Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Academic Parents Need to Have Fun Too

Similar to many academics, I live in a small college town in the middle of nowhere, or at least that’s how it seemed when I first moved to Lawrence, Kansas. I since have discovered that there are in fact smaller towns that are even more isolated. Nevertheless, one of my primary concerns when I moved to Kansas was the boredom and isolation I anticipated. Five years later, I am happy to say that I have a reasonably full social life and plenty of great friends.

However, it has not always been this way. I first had to learn what did not work. I also had to learn that it is feasible to be productive, spend time with your family, and enjoy life as well. One way I have been able to do this is to seek out other academics with children with whom I can both be productive and enjoy life.

One thing I have learned is that I cannot rely on social events organized by my child-less colleagues for entertainment. My husband is not an academic, so he finds many functions with only academics to be boring. Many of my colleagues would prefer that I not bring my children to their houses. Because my husband would be bored and my children potentially unwelcome, I often go to these events alone. These get-togethers can be intellectually stimulating, but the people involved often end up talking about work most of the time and fail to provide for much relaxation.  I do attend these events, but don’t rely on them for filling my social life.

Another thing that has not worked so well is to try and have a night on the town with my husband by traveling to Kansas City, which is 45 minutes away. This tactic turns out to be pretty expensive, once we pay for a babysitter, dinner, drinks, etc. Moreover, we unfortunately have had little success finding venues that we both enjoy in Kansas City. We still go to Kansas City, but we usually go as a family during the day or alone, me with my friends, or him with his.

One strategy we have found to be much more enjoyable is to invite a few friends over to break bread with us. Our house parties are very informal, and we often organize them at the very last minute. This past Sunday, for example, turned out to be a beautiful early November day. I called a few of our friends who have children and invited them over. Our three daughters always insist that we invite people who have children to our parties. An all-adult party would be very boring for the kids, and they wouldn’t let us enjoy ourselves. Also, parents with young children often appreciate going to parties where they can bring their kids. Everyone can have a good time because their kids will be occupied with playing with our children and toys. Having an informal gathering such as this at our house at least once a month ensures that our social life is never dull. Of course, we are always happy to attend such events at others’ houses.

Another way that we enjoy ourselves is to go out to dinner with friends who also have children. We usually pick an informal place that is more likely to have food that children like, such as pizza, chicken, tacos, or hamburgers. We also had the brilliant idea to put the children at a separate table. This allows us to have an adult conversation while the children sit at another table and have fun giggling and doing whatever kid things they like to do. Because the kids eventually get a bit rowdy, the more informal the restaurant, the better.

As I write these strategies down, I realize that most of them involve hanging out with people who also have children. We do treasure our many childless friends, but have found it very important to ensure that our social life includes other families with children.

In sum, academic parents deserve to have fun too. And, although it would be nice to transform the academy into a more kid- and fun-friendly place, it likely won’t happen before our kids are grown up. So, in the meantime, it is crucial to figure out ways to enjoy life.

I’d love to hear how you find ways to enjoy yours! What are some of the fun things in your life?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why “Focus on the Book” Is Bad Advice

To achieve tenure at most research-oriented institutions, you either need to publish a series of articles or a book in addition to some articles. The exact number of articles you should publish will vary from one institution to the next. What does not vary much is the fact that “only” writing a book is often not a good strategy for achieving tenure.

There certainly are many fine institutions that have granted faculty tenure on the basis of their having published a single book. Many bright junior faculty are successful at achieving tenure with the only line on their CV under “Publications” being a scholarly book. Nevertheless, I assure you, you do not want to be that person. First, I will explain why. Secondly, I will describe how to publish articles in addition to a book.

I have spoken to many junior colleagues whose mentors and advisors have told them: “Focus on the book.” They encourage them to transform their dissertations into a book that will be published by a major university press. They tell them not to worry about publishing articles or even attending conferences, because their main focus should be on publishing the book. Every time I hear someone tell me they were given this advice, my heart sinks. “Focus on the book” is bad advice for several reasons:

  • 1) Having your entire tenure case rest on one piece of work puts an enormous amount of pressure on you to craft a grand piece of scholarship. For many academics, this stress is ultimately counter-productive, as the pressure to write an opus magnum makes the project seem too overwhelming.
  • 2) If you do not publish articles or attend conferences, how will people know who you are? When you submit your tenure packet, you have to list the names of six to ten people in your field who can vouch for your contribution. If your only contribution is a not-yet-published book, it will be hard to find people who are familiar with your scholarship.
  • 3) Publishing articles in your field can help you get a book contract. The editor of a very well-known university press once assured me that having a high-profile publication on your CV is indeed impressive to acquisitions editors.
  • 4) It takes a long time to write a book. Spending years and years on one project with no tangible results can be depressing. If you send articles out, you can feel a sense of accomplishment with each stage of the article submission and publication process.

If you are still with me, perhaps you now believe that new faculty should not pour all of their energies into writing their book. How, then, do you balance multiple projects? I have three suggestions for successfully balancing more than one project at a time.

  • 1) Different stages: It generally works best when you are working on two projects at different stages. For example, you might be revising a chapter of your book while you are conceptualizing an article draft. Having projects at different stages allows you to capitalize on the writing energies you have and to work on projects in the order that feels best.
  • 2) Different times: I prefer to have one project as my priority for no more than two weeks at a time. For example, the last two weeks my priority was a substantive chapter of my forthcoming book. This week, my priority is revising the first chapter of another book. These are two different projects that I can turn back and forth to and from. The down time also allows me to request feedback on one project and work on the other while I am waiting.
  • 3) Different sizes: If you have a big project (like a book), it can be helpful to have smaller projects that can be finished to keep you going. Working only on a book manuscript for two years without seeing any results can be a long time. In contrast, an article can be published relatively quickly (or at least more quickly than a book)!

Having more than one project going on at the same time (such as a book manuscript and a journal article) permits you to focus your energies where you will be most productive. If you get stuck while writing your book manuscript, you can turn your attention to the article you are working on. If you finish an article draft and ask a colleague to read it, you can return to the book manuscript while you are waiting for feedback.

Rather than focusing all of your writing energy on one book manuscript for six years, it works better to switch back and forth between articles and the book manuscript. The first thing you publish from your dissertation should be an article in a highly visible journal. The steps it takes to publish the article – writing it, revising it, getting feedback, and finding a home for it – will give you a better idea of how your scholarship will be received by scholars other than the members of your dissertation committee. Finally, success at publishing an article can be a great motivator to finish and publish the book.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Importance of Sharing Your Work

Scholarly writing is a conversation with other academics. These conversations happen in formal venues such as academic journals and books, in less formal settings such as academic conferences and colloquia and in informal ways through the sharing of works in progress with colleagues. To be fully engaged with the conversation, it is crucial for academics to participate in all three of these sorts of exchanges.

In Print: Formal Conversations

If you are an academic with a faculty position that requires research productivity, I don’t have to tell you that you need to publish. This would have been made clear to you when you were hired, and you should have some sense of the requirements of your institution. There are all sorts of subtleties with regard to where and how much you need to publish, but you know you need to do it, somehow and somewhere.

Conferencing: Semi-Formal Conversations

You probably also know that you need to participate in conferences. Even if you find the idea of presenting your work at conferences terrifying or if you find academic conferences absolutely unbearable, you still have to do it, at least until you get tenure. Participating in conferences is crucial for attaining visibility in your field, learning about the latest trends in research, and getting feedback on your work in progress. It is very important to figure out what conferences you should attend and to make every effort to participate in them.

Sharing Work in Progress: Informal Conversations

Most new and aspiring academics know about the importance of conference participation and academic publishing, because they are visible aspects of faculty life: people put conference presentations and academic papers on their CVs. What is less visible, yet equally important, is sharing your work in informal ways with trusted colleagues. I would recommend never sending out an article or book chapter for publication without first obtaining feedback from someone you know and trust, and preferably from several people.

Getting feedback in informal ways is important because it allows you to share your work in a less polished form. If you don’t feel as if you are completely done with something, you will be more open to feedback and more willing to change your arguments and ideas on the basis of your reviewers’ suggestions.

In many cases, sharing your work can boost your confidence. We are often our own worst critics, and it can be a real pleasure to hear our colleagues point out how important and well-executed our work is. When you request informal feedback, you can expect honest advice on how to improve your work and finalize it for submission. Often, this will give you the final push you need to send your manuscript out for formal review.

Sharing your work is also important because it can save you lots of time in the peer review process. On average, peer reviews take about six months. You often can get a friend or colleague to read a paper for you and provide feedback in less than one month. (It is always important to agree on a time frame when you give a paper to a colleague for review to ensure that the process is in fact efficient.)

How to Get Feedback: Starting the Conversation

When I was in graduate school, I had no problem getting feedback on my work. Every seminar paper I handed in came back with comments; I could ask my advisor or other members of my committee for comments; and I also had my fellow graduate students on hand to ask for feedback. When I became a faculty member, it quickly became apparent to me that I needed to broaden my networks to continue to get useful feedback. There are several ways to do this.

Tit for Tat: Exchange work with a colleague

One of the best ways to get feedback from a colleague is to offer to exchange work. If both of you are at a similar stage, you can agree to meet somewhere for a morning, during which time you read each other’s drafts in one another’s presence and provide feedback that same morning. That sort of instantaneous feedback is unbeatable in terms of efficiency.

If you can’t find a friend who is at an identical stage as you, you also can ask someone to read something, with the promise that you will return the favor in the future. Many academics have close friends and colleagues with whom they have a permanent exchange relationship: they always read each other’s work at various stages of progress. The advantage to the exchange relationship is that you don’t feel as if you are posing a burden, as you know you will be returning the favor soon.

Form a Writing Group and Build Community in the Process

Another strategy is to form a writing group with colleagues who live near you. You can agree that, over the course of the semester, you will meet four times, and at each meeting, you will discuss one work in progress. This is not always the most efficient way to get feedback, but it is valuable for several reasons. First of all, the dynamics of group feedback are different from individual feedback, and you will get more in-depth and complex feedback than if you just have one reader. For this reason, this sort of group exchange is often best for work in an earlier stage of progress. Secondly, this sort of writing group helps to build community; building community is important for your mental well-being. Finally, it is good for you to know what others at your institution are up to, and it is important for them to have a good idea what you are working on. That way, if a speaker is invited to campus or if there is an initiative related to your work, you will be sure to be involved.

Everyone Does It!

Sharing your published work as well as your work in progress is crucial for any academic. If you need proof of how common this is, I suggest you open up any academic book or article and take a look at the long list of acknowledgements. Most books go on for two or three paragraphs in which the author thanks all of the people that have provided feedback during the writing progress. Most articles list a half a dozen people who have reviewed the work informally.

Whatever strategy you use, it is crucial for you to figure out a way to share your work informally with trusted friends and colleagues before going through the formal review process. It will make your work better, give you confidence in your writing, and save you time in the long run.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Change Your Writing Location and Spark Creativity

Although few academics think of it this way, writing is a creative process. When you write, you pull words together to make a point or argument, to describe a scenario or a person, to analyze data, or to introduce a phenomenon. Doing this well requires creativity and ingenuity.

Once you think of writing as a creative process, it becomes evident that it takes creative energy and that it requires stimulation and inspiration. This does not mean, of course, that you must wait to be inspired to write. With packed schedules and long to-do lists, inspiration rarely strikes on its own. The good news is that you can train your mind to be more creative on demand, and that there are a few tricks you can use to spark creativity.

The trick I am going to focus on in this blog post is very simple: change location. Many writers dream of having the perfect writing spot. For me, this would be a large, sparsely decorated room with hardwood floors, high ceilings, a sturdy cherry writing desk, and most importantly, an enormous window with a view of the sea. Unfortunately, I have no such luxury. Instead, I do much of my writing on my couch, in my cluttered office, and at various coffee shops around town. And, even if I did have an amazing office, it still would be important to try writing in other spaces. The reason is that a change in location sparks creativity.

If you have a favorite writing location that works for you, that is fabulous. However, if you ever find yourself stuck with your writing, it can be a good idea to try a new location, even if it is just for a day. For example, I have a friend who works in her lovely home office most days, but once a week she meets with friends at a local coffee shop where they write together for two hours. For her, injecting a bit of variety in her writing routine provides just enough stimulation to keep going and to continue to be creative and productive.

I have another friend who resolved to write in her office on campus every morning. This strategy worked out well for the first few weeks of the semester. However, as the semester wore on, and fatigue began to set in, she found it more and more difficult to get her creative engines running, and easier to be distracted by all the tasks (and people) that called her attention in her office. She decided to change location, and to try writing at the campus library. This simple strategy of changing location worked wonders for her.

My own strategy is to write at home on my couch for as long as I can each morning. As I do not have Internet access at home, this is a fabulous tactic for me. However, inevitably, as I am at home, my mind wanders and the disorganization in my living room shouts for my attention. As soon as I sense my mind wandering, I pack up my laptop and head out for a coffee shop. That change in location seems to work well. Once I am in a new space, I am able to concentrate again.

There are many possible ways of implementing the idea of changing location. For those of you who have a stable writing location that works, it might be a good idea to meet with friends at a coffee shop once a week to write together. For those of you who are not getting the writing done in your office that you would hope to get done, it might work for you to try a new location: the campus library, a coffee shop, the public library, your home office, or even a friend’s house. For some people, it will work better to change locations every day. For others, adding a little variety into your regular routine is the trick.

The reason changing location works is that, as you are writing, you are – consciously or unconsciously – taking in all that surrounds you. This background noise or scenery will have an impact on how your brain works. If your environment is nurturing and inspiring, that is great and will work to your advantage. Nevertheless, if it is the exact same environment every single day, you might be missing out on an opportunity for creative inspiration by putting yourself in another space. On the other end of things, if you are writing in a less than ideal space – such as your cluttered office or your unkempt living room – you might be limiting your creativity by allowing your mind to focus on all of the things that demand your attention. In that case, you might be surprised how a simple change in location – one with fewer distractions - leads you to new places in your writing.

If you do decide to change it up, let me know how it goes! Either way, best of luck with your writing this week.