How Do You Write Productively (Installment 1)?

This week I thought I’d shift gears a bit. Assuming that the folks who read this blog write, or want to write, I thought I’d share a bit on writing productively…and what it means for an adjunct.

Assume that you have established a solid mastery of your field, and that you want to contribute to the body of knowledge making up that field. Take these as a given, and further, take as a given that you’re not blocked: ideas are flowing, you see debates you want to enter and questions you want to explore. For a professional scholar, the task then is not just to have these thoughts, or even just to share them with your students, essential though these two steps are. A professional scholar must share them with their field and may wish to make a name for him or herself by doing so regularly. This means writing productively: writing regularly, and bringing works to completion. What do you need to do?

In her article “Becoming a Productive Academic Writer” Susan Johnson suggests recreating the sort of environment one might find on a plane: minimize distractions, gather tools to you, keep refreshments handy, etc. She also suggests writing regularly, rather than engaging in “binge” writing, tracking your output, and making writing only a moderate priority. This last was striking, given writing’s centrality in academia, but Johnson sketches in her reasoning, which draws on attempts to reach goals in other areas: raising the priority of something too high tends to lead to perfectionism, which in turn leads to people not completing their desired actions.

Johnson also includes a sidebar summarizing the work of Robert Boice, a psychologist who focuses on how academics work productively. Boice has given special attention to beginning faculty, looking at those who start quickly up the academic ladder vs. those who don’t.

Boice has found that the few faculty (5=9%) who are “quick starters” share certain characteristics: they write 3+ hours per week, limit course prep time (and link teaching to research), left time in classes for student involvement, and ask peer help on both teaching and research. By contrast, most faculty over prepare for classes, teach “defensively,” and experience academia as isolating. (Those interested in Boice might view this reader’s guideas an introduction.)

My first conclusions seem obvious: adjuncts are pushed by the structure of the system to share characteristics of the majority, rather than the “quick starters.” We are isolated. We are more vulnerable to student complaints, since we may not get rehired, and that very real increased vulnerability may well lead to defensiveness.

My next conclusions are somewhat less obvious: 3 hours a week seems like nothing, so it would be relatively easy for a focused adjunct to become a productive academic writer. While there is certainly no guarantee that doing so would help one make the leap to the tenure track, 3 hours equates to 36 minutes, Monday through Friday (or 26 minutes seven days a week). Most of us waste that much time and more.

What’s more, while the isolation of the adjunct is real (and again, fostered by the system), it does not have to be permanent. Online forums exist, office hours can be shared, labor organizations can be joined, and so on.

My final conclusions for the day are emotional. I want to push back against Johnson’s advice, and maybe shout a little. How the heck can I control my time when I spend too much of it grading? How can I control my space when sharing office cubicles? Hey, there’s a little anger left to snip at Boice. Yeah, I feel isolated—I am isolated.

Whew. I feel better. No, life isn’t fair, and life as adjunct has special stresses. However, at the risk of sounding all pop psychology-ish, there’s a lot I can do to make things better, and to become more productive.

And I’ll share more of those tips in weeks ahead. 

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