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.

A schedule is a net for catching December

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. — Annie Dillard

It was the last writing class of term today, and my students and I did a planning exercise. As usual, the exercise was a useful to me as it (I hope) was for them, and so I’m sharing it here in case it is useful to others, too.

The first thing is to reflect on the social space that we enter into as academics and writers in December. There are some things specific for grad students about talking with friends and family over the winter break that I think faculty don’t experience so much, though in general people who aren’t in the academy can’t be expected to ask questions that don’t trigger extreme responses in academics. Still, the meme that goes “Over the holidays don’t ask grad students bad questions like, How is the thesis going? Ask them better questions like, Would you like this free money?” has a lot of wisdom. So, it may be worthwhile to do some active preparation for talking with non-academics about education and research work in social and family settings. A few options:

1. Prepping a small card that you can simply hand to inquirers that says something like “Because it is difficult to explain my thesis topic, I have prepared this short illustration of what I am working on with key words defined” or “I have worked out a policy with my thesis supervisor/ therapist forbidding me from speaking about my thesis; please accept this small sketch of a cat in lieu of conversation about what I am working on or how much longer it will take me” or “Thank you for your interest in my thesis topic; I take it as an expression of love! Sadly, I am not able to speak about it for secret reasons.”
2. Prepping some version of the above but without the card. This can be aided by taking the attitude that while there are some people we encounter who are actively trying to be mean about our research (either that we are doing it at all or because of the specific topic we’re concerning ourselves with) many people are asking questions like “Wow it’s taking you a long time to finish your book” that sound aggressive or make us feel bad when what they mean to be saying is more like “I care about you and I don’t understand this weird thing you’re working on but I assume that it’s important to you and so I am trying to ask you about it.” So our response might be to try to speak to that impulse rather than to the content of their question.
3. Planning to give a useful evasion such as “my supervisor and committee seem happy with the stage I’m at!” or just an outright lie “It’s going so great! I’ve never been happier.”

The basic structure of the university schedule lends itself to a host of very predictable writing difficulties, most of which we actively disavow in our thinking and feeling about writing. Indeed, as Nick Mitchell has gorgeously discussed, the idea of being “off” – for the summer or winter breaks – can produce a poisonous kind of disavowal that structures much of the affective and material conditions of universities. My current obsessions with bad faith have hailed me to think about what it would mean to foreground what I actually know about what’s going to happen and to behave accordingly – and, more, to talk explicitly with students about these things.
One thing we academics in general might think about the winter break is that it will be a time when we can do a tremendous quantity of writing work, magically transforming everything that didn’t happen over the fall term into abundance, redeeming any laziness we think we manifested, validating our existence as productive scholars, etc. Of course on some level we might know that this approach is both unrealistic and self-cruel, but it still offers itself. There are at least two problems with the view that we have nothing but time ahead of us and therefore we’ll do an enormous quantity of high quality writing:

1. We probably don’t have as much time ahead of us as we think we do – on the wage-work side the end of fall term involves a lot of clean up, marking, talking about marking with students, managing inputs from other people, finishing prepping syllabi for winter term, and so on. On the personal side, December is often a month where we encounter all of the baggage that trails along behind the entwinement of capitalism with christianity with the monogamous couple form of reproductive futurity – it is a lucky person who doesn’t have some form of difficult feeling around taking up or resisting “The Holidays” in terms of family, friends, lonesomeness, meaning-making, meaninglessness, and more. I didn’t grow up in a Christian family, have really sweet relations with my family of origin (and no expectation to exchange presents with them), look forward to wonderful time with chosen family this month, and I still feel the intense pressure of December’s imperative to spend money and have a good time in order to recover from the fall and start the new year right. The practical side of this pressure is that there are often just a lot of days that are a write-off from the point of view of writing for any number of reasons – travel/family time/being felled by grief at the first holiday after someone’s death/anxiety attacks.
2. Even if we do have expansive meadows of uninterrupted time in which we can at last, at last, sit down and get some writing done, we skirt the dangers of a) procrastinating on actually starting because there is just so much time there’s no reason to start yet; b) binge-writing such that we fall into a slough of despond the next day after completely emptying ourselves out; c) reinforcing the ultimately both wrong and cruel practice of only writing if we have big uninterrupted chunks of time. These emotional patterns of relating with our writing don’t actually help us, and it’s better to take an approach to writing that is kinder and more sustaining. At the same time, of course, sometimes there really is time to dig in to writing in December, and it would be nice to enjoy that!

So, I’m a fan of making a very stern schedule for what each day will hold in the month of December. In my class, we do this in this order:

*Identify three days in a row that will be purely devoted to wallowing in activities that are non-work, that are pleasures, that rejuvenate, that set us up for ease when we come out of them. These days can’t include coordinating or attending stressful family dinners, or New Year’s Eve parties, or work events. They might involve napping, baths, reading that has nothing to do with research, screen time that is just for pleasure, games, time outside, dates with friends or lovers, cooking and eating, and other activities that feel just really good. These days off are important for re-setting our attention, allowing our constant vigilance to relax, and tuning our parasympathetic nervous system a bit.
*Block out time that will be required for attending holiday activities, or for grieving holiday activities that you won’t be participating in, for pre-event anxiety and for post-event processing. Recognize that it is not reasonable to expect to do work on the same day as any “holiday” activity, though sometimes work does happen.
*Identify two longer chunks, of approximately three 45-minute writing units each, that can be carved out of work weeks, and three smaller units that can be distributed on various days. If there is a longer writing day, such as a six-unit day, it’s important to always assign a one-unit day directly following to avoid post-intensive-writing-despair. The general idea is to have a thread of continuity for the writing work with even one short writing session happening every few days.
*Check to see that in each work week retains at least one day off of writing or work and redistribute work scheduling if needed.

If you’re like me or my students, it will be a bit shocking to see how little time there is actually left in the month for writing. But this realization can be a source of softness and kindness for ourselves, instead of worry: it is better and more generous to accurately plan our writing time than to imagine that we have unlimited time and that we’ll produce unbelievable amounts of gorgeous prose. As always, it’s better to plug along, showing up for the time we’ve planned, allowing our schedule to scaffold our attention so that we can work on things with both hands. And then, when we’re not scheduled to write, to thoroughly enjoy our life.

How do we move from product to process as academic writers?

I’m teaching a thesis writing class this year. This time around, I’ve been documenting the warm up exercises and tools that I use in the class a bit better than I did last year and for some reason I thought it would be worth sharing this one. Just like today’s annoying cooking blogs, there is a preamble, which you can skip if you just want the recipe.

It’s a truism in the study of teaching writing that focusing on the product of writing does not help students become better writers – Donald Murray’s 1972 piece “Teach Writing as a Process, Not a Product” is (depressingly) still a good read. And there are a surprising number of productivity blog posts re-packaging “process not product” advice as though it’s brand new. Often the explanation for how to see writing as a process follows Murray’s lead, identifying “process” as including pre-writing as well as revision. Thus, we begin to see a much bigger field of activity beyond sitting down with cursor or pen as part of writing – reading, taking notes, reflecting, sharing work, talking about what we’re writing about, going back in and polishing it, and much more. This is really useful, but it’s insufficient especially for academic writers working on any longer sort of project like a thesis or dissertation. If we had some success making it through undergraduate paper writing, or even the sort of writing we do in grad classes, chances are good that we got habituated towards writing with a timeframe amenable to producing written chunks in the area of 25-30 pages, where we’d build for a term towards a final paper. Sometimes there’re “process” bits, like draft-writing or the option to revise short work into the longer final product. But it’s usually still possible to write and revise in intensive bursts, pushing through procrastination with a mix of adrenaline, guilt, terror, boredom, and fear to produce something that can be turned in.

For longer work, including the kind of work practice that can sustain us as writers over a lifetime, this approach isn’t good. In fact, it’s terrible and one of the reasons writing is an occasion for so much unnecessary suffering. This approach to writing is politically important, too, as it’s embedded in a metric-organized neoliberal system of measurable and rewardable production of content; perhaps it’s not explicitly meant to shut down odd, creative, twisty, unpredictable writing, but it does. And it does this disproportionally, so that the writers that we don’t ever get to read are racialized, working-class, and otherwise outside the academic mainstream.

The product-oriented writing approach is ripe for and maybe even produces perfectionism-procrastination and magical thinking; when we have something due at a particular time and we haven’t worked on it at all, we can slide into the pattern of thinking that somehow it’ll all just come together. Writing is often non-linear and moves at enormous speed, unpredictably, but I’ve observed that often grad students in particular take incompletes in classes in order to finish term papers, and then become hopelessly stuck.

And so the advice often is to pick a process, but I haven’t seen much explanation of how actually you do that. So here’re two “how” suggestions.

The recipe: Writing process two ways

1. Attend to yourself when you are writing – even when you’re writing in a product-oriented way, since that’s probably the main way you’re writing. Notice what you feel like, what feels good and what feels hard. Notice what music you like, who you’re with, whether you’re writing by hand or on the computer. Notice where you are, what you did to get there, what your entry sequence was. Notice your body, your breath, how you feel. Pick three of the things that, simply, feel like they’re working with some ease and try to do those things again this week. So, if you feel good in a cafe, with noise-cancelling headphones, using a website-blocking software that helps you not randomly scroll through the internet for a fixed amount of time, do that again. If you feel good in a library with silence and a particular friend, see if they will come to the library with you again. If you like writing in a bar in a paper notebook with eight books stacked around you and a particular hat on, try to do that again. See how that feels. If it feels good, do it again. In the second week, try to do that thing two or three times. For most of us, in our real worlds, two or three times of doing writing a week is going to be fabulous, amazing. Some of us have writing processes that allow us to touch in to writing daily or many times a week – also wonderful.

This approach is to set up times and places where you write and to trust that if you show up there and do some writing, you’ll have done some writing and eventually a product will emerge, particulate from a solution. This approach starts from the smallest and least outcome oriented approach you can find, and looks at what happens if you build on it. It’s iterative and completely content-free, and for that reason might sound good but not stick at all. So there’s also idea #2.

2. Think of a product you know you want to produce, and the date by which you need it. Then start inquiring further:
◆ How many words does this thing need to be?
◆ What are the different parts it will have? How many words are those parts, typically (in your own past writing, in the genre you’re writing in, in examples of papers or dissertations that have been successful)?
◆ How many writing sessions are realistically possible between now and the date the thing is due? How many units of writing will make up a session? (Where the most common units are pomdoros or 45-minute increments)
⁃ This should itself be a separate recipe. To determine a writing session, you need to also have a work week, which basically means having a day or two off which you take as entitlement not reward – a weekend. Then you have the work you need to do to sustain your life, like groceries exercise showers seeing friends. Then you perhaps have wage work. All of these things take reasonably fixed amounts of time, and the “writing sessions” that are possible are also units of time. I’ve observed that no academic writer I know can sustainably write more than three 45-minute units in any given work day, and usually we do much less – in my life being able to do between three and ten units a week is quite luxurious.
◆ How much do you write, un-edited, in a unit? How many of them will you need to make it to the product you have? Or conversely,
◆ How much will you need to write in each unit in order to make it to your product?
◆ How many other products are you supposed to produce in this time frame? Is it actually possible to do them? If it’s not, how are you going to manage that?
◆ Assign a number of sessions or units to any given week, and plug away through the words until you have a draft.

I’ve found it useful to think about the ways that products and processes are different. Notably, a process is a human experience, an activity, a thing we are doing. It has duration, material reality, an affect or a mood. It is something, by definition, that it is possible to do because it is fundamentally nothing other than a doing. A process is not a crisis, or an exception. A process is amenable to habit. We can make a process small enough that it doesn’t terrify us, small enough that we’re not able to fail at it. And this means we can make processes that allow us to write, and that is worth doing.

Advice for grad students writing SSHRC and OGS grant applications

Here are the notes and links to the recordings of an informal workshop on doing the initial writing for the SSHRC or OGS programs of study. It is specific to the Canadian context but may have something useful for folks elsewhere. Other caveat: This recording was made from Zoom for the participants beaming in remotely, so it’s a weird camera angle etc.

Audio versions are available through this link

Video versions:
1/3: https://youtu.be/RvxZJ9NtAA4
2/3: https://youtu.be/QqNllpaZLnE
3/3: https://youtu.be/hSXEXn7RNQU

Credit to Karen Kelsky, whose “Foolproof Grant Template” has been very useful to my thinking. I diverge from her in recommending that people do not think about things in terms of “a gap in the literature,” instead framing their work in terms of what we lose if this research is not done, what we gain if it can be accomplished. As I mention in the workshop, I had a dreadful experience working with Dr. Kelsky on one of my grant applications and thus never recommend her one-on-one, but heartily recommend her writing in many areas.

The anatomy of a SSHRC or OGS Program of Study

 Title:

 Context, Objectives, and Research Question:

  1. Statement that positions the reader with you, perceiving the widest possible relevance of the issue/problem you’re attending to.
  2. At least two and no more than three academic spaces in which this topic has been addressed.
  3. However, there has not been sufficient attention to/no one has yet examined/studied/etc … [what happens when we bring these together, attend to a specific area of the big context, etc]
  4. Why does is matter that this has not been addressed, or addressed in the way that you will do it? What bad thing happens? What good thing happens when we do address it? “Without x, we are left with inadequate Y to make important policy decisions…”
  5. I am applying for this grant to address this problem/contribute to the conversation in this way.
  6. “In my graduate work, I will examine X in order to …” “My dissertation asks, …”
  7. Specifics: more about what you will do, ask, investigate
  8. Disciplinary context – what is the conversation you’re participating in?

 Methodology:

  1. “In order to investigate [the question] I will…”; what do you need to do an how do you need to do it to answer your questions?
  2. Data analysis and processing
  3. How is this an excellent approach for your research?
  4. How is it reasonable and possible?
  5. How you’ll address any ethical concerns

 (your) Academic Background and present context: (How awesome are you! why is Carleton such a great place for you to do this work?)

Project Timeline:

Contributions/summing up:

 

Advice on planning to finish your dissertation this year

Here are the recordings, and below are the notes, from a workshop on planning to finish a dissertation in the next year. There are many things specific to Carleton, and I’m making these available especially for the folks who were not able to attend in person, but perhaps they will be useful. Other caveat: This recording was made from Zoom for the participants beaming in remotely, so it’s a weird camera angle etc.

The audio recordings of this workshop are available through this link.

And the video versions are here:
1/4: https://youtu.be/wLkH9kISiEE
2/4: https://youtu.be/SgOULmeZKiQ
3/4: https://youtu.be/RCw_xjbGbCg
4/4: https://youtu.be/baUXYSPCDgE

  1. Orienting yourself, your close ones, your supervisor and committee
    1. Yourself: what do you know about how you actually work? How are you doing? When are things reasonably possible, when are they very hard? Making the internal shift definitively.
    2. Close ones: recognize that “I will be a good parent/partner/friend/lover/etc after I’m done with this dissertation” is not a workable plan. What do the people supporting you need for basic care? How can giving them that also support your process?
    3. Supervisors and committee: how do yours actually work? What do you need to do to convince them that you’re finishing this year and they should sit up and take notice? Assessing how much they believe you about what you’re doing.
  2. Where are you at?
    1. Back-outlining what the dissertation is
    2. The title question
    3. Formatting
    4. Mapping the continuum from the “aspirational dissertation” to the “hang-my head dissertation”

 

  1. Getting a real view of the timelines

DD -6 months: Confirm with your supervisor and committee that you are planning to finish the dissertation within six months, and get a clear sense of what they think will be required to meet that plan

DD -3 months: Submit full draft of dissertation to committee (they may take as much as a month to return comments)

DD -10-12 weeks: Discuss with supervisor who to invite as the External and Internal External (they will approach these people to invite them to serve in these roles)

DD -8 weeks: Submit Submission of PhD Thesis for Defense form

DD -6 weeks: Upload final defense copy to Carleton Central (no further revisions possible)

Defense date

  1. The doing part: Planning activity rather than outcome, but checking on outcomes. Determine your metrics (words? Time? Anything other than “tired must stop”). Scheduling writing. Assuming that the worst happens, and the good-enough dissertation. If-then loops. Limiting work. Committing to breaks and play.
  2. At the end: “managing-up” the administrative apparatus gatekeeping finishing

 

 

Teaching the material: Trigger warnings, what it is, and the ontology-epistemology thing

I’ve just had some wonderful time out in BC, doing interviews for the AIDS activist oral history project I’m working on and starting to look into the history of AIDS criminalization legislation out there (did you know that BC passed legislation in 1990 to send HIV positive people to former leper colonies?). I felt really lucky to have some time with my friends James Rowe and Trudi Lynn Smith, in part for the joy of long friendships and in part because being and talking with them was incredibly rejuvenating. I had a crummy teaching year last year for a whole bunch of reasons, which has been hard for me because normally teaching feels engaged and sparky. This year, I’ve committed to reading and thinking about pedagogy in a way that I haven’t really taken the time to since working as a writing teacher in grad school; talking with James and Trudi about teaching was great on this front on a whole lot of levels that I’m still working through.

I started the school year off, as a lot of people I know did, with the latest round of debates on trigger warnings – this one sparked by the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students. (I liked this response on elitism in this debate, this one on what’s wrong with lay people thinking it’s good to spring traumatic things on people who’ve experienced trauma, and this one from last year’s iteration of this yearly flap about what’s wrong with thinking that giving content warnings somehow coddles students). I’m perpetually obsessed with the entanglement of how we know about the world and how the world is, which lately I’ve been thinking about in terms of what it means to think that “decolonization is not a metaphor,” as Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang put is, and what it means to see the ontological turn as of a piece with racist theory – and am I ever grateful that Zoe Todd has joined the department where I teach, because her work is so generative on this question. I come to this through Donna Haraway and Karen Barad too (I love how this interview kind of summarizes a lot of Barad’s massive book Meeting The Universe Halfway), and through Karl Marx, George Smith, and John Holloway in their engagement with the question of what the difference between understanding the world and changing the world might be.

ANYhow, I’ve been thinking that one mistake the people who critique content warnings in university contexts get wrong is that they think that what’s going on is just or mostly epistemological – that we teachers are giving information about what claims, depictions, and topics will be treated in upcoming material or discussion. If you take this view, all the criticisms about how some people are triggered by breakfast, therefore I shouldn’t have to flag a film where someone is raped or killed make a little more sense; it’s really not possible, within the field of knowing, to know all the things that our students may have experienced and thus what might hit them in such a way that they won’t be able to engage the material in the class (etc). But of course when the conversation gets going, that overlay – an epistemological concern about the limits of what it’s possible to know about and for our students – quickly shifts to an ontological refusal to be in the classroom with them in a particular way. That way is recognizing that we are not capable of predicting all the things that might interrupt our pedagogical commitment to working with students on learning, that learning is a fragile and vulnerable space for everyone involved including teachers, and that being together in the classroom involves caring for each other. The distribution of that care is not obvious (students don’t have a burden to care for teachers, but at the same time sometimes they can be nasty in ways they oughtn’t) and it’s definitely mal-distributed (racialized and Indigenous teachers, women teachers, queer teachers, precarious teachers, and disabled teachers all bear the bulk of affective care-giving pedagogical labour in the university). But thought of in terms of being in an entangled world, giving a trigger warning expresses a commitment to understanding that what’s happening between teachers and students is not merely epistemological but it is also world-making, and entangles being, knowing, and politics. That’s why I give them, and I wonder if that’s why people resist them – it’s so much harder to teach as though our bodies, feelings, and entangled being were always with us in the room.

On this, I’ve loved Ada Jaarsma, Kyle Kinaschuk, & Lin Xing’s piece on “teaching existentialism existentially” since it came out. Talking with Trudi about teaching resonated with some of what they raise, maybe in part because she’s an artist and an anthropologist, and maybe in part because of what and how she teaches. She loaned me a few books that I’m still thinking through but that feel generative: Lynda Barry’s books Syllabus and What It Is, Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, Michael Taussig’s I Swear I Saw This. These are such interesting books! I feel as though they’ll really help me think about what it is to teach more materially – that is, to teach the material while holding an understanding of how we’re all also materially entangled and implicated, but also to teach in a way that engages and grows students’ capacities. But this is difficult! I had an assignment in one of my sex & sexualities seminars riffing on Ladelle McWhorter’s brilliant work in Bodies & Pleasures about cultivating capacities for unexpected pleasures, in which they actually took up practices of various kinds. While it was amazing to see what they did I also felt out of my depth in a way that thinking about integrating drawing or hand writing into classes also makes me feel.