How to Write a Lot on a Heavy Teaching Load

Deborah J. Cohan shares lessons she's learned that have helped her write more regularly and publish more often.

December 5, 2019
 
 
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One of my beloved colleagues with whom I exchange a lot of office banter often quips, “Gosh, Deb, do you ever sleep? Are you ever not writing?” Another dear friend tells me, “You’re like a publishing machine.”

It was not always this way. For too many years, I was cobbling together contingency employment across state lines, zigzagging all over Massachusetts and Connecticut seeking an elusive tenure-track position. People encouraged me to write and publish as much as I could in order to have a better chance on the job market.

But the truth is, you do the best you can when you are just trying to survive, landing visiting gigs and trying to get settled in a new place while already applying for a job for the next year to ensure you can feed yourself, pay your rent and utilities, repay student loans, get some health care, and keep your CV looking like it is in forward motion. Gap years are highly recommended for students after high school, but they look treacherous on a CV of someone with a doctorate.

So I really couldn’t get into much of a writing routine until I landed my current job. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, writing is not at the foundation. That said, fast-forward and I now see my writing life as, in fact, foundational -- a measure of how well life is flowing and feeling.

I have learned some things along the way that have helped me write more regularly and publish with greater frequency, even on a 4/4 load with over 110 students in a semester, summer teaching and no teaching or research assistants or dedicated administrative assistance. I want to pass along my hard-won lessons to you.

No. 1: Let go of the tyranny of perfectionism. All my life I’ve been plagued by this. There are ways it served me well, but when it comes to regularly getting work out, it is detrimental. Perfectionism is not just a thief of the present and the future; it is also a thief of creativity. It keeps us stuck.

Getting our work out there means we are vulnerable. We may change our minds, our data, and our perceptions of concepts and trends may shift and evolve over time, and we need to be OK with letting our work go even as it is in progress. All intellectual and creative thought -- if it is indeed intellectual and creative -- is shifting and evolving, and it is fine to write and publish and later be open to new ideas that subtly or profoundly alter our perspective. And if we wait for our ideas to feel so rock solid, so right (whatever that even means), they may actually lose some currency and become stale.

No. 2: Develop a thick skin. The constant practice of continuing to write means cultivating voice and style and shaping a perspective that has guts and integrity. And if we are really committed to write and publish, we have to be willing to have our work -- and by extension ourselves -- open to criticism. Years ago, I decided that I would rather be part of the current cultural conversation -- whatever it is and even if it means fumbling and making mistakes -- than not engage in it at all.

As a public sociologist, I publish pieces and am quoted in other people’s work in popular media outlets that attract millions of readers. That is much different than the average academic article I publish that has a minimal, restricted readership. This means I will never have universal appeal; some people will love and appreciate what I have to say, and others will not. But, regardless, I will have a place at the table.

I am not immune to the criticism, but I have learned not to let it paralyze me. My motto is to keep going and to keep the work flowing.

No. 3: Always have things in constant, varying stages of production. I usually have many writing balls in the air at the same time. I’m generally starting a new project as I am revising another, while still another is hitting the press. I have a book coming out in February and two other books in different stages on my assembly line. Without even orchestrating it to be this way, I wound up with multiple publications every year as I worked toward tenure, something that was unintentionally strategic for that process. Another thing that has helped me has been writing about issues that transcend genre -- I explore similar themes across my forthcoming book, academic articles, book chapters, essays, articles for the mass media and poetry.

No. 4: Don’t wait for huge chunks of time. I have friends and colleagues who claim that they would write if only they had the time -- insinuating that maybe I am somehow blessed with more than a 24-hour day. They insist that if they could just clear their schedules, have a room of their own, have extended time away from children and what they regard as a requisite half or full day, then maybe, just maybe, they, too, could write. And they wind up not writing. Waiting for an elusive stretch of time to match up with an expanse of imagination and creativity is a recipe to guarantee writing will not happen.

Many of us have learned that in order to get fit, rather than rely on expensive and exclusive gym memberships, we need to only buy a good pair of sneakers and walk or do floor exercises. We must see writing productively the same way. We need not enroll in special seminars and webinars and buy tons of writing books. We simply must commit to sitting (or standing) at our desks and organizing our thinking enough to put words on the page in a way that makes meaning and forges a connection between ideas and between ourselves and our potential readers. Do as my wise sister friend told me before she left academe for a corporate job: guard your creative time like a mama bear with her cubs. That advice continues to guide my decisions.

No. 5: Establish daily and weekly habits. In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends three practices for fashioning a creative life: writing what she terms “morning pages,” taking daily walks and having monthly creative excursions. We benefit from participating in activities that are generative for creativity: getting into nature, reading, traveling, watching movies and attending the theater. Witnessing others’ creativity can help jump-start our own. For example, when I attend concerts, I think about the habits, routines and practices of the musicians. I am curious and energized to hear about others’ seemingly mundane daily rituals that pave the way toward creativity.

No. 6: Recognize how writing will make you a better teacher and citizen. Resist the urge to ask colleagues only about how their classes are going. Instead ask about their ideas, what they are reading and writing, and what their other creative pursuits are. Along those lines, at teaching-focused institutions, you may have a lot of colleagues who overly value teaching and service -- often because they are not writing. But writing makes us more interesting in the classroom.

Also, don’t fall into the same trap that I did back in graduate school when I believed that I needed to give conference presentations almost as a prerequisite to publishing. At the time, I presented so much and published so little; now, I spend far less time presenting and publish so much more. Instead, I find conference attendance most valuable for networking, potential collaborations and the development of future projects. You have absolutely no need to present your writing in a conference paper first, especially given the high costs of conferences, the extremely low attendance at many sessions and the fact that such an approach only leads to stalling and procrastination. Just get your work out!

No. 7: Consider the following practices:

  • When you sit down to work, turn off your phone and stash it in another room so as to not be tempted.
  • Think about space. When might it work better to write at home or at a favorite café?
  • Keep a master to-do list on your computer with the main projects you have going and review it on a weekly basis. Chart your progress so that you can get things into different stages of production.
  • Make appointments with yourself and honor them. Externally imposed deadlines can be motivating, but I also always add my own as well. I used to procrastinate, but as I published more, I do that less, and my other teaching work gets done much faster.
  • Make your writing easier to return to so you’re not always struggling to find your way back into a piece. Write notes to yourself as to where you are leaving off in a project and what you plan to attend to next -- create an intention. As a result, you’ll probably look forward to returning to your project.
  • Try to minimize commuting time. When I published less, I commuted a lot, often across state lines, and it added up to more than a workday of time. Now I live within walking distance of campus, and I am in a commuter marriage, but at least this way I am keeping my work life productive and traveling for my personal life.
  • Grade papers efficiently -- it opens up writing time. Years back when I rarely published, it took me more like a week or two to return papers. I laboriously marked them up and got stuck, overwhelmed and resentful. In recent years, while constantly writing and publishing, I learned how to provide the same extensive feedback and almost always return papers at the very next class session.
  • Don’t expect to do all of your scholarly writing in the summer or on breaks. It needs more constancy to happen.
  • Don’t wait until you retire to write what you want to write. I know many faculty members who want to engage in creative as well as scholarly writing but have put it off. Don’t. Write what you must write, and other writing will likely follow. Writing begets writing.
  • Aim to occasionally write for media outlets to gain exposure and to concisely translate your ideas for a broader audience. It will strengthen your writing muscles.
  • Be willing to be rejected again and again. And again. Keep writing anyway.

Bio

Deborah J. Cohan is an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption (Rutgers University Press, 2020).

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