So You Think You Can Write During the Semester?

February 20, 2012, 3:37 pm

You actually can.  But it’s going to take a lot more than just wanting to. I say this because I have navigated the rock (scholarship) and the hard place (The Job) that so many of us wrestle with in different ways over time. I have been:

  • The person who decided that my full time teaching job at a SLAC was too interesting, too full of new surprises, too packed with interesting students who would hold me accountable, too — well, too! — to write at all during the semester. In these years, I vowed to make the most of holidays, breaks, and summers. Bad plan!  At least, a bad plan to make semester after semester, because the time off was never enough time, particularly when I failed to factor in the days spent at the beginning of these breaks watching teevee because I was so tired I couldn’t think and the days at the end getting ready to return to the classroom.
  • The person who decided that the above was a bad plan, and in order to force myself to finish things, would make commitments to get things to people during the semester. This included conference papers that, I reasoned, could then easily be turned into articles and chapters (actually, as it turned out, this often took a great deal more work that I didn’t seem to have the time for.) The threat of social humiliation, I reasoned in this period of my life, would cause work to be completed no matter what.  It didn’t take so much therapy for me to figure out that what I was actually recreating was the seventh grade, with all its attendant anxiety, guilt and shame.  Bad plan!
  • The person who managed to get things done — but just in time! Conference paper finally turned into an article — just in time for third year review! Book manuscript + second article accepted just in time to go out in the tenure dossier! Second book finished just in time for promotion to full professor — three times! Yes, I came up for full professor repeatedly, revising the book each step of the way, for reasons we will not rehash here, always believing that if I worked right up to the last minute this time it would be enough. Bad plan!

Wait — why were these all such bad plans? Because they made writing instrumental to the trauma of tenure and promotion processes, a habit that is hard to break. Furthermore, in one way or another, I was accepting as a given that all writing must in the end be motivated and controlled by other people’s rules. My own creativity could only be activated in time that had yet to be colonized by someone, or something, else.

Recently I sent an article to a pal who had seen a version of it disguised as a book chapter about three years ago.  One of my worst flaws as a writer is that I draft kitchen sink book chapters and articles with wildly convoluted arguments. I always have.  Now, however, instead of working on them by myself for years, I give them to other people who tell me what is wrong with them and I follow their advice.  It’s really much faster that way.  Anyway, my pal wrote back and gave me a great compliment: “Radical, you are a publishing machine!”

The truth is there’s a lot of stuff that has been in the works and suddenly it is coming out all at once, but regardless, between this blog and my published work on paper, I am, in fact, writing a lot, and have done it all while not on sabbatical. There are summers and breaks, but actually, now I write a lot during the semester.

So what has changed?  I offer this to you in the spirit you want to take it:  obviously life is different for someone who teaches a 2-2 or a 2-3, as I do, than for someone who teaches a 4-4 or 4-5, maybe on several different campuses.

  • Blogging helps me write more. People say, “Radical, how do you keep up with that blog and get anything else done?” Well, actually, half the time I don’t. Historiann writes more than I do, and Margaret Soltan has been known to knock out four or five pithy to poetic posts a day (today she has already written three: no shitte, as Comradde Physioproffe would say.) I post 2-4 times a week. But the truth is, I write when I want to and blow off my other responsibilities. This, I think, is key:  don’t get an idea and say you will write it up when you have time.  There really is no time like the present.  And that goes for scholarship too.
  • The more I write the more I write. I think this has something to do with being comfortable in several different writing voices, being able to switch between them with some facility, and not thinking that it is such a big deal to sit down and write.  It also has to do with self confidence.  Writers write every day, and there’s a reason for that:  they don’t lose touch with their writing voices, and they don’t lose touch with the pleasure of getting ideas and words out of their heads and onto the screen.

So back to that question about how I find the time to write during the term.  It’s different at different moments.  But this is what I do:

  • I often get up really early. Sometimes I slip out of bed around five o’clock, when no one else is up, and no one will call, and it’s just me and the dog.  In other words, I write when there are absolutely no demands on my attention.
  • Sometimes I go to class unprepared. I really do.  Or half-prepared. Instead, I use the time to do a revision, draft something, finish off some proofs and get them back to the editor. I don’t really think that it is a terrible thing to solve the competing claims of scholarship and teaching this way:  I suspect men have been doing it for years.  Preparation is often the illusion that you are certain to run a good class if only you work really hard, when in fact you are not the only person in the room to be responsible for the class going well.  In fact, you are in the minority:  unless you literally do not let others speak (and I know people who teach that way) all kinds of shitte happens. In addition to this, it is not always necessary to update last year’s notes and lesson plan. How many different ways are there to explain the causes and consequences of the Great Depression? I ask you. I concede, one can always find a new one — but it isn’t necessary to do so every year.
  • I try to set up my classes so that they can more or less run themselves. Platforms like Moodle and Black Board help a lot with this, but what it means is an investment of time at the beginning of the semester to get everything set up, for the whole term, in advance.  This also means figuring out the exam questions and the paper topics:  sometimes they need a little tweaking down the line, but what it means is that when I have a deadline looming, I am not faced with having to spend an evening writing a midterm as well.
  • To the best of my ability, I organize my classes around my writing deadlines. This could be monumentally difficult if you were teaching more than a 2-3, or team teaching, or staffing a multi-section course.  It could be impossible.  But to the extent that you have choices — and are not selfishly scheduling papers to be due, say, on the day after Halloween — use them.
  • I read less when I am writing a lot during the semester. This is unfortunate, but true.  I read somewhere once that you can either read or you can write, but you can’t do both I can’t remember who said this — Hemingway? Paul Fussell? Sarah Palin? — and it may not be true for everyone.  But it is the case that I can’t read (a lot), write (a lot), and teach at the same time:  something’s got to give. What I have learned is not to let that thing that gives be my writing.
  • I really don’t go out that much. Sorry.  I understand this is boring.  But I would rather be a boring person who doesn’t go out much than a scholar who doesn’t write.  Some people may manage both well:  John O’Hara, as I understand it, would go to elaborate dinner parties, come home drunk, and stay up for hours writing perfect short stories.  On the other hand, he didn’t teach like we do.

What I have found is that feeling more in control, and exercising the forms of control and the choices that are in my power, doesn’t make me selfish.  Quite the opposite.  Because I almost never feel frantic and behind the eight ball, I can often cancel writing plans for a day because someone else needs something.


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