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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Look up

Walking up to school this morning, my son said ‘I love the sky’. You can see why:

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It’s the beginning of spring on this side of the world, and Sydney celebrates with days in the mid 20s. Members of the Cloud Appreciation Society would have found little joy this morning. After a week of rain, it’s nothing but blue skies.

I was thinking about this moment of looking upwards together while reading The Taylorisation of Time: An effective strategy in the struggle to ‘manage’ work and life? from the Annals of Leisure Research.

Pat Thomson recently blogged about ideas for keeping a reading journal on the last thing you read, a reading that has stayed with you, something written really well and something in the media that speaks to your research. Her twenty questions include:

  • What’s the first thing you remember about this text? Write a sentence.
  • Did the text give you an idea? Write a sentence.
  • Does this book or paper connect with something else that you’ve read? Write a sentence.
  • How does this writing differ from other things you’ve read? Write a sentence.

The Taylorisation of Time uses data from the Australian Longitudinal Study of Women’s Health, a longitudinal survey of over 57,000 women in three age cohorts (18-23, 45-50 and 70-75) which began in 1996 (another 17,000 women aged 18-23 were recruited to form a new cohort in 2012/13). I also read two other articles that draw on the same data set: ‘‘Melt Down’: Young women’s talk of time and its implications for health, wellbeing and identity in late modernity’ and ‘Time Pressure, Satisfaction with Leisure, and Health Among Australian Women’.

The outcome of asking women about their time is not surprising: a lot of Australian women feel pressured and anxious about competing demands. Middle-aged mothers of pre-school children who are working full-time are the most likely to describe themselves as “frequently rushed”.

  • “I feel totally out of control most of the time. I feel … that life is a rollercoaster and you just get on there and you just do it.”
  • “The most high pressured time of the day is trying to get out the door in the morning. Work is fine; the rest of my life is totally chaotic. Work has its routines, family life is unpredictable.”
  • “Between chauffeuring them to and from school on the way to work … I’m supposed to have a life which doesn’t exist”
  • “We’re trying to be perfect. Like, I feel guilty if my kids don’t get a proper meal.”
  • “I think with work … your children are treated like a commodity … a package you drop off at school, but there is no provision for the package losing a shoe, or getting sick, feeling like a cuddle, dawdling over breakfast…”

For all that everyone has the same quantity (1440 minutes a day), time pressure differentiates based on individual, cultural and political moderators (gender, age, employment and caring responsibilities being obvious examples).

The ‘Taylorisation’ of the title refers to scientific management of efficient workflows for productivity applied to family life. Think precise calendars, lists of tasks, household routines, rosters or timetables, and rewards or incentives. This work is overseen by a ‘time and motion’ expert who manages the temporal portfolios of individual family members. Sound familiar?

There were interesting insights, notably:

The ‘time budget’ mentality may exacerbate rather than alleviate stress and the flawed nature of the ‘time and motion’ approach is further exposed in the mismatch of children’s temporal rhythms to those of adults.

Reading this article, I was reminded of a poem by Rosemary Dobson (Australian poet, 1920-2012) we read in high school:

Cock Crow

Wanting to be myself, alone,
Between the lit house and the town
I took the road, and at the bridge
Turned back and walked the way I’d come.

Three times I took that lonely stretch,
Three times the dark trees closed me round,
The night absolved me of my bonds;
Only my footsteps held the ground.

My mother and my daughter slept,
One life behind and one before,
And I that stood between denied
Their needs in shutting-to the door.

And walking up and down the road
Knew myself, separate and alone,
Cut off from human cries, from pain,
And love that grows about the bone.

Too brief illusion! Thrice for me
I heard the cock crow on the hill,
And turned the handle of the door
Thinking I knew his meaning well.

As a group of 15 year olds who had rarely subjugated our needs in service of others, we had little insight into the brief respite described in this poem.

This week, I want to experience more moments of sky-gazing interruption.

If you are not quite there, you may want to align your leisure activities with academia in some way. For example, watch The Bachelor (now popular with academics thanks to a hunky astrophysicist) or read some novels featuring academic characters (I’ve just added Dear Committee Members to my reading list).

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I can also recommend the ABC’s comedy series Utopia, set in the office of the government’s National Building Authority. A word of warning: watching the inner working of bureaucracy can be uncomfortably familiar.

A reminder to play

Two seemingly unconnected things: My six year old son has taken to referring to himself as his thirteen year old sister’s imaginary friend. (I find myself half believing him). And a couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering of Higher Education Scholars.

I have previously posted about these events (The spirit of research, Yarning circle, Thoughtful citations, Staying in place), a roughly tri-annual gathering of Sydney-based researchers in higher education. The most recent session was hosted by Vanessa Fredericks, Lilia Mantai and Elaine Huber at the University of Sydney. The theme was Mind the Gap: Contemplating power, privilege and pedagogy:

The purpose of this meeting is to reflect on the ways higher education (teaching and research and academia as a whole) might be restricted by oppressive pedagogies. We consider what value we might add to higher education if we dared to free our minds and bodies from colonial, neoliberal, Western and masculine ideas … We begin by positioning ourselves as being-in-the-academy. We reflect on our positions and acknowledge that the space which we occupy, speak and write from is a privileged space. We open the introspective space to think more broadly about research and the University – itself a product of colonialism, and a space which is influenced by neoliberal practices and policies. We invite you to slow down and be ‘lazy’ (Shahjahan, 2015), to engage in ‘tactics of resistance’ (Shahjahan, 2015, p. 489). We consider the ways in which slowing down and re-embodying our approach to research and pedagogy, can lead to a practice of being-in-the-academy that is ethical
and responds to the other.

The organisers provided a thoughtful reading list, including:

Throughout the day, we talked, we listened, we thought and we played. We introduced ourselves and found commonalities through a web of connections:

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We had loosely structured, wide-ranging discussions about our bodies in relation to research, teaching and leadership. We breathed. We listened to music, drew, played with play-doh and lego:

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Why such frivolous, unscholarly behaviour?

Jane Gallop in Anecdotal Theory (2002), refers to playfulness in a research context as “an attempt to theorise from a different place” and to speculate around ideas that have a tendency to “disable thought”.

Here is the connection with my my son’s imaginary selfhood and our playfulness as scholars: both offer ways of reflecting on our subjectivities and positionalities.

Play occupies a liminal space that invites a suspension of disbelief and relishes possibility and transformation. When playing, we suspend disbelief; we create unreal or quasi-real spaces; we tend towards extravagance and exaggeration; we move away from seriousness to nonsense and foolishness; and we value emotional responses (Bulkeley 1999, p 62).

Slowing down as scholars, taking time to play, allows us to ask ‘what if?’ and to imagine what might be possible.  We can recreate the space of the university and our places in it.

In thinking about playfulness, I revisited the work of Johan Huizinga (1950):

A play-community … tends to become permanent even after the game is over… The feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.

I am already looking ahead to future gathering of these folks, and have been inspired by the work of Tamson Pietsch, Where I stand, on recrafting academic biographies and research narratives.