Planning and dreaming

I don’t consider myself a great planner. I often enjoy unintended outcomes more than the predetermined. I love the happy discoveries of serendipity (even the word is a joy). Here’s to creativity sparked by reading, unexpected calls for papers, conferences and conversations with colleagues!

A ResearchWhisperer post by Tseen Khoo earlier this year made me rethink planning:

The value in planning your research career isn’t in the actual plan. It doesn’t lie only – or even mainly – in achieving the amazing goals you’ve set for yourself. It’s in the process of research planning itself …

The research dream plan is the one that you’d talk about with your career mentor…

It can be extremely difficult to keep research dreams alive and on the radar when beset by the metrics-obsessed nature of contemporary academia. But to not have these research dreams is in itself a tragedy. As renowned author Diana Wynne Jones says, “it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs.”

Linking planning to dreaming? I can do that. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1987) suggested that we can accomplish nothing against our dreams. He went so far as to say that neglecting dreams can result in annihilation. His example is an artisan working with clay who interweaves dreams and dexterity:

Take away the dreams and you stultify the worker.  Leave out the oneiric forces of work and you diminish, you annihilate the artisan.  Each labour has its oneirism, each material worked on contributes its inner reveries.

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Hold that thought: the importance of inner reveries, and the risk to the self if these are ignored.

Two things prompted this post.

First, today I gave a welcome address to undergraduate students thinking about career options beyond their discipline. This allowed me to share my first career plan (become a mermaid), my side hustle (operating rides and dressing as a hunchback at Luna Park) and my love of dressing up, travelling the world, reading and writing.

Second, last week I facilitated a planning session with early career academics, the first of a series of monthly meetings where we will do some planning (rather than just talking about it). I’ve been thinking about planning (as opposed to doing it) for a long time. I’ve read lots of resources on planning in this time: The balanced researcher, How (not) to get ahead in academia, and Time for research. These are all practical guides, full of tips and templates, but, while useful, they didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know.

Surviving and succeeding as an early career academic takes a different approach. It focusses on capabilities that are equally valuable in and beyond academia and at any career stage: resourcefulness, relational agency, resilience, respectfulness, rest and recreation. Its creator Kathryn Sutherland also has an impressive collection of other resources freely available. The questions it asks are an excellent tool for reflection:

Who are your academic kindred spirits – people who think similarly or are doing similar work – and how much contact do you have with them? How could you find more such people?

Who are your mentors, and in what areas of your work (research, teaching, social, cultural, etc)? How do you nurture these relationships?

How do you demonstrate care for your students? For your colleagues?

Against whose criteria do you measure your success, and how does this make you feel at work and at home?

Great ideas for future posts here! These questions make space for dreaming as a part of planning. As Tseen says in the ResearchWhisperer post above, keeping dreams alive in academia can be difficult. How do you avoid stultification and nourish your inner reveries?

Slow privilege

Gosh, the beginning of semester is a busy time, even for a slow academic. This post comes to you late, and feels a bit rough, but ‘done is better than perfect’.

There have been some great tweets about the privilege of slow academia in the last couple of weeks:

In case you missed it, the entire thread on Twitter (and responses) is worth a read. Dr Lucia Lorenzi makes important points, including:

A warning in advance: my thoughts on these points may read like a series of non-sequiters. (I think they are contagious. My almost-4 year old son loves them. He frequently interrupts family conversations with pronouncements like “I sleep in trees”, or questions such as “Do you like juicy plums?”)

Many tenured and tenure-track academics have been casuals themselves, and I think they are keenly aware of their privilege. This is one of the reasons that luck has become a dominant way of talking about academic careers. (The ResearchWhisperer had an excellent recent post on research careers and serendipity which suggests that the value in planning is dreaming). Saying, ‘I got lucky’ is a defensive – and not particularly helpful – way of acknowledging the privilege of a secure academic career.

Acknowledging privilege can be important. I co-taught with a colleague – the wonderful and fiery Cathy Rytmeister – last week. She gave a powerful acknowledgement of country in which she said it is important to realise that we are able to be here – in this room, learning at university – because of the displacement of the traditional owners of this land.

Acknowledging privilege comes with an imperative to act.

I want to reiterate some points I have already made in separate posts: slow academia is harder for casuals than those with job security, but I would argue that casual academics need it more. Addressing slow privilege, among other problems in higher education, is not an individual problem. In a previous post I wrote: the acceleration of academic work … is a systemic problem that requires collective work to change to the structure and organisation of higher education.

One of my suggested strategies for slow academia was to find like-minded souls. This is what it looks like for me:

  1. Join a union
  2. Join (or start) a network/ community of practice/ writing group
  3. Find mentors. And mentees
  4. Talk with people, ideally over food or coffee
  5. Interact on social media
  6. Share resources, celebrations, vulnerabilities, kindnesses, nourishment

When academics feel the pressure of scheduled time and contracted time, these are among the first things to go. But when I think back on the highlights of my career/ year/ week/ day, it is precisely these things: conversations, moments of connection and intimacy, the pleasure of thinking with others and creating something together.

Use your privilege. This is what I really liked about Australian children’s author Mem Fox’s recent article on being detained at Los Angeles airport. She writes:

They made me feel like such a crushed, mashed, hopeless old lady and I am a feisty, strong, articulate English speaker. I kept thinking that if this were happening to me, a person who is white, articulate, educated and fluent in English, what on earth is happening to people who don’t have my power?

That’s the heartbreak of it. Remember, I wasn’t pulled out because I’m some kind of revolutionary activist, but my God, I am now. I am on the frontline. If we don’t stand up and shout, good sense and good will not prevail, and my voice will be one of the loudest.

That’s what it has taught me. I thought I was an activist before, but this has turned me into a revolutionary. I’m not letting it happen here. Instead of crying and being sad and sitting on a couch, I am going to write to politicians. I am going to call. I am going to write to newspapers. I am going to get on the radio. I will not be quiet. No more passive behaviour. Hear me roar.

Writing differently

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I have had a wonderful fortnight of writing.

This is what I did: I submitted a 400 word abstract for a conference paper, submitted a short journal article (I am lead author with two co-authors), and drafted a longer journal article (also as lead author) to send to two different co-authors next week. I also wrote a writing to do list on my whiteboard – divided into upcoming deadlines, to do (writing projects that require some planning), and in progress (writing projects with no fixed deadlines).

This is what I did not do: write in the evenings, write on the weekend, write on my non-work days (Monday and Friday), write alone, aim for perfection, set aside large blocks of time for writing.

I write very differently now – as an early career, part-time, teaching-focused academic mother of two, in a different discipline from my PhD – than I did as PhD candidate.

I think about writing a lot more now. There are some wonderful blogs on academic writing. Among those  I read regularly: Cecile Badenhorst, Doctoral Writing SIG, Explorations of Style, and Mind Your Writing. I have also published reflective work with colleagues on being a part of a writing group, writing as women, and affect and identity in PhD writing. (Some of those links may be paywalled, so feel free to contact me for an author copy – a strategy I always encourage for difficult-to-access academic publications).

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My research with early career academics has shown that academic writing can be a struggle:

“I’ve been told time and time again that it’s either ‘publish’ or ‘perish’ and at the rate I’m going I feel like [it is the latter].”

“[My goal is] getting high quality publications in high impact factor journals. The problem is that this takes a lot of time and has been a very slow process since my PhD 3 years ago.”

“At present, I am swamped with publication-related deadlines, and I have to do all of this in my ‘spare time’ because I don’t have time to do it at ‘work’.”

“[My greatest difficulty is] finding a way to generate significant research outputs despite being on a half-time appointment & having family responsibilities.”

Over the past seven years, I have honed strategies that enable me to enjoy academic writing. I think these are useful for anyone wanting to write through periods of transition, for example from PhD candidate to early career academic, as a sessional staffer with limited paid research time, or when changing discipline, job and/or university.

Here is how my writing has changed:

  • I think ‘There’s a paper in that

I say that almost as often as I say ‘There’s a blog post in that’ and I keep notebooks of ideas. Many of these papers are fanciful (or dreadful), but others become a reality. I write things down before I can forget them. Sometimes these ideas connect with other people’s ideas. My ‘in progress’ list of writing tasks (currently six) is usually drawn from these ideas.

  • I co-author

When I counted up my co-authored publications in the last five years, I was shocked to discover that I have written with 19 colleagues. If I add conference papers, the number reaches 31. That makes me sound terribly promiscuous, but many of those co-writing relationships are ongoing (that is, we have three or more publications together). My suggestions for co-authorship: some relationships work, some don’t; discuss author order upfront and share ethical guidelines for authorship; communicate frequently about deadlines and commitments; don’t be precious about your words.

  • I am a member of a writing group

This is hands-down the most valuable hint I can offer. Join – or start – a writing group. Over the last five years, my writing group has ranged from 2 to 8 people, but it has always been a valuable source of support, feedback, deadlines and co-authors.

  • I use up leftovers

Rewriting is often easier than writing. Conference presentations can become journal articles or book chapters,  paragraphs that are edited out by ruthless co-authors can be reworked, and leftover data can be revisited to see if it has another story to tell. I am also willing to share leftovers with others – together we might have the makings of a meal.

  • I align my writing with my work and life

I write about early career academia and academic motherhood. Having joined a working party on graduate attributes, I started writing about them. I write autoethnography.  I have data collection in progress on recent experiences and interests: academic activism, slow academia and change management.

  • I schedule brief writing periods

This has been a game-changer for me. I plan the structure of my writing. I write in small portions in brief windows of time -between 30 minutes (often) and 90 minutes (rarely) during a work day. I don’t re-read what I have already written.

  • I create deadlines

I have learnt that the ‘flexible deadline’ writing tasks are the least likely to be completed. So I do what I can to impose deadlines – abstract submissions, CFPs for journal special issues, or conferences. I promise work to co-authors or my writing group by a particular date.

  • I have fallow times

Sometimes writing only happens in your head, and that’s ok. During my PhD candidature – for over a year after my daughter was born and was ill – I stopped writing. At the time, I thought I was doing nothing, and felt guilt and anxiety. But so many of my ideas came together in this time. Once I returned to actively working on my thesis, the words just flowed. I have learnt from this that I sometimes need to give writing time.