In my experience directing a faculty writing program, I can report this: people struggle.
They think their writing problem is a personal problem. When they struggle, they often report it as an embarrassment, a confession, something to hide. They come into my office with a confession: “I have something to tell you. I’m a terrible writer.”
I’ve worked with a high-achieving scholar who carried around a bag of research for five years. Just couldn’t write it up. (We are all carrying around baggage like that.)
I’ve worked with a senior, tenured faculty member who’d written several well-received books. “I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve never had a problem with writing before.”
I’ve worked with an instructor whose chair couldn’t understand why she’d want to attend a writing retreat since publications didn’t really “count” for her review and promotion process.
I’ve worked with a program administrator who felt she had no energy to write because all her time went toward managing people, defending a program in crisis, and trying to understand and to meet the needs of everyone else.
Clearly these writers have problems and are looking for answers. They’re not alone.
Inside Higher Ed and other publications have popular columns that include a focus on writing and productivity. Titles include the following: How to Salvage Your Summer Writing, Why Aren’t You Writing?, Thanksgiving: Binge or Break, Shut Up and Write, Lower Your Standards, and Writing 20 Minutes Every Single Day.
Writers are also looking to books for solutions to their scholarly writing struggles: How to Write a Lot (Paul Silva); Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks (Wendy Laura Belcher); On Writing (Stephen King); Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day (Joan Bolker).
But they don’t always seem to help as much as we hope.
When we make our writing struggles personal -- or we are told to “get your writing fixed” or “just manage your time better” or “shouldn’t you have figured out how to write by now?” or “just put writing before teaching” -- they become our own individual problems to solve under the banner of self-improvement.
But we know that the personal is political.
- Our identities as writers are shaped by institutional contexts: where we were trained, where we are writing now, what type of positions we hold, what types of climates we are writing in.
- Our identities as writers are shaped by the kinds of writing that are valued at our institutions. Our scholarship may include issues related to our own identities, but they may be marginalized as “less rigorous” because it’s not “mainstream.”
- We know there are hidden cultural codes of the academy that privilege some forms of writing and making arguments. For example, we may do our best work and find the most joy when we write collaboratively. But tenure committees in some disciplines continue to place a higher value on single-authored texts.
- Faculty climate surveys nationally reveal that writing can be even more challenging for women and faculty of color, who often report, for example, they have less access to senior mentors, yet they have more responsibility to mentor students.
The personal is political in lots of ways, of course.
What I want to suggest strongly is that it’s due in large part to the delegitimization of community. When writers come into my office, when they (and I) go on Amazon and buy all those books, we often have internalized that a writing problem is a problem with us.
It’s understandable. We are often asked to talk about our work in terms of our individual productivity (scribbling away in the attic) or our value (for jobs, for promotion) based on the number or placement of publications.
But we are more than a measure of our outputs.
We can work to create the spaces that we want to be a part of that legitimize community and value experience as much as products. We can:
- Share stories publicly about how writing actually happens for us -- what gives us joy, what we do when we struggle, how we collaborate with others or balance administrative/teaching/research demands. (For inspiration, see especially writing conversations at Stanford University, The Daily Beast, The Paris Review, Duke and the How We Write collection.)
- Encourage contingent faculty members to form and manage writing groups and help them advance as a community of scholars.
- Make visible to our institutions the collective needs and concerns of all writers across the university community. In many cases, existing institutional research data -- such as graduate student exit surveys or faculty satisfaction surveys -- are easily accessible. We can use the data to identify needs, and then ask for resources.
- Write together. Writing tends to be an isolated activity. What if we formed writing groups across disciplinary, hierarchical and departmental boundaries? What if faculty members and graduate students wrote side by side together? What if we formed writing feedback groups around core issues or experiences? What if we talked about all those books we’re buying?
Of course, just gathering people together in a group with some pretext related to writing is not enough. Any commitment to community includes attention to individual needs, an awareness of institutional and departmental contexts and politics, and structures that provide enough guidance to be supportive without micromanaging. But when done thoughtfully, this combination of the solitary activity of writing with the social exchange of ideas, struggles, practices and drafts can lead to a writing life that is not only more productive and less isolating but also saner and more enriching -- one that values the lived experience as much as the final product.
Jennifer Ahern-Dodson is an assistant professor of the practice in writing studies at Duke University. Her research centers on the role that community plays in shaping attitudes toward writing, fostering self-authorship and cultivating learning spaces that promote rigor, creativity, critical reflection and civic engagement.
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