for your research. Again, I am arguing for a thoughtful approach: why are you doing this research, what assumptions about the world and knowledge underpin it, and who shares or does not share these same assumptions and approaches in your field? You will choose to align yourself with those whose ontology and epistemology resonates with your research aims and questions, and your own underpinning beliefs and values. But to critically, carefully and sensibly position your own argument and research questions within an existing field of study, and make a meaningful contribution to the ongoing conversations within it, you need to really think about your own three connected ‘scary-ologies’ – the kinds of choices you have to make and what they mean for the outcomes of your research.

I hope this post has helped you make some sense of these ‘ologies’, such that they may be less scary now, and you can step back and think a bit more critically and thoughtfully about your own (often hidden) assumptions about ontology and epistemology, and then move to make more conscious, substantiated methodological choices. In upcoming posts, I’ll think a bit more about paradigms for research, and methodological choices, but for now: Happy Hallowe’en/All Saints’ Eve/Samhain/All Hallows Eve, if you are celebrating!

All my writing epiphanies happen at 2am

Epiphany is one of those great words in the English language, meaning a moment of sudden realization. It usually feels quite profound and transformative in some way. As writers, you will all know about writing epiphanies. You will also likely know that many of them happen when you are not at your computer or journal, actually working on the writing that the epiphany is about.

I have had two such epiphany moments in the last week. One at about 2am when I was awake. Just because. And one at about 11pm as I was falling asleep, writing some of the most profound words you will never read. Why, oh why, do all my moments of insight and sudden brilliance happen when I am illplaced to do anything productive with them? I was not awake enough to get up at 2am and go and write. And I was warm and cozy. I sometime force myself up at 11pm when I am writing brilliant paragraphs in my head while I’m drifting off, but I can’t always be bothered to do that. So what to do to make something useful of all this insight into my writing?

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Some of the brilliant thoughts are not that hard to remember. For example, the 11pm moment of brilliance revealed that chapter 5 and 6 are in the wrong order, and that chapter 6 is horrible because it’s about the wrong thing. It’s not all wrong, but it needs to be refocused. I was able to remember that, run the idea by Lovely Husband as a sounding board, and it’s in my head now. So that’s alright then. But I have no idea what the 2am moment was about now. I think it might have been nonsense, but what if it wasn’t?

Some of the words I write in my head at 11pm are probably rubbish. But the ones I have made myself get up and write down, when re-read with a clearer head, have actually been words I can work with. This is really frustrating. I want the brilliance – the muse if you like – to be there when I am working, during the day, in clothes rather than pajamas (although I am often found in pajamas at midday). But I do wonder if some of those late night epiphanies and insights do eventually make their way into my daytime writing?

Is the brain like a giant filing cabinet storing everything you see, hear, do, read, etc., waiting for you to recall it at some point? Or is it structured to retain information for a certain period and then clear it out to make way for new knowledge because it has limited RAM? Kind of like clearing a cache, perhaps? My preliminary reading suggests that, while it may feel like your brain clears its cache of certain memories, especially papers you have read or important references, it actually doesn’t. But it’s not quite like a filing cabinet either.

Current research suggests that the brain can probably store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely. Memories are encoded and stored according in groups of neurons connected to the parts of the brain that generated them. So one memory can actually be stored in more than one place, in parts: one part associated with smell, one with sight, and one with the emotions associated. Like seeing and holding your newborn for the first time and smelling their skin. That memory would be reconstructed from the different constituent bits when given an appropriate cue, like looking at a photograph of you and your baby. Research suggests that if you can’t recall information, it’s likely because of a mismatch between the stored information and the cue, or a problem with the retrieval process.

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Further, research suggests that repetition consolidates memory, and makes it more likely to be stored in the brain and recalled at will. So, reading the same thing or seeing the same thing many times makes for a potentially more durable memory than something seen only once or twice. This is what interests me in relation to my epiphany moments. With my book, I am thinking about and planning and reworking the argument all the time, over and over. Many of my late night musings and brilliant paragraphs written in my head are about parts of the book – the same parts thought about in different ways. So, I am wondering if my brain isn’t actually able to treat those as repeated events, and consolidate them so that, with the right cues, some of that can come back into my conscious writing during the workday.

It’s an intriguing thought: some of the late night epiphanies do pop up during the day, right? You wake up thinking you won’t remember and then you read a paper or chat to someone and up it comes, ready to be acted on. Some of them seem to be lost in the mists of amnesia, but maybe the right cue just hasn’t been offered, or there wasn’t enough consolidation to store that memory in multiple places, making it more likely to be recalled.

What I take away from this ramble is that, far from being a problem, these late night moments of insight I cannot always write down, or act on in the moment, are all working like repeated events that my brain is storing and consolidating. If I’m constantly chipping away at the book in all this thinking and scribbling and formal writing during the day and mental writing late at night, then the epiphanies actually are a form of consolidation, where my lovely brain has put some pieces together and gone: oh right! It should look like this! That then stays with me because it’s actually a gathering of many little thoughts and moments all together.

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So, perhaps instead of being frustrated, I should just go with it. Encourage the writing in my head of the best paragraphs people may never read, and the 2am flashes of genius and the aha! moments while I’m driving or cooking. If I let them swirl around, and form memories of a sort, and these all add up through consolidation, they will find their way in one form or another into the book and into anything else I am working on. Scribbling in your research journal, chatting about them with friends, whatsapping them to your virtual writing group – these acts all further consolidate and settle those thoughts, encouraging your brain to really back them up. The more we find ways to write and talk about our research thoughts and musings, I am sure, the better our writing will be for it.