Cross-Training for Scholarly Writers

If the pandemic has interrupted your scholarly writing, this could be the time to explore other genres or to seek coaching or other forms of support, Christina Lux and Tanya Golash-Boza advise.

July 24, 2020

In our roles as department chair of public health and associate director of the Center for the Humanities at the University of California, Merced, we often take walks together on our local bike path to talk about productivity and writing. Little did we know that March 16 was to be our last such walk for the foreseeable future. That week, we moved to remote work, public health meetings and classes shifted to virtual formats, and California governor Gavin Newsom declared a stay-at-home order effective March 19.

During our last walk, we talked about how the constant news emerging about COVID-19 was making it difficult to focus on writing. The next few weeks became a blur of moving work online, navigating our children’s educational needs, canceling travel and events, figuring out how to order groceries online, and trying to come to terms with our new reality. Daily writing fell to the very bottom of the list of things we needed to do.

We both know that writers naturally go through peaks and valleys of productivity and can sometimes beat ourselves up in the valleys. Just like athletes, we’ve learned it’s important to understand we have the equivalent of both 1) off-seasons and 2) injuries that slow us down (aka life’s major interruptions). In each of those cases, what’s key is that we are able to adapt and establish new routines or modified exercises to get back on track. Sometimes that involves relying on our equivalent of fellow athletes (our fellow writers) or coaches and trainers (our mentors). In fact, sometimes in the off-season or after an injury, we can discover new methods that make us even stronger.

The pandemic has been, for most of us, one of those major life interruptions. And to continue the athlete metaphor, thinking of writing as cross-training can be a good way to get back on track with it. If you are having trouble with your scholarly writing, this could be an ideal time to explore other short-form genres or to seek coaching or other forms of support.

Some people in the academy believe scholarly writers should stay in their lane and only write scholarly articles and books, as these are the only genres that tenure and promotion committees really value. That belief is not only misguided, but it also can lead to missed opportunities for growth. Based on our own experiences and our observations of colleagues over several years, we know that the willingness to explore new genres can keep you going or get you back on track with your scholarly writing if you’re struggling through a slow or dry period. Writing across different genres -- such as op-eds, blogs, poems or scripts -- also improves the quality of your writing.

So what might cross-training for writing look like for you?

Just as exploring new genres can help reinvigorate your writing, so can finding new forms of support. Thus, social and professional writing groups are also key. The COVID-19 crisis has made it clear to many of us how much we rely on one another for assistance and to meet our basic needs. It is no different for writers -- we, too, need a helpful and encouraging community to keep going.

The Humanities Center at our university, with the support of the vice provost for the faculty, has run a weekly writing group for years. When meeting in person became no longer feasible, we transformed our in-person meetings into virtual ones. People still post writing goals and share tips as well as challenges. We are also both part of a team mentoring program, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for junior faculty members at the university that focuses on providing publishing and grant-writing assistance. When all of our in-person activities were canceled, we held a virtual grant-writing workshop and writing retreat for the participants.

Writing is at the core of what we do as academics -- it’s how we disseminate research and share our work with the broader public. It is also often what is most highly valued in promotion reviews and on the job market. But writing can fall by the wayside in times of stress or when people are overextended with the myriad competing labor demands, such as those they must often deal with now -- like extra service work, homeschooling children due to school closures and providing health care at home as a result of the quarantine, to name just a few.

A recent Inside Higher Ed article highlighted how COVID-19 is “tanking women’s research productivity” and explained why the problem is gendered. In that context, it is all the more crucial that we as women faculty members not only support each other at this time, but also ask our colleges and universities to step up and provide concrete forms of extra assistance for writing and publishing. We can also encourage our institutions to acknowledge how the pandemic has adversely affected specific groups’ research productivity. Those groups may include faculty who have family members impacted by COVID-19, those caring for elderly parents and children, and the like. Such acknowledgment and protection are particularly important for junior faculty on the tenure path, as our university has recognized with its COVID-19 stop-the-tenure-clock policy.

In that sense, we are not simply advocating a “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” approach when we talk about cross-training for writers. To effectively maintain research continuity at a time when scholars are increasingly isolated and overworked, we must focus both on what writers can do for themselves and also on what structural changes colleges and universities need to put in place to help them.

So ask yourself: What would it take for you to get back in the writing arena, so to speak?


Christina Lux is the associate director of the Center for the Humanities at the University of California, Merced. Tanya Golash-Boza is a professor of sociology and the chair of public health at the university and also hosts the blog Get a Life, PhD.

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