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?

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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.

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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.

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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.