Writing Group, Week Eight
Hi all —
Sorry for the delay, because I did have something I wanted to talk about. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as OBE and administrivia are taking control of my life. Actually, that’s pretty much it — my life. Or indeed, our lives. This may not be true for all of us, so please use what you can, and if it doesn’t apply, then please think about the fact that for some of us, what I am going to say might be true.
What place does writing have in our lives? I’m actually rather pleased that my friend the Grumpy Historian has serendipitously offered his own advice on writing, some of which I will definitely be taking. At any rate, it is helpful for me to be reminded about writing. Why? because I forget about it. I forget about it in the same way that I forget about going to the gym, or mopping floors, or eating. That is to say, I don’t really forget about it at all; but there are things that must be done, things that others need done. And for many people, myself included, writing has never been anything but ours. Like other things that belong to us, or that seem to benefit us, but not others, writing can become almost a selfish act. And we are not selfish, we professional good girls and boys.
It was not always thus, I imagine. At least, in our lifetimes, those of us with PhDs and DPhils receive our training in institutions where writing is the norm. Hello! we are there to produce a thesis! Get a job! Writing is our job! At least, it’s part of it. In the US, it’s not all of the job. The first couple years include coursework, and one writes for courses. By the time we are working on our theses, we are also likely to be teaching. This is often the first real challenge to our writing habits: the first time we are actually paid to write, we are also paid to deal with students. I was in a postgraduate program where students were actually given some training, and were not allowed into a classroom or lecture hall unsupervised until we had worked with a professor, marked exams with him (or her, but there were only four female faculty in the department at that point of my career, although the number doubled in the next couple of years), and given a couple of supervised lectures. Only after this were we turned loose on our own lecture courses. One of the benefits of this process was that we had evidence that the university thought teaching was important. Another was simply that we were given training and experience. Nevertheless, there were drawbacks: for example, being a good teacher meant a chance at additional funding. On the other hand, the work involved in being a good teacher also meant time taken away from writing. For new teachers, especially, this can be a trap. After all, how much prep is enough? how many comments must we make on papers? For me, the answers were often “never enough” and “more!”
That’s not so true anymore. Other things take up my time, and I now know that I need to prep more than I do. Trying to teach the things I need to teach — things, by the way, that are not at all related to the content portions of my courses — take a lot of time, and require many assignments that need correcting. Before I can teach my students the subject, or at least while I teach the course’s subject matter, I have to teach students how to read, how to question, how to get a grip on the information in and organization of, a textbook. I have to teach them to write not just papers, but exam essays, and in fact to read essay questions. Contact hours are twelve a week in the fall, nine a week in the spring, usually three preps each semester. Add to that meetings with advisees, help sessions for the conscientious and worried, various faculty meetings, about 20 emails a day (just the ones that need immediate answers or action on my part) dealing with discipline, advising, attendance, assessment, campus initiatives, professional organizations, scheduling, advice from colleagues… They are … immediate.
My schedule has things built into it: classes, meetings, therapist, gym, lesson in a thing that is just for me. Writing is not there. It’s implied. On these days, my calendar is clear for X hours. They should be spent writing. But the phone rings. Superdean needs to know X. I look in my email for the info on X. I do X, but by then have noticed several other crying children. It’s past noon, and I should eat. I feed the crying children, and it’s one. I should really eat. At least, I should get a glass of water. I get up for water, and am waylaid by a colleague. I answer the colleague’s question. I answer someone else’s question. I go back to my office and shut the door. I’m missing something — perhaps it’s in my email. An hour later, I have answered more emails and finished commenting on student discussion posts — when did I decide to do that? It was on the list somewhere. Still, forgetting something. Oh, water. It’s three. I can prep, or I can write. I can mark, or I can write. I can finish revising an assignment, or I can write. I can work on phrasing an email asking for assessment data in a non-threatening manner, or I can write. The gym, also in the day’s plan, is long gone. As I pack up my things, some ten hours after arriving on campus, I remember that I wanted some water. No wonder my head hurts. And writing? with so many obligations to other people, it seems selfish to work on my stuff.
Because that’s it. It’s mine. I do it for me. No one else benefits. It’s selfish. That’s true. It’s also true that it’s a part of the job. People who teach at research universities are, I think, better at remembering this. They have course loads that reflect the importance of scholarship, and it’s arguably easier for them to remember that we are also paid for writing. I am almost explicitly NOT paid for writing. I am certainly expected to write, but the expectation is that I do it in my own time, that it should not interfere with my other obligations.
I think that, if scholarship were not such a personal and creative process, it might be easier to see it as work in the same way we see teaching as work. But it is generative, and it is no coincidence that metaphors for writing liken it to pregnancy and childbirth. This is clear in Grumpy’s tip #8: “Create a dust-bin.” We often have a relationship with our words that makes us want to keep them, even when they just don’t fit. They’re OURS, dammit! We have developed out voices, situated ourselves within the academic conversation, and those words, that scholarship, helps to define a part of us to our colleagues, whose approval we often seek.
So on the one hand, we have teaching, a vocation. It is service to others. It is a calling. The word is imbued with ideas of sacrifice, and indeed, we often expect teachers at all levels to make sacrifices. Because they were called to it. Like regular clergy. The asceticism of the monastic life has mostly fallen to the wayside, but the association of the ascetic to vocation (but never vocational) exists for those who teach. There seems to me to be an underlying expectation of self-sacrifice that, when combined with the sort of Professional Good Girl who becomes an academic, and a particular sort of institution, can turn scholarship into luxuria. If teaching is negotium, then scholarship is otium. We hear this often: “I need a vacation so I can get some of my stuff done!” “I wish I had time to work on my work.” I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “Gee, I’ve been so busy writing, I just never bothered to prep!” That goes for the people at research institutions as well — I don’t know a single medievalist, at least, who isn’t pretty conscientious about their teaching. The main difference seems to be that scholarship for them is more clearly a part of negotium, even if it is also otium, while for many of us at SLACs and teaching institutions, there really is a bifurcation of roles and responsibilities. Indeed, the fact that we define our institutions in these ways says a lot.
There’s another aspect to it that I may get to next time. If you noticed, I spoke above about the Professional Good Girl. Some of them are men, but mostly, PGGs are women. And, in fact, next time, I’ll take on the ways in which I think that this bifurcation between teaching and research, between vocation and profession, ties into ideas of gender (which I’ve already touched on in my brief — and oblique — allusions to regular and secular clergy) and why so many of us seem unable to put our writing, and ourselves, first.
Edited to Add: I forgot my report. I got more than bugger-all done, but did not meet my goal. In part, this was because I forgot it was the beginning of advising week, and some of my advisees take a lot of time (three hours for just two advisees this week!). A professional organization I belong to is having some hiccups (no joke — 287 emails since last Sunday, over a hundred since Thursday). I feel like Lloyd Bridges’s character in Airplane. So this week’s goal is to re-think this entirely. At least 30 minutes a day in which I do nothing but work on this bastard article.
Roll call, with week 8 goals
• Adelaide [write a conference paper]: turn the detailed outline into a close-to-finished paper
• Amcalm25/AMChristensen [finish an article]: write for at least 30 minutes/ 5 days
• Amstr [revise and resubmit an article]: 1) write to editors to ask for a week’s extension, 2) complete work on half of paragraph “need-to-do”s, 3) break the lit review tasks down into things that can be accomplished in 15 minutes or so and do half the list, 4) spend an hour working on the intro
• Another Damned Medievalist [write/revise a close-to-final draft of an article]: get through two ILL books, order another two books, pull up some citations one of the grandes dames sent me, and organize that information. Plus 500 new/seriously revised words.
• Antikate [get a detailed outline and several sections for an article]: make up a detailed outline, plus come up with a new and more realistic goal for the overall project
• Belledamesansmerci/Elizabeth [rough draft of a journal article]: Finish a rough first draft of the first passage
• Bitterandjaded/Bittergrrl [finishing a dissertation chapter]: create a plan for incorporating edits and comments into the draft
• Britomart [completing a draft of dissertation introduction]: write for at least 30 minutes per day, starting to flesh out some of the untouched parts of the outline
• Cly(temnestra) [write a book chapter]: finish and polish the workshop paper (plus work on techniques to improve focus while working)
• Contingent Cassandra [complete a full draft of a journal article – note goal may be revised soon]: write on Tues. and Thurs. mornings
• Dame Eleanor Hull [complete a chapter of the article-turned-book]: work at least 1/2 hour a day; add at least 500 words to the chapter; take notes on an ILL book related to he chapter
• Digger [write two book chapters]: half a zero draft of nemesis chapter
• Dr. Crazy [Finish a chapter draft begun this summer]: 4 hours of work on the chapter between now and next Friday
• Dr. Virago [draft a 7500-word essay for a contracted publication]: 750 words, plus contact one of the volume editors and let her know that I’ll need the extension
• Forthright [write two article-length pieces]: write the introduction for that article, and to fill in the linking bits between the already-written sections; clean up some reading odds and ends
• Frogprincess [Final draft of the dissertation]: Finishing and submitting the cussed thing!
• Good Enough Woman [write the first half of a dissertation chapter]: 1) Read 20 pages of primary text, 2) Read one chapter of secondary text, 3) Read two chapters of Descartes, 4) Freewrite for 10 minutes M-F
• Gillian [4 chapters of dissertation]: finish my second chapter (today) and the third is to sort out the half-drafted chapter and to add any research to it
• Heu Mihi [write paper for a faculty colloquium]: 2-3 hours of work on the talk
• Highlyeccentric/nakedphilologist [Draft one thesis chapter]: Dive into the work on section 2, writing on four days of the week
• Janice/jliedl [write a first draft of a chapter]: 3000 words of shitty draft
• Kris [write up a “full” paper and cut down to a 15-minute conference presenation]: Have a full draft of the paper, allowing for some gaps that will need to be filled in
• Lucie: [Complete a full draft of the PhD thesis]: Write 5000 words on last chapter, and continue no-internet morning writing
• Luolin [finish and submit an article]: read backed-up articles, then move on to revising the outline
• Marie [finish turning paper into journal article]: take stock and figure out how to reset goals and make a concrete plan for moving forward
• Matilda [first draft of a journal article]: write every day at least 15 minutes; finishing the introductory part of the draft
• Mike [write ch. 2 of dissertation]: two pages of a draft
• Monks and Bones [turn a seminar paper into an article]: Complete draft of a conference paper
• Notorious Ph.D. [write a conference paper]: write 300 rough-draft words on the background section of the paper
• NWGirl [Revise one dissertation chapter into a book chapter]: update inventory spreadsheet and match to digital images; if possible, start outlining next steps with this material
• Salimata [write a conference paper]: write another 300 words/day
• Scatterwriter [revise three chapters of book]: make one last pass at an book on the to-read list
• Scholasticamama [draft of an article]: redraft lost material from hard drive crash, and buy a portable hard drive!
• Sisyphus [polish the rough draft of my article and send it out]: revise pages 15-18
• Sophylou: [finish revisions on an article and prepare it for submission]: No goal because she’s DONE!!!
• Stemi [First (very rough) draft of review article]: 1) read at least 50 pages in ILL book. 2) 100 new words in outline/draft document
• Susan [write a 7000 word commissioned essay]: spend an hour or so with each of two classic works and add a couple of good sentences on each.
• Trapped in Canadia [draft two chapters of the dissertation]: write 500 words
• Undine/Not of General Interest [Finish nearly done chapter and complete another]: 1000 usable words
• Viola [writing an introduction and a chapter for thesis]: Get a handle on how to write the lit review
Week 7 Absences (some of these are planned-and-announced absences, so if your name appears here even though you announced your upcoming absence, rest assured that the only reason you will be dropped is if you miss two weeks in a row):
• Erika [write a complete & final draft of an article already underway]
• Jennifer [finish writing a neglected article]
• Katrin/StitchInTime [No goal for the project]
• Opsimathphd [turning a dissertation chapter into an article]
• Zcat abroad/Kiwimedievalist [write an article]