Re-thinking the Place of Writing in Our Lives

January 23, 2014, 7:08 pm

Those of you who have followed Tenured Radical since the beginning of time (or since October, 2007, whichever you want to pick) know that one of the reasons I began to blog was that I wanted to write more.  Not talk about writing more but actually do it.

It worked. Recent assertions about my low productivity as a scholar to the contrary, I would have to say that prior to 2007, I published at about the rate you might expect for a mid-career scholar at a teaching-intensive liberal arts college. Not Yale, of course, or any other RI, but I didn’t work at any of those places. Comparatively few people do, and if the people who worked at RIs had worked anywhere else, they would not write so much either. But there are things you can do to change. Since I started blogging, I have found a new writing life. While I don’t think most people would say “Whoa, TR — you are now a machine!” I publish a lot — both here and elsewhere; in scholarly venues and popular ones. Even radio and teevee.

Since I started this blog, I have also gotten a great deal better at putting myself in more intellectually vulnerable positions, finishing articles in a reasonable amount of time, and learning from criticism. I respond to editors quickly, at around the word count they have requested. I learned how to make big points in less than 750 words, write short sentences, and eliminate jargon. Public criticism (nay, sometimes concerted efforts at public humiliation) bothers me very little or not at all because that is actually the price of having a public. Ask any working journalist. People say horrible things about David Brooks, but somehow he soldiers on.

Because I write more, and am more interested in publishing regularly than being perfect, I now also write about more different things than I ever did: teaching, the economics of higher education, digital humanities, academic politics, recent history, Jody Foster and grassroots activism — to name a few of my topics. (Go here if you don’t believe me.) I am not exactly an expert, or trained, to write about any of these things. I have a little, usually not a lot, to say about each of them from time to time. Journalism is full of such people, and here’s the news: as academics, if we want to publish more, we might want to not be so damned careful about needing to be right all the time and we might want to try writing about topics that people other than academics are amused by.

And yet, there are other issues that we need to talk about when we talk about writing. Time is one of them, whether you are fully employed or pinning together multiple courses at six different campuses, you may simply not have enough of it. Having a terrific job can be just as bad for your writing as having no job at all. One of the things that held me back from writing more prior to 2007, I can now honestly say, is how much I loved my job at Zenith University. I loved teaching, and I loved being a great teacher. I loved my colleagues, and I loved working with them to make Zenith the kind of school that was special for students. I loved putting energy into those students and watching them excel. I loved learning the nuts and bolts of how universities ran: what it meant to do a hire just right, to organize a tenure case, to run a committee or a program, and to write an excellent institutional grant.

I did not, however, love writing. At least, I didn’t love it enough to figure out how to limit my other activities to make more room for it in my life. I loved the idea of writing, but found it very difficult to actually complete projects in a timely way, if at all. You might say that part of my job at Zenith was writing, but it was only one of many aspects of the job, and in many ways it wasn’t the most compelling activity because it gave back so little. I mean, which would you rather do — accomplish a major curriculum reform or revise and resubmit an article for the Journal of Wackadoodle Studies, so that it could go back to a referee and sit on his desk for another six months and maybe be published in another two years? Would you rather watch a room full of students ”get it” or write a few pages of a book that was years away from seeing daylight?

What drew me to Zenith (and reader, there were other choices!), and the things I loved about working for Zenith as an institution that had a real mission, became a barrier between me and my career as a writer. I don’t think this happens to everyone, but it did happen to me. It also happened to lots of other people who never talked about it in any straightforward way. I remember when I interviewed for my job at Zenith, back in the Stone Age, I came armed with several questions for that interview moment when someone says, “Is there anything you would like to know about us?” One of those questions was, needless to say, cannily self-promoting: “How much writing can I expect to get done during the semester?” I asked.

I have no hard data for this, or at least none I wish to reveal here, but pretty much everyone I interviewed with at that lovely college (and for anyone who has done the famous Zenith interview, that was a lot of people) punted on this question, giving me an answer that reflected their best intentions and aspirations. But it did not, in all but a few cases, reflect what they actually did.

After I went to work at Zenith, the Truth revealed what it had known, as Tricia Yearwood sings in this wonderful song about a naive young woman in love with a thug who dumps her in a cheesy motel. It is very, very hard to do your job at a teaching intensive college and get any writing done during the semester. Historiann, who works at a teaching intensive public, writes about her own writing plan this fall here: that pretty much mirrors my experience. By about week six, every fall semester, my own writing schedule would collapse under the weight of committees, midterms, administrative work, tenure cases… name it, writing gave way before it. Writing was The Moveable Thing, the Thing That Gave Way, the Thing You Became Too Tired To Do.

The truth is that the vast majority of academic jobs, and some of the jobs that people want most because they conform to our romance of what higher education ought to be, are the least likely to forward one’s life as a writer and a scholar. Do you believe in faculty governance? OK, then, slice about six to eight hours out of your week for it, unless you are in the faculty senate or on some other major committee, and then take out another five hours. Are you a dedicated teacher? Six to seven hours a week, per class, until you start to enter Grading Hell about the middle of February, and then you can double that commitment. Do you like students? Well, then they will love you! Reserve another four to six hours a week for scheduled and unscheduled office hours, Mr. Chips, and this doesn’t even begin to count the hours you will spend advising and writing letters of recommendation.

I became increasingly aware over the last 25 years that peers who did not work at teaching intensive colleges had a great deal more time to spend on their writing. Yet strangely people act as if all full-time academic jobs are more or less the same, and that we all are similarly accomplished. We act as though there are not more than a very few people who work under the conditions that allow them to write more. In fact, I would argue that there is a kind of accelerator effect in academia, in which people who have access to the best fellowships and best jobs coming out of graduate school will, increasingly have access to more time to write than other people. It is these people who set the standard for excellence that, in the end, the vast majority of academics are expected by their institutions, and expect themselves, to meet.

This is so terribly wrong, and unnecessarily disabling (here we might also acknowledge the many people who work at RI’s but are the kind of colleagues and teachers who also struggle to balance their other commitments with writing time.) The vast majority of us will struggle, and struggle hard, to be the writers we want to be at the same time as we are being the teachers and colleagues we want to be.

So here are a few ideas for how we might address the dirty problem of writing guilt and academic publishing hell:

  • Talk to each other about our writing at times other than review, promotion and the end of year report.  One reason other parts of our job take precedence is that most people write at home. This makes our scholarship more or less invisible, except when we are being judged on it, when it is then hyper(in)visible. Might it be possible, in whatever institutional workspace you inhabit, to schedule quiet hours where interrupting colleagues, scheduling meetings and classes are off limits? Why should a person have to get a prestigious residential fellowship to be around colleagues who are supportive of her writing? Set an example by being visible when you write, and by asking your colleagues what would help them write at the office. It wasn’t until I was 45 that I walked in on a (male) colleague writing in his office, and I was so impressed by this that I decided to try it too. If everyone says, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly write at the office,” ask why. Fix it.
  • Departments should encourage people to keep writing in any way they can. This would mean taking blogging and other forms of short-form writing, on and off the Internet, seriously. This is different from the “How should XYZ count for tenure and promotion?” conversation. That is an important discussion, but what is more important is that short form writing is a serious way for scholars to stay in touch with their own intellects and, better yet, to communicate as humanists with a broader public. We need to encourage and emphasize short form writing, and admit that it is an easier and more practical way to keep publishing during the semester than slogging away on a historiographical article on the weekends that about 100 people will read. What does it mean to take short form, non-scholarly writing seriously? Circulate links to the department or divisional list serve, or post them to the department Face Book page, and make a point of mentioning what a person has written. Discuss the piece, take issue with it — whatever. But take it seriously.
  • Writing is hard for all of us sometimes. But it is really hard for some people, often for reasons they do not understand. Sometimes when they try to think about those reasons, it causes them confusion and pain. Often those very same people who are making all sorts of vows about what will be finished, and when, then throw themselves into every other aspect of academic work they can in order to get positive feedback about the things that they already know they excel at. Advise five theses! Teach an overload! Serve on four committees! How can you help them? Don’t take advantage of their offers to do so many things. Make sure that they know, at a certain point, that professional advancement and mobility — even, and sometimes especially, as an administrator — require a certain standing that can only be achieved by publishing. Find out what you can do to encourage and support the writing of people who are struggling. Find out what they would write, if anything, were they were truly free to choose.
  • We in the humanities need to have a serious conversation about why book writing is the gold standard for tenure and promotion. It isn’t, in many fields, and frankly (see above) there are very few of us who are in a position to complete a long, complex book project in anywhere less than 7-10 years. Book writing has many rewards. It can also be a huge drag, which I understand quite keenly now that I have firmly committed to completing one for the second time in my life. Why do we not discuss this? Furthermore book writing can be counterproductive to the project of actually getting your ideas to a public that loves ideas but doesn’t love academics, or academic books, so much. Maybe part of why the humanities are feeling so fragile is that we are pouring our energies into writing books that the vast majority of people do not wish to read. Why wouldn’t it be okay to stake out a program of research and write a series of articles instead? Do an exhibit? Create a website? Put on a play?
  • Consider — just consider it, and I know all the reasons this would be unpopular — establishing 3/5 renewable contract or tenure-track lines for people who need the security of benefits and a salary, but who would rather (and can financially afford to) spend more time writing than teaching. Urge any tenured faculty who want to spend more time writing to back down to the 3/5 model, without forcing them to set a retirement deadline, clearing the way to hire younger people on this model or as tenure-track faculty. This would be a terrific way to do spousal and partner hires, and it would be a great way to move contingent laborers who have discovered that they really can be successful writers into more secure jobs. What would this mean? Giving it up that being tenure-track, or tenured, on the traditional model, is the apex of what it means to be a successful scholar.

Readers? How what would you change to help people write more — and free people who don’t want to write to do it less– or differently?



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