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So, I’ve been working on a book. This book.

Screen shot of a blurb on Publishers Marketplace: "Writing With Robots by John Warner. Author of Why They Can't Write and The Writer's Practice, John Warner's Writing With Robots, a call to arms in defense of writing, reminding us how writing and reading are essential aspects of our own humanity and we shouldn't be so quick to give them over to AI, to Emily Taber at Basic, at auction, by Melissa Flashman at Janklow & Nesbit."

John Warner

Today, I don’t want to talk about what’s in the book, but instead what it’s been like to be writing the book, because writing books (or articles or whatever) is a core part of the labor of academics, and I think too often that aspect of the job is reduced to the product (I wrote a book!) rather than considering the labor involved in the process along the way.

If academics are expected to write and publish books in the course of their duties, what does that look like? How reasonable are these expectations set against the other demands of the job?

Three days a week I work on nonbook things, this blog being one of those things. Three days a week I work on the book. One day a week I try not to work.

On the book-writing days, this is what happens. (The times are relative, not rigid. I don’t adhere to such a regimented schedule.)

  • 7:00-7:30am: Wake up and walk dog. During walk start thinking about what I have to do on the book that day.
  • 7:30–8:00: Breakfast with quick read of the day’s news, sports and weather. Complete Wordle.
  • 8:00–8:30: Canvass various sources for new information/insights on the integration/use of generative AI in school and work. One of the challenges of this book has been having the ground consistently moving under my feet. By design, the book is focused on what I think is stable, perhaps even eternal about reading and writing, but if I’m going to comment on these things in contrast with automation, I have to stay as current as possible. I find at least one new thing to read every day.
  • 8:30–9:00: Review background/source material I may work with in that day’s writing. I’ve read almost everything in this daily grouping before. I’m mostly refamiliarizing myself so it’s fresh in my mind.
  • 9:00–9:30: Practice drums. Back in the late ’90s, early 2000s, I played drums in an indie rock band in and around Chicago. I’ve not played much at all since, but earlier this year I started taking drum lessons to learn how to play for real (after being self-taught before) and committed to practicing every day for at least 30 minutes. During this period, for perhaps the only time all day, I empty my brain of any thoughts about the book.
  • 9:30–10:45: Exercise. Sometimes weights, sometimes the Peloton, sometimes yoga or a mix of all three. During this period I will bring what I was thinking about earlier back into my mind.
  • 10:45–11:00: Shower/dress etc. … I’m a copious sweater, so … yeah.
  • 11:00–12:00: Write book. Most days hardly any new words make it to the page in this period, but I’m reading what I did yesterday, tweaking that stuff, getting primed about what might come next. I want to start to feel like the energy for expression is building behind me.
  • 12:30–1:15: Lunch. Walk dog.
  • 1:15–5:15: Write book. This is where the magic happens, though as I’ve come to recognize, it’s not magic. Most days I can get between 1,000 and 1,500 words drafted, which feels pretty productive to me. I’ve had a few days of even more than that and some of less, but 1,500 is pretty close to average. Put another way, that’s 40 to 50 days of work for a full draft of the manuscript.

The reason I say it isn’t magic is because without being deliberate about it, I’ve organized my days around being primed to produce a decent amount of writing in that designated four-hour window. Without that priming, the productivity wouldn’t follow.

It makes me appreciate how difficult the writing tasks I often gave students were given the inherent nature of their schedules. How often do students have the luxury of priming and preparing themselves for the writing we ask them to do? For every four hours at the desk, I spend four hours preparing myself to be productive at the desk, not to mention the years (in the case of this subject) of thinking and writing about these topics in general.

My schedule is clearly a privilege of self-employment. If I was teaching … Well, if I was teaching I either couldn’t do the freelance writing/speaking/consulting that supports me day to day or I couldn’t do the book. There’s no universe in which a book could be added into that mix without something else being dropped. I suppose that if I was a tenured professor I would be able to drop some or all of my freelance work, but even under that scenario, if I am teaching three classes two days a week (an expected load at my most recent employer), I have swallowed up at least three and more like four days on teaching and prep. If there is grading to do, there goes the weekend that I might set aside for the book. How many days like I describe above could I expect to experience during a semester while teaching? Five? Three? Zero?

I’m not even accounting for personal and family responsibilities, of which I have many fewer than average since I don’t have children.

It’s no wonder so many academics slip past deadlines for their book projects. When exactly is this stuff supposed to get done?

If I was on the faculty at an elite institution, teaching a 2/2 load, perhaps I could stick to this kind of schedule. It would at least be possible, though not easy, I don’t think. I’d be longing for a sabbatical. Even doubling the time I’ve given myself for this project from five months to 10, I’d feel under the gun.

I wasn’t around when the markers of professional accomplishment signaling being worthy for hiring or tenure or promotion were established, and I’ve never been subject to those metrics, so maybe you can discount my next observation.

But, I gotta say, from deep inside the process of writing a book, if the goal is truly for people to produce work that reflects the peak of their abilities, as opposed to merely getting something done to check a box, the structures and demands around faculty labor are pretty bad.

The same can be said of the structures and demands around student labor when it comes to schoolwork, particularly writing in school contexts.

I wonder if we become so accustomed to merely surviving, we’ve lost touch with what it means to thrive.

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