GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

The Writer Inside Me

In Liana's Posts on 2013/03/13 at 10:55
Liana Silva, writing from Kansas City, Kansas in the US. 

As I drove home from work a few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast episode of Writer’s Voice where the show’s producer Drew Adamek interviewed Junot Diaz. The focus of the interview was Diaz’s latest book, This Is How You Lose Her, and his process of writing the book. Anyone who knows me knows I am a big fan of Junot Diaz, and I recently finished This Is How You Lose Her. I also enjoy reading and hearing about the writing process of others, not just because of my job but because you can tell so much about a writer by how they approach their writing, and this particular podcast episode did not disappoint in that regard.

When Adamek asked Díaz about a comment he made regarding his writing process, Junot responds candidly:

“I guess I’m not one of these happily industrious writers who’s always writing and producing books all the time. I’m always working but I’m not always producing…I’ve had a lot of difficulties with my work …I’m one of those unfortunate souls who happens to be good at something they find incredibly difficult…and I think that could be a problem. I think many of us think that we can only be good at things we find easy….I continue to find my work and my writing a great challenge….It’s your persistence that defines you and not what you produce.”

When I heard this, my heart expanded with joy. The fact that Díaz, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, described his writing process as difficult disrupts the common notion that writing comes easily to good writers. Oftentimes we focus on tips or strategies, but it can be even more useful to hear how other writers struggle.

Listening to this podcast made me think of how valuable it would be if there were frank conversations about the writing process with Ph.D. students, with graduate students, with junior faculty–and I only mention those because these are the groups I encounter in my job on a regular basis. It could also be useful for undergraduates. Some writing instructors have talked about the importance of writing with your students, or talking about yourself as a writer; I wonder if I have read in my research on graduate student writers that no one knows how to write a dissertation until they’ve written one, but we can still share that experience with other writers that we advise, keeping in mind that everyone’s process is different.

However, the biggest takeaway from this snippet of the podcast episode for me was the statement that writing is hard. Yup, it is. It’s one of the reasons why The Thesis Whisperer, Pat Thompson and I advocate for writing on a regular basis, if not every day. A Pulitzer Prize winner has trouble with writing–why wouldn’t I? This is a tough pill to swallow, I admit, especially when students have deadlines (I’m thinking especially of Ph.D. candidates who have dissertations to write and who have to balance research, writing, thinking, and reading with other responsibilities in their lives). Junot Diaz reminds me that good writing takes time, an idea that isn’t too popular in the academic culture of publish and perish. (In August of 2012, professor Imani Perry wrote a piece about the pros of taking your time with your writing, but hers is an exception.) This makes me wonder: how can we balance the amount of time that polished, good writing takes with the requirements of the academic life? On the flipside: how long is too long?

For me, writing has always come naturally. Putting my words down on paper feels like the right thing to do when something is on my mind. The fact that I do it regularly makes ideas come a little easier. But  had forgotten that big point that Diaz made in his podcast: writing is difficult. I had confused the amount of writing I do with ease. The truth is, some ideas need to marinate, need to be teased out, need to be carved out of stone and polished. But I like that Diaz adds that it’s persistence that makes him a writer.


This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Superstitious Minds

In Sarah's Posts on 2013/01/23 at 04:15
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

In a recent interview with Mother Jones, the author Philip Pullman admits: ‘I’m perfectly happy about being superstitious and atheistic.’ Pullman, who has been outspoken about his own lack of faith and has critiqued organised religion in much of his writing, describes a set of rituals he has around his writing: that he writes precisely three pages every day, and that he needs to write on a particular size of paper. He explains:

The state of mind which I put myself when I tell a story is one in which superstition flourishes very easily. And I welcome that because it helps me. A story, to me, has a particular sprite, like the angel of the spirit of that story – and it’s my job to attend to what it wants to do. When I tell the story of ‘Cinderella,’ the sprite does not want me to make it into an allegory of the fall of communism. The sprite would be unhappy if I did that.

Pullman and his ‘story sprites’ reminded me of one of the most reassuring pieces of advice I was given while working on my Ph.D. At one of my department’s annual welcoming drinks for research students, the guest speaker, a distinguished historian of early modern France, urged us to embrace the rituals and superstitions we developed as we worked.

I avoided guide books and lectures about the best way of pursuing a doctorate – they served usually to make me anxious, as my way of researching and writing seemed to contradict all their guidelines and checklists – but this guidance proved to be immensely helpful. I had become aware that my daily routines were becoming increasingly ingrained: that I’d begun to glare at hapless scholars who had taken ‘my’ desk at the British Library; that my day couldn’t really begin unless I’d had coffee in a particular mug; and that I could only use a special kind of notebook for research notes.

These routines weren’t unique either to me, or to my Ph.D. I had written all of my school and university exams with my special, beautiful fountain pen. And from conversations with fellow Ph.D. students, I realised that as we became more stressed, so our routines and superstitions grew more significant to us. There is a link between anxiety and obsessive behaviour – as we use routine to establish order and, seemingly, control over complex and stressful situations – but I wonder if academics more generally are especially superstitious about their work.

At least in my experience, I have had friends and colleagues who have peculiarly strict routines and superstitions around their research and writing. I think this is partly because academia can be a profoundly stressful and competitive environment. For those of us at the beginning of our careers, it is a precarious one too. I develop all sorts of strange rituals when applying for jobs and funding – and these only become worse during the often interminable wait between application submission deadline and the committee’s decision.

We spend so much time on our own, thinking, and caught up in our own, particular research interests that it’s hardly surprising that we begin to believe that the control we exert over our own projects can be extended to other facets of academic life. For historians and anthropologists interested in the shifting symbolic value of the material world, objects can take special meaning too. I was not the only doctoral student in my department who placed particular significance on the fact that my supervisor’s desk used to belong to our hero, Eric Hobsbawm.

I think it’s worth taking closer notice of our routines and superstitions because we work in such overwhelmingly rational environments. We defend our work on the grounds that we attempt dispassionate, logical analysis of problems, and yet many of us indulge in fairly irrational behaviour, specifically around our research. I wonder if – like Pullman – we were to acknowledge that we are both superstitious and rational, much of the anxiety within academic life would begin to reduce.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Finding motivation in the most unexpected places

In Ana's Posts on 2012/06/21 at 21:23

Ana Dinescu, writing from Berlin, Germany

Summer time is almost here and it is time to take a good and relaxing book and forget about the usual busy schedule of a normal day during the academic semester. However, for some of us, with academic interests but non-academic jobs, summer is the best time of the year to revisit old projects, apply for new funding and, eventually, find an academic job that will put an end to this schizophrenic way of working.

But, the chances of good scholarships and decent funding for a decent life have diminished considerably in the last months, at least in Europe, where many academic positions and funding opportunities were the first victims of the shaking fluctuations of the Euro. Thus, if you still want to keep a foot in the world of ideas, you can find a job which will not completely erase the years spent in the library preparing your Ph.D. thesis, but will waste a lot of time and energy that you should dedicate to writing and documenting new books and articles. In the morning, you can edit another person’s writings or write content for technical websites, while in the evening until late in the night you can try to read and take notes for your academic ‘hobbies’.

With such a lifestyle, no wonder that sooner or later the fatigue will cut your enthusiasm to less than half and you will end up with a writer’s block that you can hardly cure. This is what happened to me recently and lasted for a couple of weeks. And it was not only the power to write which I needed, but also the inspiration to create the framework for writing. It did not happen before, or maybe if it did, it lasted for a couple of hours, not more.

For someone whose source of income is made by juggling well with words, such a situation could create various inconveniences, couldn’t it? Thus, I needed to find a do-it-yourself method to get back my enthusiasm and interest in getting back on the writing track.

The emergency measure was to suspend my daily schedule. I announced to my writers that there would be some small delays in delivering their editing requests, and took a big break. No computer, no social networks, no deadlines and pressure to finish in time. I took my camera and went out to take pictures for a couple of hours. My mind was immediately set in a different mood and the freedom of the day guaranteed that I should not worry if I stayed out too late. I continued with an exhibition, a coffee and a long discussion with an old friend. I enjoyed a long dinner and spend a couple of hours reading a novel without any interruption .

I continued the treatment for another two days and, relieved, I returned to the writing life gently and ready to continue the projects. As in many other serious circumstances, we are what we learn from our good or bad experiences. In this case, one of the lessons was that it is never late to find some time for yourself. It is always healthy to live according to a schedule – and I was educated to take care of how I use my time, and it is very hard to get rid of this good habit – but from time to time, a break will bring more creativity and clarity into your daily life. There is no chance that one day I will discover that I can live without writing, but at least I can find a fair balance between the pressure of a writing job and the pleasure of writing because nothing else is left.

Now, I think that this experience occurred exactly at the right moment when I needed more than ever to realize that it is about time to further my academic projects. Summer will bring me, for sure, more than the optimism of the sunny days.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Editing Academic Work

In Ana's Posts on 2012/05/24 at 09:47

Ana Dinescu, writing from Berlin, Germany

Do you like being an academic editor?

Honestly, I have many important reasons for a ‘no’ answer.

First, instead of focusing on your fantastic projects of books, articles and revolutionary research, you must deal with doubtful works of people that enjoy a generous scholarship for spending four full years in a nice European capital city or in an American university. Of course, due to a full entertainment schedule, some of them do not have too much time and proper mood to focus on their intensive academic work. Instead, they prefer to do superficial research, hoping that it will not be difficult to find someone happy to help them with the editing and eventually with the full writing of a real academic paper. I am referring strictly to my direct experience, as I am a lesser qualified person in the world to make evaluations about the level of foreign students enrolled in famous human sciences universities of the world.

The second reason for my negative attitude is that I do not know at all what price to ask for such academic work. For most of my life, I never received a penny from my academic activities. In conclusion, I am not familiar with the quotes for various editing services. And anyway, in my humble opinion, academic work in general is priceless and beyond any negotiation. Maybe it is about time to change my perspective dramatically.

But probably one of the aspects that makes me have feelings opposite of love regarding the work of academic editing is in regards to the problematic communication with the author of the respective work. Most of the beneficiaries of such services expect from you more than suggestions; they would be happy that you do perfect writing in their place, including the addition of a rich bibliography. And, if possible, very fast, in less than 24 hours as if the poor paper is a piece of cake that you should gulp immediately.

However, there are also some good lessons learned from my latest experience in the field of academic work. Each moment, I am able to appreciate more and more the merits of quality academic work and the incumbent responsibility of giving the right advice. When I am trying to make suggestions or to outline certain aspects I try to put the problem into perspective: one should not learn for the sake of grades or to make parents happy but because one considers he or she has something to say and share. Otherwise, there are so many simple domains where you can reach easier professional targets. The confirmation of the human value does not come automatically as a result of academic achievement.

Looking strictly from a personal perspective, this new sporadic connection to the academic world gives me some food for thought for an uncertain professional perspective when I would be tempted to be involved at a certain extent in the academic life. Maybe there are many people that need honest advice about their academic future and work.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Voices in Cyberspace

In Liana's Posts on 2012/05/22 at 09:49
Liana Silva, writing from Kansas City, Kansas in the US.
On April 30th, Naomi Schaefer Riley, a blogger for the Brainstorm blog on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website, argued (and poorly) that Black Studies as a discipline should disappear; her argument was based solely on brief descriptions of three dissertations by three PhD candidates from Northwestern University’s first cohort of Black Studies doctoral program, as seen in an earlier article in The Chronicle. (On May 7, 2012 Brainstorm Editor Liz McMillen posted a note to readers stating that Schaefer Riley had been fired from the blog.) I am not going to argue with Schaefer Riley because several have already argued with her post better than I ever could (for example, Tressie MC‘s guest post on fellow University of Venus blogger Lee Skallerup‘s IHE blog College Ready Writing). However, the kerfuffle that ensued online in response to Schaefer Riley’s post hit close to home and made me think about my role as an academic who blogs.
Schaefer Riley is not an academic blogger, but many of the people blogging at The Chronicle of Higher Education and here at Inside Higher Ed (for example) are academics who blog and who, more importantly, see blogging as a worthwhile endeavor. We invest a lot of time and effort into what we do–for many of us, the care and attention we put into each of our blog posts reflects the attentiveness we have within our own research as a whole, and by extension reflects perhaps our training as scholars. (See Profhacker editors’ post on the ethics of academic blogging in response to the Schaefer Riley posts and the response from “Brainstorm” editors) When Chronicle Content Promotion Amy Alexander told Tressie Mc in a Twitter exchange that their bloggers, although published on The Chronicle’s website, are independent from The Chronicle (which she also sees as “not of” academia), that made me stop and think. Although it is true that blogs within The Chronicle and within IHE are overseen by individual blog editors, as academics and bloggers we should still be mindful of the importance of well-written prose to convey a point. My experience working with other academic bloggers is that none of us simply get on a soap box and let go whatever is on our mind. Blogging is different from journalism (to a certain extent) and is different from academic journals, but it still holds its own as a forum for ideas and for “civil discourse” among academics, like the Profhacker post argues.
Therefore, as I watched the debacle about Schaefer Riley’s post and Amy Alexander’s exchange with Tressie Mc days after NSR’s post went live, I thought to myself, how does this make other bloggers look? How does this affect our legitimacy? The online response to Schaefer Riley reminded me that our legitimacy lies in our writing: in our laptops, in our pens, in our smartphones. As Rohan Maitzen argues in her post on academic blogging, blogging is a way of continuing the conversations that are so important to keeping our fields and research alive. However, when she posits in her post “why should we blog?” it made me think about my concerns for academic minority scholars. Amidst the flurry of tweets about Schaefer Riley’s post, this tweet by Howard Rambsey II came across my feed: “Interesting: a negative blog entry about black studies solidifies my sense that we need more blogging from black studies scholars.” I knew that I was not alone in my concerns.
The post and the response that ensued afterwards reminded me of the importance of making the voices of minority scholars heard and, in a broader sense, the importance of writing as a way of making those voices heard and engaging detractors and supporters. The emergence of many minority academic programs and departments (African American Studies, Latino/a Studies, Women’s Studies, for example) is connected to a desire to make visible to others not just the work but also the culture of certain segments of the population that have been ignored, undervalued, oppressed. For minority scholars such as myself, blogging is not just a bullet point for a CV; it is an intrinsic part of what my research is about: a commitment to making the struggles and achievements and contradictions of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Latin@s, Women visible to a broader population. I cannot afford silence. Blogging allows me a platform to talk about issues that may go unnoticed, or issues where the point of view of a person of color or of a woman have been left in the cold. Because it happens. A lot. Let us not forget that Tressie Mc’s post in response to Schaefer Riley first appeared on her blog.
Minority academics who blog must, now more than ever, be aware of how important it is to articulate their ideas and their knowledge outside of our departments, our journals, our conferences. Blogging is a space in which we can do that. Many are already doing it, but that does not mean we do not need more voices participating in the conversations.We must make our voices heard, especially when others do not want to hear us.

How Journals Put Us Behind the Times

In Liminal Thinking on 2012/02/16 at 01:44

Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

I’ve written before about conversations that count — those written artifacts that will count toward tenure or promotion — and I’ve complained that non-traditional writing (e.g. blog posts) doesn’t count for much (or for anything, according to the latest TRIP report on the state of my field). But of course, I still have to play by the rules, such as they are, and I continue to work toward submitting articles to journals and hope for publication.

And then I prepare to wait. And to wait a painfully long time as my work gets stale.

For a journal article to “count,” it must be peer-reviewed. Our academic standards hold that an academic work should and must be subject to scrutiny by our peers, improved by their input and ultimately add to the academic conversation. I agree with that whole-heartedly. The pursuit of knowledge is a social affair and should be respected as such.

But what happens in practice leads to quite different results. The bulk of what we read in journals was written long ago. I am a political scientist (and a news junkie), so I am interested in theory, history and current applications. I want to understand my “now” world within the vast context of the literature. I want to write that way, as well, and have my work be applicable to others’ “now” worlds. Most of all, academics want to be relevant. But that is impossible in the current structure of academic journals.

Let’s talk about the mechanisms of journal publication.

You work on an article for a few months (and if your work is dependent upon field work, as mine is, one article might be the result of several months of work in the field before writing even begins). You send it to a few friends or colleagues, you present it at a conference and perhaps you sit on it for a week or two. So you’re already a year into the initial problem/issue you hoped to address.

You send it to a journal. The journal’s editorial board may take a few weeks to decide whether or not to send it to the reviewers. If they do, that may take another three months. Then, if your article hasn’t been roundly rejected—but needs work—you might get a “revise and resubmit” based on the reviewers’ comments. (I personally enjoy that part, because it’s a refreshing way to look at your work, once you get past your ego.) You have other work to do, so perhaps you don’t return revisions for another 3-4 weeks. The editorial board then sends it out again for the reviewers’ comments. You wait another three months.

During this entire process, you must agree that you will not send the article anywhere else. You are trapped by one journal’s editorial process, without the benefit of “shopping it around,” thus, they have no incentive to move more quickly on reviewing your work. “Under Review” remains on your CV for months.

If you are unlucky, the extra work and time you put into a piece will still not merit its publication. You’ve just lost a year trying to get the piece out. However, if you responded well to the reviewers’ comments and made the required revisions, the editors may decide to publish your piece. Great news! It will come out in the fall edition! The fall of next year.

By this point, the information in the article is well over a year old, perhaps two. The article itself was written a year ago. By the time it will be published, it may be two or three years old.

The “top journals” are the worst in this regard. They tend to be quite conservative when it comes to new literature, and, in the case of my field (International Relations), very little outside the mainstream is considered or published. Many of the articles in these journals are rehashed debates of articles originally written ten years ago. If you were to peruse only those journals, you’d think my field was quite narrow, when, in fact, there is a wide variety of interesting, lively, engaging work being done. But it’s not being published in the places that have the high “impact factors” (which is based on how often a journal or article is cited—of course, if those are the only journals we turn to, there’s a bit of a selection bias, but no matter…)

I rarely look at the top journals these days. I canceled my subscriptions to all but the most relevant—Foreign Policy, for example, is one I will continue to read. Why? I read it because it comes out every month, and it’s timely and interesting. When I want to read what my esteemed colleagues have to say about theory or current events, I turn to the Foreign Policy website, which includes some of the best blogs by the top names in my field. They are talking to each other, and others are leaving important and interesting comments—in effect, “peer reviewing” is happening in real time, and in a transparent way. Intellectual discourse is moving forward at a rapid pace, not in the glacial quarterly publishing of journals.

I still read books when I want deep, thoughtful engagement with a topic. But the process of publishing journal articles is archaic, and provides a false sense of “weightiness” to our work. As long as publishing in the “top journals” is a requirement for tenure or promotion, we will be trapped in this cycle. Our approach to our work will be vastly improved when we can share the immediacy and the excitement of fresh thinking—and recognize that this is a legitimate way of sharing knowledge.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

To Publish or Not to Publish NOW?

In Ana's Posts on 2012/01/17 at 02:06

Ana Dinescu, writing from Berlin, Germany.

Long ago, when I heard or read about the huge pressure continuously faced by serious and appreciated academics to publish as much as possible (following the overused and abused slogan “publish or perish“), I was extremely surprised – if not automatically cynical. How could an academic do anything else but write? Day and night, night and day, this was and continues to be, in my opinion, the main task of an academic. If you have something to say, you should say it through the power of your words. Such worries may be an expression of inadequacy to the noble mission of an academic and intellectual in general.

My optimistic opinion on the bright future of book writing was equally confirmed by the rapid multiplication of publishing possibilities over the last few years. The Internet opened the door to various alternatives to the usual long, pricey and painful traditional publication process. If you trust the message of your words, you can easily find a way to self-publish your books, including buying a proper ISBN. With the help of some easy tips – among other things, the tailored use of social media as Twitter or blogging – you can even obtain some financial advantages, beyond the much praised intense publishing activity. In this way you can successfully secure some funding to spend quality time writing your next book. Obviously, as your writing credential develops, so do the chances of being considered a serious, coherent, and truly interesting intellectual.

At the practical and marketing levels, most of the advice offered by publishing experts focuses on the same direction: publish as much as possible and make yourself a name in the world of words.

Overall, the many paths in life converge in the same direction. Writing becomes your second academic nature. Teaching, your family life, the time spent at the library (even the novel writers need serious documentation, as imagination is never enough),  maybe some social life and dedicated time for acquiring the proper media skills… there are lots of activities that we should take into account when planning our daily schedules.

But since entering the world of academia as humbly as possible, I have progressively started to change my mind about incessantly publishing. Even though I am convinced that writing is the only thing that I will always do as part of my job or whatever other professional and personal assignments I will have in the near future, I also face a certain fatigue of running on autopilot. From one Word document to another, my sense of wording diminishes and a couple of times I experienced a deeper feeling than the classic “writer’s block.” It was a rather certain despise of writing about everything and nothing. At the moment you understand with all your strength that you can’t continue throwing words on the page, because you aren’t sure about the meaning of your final work.

In such moments, I prefer to run away from the writing desk for a while. I read something completely different but that still shows good writing, watch a movie or go to an exhibition. I am permanently asking myself if what I do is worth the effort and if my narrative will make any sense outside my close area of interest. This reconsideration process may last for an hour, a day or a week, or even more. But I am sure that even if I am not publishing for a while, I will not perish as long as what I want to write about is something valuable.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed. 

Writing For Myself

In Liminal Thinking on 2012/01/12 at 07:43

Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

My first book was the result of years of graduate work and was born of my dissertation. It had gone through multiple iterations and critiques from my adviser and dissertation committee. In the end, I felt as though the whole project was out of my hands, and I was simply responding to the demands of others. Of course, that is the point — as a graduate student, you are being shaped to join the ranks of academics who speak the same (metaphoric) language and share similar expectations for academic work.

I am writing my second book now and feel the results of that training. It’s almost strangulating. I can’t help feeling that my old advisers are waiting in the wings and I’ll have to respond to their critiques, shape my writing to their style and demands. Coming up for tenure is the added pressure — in some sense this second book feels like a second dissertation being written for my senior colleagues. At forty, that’s a frustrating feeling, to be sure.

I ran into a fellow junior colleague today and shared some of this frustration. We both joked about the kind of book we want to write when we do get tenure — maybe not an academic book at all, maybe a travel book or a novel — anything to feel free of the academic “regulations” that have been imposed on us for so long.

Afterwards, I sat down in a cafe to work on a chapter and re-read the introduction. The language was replete with academese. So stultifying! So dull! So I decided to just write as though telling a story, in the clearest most direct way that I could. The words started to come, fast and easy. I thought, who told me I would have to write that way forever? If it isn’t interesting to me, why would it be to anyone else? Would I want to discuss this in class someday? Why am I not just writing for myself?

I thought then of the academics that I have truly enjoyed reading over the years. Cynthia Enloe, author of numerous books on women and International Relations (indeed, I consider her the Grandmother of Feminist IR), writes in an easy, snappy, funny style that is at once approachable and deep. James C. Scott, author of such classics as Weapons of the Weak and Seeing Like a State, is a joy to read, particularly when he isn’t afraid to add a bit of self-deprecation in his approach. These are authors I want to emulate, not the stilted jargon-laden stuff of “mainstream” political science or theory.

I wonder when this change happens — when do we gain the confidence of finding our own voices, or feel free to write this way? I think it must happen — it’s the only way we as academics can be relevant. We have to stop writing for our advisers and our colleagues. The opaque language and tortured rhetoric of the academy should no longer be the norm.

So I will begin consciously writing for myself. Maybe I’ll stop having those dreams where my adviser keeps sending back my dissertation for corrections. And maybe I’ll enjoy the work more. After all, if it’s not fun, why bother?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

What I Leave Behind

In Lee's Posts on 2012/01/10 at 00:06

Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US.

What am I leaving behind?

I need a hobby. I’d like one in part for the stress-release factor, but also because I’d like my kids to see me doing something other than reading or typing and also I’d like to have something to leave behind, a physical trace of myself.

Our house is filled with traces and mini-monuments created by family members: my late grandmother painted and my house is full of her paintings, and my mother has now started painting herself; my brother’s photography lines the walls of my children’s rooms; my late grandfather’s woodwork and handiwork are used daily. My mother-in-law is a trained seamstress, so my daughter can point to all of the things that she has mended for her during visits. My husband cooks elaborate and delicious meals for us.

I have…a blog.

I know that my kids are both fascinated by working with their hands, or at least watching people work with their hands. When I was pregnant with my son, my husband spent one afternoon assembling the new changing table. My daughter (about 18 months at the time) was watching her dad work. She hadn’t been particularly affectionate with her dad, but she suddenly ran up to him, threw her arms around him, kissed him and declared, “love you, Dad.” I was currently working out of the house and he was taking care of her at home while writing his dissertation. My husband is also, as mentioned above, the cook. My daughter had spent her entire life, up to that point, around academics, both male and female. And yet, here she was, moved by the sight of her father doing manual labor.

(In fairness, she may have been equally moved had she seen me doing the same thing, but I was massively pregnant and in no condition to put together heavy wood furniture.)

Fast-forward a few years. Our neighbor often works in his backyard and the kids would beg me to go over so they could watch or even help. They are also constantly telling me about all the things their teachers made. And they ask, why don’t you make anything? Then again, when my daughter asks me to draw something for her, she just gets mad because, as she says, I don’t do it well enough.

I almost failed kindergarten because of poor fine-motor skills (never mind that I already knew how to read and speak two languages). While I have since improved, I haven’t ever mastered drawing, penmanship, musical instruments (and trust me, I tried), or any sort of art that involves using my hands (so, you know, all of them). One time, my very pregnant childhood friend who was in nesting mode forced me to try knitting. It didn’t work. Instead of being sources of stress-release, they become sources of great stress and anxiety.

Doing things around the house (like cooking or fixing or decorating) are also fraught with negative emotional baggage. I was clumsy and a bit of a space cadet as a kid, so anytime I tried to help or do anything on my own, I was constantly told that I was doing it wrong or not fast enough or just simply in the way. This wasn’t any way to inculcate any sort of hereditary hobby.

This leaves me with my writing and (brace yourselves) singing. Singing is one of the few activities that while I know that I will never gain fame and fortune with my voice, I still enjoy the activity and have enough talent not to send my kids screaming and to be a part of a choir. My daughter now knows not to ask me to draw anything for her, but she doesn’t hesitate to ask me to sing. And when I overheard my son singing Rainbow Connection, I realized (with admittedly a few tears in my eyes) that maybe; perhaps, I have already left something with them.

And someday my kids will hopefully appreciate my writing. I’m not sure why I don’t give more weight to the sheer volume I have produced and published in some form or another in the past 10 years of my academic career (and even my non-academic one before that), but I’m still stuck in a pre-digital (and firmly academic) mindset that unless it’s a book, it doesn’t really count. Maybe my kids will give more weight to my blogging than I am.

I wasn’t able to attend my grandfather’s funeral, but one of my relatives read the following from Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451. It is spoken by one of the other outcasts Montag meets when he escapes the city. Granger is remembering and mourning his own grandfather:

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a wall built or a pair of shoes made…Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die…It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, as long as you changed something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.

Maybe that’s why I’ve become interested in Digital Humanities and trying to be more active advocating for adjunct faculty (I wont call them contingent anymore); I want to build things, change things for the better. It would be much easier if I could knit a pair of socks or paint a picture, but unless someone comes up with a better suggestion, it seems this is the path I’m taking.

Lee Elaine Skallerup has a Ph.D. from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at College Ready Writingand follow her on Twitter (@readywriting). Lee is also a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

I Write, You Write, We All Write

In Liana's Posts on 2011/11/07 at 09:32

Liana Silva, writing from Kansas City, Kansas in the US.

Thursday, October 20th, was the National Day on Writing created by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). In order to celebrate this day, programs like the National Writing Project asked readers to share why they write. On Twitter, this took shape in the #whyiwrite hashtag, with plenty of people posting in 140 characters or less reasons why they write. I participated in the celebration by tweeting, and encouraged others to post as well. However, among the tweets I read, I didn’t see any that said “I write because I am a writer.” We often think of ourselves as people who write (as in, who perform the act of writing). But how often do we — particularly academics — think of ourselves as writers?

Back when I taught first-year writing, I used to start the semester out with the question “What is a writer?” (I must admit I didn’t come up with this brilliant idea, but adapted it from a suggestion from another instructor.) Students would always come up with different ideas about what that meant, but more often than not they never talked about themselves as writers. They thought of published authors as writers. They thought of people who sat in a sunlit room all day with a stack of white pages (or who sat in front of a computer all day) as writers. They thought of people who are paid to write as writers. My students often did not think of themselves, or their instructors, as writers.


I don’t blame them. I didnt fully embrace my identity as a writer until only recently, even though it’s one of the reasons I ended up as an English major. So that first week I liked to open the door to that possibility and, hopefully, change for better their relationship to writing.

At my new job I talk to students, faculty, and staff about writing on a regular basis. I enjoy talking about writing and, specifically, how important it is within higher education as a form of communication with our peers and with a community at large who is interested in what we do within our disciplines. Talking about writing comes natural to me, but through my job I realize that many see writing as something they must do but not as something they are. They think of themselves as people who commit the act of putting ideas down in the shape of words (especially for PhD students who need to write a dissertation in order to graduate, writing can become a chore, a job), but they often don’t think of themselves as writers.

I tell students on a regular basis that writing isn’t only important because they need to graduate or pass a class but because it is the key to engaging other scholars in conversation. Even in informal media like Twitter or Facebook we write to get our ideas across or to interact with other academics. And even though we can argue that academic writing is not the same as tweeting, the rules of engagement are similar: we value clear, well-argued writing in each case. We value thoughts that are well articulated. We value creative, interesting posts that steer away from the clichés. Therefore, I think the most important advice I can share with my writers is this: think of yourselves as writers.

Why does thinking of yourself as a writer matter? When academics have to balance so many other roles and responsibilities, why add “writer” to the list? I believe that thinking of yourself as a writer can change the way you feel about writing in general, and this is especially important in the culture of “publish or perish.”

Rachel Toor mentions in her article at The Chronicle of Higher Education how thinking as a writer leads you to think about form as well as content; Rachel Cayley at the blog  Explorations of Style talks about how it changes your writing strategies. But I argue that, for academics, it can also affect your relationship to writing for your profession. When you think about the importance of writing in order to engage conversations in your field, writing becomes less tedious, more useful. You don’t find time to write; you make time to write. For writers, writing is essential in order to think. The act of writing doesn’t get easier, but it can feel a lot more organic.

Readers, do you think of yourself as a writer? Why or why not?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.