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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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.