When people hear about a new publication of mine, they are first surprised and then come to one of two conclusions: I must be trying to write my way back into faculty work, or I think publications serve the next step in my administrative career. They never come to the conclusion that I simply have something to say and want to find an avenue for it, which is why I went to graduate school in the first place.
Here, however, I am not concerned with the why -- mine for writing or theirs for drawing certain conclusions. I am concerned with the how, particularly as so many academics are finding themselves -- like me -- working in what can be termed alt-ac positions. We still find value in research, scholarship and publication, but we often struggle to find the time because our jobs don’t require or value such productivity.
Over the years, I have developed five rules that help me get writing done that may be useful to others engaged in balancing a professional position that doesn’t demand or reward scholarship and the desire to produce it.
It doesn’t matter when you write. Put the pen to paper or the fingers to keys when you can. That might mean jotting notes while sitting on a bench when a meeting has ended early or staying a little later than usual at the desk at the end of a workday. You will produce the same content the task would produce at any other time, even though you may have long told yourself otherwise.
I used to be one of those people with writing rituals and a structure, but my work life and home life no longer allow for the things that got the various graduate projects done or came from the rhythms of full-time faculty life. Accepting that and learning to work with it -- instead of against it -- was and remains necessary in a mostly desk-bound job where the main activities are meetings and emails. Doing this repeatedly will allow that “brain change” to come more quickly the next time.
Put it on the calendar and honor it. One of the great benefits of having all those meetings? You must keep a calendar -- often electronic, whether you like it or not. Put the time you want to write on that calendar and treat it like a meeting, because it is one. It is a meeting with your work.
That is often what I do at the end of a workday: hold that first 60 minutes after the official end of the day to close the door, put away the email and return to my work. If I don’t, I can wind up in meetings that run over or slogging through some necessary emails just to have responses that need answering by the time I get home.
My time is better spent turning off the work when the work can be turned off, although that is not something academics are well trained in. Finding the time is one thing, but making it is essential. And the other great benefit of an administrative job? The work will still be there tomorrow and every day, as the to-do list always refills.
It doesn’t matter if you feel it. So, you get to that time you have reserved and just aren’t feeling focused or inspired enough. Doesn’t matter -- do the work. Two slowly agonized sentences are better than not having those two sentences. We all learned tricks to get back into work that we have left for a while, and it is those rituals I turn to now to make writing happen amid a busy work life.
Personally, I read my way back in to the piece, whatever it is, and start with minor edits and finding the voice and the thinking. Regardless of what works for you, make it work. That is how you will clear whatever you are feeling that is standing in the way. You will feel better just for having touched your project, and getting back in will be easier the next time.
Have a goal for each block of time. The only way to make meetings bearable is to have a clear agenda and keep to it. Treat those meetings with your work the same way. Set a goal -- whether it is writing for a certain amount of time or finishing a certain project -- and work toward meeting that goal. The best goals, in my experience, are smaller ones that can actually get done in the scheduled time. It always makes me feel good, but it also allows me to set goals for the next session. And that matters in order to make the next session happen and make it count just like the previous. Basically, this rule results in the creation of a to-do list for your writing, which will make it easy to keep prioritizing and remembering to schedule those blocks.
Push past failure. You won’t always meet those goals. You will sometimes surrender planned writing time to other commitments. From time to time, you will just answer the email because you need to. Pick yourself back up and try again. Over time, I’ve started to fail less often, but I still fail. It can be much easier to give up when your work life does not depend on -- or sometimes even relate to -- your writing and research. With no external pressure and no deadlines, I had to learn to manage my own time and work, shift priorities, and recognize that my value and my goals are more than just what my job dictates. That can be hard for someone who was prepared for a faculty career with a vision of how all the disparate parts came together in the great triad of faculty work.
Given the above, you can imagine that writing as a fundamental adjunct to one’s core professional life is slow going. It can be. It also enriches that professional life and can be enhanced by seemingly distant subjects covered in emails, meetings and phone calls. Honestly, I often feel that my mind is looser and more prepared for the “mess” of drafting and early research because of the time I spend thinking creatively about problems and challenges in my “regular” job -- and also because of the high degree of multitasking and task shifting that happens across each workday. I personally end up better able to create the synthesis and synergy that I once imagined a faculty career would give me.
Recently, I had a talk with a colleague who was just trying out an administrative role on a temporary basis. Of course, I asked why this longtime professor would want to take on this assignment. The answer was, quite naturally, a combination of interest in the work and fear: “I don’t want to lose my research time,” he said. “I’ve never worked like this -- five days a week in the office, doing things that aren’t directly related to my field.”
That is a tough balancing act, but it can be done. I’ve done it, and I’m not the only one, particularly as more and more Ph.D.s find themselves not working in faculty ranks. None of us went to graduate school with dreams of contract review, operational planning and program budget development. But doing those things does not change what sent us to graduate school in the first place. We owe that part of ourselves the time to stretch out from under emails and meetings. Now, move over to your calendar screen and book an hour or two to write this week. You’ll thank me for it.
Monica F. Jacobe is director of the Center for American Language and Culture at the College of New Jersey. She writes regularly about higher education on her blog, Strategic Revision, and is co-author of , an ELT textbook from Cambridge University Press, released in 2015. She is also completing a monograph in her scholarly field of American literature, Looking Back Home: Southern Identity, Geographic Shift, and the American Imaginal.
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