Deciding whether to do academic writing right now

It is always a good exercise to think through why we write, though we pause to reflect on this question relatively rarely. In normal academic times, we might say things like:

◦ I need to finish this paper for my class because I’m trying to get through my first year of grad school
◦ I am trying to get tenure, and I know that the departmental norm is two publications a year, so I want to submit three things this year
◦ I wrote an abstract for this conference and it was accepted and now I have to write the paper because I already bought my plane ticket
◦ I feel called to contribute to the academic discussion about this topic and I have helpful insights that will move the conversation in useful directions
◦ Writing grounds me and helps me feel like I know who I am

And so on. Academic writing, like many things, is quite vulnerable to co-optation by what Jay Smooth calls “The Little Hater,” that part of ourselves that criticizes our creative production even as we’re trying to write. Many academic writers have a version of the Little Hater psychically transcribed from some teacher who was mean to us or in some way told us we weren’t smart and would never make it as a scholar, and we fold that voice into a neoliberal productivity fetish. During a global crisis, like our current pandemic, a lot of the normal reasons for academic writing aren’t actually very appropriate, and in particular the productivity demon version of the Little Hater is especially pernicious. Since nothing is normal right now, and since all of us are carrying various denominations and sorts of anxiety and stress, we should be actively rejecting logics of productivity as guarantors of self-worth. As I’ve been saying over and over to my students and colleagues: this is not a time to expect ourselves to get any work done.

Still, there are some reasons we might want to or need to write during this time. Reasons could include:

◦ It is really important to me to have a regular time to touch in to something that is not doomscrolling through the news, and writing can be that.
◦ Even though it feels like the world is collapsing, I still need to show productivity to my Dean for some reason.
◦ I have a defense date set for my comprehensive/thesis/etc, and in order to to take up the next thing I’m doing I really want to finish it.
◦ I’m working on something that is meaningful to me
◦ I need to manifest the confidence that my work is worth doing even if it’s not directly related to the pandemic, and writing affirms my belief that we will collectively make it through this, like an anchor cast into a future.

So, the writing exercise has a couple of parts. (If you want to listen to me talking through this with my writing class and follow along, there is a recording here.)

1. Start by sitting in a comfortable way. You might close your eyes for this part. Just begin with feeling how you are – how you are emotionally, physically, how your feet feel touching the ground, how your clothing feels on your body. You’re just getting a baseline of how you feel right now.
2. Call to mind a piece of writing that you are or were working on. Notice how thinking about that work lands in your body, what that feeling is. The idea here is that you’re just feeling the feeling, not judging it or making any particular decision based on it.
3. Notice if some other piece of writing comes to mind as you’re thinking of it, and how you feel about that.
4. Spend a couple of minutes writing down what comes to you when you think about these pieces of writing. What are they? Why are you doing them? How do you feel about them?
5. You could repeat this about any piece of writing that you’re thinking through that feels useful or possible to work on right now.
6. Re-read what you wrote, underlining things that are internal reasons (like, “continuing to write makes me feel grounded”) and things that are external reasons (like, “I think my scholarly work on this topic would be useful to people right now,“ or “My final project is due in three weeks.”)
7. Breaking down the reasons for writing like this can be helpful in checking if things are actually doing what you think they’re doing. If you’re writing because your work is useful to someone, how would you know if it was useful? It’s okay to have your metric of “how I know” be “someone re-tweeted an observation I made” or “my colleague told me they appreciated how I explained x.” If you’re writing because you need to credential, the metric could be “I got a revise-and-resubmit!” If you’re writing because writing helps ease your anxiety, it could be “I felt really rotten, and then I wrote for 45 minutes and felt a bit better.” If your reason for writing is that it helps with your anxiety, but you’re in fact feeling much more anxious after writing, anxiety-management might not a good reason to be writing right now for you.

2 thoughts on “Deciding whether to do academic writing right now

  1. There’s another good reason to write: to respond to and contribute to our understanding of what is happening around us and to offer thoughts and ideas that are not always present on popular media.

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