Becoming a more resilient writer/scholar

Recently, I have been reading and thinking quite a bit about resilience in academia. This has mostly—but not only— been prompted by my surprise at how difficult I found it to complete the corrections and final revisions of my book manuscript recently. The other prompts are next week’s post topic. For this post, I am focusing on resilience as a writer/scholar. Why was I so acutely plagued with self-doubt and so unable to even open files that contained feedback and notes on corrections? I consider myself to be a pretty rational, realistic and resilient writer. So, why was this all so very difficult when it should be been easy? And, how, or what, can I take away from this on my path to becoming a more resilient writer?

Image from Pexels.com

There are a few ways in which resilience is conceptualised or understood in academia, specifically. The ‘mainstream’ notion of resilience seems to be quite individualistic in the sense that we are each tasked with finding our own ways to become more resilient. In this sense, I think resilience is cast as self-reliance and independence, and as scholars we must all be independent and self-reliant, able to motivate ourselves and sustain passion and interest in our work. As writers, we need to be able to create projects and see them through, writing every day or a few days of every week whether we are alone or in a group (mostly online these days). If we cannot keep this all up, we feel shame and anxiety: what if I can’t publish and thesis and be all independent like everyone else? Maybe I shouldn’t be an academic? I see this understanding of resilience echoed in so many tweets from PhD students, MA students and early career and precariously employed academics, particularly.

Firstly, everyone else—especially these days—is also anxious and stressed and struggling with these ‘alone together’, socially distanced, online or remote teaching, working and social lives. And, even in non-pandemic times, there are probably very few people around you who are totally self-sustained and intrinsically motivated superstars who never waver, or doubt or fall behind schedule or need help. Are there any academics like this? I doubt it. So, we can actively start to let go of the shame, at least, and the pressure we may put on ourselves to be solely responsible for being superstars. Academia, and success in this world—however you define that for yourself—is not a solo project. We need our communities of students, peers, colleagues, even managers, around us to create the environments in which we work, and hopefully thrive.

The problem is that academic institutions are part of the world and the world is largely run by some version of neoliberalism, which is highly individualistic and ‘every person for themselves’. We are told that we have to be independent and self-motivated and self-regulated to be successful and that relying on others for help and support is a weakness, rather than strength. Now, I know the whole concept of neoliberalism is complex and the debate about its effects in academia, on staff and students and management, is huge and complex too—I don’t have the space here to do that justice. But the basic trend is towards the self—you are responsible for finding ways to become resilient, and the system is not obliged to offer you help. You must change to fit the system, not the other way around.

What we need, then, is to lift up and develop the more more socially just, critical understanding of resilience, both what it is and how to build it. This is a more communal, systemic conceptualisation that holds that structures or systems, such as a Doctoral Studies Programme or a staff development programme for Early Career Researchers, need to actually be designed and maintained to help scholars—researchers, writers, lecturers, supervisors—become more resilient through being more, rather than less, linked into and connected with supportive systems. Asking individuals to become more resilient on their own or fall apart trying is probably why there is such an increase in peer-reviewed and more popular writing on wellness and mental health in academia, and concerns that academics’ mental wellbeing is under threat.

How do we address resilience-building as a community? How do we connect scholars with one another, and create more supportive writing development within our universities? This is part of my work, my career, and something I am exploring in a new research project. Resilience is about emotional wellbeing and resources as well as about mental and physical resources and wellbeing. I learned this again in doing the last round of corrections and revisions on my book manuscript. I had to fight feelings of self-doubt (the book is basically rubbish), Mehness (who cares, no one will read it anyway), frustration (why didn’t I see this the first 10 times I read it); I also had to battle against self-sabotage (I have many more far less important things to do first). And, I had to wage these battles tired from teaching online, reduced sleep quality due to staring at a screen all day, kids at home and needing to be checked up on and helped with schoolwork, and general anxiety and stress about Covid and the world falling apart around us.

The emotional toll of academic writing, reading, thinking, and all the associated processes of peer review, feedback, critique, revisions, rewriting and so on cannot be underestimated. Especially because we are all people with full-time lives outside of whatever work and studying we are engaged in. Add to my small story above that I have a nice house with a garden and space inside to work alone without (much) noise disturbing me and that my kids are in high school and that my husband is home and is a pretty supportive guy. What if I had been trying to do all this in a smaller flat or house with no outside space of my own, preschoolers or kids in primary school needing a lot more hands-on homeschooling, and no husband or partner to help me? Now, tell the first me and the second me that we need to have the same amount of resilience and strength to cope with day to day academic life, and that the systems we work in are not obliged to be considerate of the differences in our situations and support structures.

Women must publish as much as men and if we cannot (because we are bearing the brunt of the burden of having kids at home during lockdowns and school closures) then we are clearly not prioritising our work properly. Younger scholars must publish as much as they can so that they can compete for jobs in an oversupplied academic job market, and they are often encouraged to publish in paywalled journals, limiting the reach and impact of their research. Postdocs are overworked and underpaid, everyone is trying to work out how to teach and assess and supervise effectively and fairly online in environments with varying levels of internet access and familiarity with technological platforms and tools. And, we must be very resilient in the face of all of this, more so if we are women, and/or early career scholars, and/or black scholars, and/or scholars with a disability, and/or scholars caring for children and/or older parents or relatives. The system still values the free, unencumbered scholar who can live the life of the mind without pesky interruptions like parenthood, domestic labour or finding money to pay the bills.

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

I think the issue here is that academia as a system tries to pretend it is fair and offers the same opportunities to all. But, when you cannot take up an opportunity because you are on contract and have no research funding or because you have young kids you cannot leave or because you don’t have university leave due to your contract conditions, then who or what is really at fault here? You, because you had the same opportunities and you chose not to take them? Or a system that wants to pretend that everyone is equally able to work at the same pace and in the same ways and under the same conditions? Do those in positions of power over the money and the way the system works change the system to make the opportunities fairly available to all scholars or do they keep prioritising those who don’t have to worry about funding, who don’t have to worry about making alternate care arrangements for kids and/or elderly relatives to attend late afternoon or evening meetings or seminars, who don’t have to figure out to publish from a PhD or MA with little guidance or overt help (like a short course or publication mentoring)?

In general, the system keeps on keeping on. Some universities (like mine) are making changes towards creating a more equitable system. But on the whole, academia still asks us as individuals to work out how to live and work and teach and write and supervise and research and compete for funding in ways that are not necessarily systemically supported or enabled; we must be resilient in spite of the system as it is, rather than because it creates more communal, enabling environments in which to become and be scholars. And this is a problem. We can neither experience nor create socially just and equitable higher or further education opportunities if universities continue to put the onus onto individual scholars to become and be resilient in the face of mounting pressures and demands with little commensurate support and recognition. That is not a sustainable situation, as so many early career scholars and precariously employed academics can attest, at the very least.

We have to do better. Universities have the power to change; to behave less like profit-making corporations and more like organisations involved in nurturing, supporting, and educating people. The mission and vision needs to be about an ethic of care and social justice, and it needs to start with the system itself as well as with the individuals within it. Of course, I am responsible for how I set up my work week and plan my time so that I can meet the work commitments I make to peers, students, colleagues. But, as a lecturer, I can acknowledge that my students have complicated lives, too and I can make adjustments to my expectations and teaching plans so that they feel that this is recognised. I can encourage them to create and sustain peer groups and make relying on and assisting their peers normal, and not a sign they they are not being ‘proper’ students. As a supervisor, I can offer feedback to my students in ways that encourage and challenge, rather than demean and hurt, them. As a mentor and colleague, I can make my own failures and struggles more visible and share with students and peers how I draw on my own individual and communal resources to overcome these, learn from them, and move forward.

Instead of hiding all the work that goes into doing what I do—which I am told makes me seem like I am super-resilient and organised and sorted—I can make this more visible, more open to those around me (especially students). What do we have to lose in doing more of this—in being more human and connected and supportive of ourselves and others? I think that this probably takes courage, especially in a system that associates failure with shame and anxiety, and it is not easy. It is so much easier in many ways to pretend that everything is fine and that I am fine and that I don’t need help. But, I do, maybe more now than I ever have. And I am getting better at not over-apologising and shaming myself for missing a deadline or needing more time or more help or more consideration. And I feel better. I feel less anxious and stressed and unable to cope. But becoming more resilient is a process and it is not linear: new and different projects create different needs and stresses and trigger different kinds of doubt and struggle. I do know that I cannot do this alone and I am so grateful for my communities and for their offers of help and support. Getting better at accepting them is one way I am becoming a more resilient writer and scholar, as is learning all the time how to be kind to myself as I walk this path.

Pexels.com

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?

pixabay.com on Pexels

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.

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

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).

Photo by lalesh aldarwish from Pexels

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.