Stuck in a writing rut? Joli Jensen, a professor of communication at the University of Tulsa, has been there—that’s why she founded the institution’s Faculty Writing Program. She’ll be sharing tips in a monthly column on writing productivity.
Academic life seems to offer us an ideal writing environment. In exchange for teaching a few classes a week, professors supposedly get the time, space, and support they need for their scholarly work. Outsiders picture us in quiet book-lined offices, thinking great thoughts. They assume we’re in the company of colleagues who share our interests and offer us writing guidance.
Even when we become insiders, launched in our university careers, we may hold on to that image. Many of us yearn for an academic Arcadia, where we will find more of what we need to be productive and thereby feel valued and content.
But academic reality rarely matches our dreams.
I can attest to this. I’ve had a fortunate academic career—a Ph.D. from a respected graduate program, teaching jobs at three good universities, tenure and promotion without drama, an endowed chair, all while writing and publishing books, chapters and articles.
But the writing? It’s been a constant struggle. I’ve spent years wishing I had more time, and more support, for that work. I’ve wondered what I was doing wrong. I’ve agonized over how writing has taken precious time away from family and friends. And I’ve questioned the point of it all—did the world really need another scholarly article or book by me? Couldn’t I do more good elsewhere?
This baffled me. Why was I still anxious, frustrated and discontented when everything seemed to be “working out”? I needed to understand why academic writing was(and sometimes still is) challenging for me.
That inquiry has since become a key part of my academic mission: In recent years I’ve focused on what hinders writing productivity—and what helps it. What I’ve learned has allowed me to create a faculty-writing program at my university, which is teaching me even more about what works for others, as well as for me.
Before I got to that point, however, I had to face and accept reality—that this supposedly idyllic writing environment is actually a lot like any other white-collar job. The demands of teaching, if done responsibly, claim most of our time. And if we want to contribute to our department, college, university, and community, the demands of service make even more claims on us.
Most of my days, for example, are spent on organizational-maintenance activities, doing computerized clerical work. It’s not the life I envisioned, but it is not completely antithetical to it, either. So I can stop resenting what fills my time, and instead find ways to do more of what matters to me.
This involves dispelling a related delusion. My complaints about how busy I am with teaching and service misidentify the problem. My delusion is that if I just had more time, I’d be writing productively.
But let’s be honest: Even when I’ve had time (research days, weekends, winter breaks, summers, sabbaticals), I haven’t written as much as I’d like. This is true for many of us. We have concrete goals and plans, but even when we are not teaching, we tend to fall short. We read but don’t write, or write but don’t make much progress, or write and revise but don’t submit, or submit but don’t revise and resubmit. Or we write in a frantic, miserable haze as our precious downtime ends, deadlines loom, and classes are about to start.
On top of this, no matter how much we manage to write, it never feels like enough. Even if we accept our challenging circumstances, we can still feel inadequate and under the gun. Over time, too many of us come to dread and resist the writing process. We produce grudgingly, in fits and starts, under deadline pressure, with the Damoclean sword of tenure or professional reviews hanging over our heads.
All the research on writing productivity tells us this:To be productive, writers need frequent, low-stress contact with a project that interests them, in a supportive environment. When I say this to colleagues, their response is usually stunned silence, then rueful laughter. Their experience, and mine too,has been just the opposite-- infrequent, high-stress contact with projects that feel like albatrosses.
So let’s accept that we live in a writing dystopia, and then find ways to write in it anyway. Let’s stop resenting our circumstances, and let go of the fantasy that we need to be somewhere else to really be able to write. And let’s stop blaming teaching and service for stealing all our time. Once we let go of these delusions, we can identify and address the real obstacles that hinder our scholarly writing, and find ways to overcome them.
And let’s find concrete ways to be good stewards of our own writing productivity. In upcoming columns I will offer a variety of strategies that have worked for me, and for my colleagues. I’ll also discuss the many writing myths that stand in our way, as well as how to handle revisions, start writing groups, seek publication, and reach a wider audience. These columns will draw on my own writing struggles over 30+ years in academic life, on what I’ve learned offering workshops and working with colleagues, and from the literature on what hinders and obstructs, as well as what encourages and supports, the writing process.
Writing is especially hard in academia. But giving up the delusion that all we need is “more time” or “a better job” opens up new possibilities. It allows us to focus instead on creating and sustaining the conditions we need to write more easily and happily. We may not live in an idyllic writing environment, but we can make changes that bring us much closer to it.
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