Monday, July 28, 2014

Perseverance and Writing Regularly, Part 1 of 2: (A Post on the Writing Process)

The main function of this blog has always been as a space where I can tease out certain ideas that may or may not be ripe for deeper, more academically solid exploration. I also envisioned it as a place where I can talk about the writing process itself, especially since several of my readers are or were students of mine. I am currently revising a multi-part post on connection, interface, and control. So don't worry, I'll be back to technological themes soon. In the space between finishing up the first draft and beginning a major revision, I had a moment to reflect more deeply upon being granted tenure and promotion. I wasn't sure if I was going to actually post this entry, but after a really interesting dinner conversation with a colleague and some exchanges with students, I decided to give it a go.

A challenge that comes with working at a teaching -- rather than a research -- institution is that my main focus is the classroom. With a 4/4 teaching load (that's 4 classes per semester; whereas a research university it may be 2/2, 2/3 or some variation of that depending on rank, seniority, grants, etc.), it's not easy to find the time to research or write. Summer breaks are that time. Winter breaks used to also be that time as well, but the brutally short break between the Fall and Spring semesters at my current institution makes that difficult. Summers are also the time for class preparation, and just simply catching up with every project at home that I couldn't get done during the academic year. Add to that visits from family and friends, travel/vacations, and whatever "emergency" committee or task force upon which one is called to serve on campus, and the time can fill up very quickly. 

With tenure comes a little bit of a break. An "invitation" to be on a committee during a break is just that, rather than a veiled requirement (i.e. "this will be really good for your tenure application").  So, for the first time since 2005, I have finally had the time, and motivation, to write on a regular basis again. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I haven't written daily for an extended period of time since I was writing my dissertation. I definitely wrote, but came in desperate spurts among grading, writing committee reports, class preparation, and the week or two before deadlines. There were always summers, but it's amazing how quickly I fell into bad habits of waiting until the very end of the break to actually write. The idea that the pressure of a deadline will "force" one to get things done is a myth students and some academics are very good at perpetuating. Accomplished scholars who say they write that way may be revising that way, but they aren't composing that way. 

The past two months have been a revelation in regard to my writing process. Since I already have a piece coming out soon in this anthology, I am under no deadlines. I have kept campus commitments to an absolute minimum. I have been able to make writing a priority in my day. It is my first project in the morning at least 5 days a week, and I write for a minimum of an hour. The first product of this was my previous 3-part Google Glass review. But it's the post(s) on which I'm currently working that the real benefits of prioritizing my writing and research have become apparent. I have started to work through some of the more complicated aspects of technological/human interface that I wasn't able to in my first book. Of course, much of that comes from just knowing more based on the reading I've done since then, and being able to make more connections to established philosophy due to all of the classes I've taught between the last book and now.

It's clear that the level from which I'm working now is much deeper than my previous pieces. I attribute that to my slowed down and regular approach. Sometimes I think that my background in English works against me: no matter how much I know about process and writing, no matter what advice I give to students regarding giving oneself time to write, there is still that romanticized vision of the exhausted writer "birthing" out some kind of tome that comes only when one occupies the borders of sanity. And after that overwrought, cathartic blast, we hope that there is something salvageable in the mess.

But after a couple of months of slow, steady, and regular writing, I find that 6 hours of writing spread out over 5-6 days is just so much better than 6 hours of writing done in a single, coffee-fueled, trembling day (or night). The embarrassing part is that, when I look back on it, it was the former, more methodical technique that allowed me to finish my dissertation, rather than the latter. The main difference was that I was writing for two or three hours at a time then. Some days there was literally nothing in the tank, and most of my time was spent thinking through a particularly difficult problem.  Other days, I would labor over one or two paragraphs for the full session. There were also times when I would write voluminously in those hours. It varied, but it was a set, scheduled process. Doing it every day allowed me to finish. Success came with an awareness of my process and a commitment to finishing it up. In retrospect, my writing process matured. It made me ready for the next level not just in my writing, but in my career.

As flawed as academia may be, there is something to be said for its "hierarchy." As I've said to every student whom I've counselled regarding grad school and Ph.D. work, the dissertation is not simply about carving out a niche in a given field; or just being able to answer the "so what?" question when you've come up with something new. Writing a dissertation is a process designed to push an academic to his or her limits intellectually, emotionally, and professionally. It is a crucible, an arena, a battlefield, and a very personal hell, where you are perpetually harassed by your own demons while still at the mercy of circumstance (your advisor decides to take a sabbatical? Too bad; one of your committee members decides to work at another institution? Oh well. You or your partner are diagnosed with something horrific? Tough break). If there is one word that describes the point of the process that captures all of this, it's perseverance.

For a perilously long time, I was ABD: "all-but-dissertation." This is an informal term (yes, there are those ABDs who actually want to put this as a suffix on their business cards, thinking it carries weight), which means that all the requirements for the Ph.D. have been fulfilled except for the dissertation. It is when the student is solely responsible for his or her progress. It is the most dangerous time for any Ph.D. student, because it is when the perseverance I mentioned is most tested. The negative psychological backslide that can occur during the ABD phase is insidious. I found myself wondering why "they just couldn't let me finish," and lamenting "but I just want to teach!" I began to question and deride the entire Ph.D. process as antiquated, elitist, and unfair. I amassed a pile of teaching experience, however, desperately using it as an excuse not to face my writing ... and also hoping that magically, the dozens of courses I had taught would somehow make my lack of a Ph.D. something that search committees would ignore. I became satisfied with less and less at the teaching jobs I did have: I was taking jobs out of guilt -- at least if I made money and was 'busy,' it meant that I hadn't stalled. I even thought I could make a permanent career out of my adjunct, ABD teaching. When my wife completed her Ph.D., I offset my jealousy with even more magical thinking: yes, that was her path. For what I want to do, I don't really need the Ph.D. at all. 

But after truly hitting bottom, and being faced with some very serious ultimatums (one having to do with being dropped from my Ph.D. program), I rebuilt from the ground-up. I sought counseling, and uncovered deeply entrenched issues that were hindering me. I faced my fears and actively engaged my dissertation committee. I started writing regularly. It took 3 years of rebuilding before I was on track again. But with the help of committed and compassionate faculty, an excellent therapist, and a partner who had been through the process herself and really, really loved me, I found my rhythm. I found a way to put all of the work I had done previously to use. Circumstances also finally aligned toward the end of those 3+ years. My wife was offered a tenure-track position 2,000 miles from where we lived. If I had any hope of being employed at the same place, I would have to finish my dissertation within a year of moving there. Within 4 months of moving and despite the chaos of unpacking and settling into a new place, I wrote regularly, drawing from every false start and red herring in my research, and finished. Eleven years had passed from the day I took my first graduate level class.

Getting the Ph.D. is more of a personal milestone than a professional one, because having a Ph.D. doesn't guarantee anyone a job. Ever. In most academic fields, the tenure-track job market is abysmal, and repeated runs through the job search process can be utterly demoralizing. However, the Ph.D. does improve one's chances dramatically, however -- and in many academic fields, it is an absolute necessity for finding a tenure-track job. And having one "in hand" versus "defending in August" does make one more attractive to a search committee.  But when that tenure-track job is found, the professional gauntlet truly begins. I'm lucky to be at a teaching University because the tenure process is five, rather than seven (or more) years. For those five years, I was an Assistant Professor (aka, "probationary" or "junior" faculty). In a nutshell, that means that at the end of any one of those five years, I could have been let go without any reason given. And that does happen sometimes. So during those probationary years, any junior faculty member will take on any and every project that is thrown his or her way: extra committee work, extra-curricular activities, moderating a club, volunteering, etc. And if a trusted mentor, department chair, or any administrator shows up at your office door with an "opportunity that would really support your tenure," you say yes. Of course, at a teaching institution, you are being judged primarily by your teaching evaluations, with research and professional development as a slightly distant second. But nevermind that all of those commitments mean less time for your classroom preparation; or that you have to leave students in the dust to run to a meeting. You balance it. You do it because you've already proven that you can balance yourself during the dissertation process. You dig deep. You persevere.

I did my fair share of work, and with the help of a particularly insightful administrator, I chose my committee service well. I did take a few risks here and there, and had one or two minor -- and ultimately resolved -- disagreements with colleagues, but I pushed myself. I squeezed in some writing where I could, and managed to completely revise my dissertation and get it published and then write two more articles: one was rejected at the very last stage; the other is the one included in the new collection. I applied for tenure with a strong portfolio. Putting that portfolio together was much more time consuming and emotionally draining than I expected. That process, plus all of my other duties, pushed me to a point that was very similar to the final weeks of dissertation writing: that place where you have to once again dig very deep for that last bit of motivation and energy. But I could look back to my dissertation process and know that I had it in me to finish. I had excellent support from my spouse, colleagues, and even students. All of my supporters reiterated a variation of a theme: "You earned this." Yes. I had earned it, and I would persevere.

Being granted tenure is not an "end." Just like getting the Ph.D. or first tenure-track position is not an end. It is a new process of self-evaluation and professional development, but one that comes with the privileges one has earned in the process. There is more freedom to engage in both research and course development. Student evaluations -- while still very important -- no longer hold such psychological weight. There is room for experimentation and trying out things that one has always wanted to try. Projects can be more long-term. Professional evaluations are set at longer intervals. And, as I hinted at earlier, one can be more selective as to the types of service in which one engages. With rank and seniority, there are more opportunities for leadership in committees and campus-wide initiatives. However, as an "associate professor," there is still one more level above. This is very institution-specific. At a research-level university or college, being promoted to a "full professor" is contingent upon criteria particular to each institution. Some require major publishing and/or research achievements; others require commendable teaching. Regardless, if one wants to move on from "Associate Professor" to "Professor," it is another round of evaluation and assessment. One earns more opportunities. And yes, the system is flawed. Institutionalized sexism, racism, classism, etc. persist even in the most liberal-leaning academic edifices. But at least academia tends to be more aware of these issues than in other places.

When I sat down to write this post, I intended to make it solely about my writing process -- not necessarily about the journey up the academic ladder. But for me at least, the two are absolutely intertwined. I gained confidence from my writing successes, which bolstered my ownership of my own expertise, which, in turn, pushed me to take more risks through my writing. The process is circular and iterative: it reinforces an identity. I try to think to the moment back in grad school when I turned myself around. But really, it was a series of moments over the course of weeks ... perhaps months. One incremental advance after another. But they compounded. And with each iteration, I became slightly more confident in my voice and my subsequent identity. This process really never ends.

It took tenure, promotion, and a summer without any major commitments for me to gain the perspective necessary to verify what I always suspected: one's identity is something that is always a process. I experienced my greatest failures and made my worst decisions when I lost sight of that fact, and passively allowed circumstance and my environment to shape me without actively engaging in the process of that shaping. Each success reinforces my identity as an academic.That identity isn't static. It is an ongoing and active process of evolution, with every stage being a regeneration.

I rather like where I am now. Yet, I will persevere.