Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Scholar’s Dilemma: Is there a tradeoff between productivity and the measured cultivation of ideas?

Every so often, I read an online article about writing and academia that resonates with me. This article by Imani Perry struck a chord with me. She writes:

I really enjoy writing. … However, I also am aware that the pressure of writing “early and often” has led me, at certain points, to take an instrumentalist approach to projects. At times I have given up the kind of measured cultivation of ideas I highly value, in exchange for the designation “productive.” I know I am not alone in this, and even now, with tenure, I still carry a nervous buzz about “getting things out.

There are two I like about this statement.

First of all, it is remarkably rare to hear anyone say “I enjoy writing.” It is great for me to hear that, as it is a reminder that it is okay to like writing. I have the impression that most academics hate writing. This makes it difficult to have an open discussion about seeking out the joy in writing. I wouldn’t say I love writing all the time, but there certainly are times when I find it to be pleasurable, invigorating, inspiring…. I love this reminder to seek out more of those times.

Secondly, I have to admit to “guilty as charged” when it comes to exchanging productivity for the cultivation of ideas. I have published a lot over the past few years, and there can be a trade-off between productivity and letting ideas simmer.

Cowboy Pondering

Before I type any more, I want to point out that there is also a balance between cultivating ideas and avoiding procrastination. For me, letting ideas simmer longer would mean continuing to revise drafts, getting feedback from more people, and reading more broadly in the field. It does not mean avoiding writing or delaying sending off drafts and polished pieces.

I am currently struggling with this dilemma as I work on what will be my fifth book. Several people have told me to take my time with it. I have three years before I would even qualify for promotion to Full Professor – thus I do not have any institutional pressure to finish the book immediately. The ideas I am working on in the book are big and complex, so I have a lot of thinking and grappling to do. The conceptual field – neoliberalism – is large and fairly new to me, so I have a lot of reading to do.

The pressure I feel to get the book out soon mostly comes from myself. The topic - mass deportation - is important to me; it is in the news all of the time; and, I want to contribute to the national debate.

On the other hand, I have already written two books that cover many of the policy issues. My third book “Due Process Denied” is an expose of the injustices incurred by US immigration policies, and my second book - Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post-9/11 America - has “deportation” in the title. So, in some ways, I have already met the goal of getting my voice into the debate. But, I have so much more to say!

I currently am working, slowly, on my book on deportees. I have been toying with the idea of getting a developmental editor to work with me to ensure it moves forward more quickly. I also need to form a new writing group in my new town so I can have conversations with local academics about the book.

In sum, as I work on my next book, I will continue to use the strategies that have worked for me in the past – daily writing, soliciting feedback, finding support, and enjoying the process. As a new thing, I will cherish more deeply the slow-moving nature of the process and work to ensure that my ideas are fully-cooked and cultivated before appearing in print.


  1. I like that you make the distinction that sitting with ideas "does not mean avoiding writing or delaying sending off drafts and polished pieces." I know that I am sometimes guilty of not even beginning to write and I think that I am cultivating ideas when in reality, I am really procrastinating. I am interested in the idea of writing groups. Have you participated in one before? How do they serve you as a writer?

    I hope you find the continued joy of writing as you craft your next book.

    1. Priscilla,
      I have participated in writing groups. Here's a great post that describes various ones: http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/summer/summer2

  2. I'd be interested to hear if you find working with a developmental editor helpful, and who you find to work with. In fact, a piece about how to find a good editor would be incredibly helpful to me! I know you have a list of editors you worked with in the past (and thank you for that!), but how did you find them, and if you needed to find new editors, how would you go about doing that?
    Thanks for a great and inspirational blog!

    1. Marie,
      Usually I find editors via recommendations from people who have used them in the past. I just came across this list: http://www.umass.edu/ctfd/scholarly/editors.shtml

      I am still thinking of using the developmental editor, and will write about it afterwards!

  3. For me, most of the good ideas for future works comes into my mind while I'm writing down something with a pen and paper or on the computer. That's why I always prefer writing whatever a research paper or a blog post without any pain.

  4. Very interesting post. I also like writing. And have also been so well trained from such an early age to Get Things Done that in a certain way I feel I have often not actually undertaken research or intellectual activity, but rather gathered material that supported insights and written it up. I realize that does resemble research and can get good publications, but it isn't really quite the same.

  5. I really enjoy your article. I wish I could do that. I have been in a "writer's block" for more than 2 years and desperate for finding the solution. What I do is just reading and reading. Every time I start writing, my mind is looking for something else that might be interesting. It ended me up reading news, how-to articles, etc. It has been excruciating me night and day. If you have any suggestion, I would be very grateful

  6. I appreciate these ideas as well. I have been working on applying to grad school in literature and have ironically stopped the cycle of reading and writing, to discover that without the writing to accompany reading, one is robbed of the growth that comes from this encounter. As an educator, a field where reading and writing are often hard to find time to do erstwhile some reflection would serve the kids and the teacher well, one tool I have picked up is to locate oneself in relationship to a new idea, person, or text in terms of being a LEARNER. I use Bloom's Taxonomy of learning http://ww2.odu.edu/educ/roverbau/Bloom/blooms_taxonomy.htm and ask myself: Where am I at in relationship to this 10 texts I am reading (it can come to be that many some times!). Which of these relationships should I choose to pursue? What stage of knowledge have I reached with regard to this? What level of knowledge can I reasonably expect to get to with regard to this text or that one? At a time of transition in knowledge acquisition- going from being a STUDENT of knowledge to being a PRACTITIONER of knowledge as a scholar- one may find support in learning theory through a kind of reassessment of one's relationships to texts.