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The Long, Slow, Constant, Mindful Writing Life

When I tell people unfamiliar with academe that I am a professor, they usually respond, “So you must feel a lot of pressure, with the whole publish-or-perish thing?” Rather than explain that I am a full professor, with few carrots dangling before me and no sticks prodding me, I typically say, “It’s fine. I really enjoy writing.”

And I do. The pleasure I take in writing has been a great benefit to me professionally. (I once overheard a fellow academic mutter, “She must not sleep” regarding my penchant for writing.) However, I also am aware that the pressure of writing “early and often” has led me, at certain points, to take an instrumentalist approach to projects. At times I have given up the kind of measured cultivation of ideas I highly value, in exchange for the designation “productive.” I know I am not alone in this, and even now, with tenure, I still carry a nervous buzz about “getting things out.”

The frenetic pace of academic writing these days has costs. The adage “quality over quantity” has been cast aside. As a result, we devalue the person who might take many years to make her own contribution to a field, as compared with someone who churns out an argument a week. This devaluing is intellectually unhealthy.

Even if we recognize that universities function as marketplaces, vying for prized “producers,” we should eschew that model when it comes to evaluating our peers as thinkers. A single article has the potential to transform a discipline, to function as a watershed—but only if we are willing to read it without market-based prejudices about who “matters” and why.

Hortense Spillers’s 1987 article, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” has been foundational to two generations of thought in black feminist theory and African-American studies. All of her work is masterly, but had she written only that one piece, her scholarly impact would still have been immense.  There are other writings like that, some yet to be discovered and many yet to be written. But we have to be intellectually present in order to receive them, no matter the author’s affiliations and dossier.

We must also be mindful of how we use market thinking to evaluate ourselves, and be wary of how it can corrupt our work. I am one of those people, for example, who had no inkling of what my dissertation was actually about (in the sense of what contribution it made) until a year after I earned my Ph.D.

Although I didn’t turn my dissertation into a book (but rather articles), I still toy with the idea, some 12 years later, in part, because I now understand how those ideas might make a meaningful contribution to Southern legal history and American literature. Had I spent years focused mainly on that project, getting it to where it needed to be, I would not have had the professional trajectory I have had. And if I had made it “the book,” according to the acceptable schedule of research universities, it would not have been the work it should or could one day be.

I saw the value in continuing to think about my dissertation, to allow it to grow, breathe, and develop, and to continue to learn as I worked on other projects (a choice that was both practical and rewarding). I’m not disappointed that my dissertation isn’t yet a book. In our fast-paced world, it’s important to take the long vision of an idea. What it is one wants to say, how one wants to say it: Sometimes figuring these things out takes time. We cannot consider an idea failed too soon. Some need time to age.

I try to communicate this to my graduate students. They are brilliant and eager, often dashing toward their ideas as though there were hot coals under their feet. This is good. What concerns me is when that rushing seems fueled less by passion than by anxiety. Of course they are anxious about jobs and careers. A realistic assessment of the marketplace is essential to building an academic career in the 21st century.

But we must teach our students to balance their career aspirations with a care and deliberateness about their intellectual development, and an understanding that the dissertation is only the first project, the beginning of a learning process will take longer, probably a lifetime. Being a scholar is a life practice of reading, thinking, and writing, which, ideally, will lead to one or some (or many) meaningful works. Scholarship is not the mechanical pursuit of written products.

One of my favorite cultural critics, Albert Murray, began publishing his writing at age 46. I imagine him during his 19-year career in the Air Force, mulling over the ideas that one day would dazzle me and many others. I imagine him practicing thought riffs and idea phrases so that when he decided to set words to the page, they sparkled with their elegant composition and elucidation. It strikes me as beside the point to call him a late bloomer. I’d rather call him a man who wrote on his own time—the right time. If we are open, we can see that possibility in us all.

Imani Perry is a professor at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University.

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