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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Motherhood After Tenure: Writer's Block
January 14, 2009 - 10:37pm

By lucky coincidence one of my closest friends is on sabbatical at the same time as I. Although we joked that we would spend the year together skiing in the Alps and drinking wine, she is spending much of the year with her partner in another state, while my husband’s job keeps me here.

This week she was back in town and we met for coffee in order to compare notes, chat, and talk about our plans for the second half of our sabbaticals. Although I was excited to see her, I was worried that I wouldn’t match her positive mood since I was in the middle of a two-week writer’s block. However, within the first 20 minutes we discovered that both of us, although we’ve accomplished a lot on a host of other projects, are stymied when it comes to making any progress on our "big projects." Each of us have postponed book projects until they have become huge, insurmountable tasks filled with guilt and dread. Our initial enthusiasm is gone, our research outdated (we worry), and our confidence low. After our initial surprise (and relief) that we were experiencing the same problem, we began asking each other those crucial questions -- what is the biggest obstacle to finishing this project? What do you need to do next? -- and giving each other support and encouragement.

As my friend described the state of her book -- over 200 pages written, contract with a publisher -- it was easy for me to reassure her that it would get done. And vice versa. In fact, each of us were shocked that our competent, capable friend was full of so much self-doubt and anxiety. After all, we have no trouble meeting deadlines and we are both confident writers. Why is it so much more difficult to offer ourselves the same compassion, support, and encouragement that we give each other? And why are these honest conversations so rare in academia?

According to Robert Boice, 85% of academic publications are written by 15% of us. Whether or not this figure is still current, I’ve rarely met an academic who isn’t apologetic (or even deeply ashamed) of how little they’ve written in a given year. This suggests that the majority of faculty is not getting the support and/or guidance they need to contribute to their professional conversations. This isn’t just a loss for those less-prolific faculty, it’s a loss of resources for academia.

For faculty with heavy teaching loads, it is difficult to write much during the semester. (For those with children, I would argue it’s nearly impossible.) Even at colleges where teaching and service take up the bulk of faculty time, publications are still the currency by which faculty are tenured, promoted, and by which they get other jobs. As I explain to non-academic friends, the worst part of my job is working my butt off but the whole time knowing that I'm not doing the 'important' part of my job: scholarship.

Chatting with my friend was like holding a mirror up to my own needless anxiety. Just admitting my frustrations and fears have alleviated them: I am now able to work on my book. What about you: how comfortable are you with your publication record? How often do you have honest conversations with colleagues about your frustrations, block, or moments of discouragement? If you are one of those anxiety-free writers, tell us your secrets!


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