Writing in company at home

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a writing retreat at home with former colleagues and current co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks.

We are finalising a journal article on time pressures for PhD candidates and early career academics. The retreat immersed us in writing away from the interruptions of the office. Planning and writing was interspersed with conversation, food and laughter. (This off the shelf vegan cheesecake was a hit).

Much as I would love a lengthy writing retreat in an exotic locale—I dream of attending one of Helen Sword’s—writing from home appeals to the frugal hedonist in me.

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Collaborative writing was not the norm in my first discipline (Cultural Studies) but is common in Education. Indeed, many of my colleagues in Higher Education have few publications as a single author. The change of discipline and shift to co-authoring has proved fruitful for my research output.

My academic positions to date have been teaching and learning or administration focussed, so research has typically constituted 20% of my workload. Until this year, I was part-time (three days a week from 2010-2017 and four days a week in 2018). Twenty percent of a part-time job does not allow a lot of time for research!

I recently updated my count of co-authors. Since graduating from my PhD in 2010, I have published 25 book chapters, journal articles and conference papers. I was sole author on just 6 of these, and have written with a grand total of 28 different people (often more than once). I am not including chapters and articles currently in press (one of which has seven authors!)

The benefits of writing in company go far beyond increased publication outputs.

I have learned a lot from co-authors—working with theory, research methodologies, the craft of writing and academic publication processes. Colleagues and I have written about the friendship and intimacy that develops through writing together. Above all, collaborative writing has been a lot of fun!

The experience is captured in Laurel Johnson, Sonia Roitman, Ann Morgan and Jason MacLeod’s (2017) article ‘Challenging the productivity mantra: academic writing with spirit in place’. The location of their writing group in members’ homes in a particular suburb of Brisbane is noteworthy:

Most members live in the area. They have chosen to live in this community due to its affordability but also its diversity and difference compared to the balance of the city. The suburb provides cultural safety for some members. The suburb is not the usual residential address for the city’s academics. The site is stigmatised and it is distant from the city’s universities. The choice to reside and meet here illustrates a point of difference for the writing group membership compared to other academic writing groups …

The move away from the place of work to home for meetings changed the quality and function of the group. The writing group members began to share more of themselves and their lives. The group membership expanded to include local residents (such as creative writers and community and ethnic leaders). The membership diversified … As well as challenging typical academic writing styles, group members came to know each other as friendships formed, bonded around place, interests, identity and shared concerns and values.

The emphasis on place and home has added a spiritual dimension:

The value of a diverse and mixed academic and non-academic membership, a shared commitment to social justice, the relational and democratic processes of the group and the importance of place (off campus in a socially disadvantaged suburb in the city) work together to engender a humanistic spirituality in the group. The value … to its members transcends the expected material benefits of increased writing production, a regular writing habit and consistent writing review. The non-material benefits of a shared community of practice, the renewal of ideas and affirmation of shared humanistic values, connection and empathy with others and permission to flourish as writers and people, bring spirit to the group.

I can only aspire to writing with spirit in place. But Lilia, Vanessa and I have made a start—reading Derrida, eating soup, looking at trees out the window and writing together.

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Out the back door

Image source: Judy Horacek. (Love her work).

This post is drawn from my experiments with academic writing practices in a recent book chapter: “Academic Writing from the Depths: An autoethnographic and organisational account” in Academic Writing and Identity Constructions (edited by Louise Thomas and Anne Reinertsen). In a previous post, I described why I enjoy writing book chapters (which ‘count’ less than journal articles in metricised academia): I relish the chance to play while writing.

Last week I experienced experimental writing from the other side: as a reviewer of a work that defied the conventions of academic texts by including poetry, song, and art, and using unexpected styles, fragments, narratives, metaphors and allusions. It was an uncomfortable position to occupy, especially for an academic reviewer. I have been mulling over this difficult (but enjoyable) reading experience all week.

In the wonderfully metaphorical essay “Birds, Women and Writing”, French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous (2004) refers to opening “the back door of thought” to the “nether realms” (p 169), a dangerous place where the unthought, the risky and the impossible can be imagined. She suggests that writing comes from “deep inside” this space:

It is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. Thought comes in front of it and closes it like a door. This does not mean it does not think, but it thinks differently from our thinking and speech. Somewhere in the depths of my heart, which is deeper than I think. Somewhere in my stomach, my womb. (2004, p 172)

In “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Cixous (1981) coins the phrase écriture feminine: “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing … Woman must put herself into the text” (1981, p 246). This process of écriture feminine has two aims: “to break up, to destroy; and to foresee the unforeseeable, to project” (p 246) Luce Irigaray (1993) uses the similar term parler-femme (speaking as woman): “I am a woman. I write with who I am” (p 53).

Tracing her inner reveries about women and writing, Cixous finds herself thinking about birds, swarming outside threateningly and joyfully like ideas. To understand the association, Cixous (2004) turns to the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, where birds are unclean, forbidden for human consumption, otherworldly:

Let those birds be “abominable”: I associate women and writing with this abomination. I do this, of course, half playfully, half seriously. It is my way of indicating the reserved, secluded, or excluded path or place where you meet those beings I think are worth knowing while we are alive (pp. 168-169)

Birds on campus. © Jennifer Vu. Image source.

If you seek to join the exalted company of writing women, if you go outside towards the birds, if you enter the “nether realms” of the unthought and the impossible, Cixous (2004) writes: “you no longer belong to the world. Out there we shall be in the company of swans, storks, and griffons” (p. 171). This space is “somewhere in that most evasive of countries without precise address, the one that is most difficult to find and work with, and where it is even difficult to live without effort, danger, risk” (2004, p. 169). When writing, I follow Cixous: inside, into the depths of embodied writing experience; and outside, towards the birds, into the university.

(I recommend Rowena Murray’s ‘It’s not a hobby’ and Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space if you want to think about these ideas of writing and academic work).

I walk the campus. My favourite place is a remnant turpentine ironbark forest that clings to the edge. On the way, I watch the birds. The masked lapwings, who lay their delicate eggs on the ground and defend them energetically, occupy the grassy areas of the campus; large ibis and brush turkeys dominate spaces frequented by students; and in a feat of defensive cooperation, one duck couple have managed to keep a dozen ducklings alive. Like Cixous, I relish the outside:

Those who belong to the birds and their kind (these may include some men), to writings and their kind: they are all to be found—and a fair company it is too—outside (2004, pp. 168-169).

© Patrick Wiecks. Source: Australian Geographic Wildlife on Campus.

What do you find when you open the back door of thought?

Looking forward

The great thing about my work is that it includes what I most enjoy—reading, speaking, writing and listening. I am back in the office (part-time during January so I can settle the kids into new schools and new routines) and starting to fill my calendar for the year. My colleague Mitch Parsell (who blogs at The conflict of the faculties, a title taken from an essay by Kant) has been articulating his 2019 priorities via Twitter, and included this KonMari-inspired one:

I must confess that I have not read The life-changing magic of tidying up, nor watched Marie Kondo’s netflix series, but the housekeeping rituals that spark joy are appealing (or at least the vision of an ideal home is attractive, even as the privilege of curating your laundry in a beige non-place gives pause).

I have written about housekeeping and academia on this blog, as well as the pleasure of work on many occasions. Finding what ‘sparks joy’ has other names in academic contexts: MacLure’s potential for wonder in qualitative research, Barnett’s poetic and utopian universities, and (closer to home) Honan, Henderson and Loch on moments of pleasure.

As I wrote last year, I am not one for resolutions, but I am looking forward to many things in February that I anticipate will spark joy, including:

  • joining the Idea of the University reading group

This is a fortnightly online discussion hosted by Jeanette Fyffe who has written about it in ‘Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable’ (2018) and, with Tai Peseta and Fiona Salisbury, in Interrogating the “Idea of the University” Through the Pleasures of Reading Together (2019). Each week a different reading is under discussion, and previous authors have included Raewyn Connell, Martin Nakata, Barbara Grant, Ronald Barnett and Ruth Barcan among others. The organisers describe the reading group as “aim[ing] to resuscitate the pleasures involved in university colleagues reading together”.

  • meeting with Higher Education scholars

In previous posts (Yarning circle and The spirit of research) I have described this informal cross-university network of higher education scholars. Unfortunately I missed October’s meeting on ‘Making place in higher education research’, although I still plan to complete the homework by reading Barbara Grant’s chapter “Going to see”: An academic woman researching her own kind in Lived experiences of women in academia: Metaphors, manifestos and memoir and blogging my response.

  • participating in Making shiFt happen

Organised by Ali Black and Rachael Dwyer, Making shiFt happen is “a 36-hour, Zoom-powered, innovative, non-traditional, transdisciplinary virtual exchange and (un)conference for female academics around the globe. A place for conversation, care, contribution, connection, collaboration, creativity, community and change”. Themes include Contemplative beginnings, Building caring communities, lived experiences of women in academia and reimagining academia). It runs from February 5 to February 6 across multiple timezones. Registration is open now and is only AU$50 for research students and sessional academics ($150 for full-time academics).

  • writing with the Academic Identities conference research team

Following the wonderful Peaceful University conference in Hiroshima last year, the Academic identities project teams are meeting over four days in Melbourne. We plan to collaborate on journal articles based on our presentations at the conference (Jamie Burford gave a detailed summary of these papers at Conference Inference).

These are just the special events scheduled for February. I also plan to enjoy everyday tasks of meeting with colleagues, developing curricula, planning and writing. Writing this list, however, has reminded me that I will need to practice slow academia.

Even so, my (reading) life does not look much like Marie Kondo’s:

Rather this, which encapsulates another Japanese concept, tsundoku or unread books piling up:

 

 

 

Too many papers

This is the final post in a trilogy following the 6th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima. In my first post, I described the conference, its location, theme and keynote presentations. In the second, I highlighted four presentations that stretched my thinking. In this post, I want to share the four papers I presented with colleagues, and issue a stern warning to myself to present fewer papers at future conferences.

Four papers is too many. Having co-authors made it possible (enjoyable even), but  I talked too much, and listened too little. When I was listening, I was too keyed up about my next paper to listen well. One of my papers was on slow academia; practice what you preach and other idioms apply.

  • The solace of slow academia (or breathing room)

This paper was a blend of theory, autoethnography and practical advice.

Theory: Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray make uneasy bedfellows, but reading their work together allows complex ideas to be explored. I read Irigaray’s work on breath awakening selfhood alongside Judith Butler’s relational performativity and slippage of identities.

Autoethnography: Reading, thinking and writing about slow academia and academic activism has become a way to manage the demands of work and the challenges of caring for a sick child.

Practical advice: Listen to this 5 minute meditation before writing, have the same three goals every day, read poetry.

I am using the theoretical work from this for a co-authored book chapter on collective experiences on (non)motherhood and (non)academia.

  • Pressed for time: Doctoral candidates and early career academics’ experiences of temporal anxiety (with Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks)

The presentation included photos of Eye Shen’s Counting Time I took last month at the sculpture exhibition Hidden in Rookwood Cemetery. (Sydney folks: I can’t recommend this annual event highly enough as a family outing).

In the paper, we used Jacques Derrida’s conception of time and deferral to explore the temporal anxiety experienced by PhD candidates and ECAs, particularly as sessional staff members. For example, a PhD candidate says:

It frustrates me very much because I don’t have the time. It’s been over a year since I’ve been to a conference, which I think is pretty dire. I should have a chapter that’s ready. I should have something published. I should be going to conferences and meeting people but I just don’t feel like I have the time to do it. I do feel like it’s rushed to try and finish in three years. I wish I had more time for the other stuff.

And an early career academic says:

I hope to find a permanent position that allows me to do more research and writing, which is where my prime interest is. At the moment I am a casual lecturer which takes all my time and is financially a catastrophe. I have many ideas for articles, presentations and organising a conference but no time to pursue these goals. The big question is how long one manages to ‘hang in’ before giving up.

Lilia, Vanessa and I are currently writing this up as a journal article. Although it generated some great discussion, it was a bit of a downer, so we need to work on a hopeful ending.

  • Who cares? Gendered care-work and the limits of care at the “friendliest conference in the world” (with James Burford and Jan Smith)
  • Meeting ourselves, meeting the audience and meeting a discipline? (with Jeanette Fyffe)

Jamie has given a detailed summary of these papers which is difficult to top. You can read it at the wonderful blog Conference Inference. Here is his thoughtful comment about the complexities of academics writing about academic work:

While some might see my topic choices as a form of morbid self-absorption, I’ve tended to see this as a desire to begin where I am. Often I find myself using my ordinary environment and practices as a platform for inquiry. I think this can be valuable, as inhabiting a role or position can bring with it lots of questions, and research can be a helpful way to open ourselves up to further curiosity and even the odd answer. Perhaps at a broader level this is something that higher education researchers are always doing, as we go about researching our own profession and working contexts.

Our paper on gendered care and community work at conferences is currently under review. Jeanette and I plan to write our paper as a journal article next year. Right, Jeanette?

The immediacy of the conference and its imperatives are fading. Everyday life and work are taking over. I am trying to hold on to ideas, or at least record them for later. I am also trying to keep a sense of place. My mind returns to an onsen with a view of a rainforest river in torrent…