The beginning of the academic year is always a crazybusy time. If you work at a teaching-intensive institution, the start of the year often feels like a time of mournful separation — with the end of summer comes the end of our scholarship productivity for the year. That’s because finding time during the term to get any writing done can feel like Popeye trying to get Poopdeck Pappy to sleep when he’d rather go out and start a bar fight.
The problem with “finding time” to write is that the enterprise is often impossible — there are always other things to fill our time. However, Joli Jensen from the University of Tulsa, a writing columnist for Vitae, reminds us that while the decks will never be sufficiently swabbed, we can still proceed to sail the scholar-ship (see what I did there?) with a little shifting of perspective and the application of a few easily implemented productivity tips (which she writes about in a separate piece that I recommend highly).
So put away the mop and weigh anchor, matey! Arrrrr!!!
One of the most widespread myths in academic writing is that you can, and should, try to “clear the decks”—that is, finish all of your other obligations before you can focus on your scholarship.
In a recent faculty workshop on “stalled projects,” six colleagues committed to try, for two weeks, a few of the writing approaches I’ve been recommending. No pressure, I told them. This wasn’t a permanent commitment. It was just a way to explore why these projects weren’t moving forward.
The day before our second meeting, one colleague emailed to say that she couldn’t start using the techniques because she was overwhelmed. There was just too much going on, it wasn’t an opportune time for writing, and now grading had to take precedence. She couldn’t make the meeting, and she would be out of town the following week, but hoped she could continue with the group once things settled down.
Obviously the “cleared decks” delusion had her in its grip. Even though she said she wanted to reconnect with her project, had been confident she could find 10 minutes a day to write, and had had a week free of teaching, she still hadn’t been able to get started. We had discussed specific ways for her to make better use of her time, such as doing scholarly writing before her grading. In spite of those suggestions, she still felt obligated to put her research project on hold until “things cleared up.”
The other members of the writing group understood, of course, but this time they had been able to make different choices. They, too, felt overwhelmed by other obligations. They, too, felt that this wasn’t the best time to be writing, and were tempted, each day, to put off even their brief 10-minute commitment. But somehow they were still able to try at least some of the techniques. And once they experienced even a little progress, they felt better about the project, and about themselves, and were eager to keep going. They were no longer stalled.
The reality is: Things never clear up. They don’t even reliably settle down. Your in box is always full. The decks are always crowded. There is always more going on than you want or expect. Nonetheless, you can find ways to put your writing first, and make sure that it gets done. Otherwise, everything but your writing will get done.