Grounding in why we write – internal and external motivations

In my thesis writing class this term we discussed Joe Kadi’s brilliant piece “Stupidity ‘Deconstructed’,” which looks at the experience of working-class people in the university. I teach this piece alongside Eli Clare’s book Exile and Pride pretty much as often as I can, because I find them both incredibly nuanced, beautifully done, and useful for students in thinking about why they do what they do, as students. It’s useful to have such outstanding examples of what theory can do, if we think about theory as a technology for explaining something that matters to a life. Every class we had an “activity” part of the course, where we do some kind of exercise or skill-building thing, and this class about the uses of theory focused on articulating why we write. We talked about the difference between external and internal motivations for writing, which I find that sometimes we don’t think about enough in academia.

Questions of how to assess whether our academic writing is worth doing and why we do it are heightened during the coronavirus pandemic. I know a lot of people who are saying that their work feels meaningless, empty, parasitic, useless, or laughable in the face of the tragedies and hardships rolling down. As with many other things, before thinking about why we write I think it’s good to first think about whether we’re in a place to even think about thinking about academic work. While it isn’t news that a lot of academic work is irrelevant to transforming the injustice and suffering of this world, we might not be in a space to confront additional layers of existential doom right now. But it has been helping me as I consider whether the work of my life so far has been worth the life I’ve spent on it to think about external and internal motivations for the writing part of that work.

External writing motivations in academic spaces include credentialing (getting a degree or diploma), money (getting grants, merit raises, honoraria, prizes), and recognition (having someone like something you’ve written and acknowledge it in some way). Extrinsic motivations usually have some marker in the world and a yes/no answer: did you get or not get that grant, job, publication, conference invitation? Internal motivations include the felt sense of goodness or completeness – what Audre Lorde talked about as the erotic – that emerges through the difficulty of putting something down. There are craft pleasures of making a beautiful or effective sentence, and a particular satisfaction of formulating something new or documenting something that can offer information to the world. There are also kind of neurotic or repressed internal motivations, which usually don’t have such easy markers – proving to your fourth grade teacher that you aren’t in fact too stupid to go to school because look you got a PhD, or having a felt sense that you have done something well, or being present in office hours with a student having a hard time figuring out a knotty idea – these are not easy to measure from outside.

Intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for doing academic work are often conflated or cathected. This is only a problem when a disavowed intrinsic motivation, like proving to a disapproving parent that we are worthy of love, cannot be solved or met by the things we actually are dong, like trying to publish a paper. The editor is not our parent, so they cannot actually resolve the question of whether we’re worthy of love – and they may not be even able to adequately address whether we’ve written a paper worthy of publication. So, if we funnel all the feelings and needs associated with proving our worth to someone in the past, or trying to live a meaningful life in the present, into professional activities , there will be a misfit between what we need and what it is possible for the scholarly world to offer us. Extrinsic motivations, like getting a paper accepted at a conference, or getting a job, or getting tenure, will never perfectly address intrinsic motivations, like feeling that we’ve crafted a beautiful sentence, adequately articulated something important that one of our interviewees told us in our research, or taught a class in which students really understood something.

I think that academia as a structure and mode of being tends to shape us as people towards cathecting internal motivations onto external motivations – it’s a truism now that academics frequently tether our sense of self to our place in the university, and that universities extract quite a lot of labour from academics based on the idea that we are simply doing what we love. The extractive force of this pattern falls disproportionately, of course, on precarious workers in academia – contract instructors, adjuncts, graduate students. It is sometimes considered crass or opportunist to talk about money or a secure job as a motivation for academic work, and this makes it difficult for us to understand that thinking and writing is work, which deserves to be paid.

As with so many other things, it’s important to be rhetorically strategic about how we disclose our motivations. But we can reflect on what brings us to our writing in ways that can clarify what we can actually get out of it and perhaps that can allow more internal understanding of whether there are intrinsic motivations that will not be solved with the external rewards that are available to us. And internally at least, it can be useful to acknowledge without shame if we’re doing something simply to credential – such as getting an graduate degree. We can give credentialing (or needing to do work to fulfill the formal demands of our job) the dignity it deserves (because there are reasons to get credentials) without needing the degree or academic work to also bring meaning and beauty to our life or the world.

Existentially demanding self-inquiry aside, right now it’s also worth doing this delimiting work because most academics are in a triage situation, deciding what actually *has* to happen because we’re working at really low cognitive capacity. I am confident that the meaningful or useful or uselessly beautiful work we all were doing before the pandemic is still worth doing – but we might not need to do it right now.

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