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Catching the deluge in a paper cup

It was listening to Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb that got me thinking about the name for this post. If you don’t know about their podcast Chat 10, Looks 3 you really need to get listening to it and your life will be immeasurably better. They talk about books, baking, tv, movies, politics, life – what’s not to love? Check them out on @Chat10Looks3.

So I was walking around the lake listening to a podcast from last year where they were talking about reading and writing, and about how they keep up with (or don’t as the case may be) with all the new books that are on the market. Sales described it as trying to capture water with a thimble and that of course made me think of the line from the Crowded House song. It resonated with me as I’ve just come off a holiday break where I tried to capture some of the deluge that had overtaken my bedside table.

Throughout 2015 I’d started and successfully not finished a whole range of books which were living precariously on my bedside table. There were a lot of reasons for this and let’s face it, for a lot of us, 2015 was pretty shoddy and best not talked about in any great detail. But this reading situation was getting wildly out of control. It was also mirrored on my desk at work where I realised I was starting to become the stereotype of the nutty professor who has piles of books and papers emerging from every conceivable space like stalactmites. It was starting to look like I’d pulped and printed an entire old growth forest and I was none too happy about this.

Enter the Christmas/ New Year break and my renewed determination to do some reading. The road to hell is paved with good intentions apparently and I had a lot of  good reading intentions. I’m a firm believer in the value of reading for writing, and virtuously tell all my students that they CANNOT be good writers, unless they are readers. It’s a maxim I’ve reeled out since I was a high school teacher and I use it now when working with HDR students. It’s just that in 2015 I’d failed horribly at taking my own advice.

One of my friends @Siobhan_ODwyer has written about the value of reading for academics and has written a great post about non-required reading for PhD students that you can find here: https://drsiobhanodwyer.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/non-required-reading/ Siobhan’s list highlights the value of reading a variety of forms and this is something I totally agree with. Fiction, non-fiction, cereal boxes. There’s so many words to be read and so little time to read them all.

Enter the break and I ploughed my way through a series of half-finished books. Tim Winton’s Island Home: A landscape memoir was first on the list, followed hot on the heels by Drusilla Modjeska’s Second half first, then I finished off George Megalogenis’s Australia’s Second Chance, then it was onto Kendrah Morgan and Lesley Harding’s biography Modern Love: The lives of John and Sunday Reed. I bought and consumed Carrie Brownstein’s memoir Hunger makes me a modern girl in an afternoon.

There’s nothing like working your way through a reading list to give you a hit of validation and so I’ve entered 2016 with a renewed determination to keep my reading practice going. Reading makes me learn more about the world and I find myself questioning to fill in the gaps I don’t know (which perhaps annoys my friends who get messages from me saying ‘hey can you tell me about this? I don’t understand/ know about it’). It influences my writing as I think about the features I like in other people’s writing. When I read a sentence that is so beautifully written that my teeth ache then I try to work out what it is about that sentence that has such an impact. Is it the artful combination of words? Is it the way that the words connect emotionally? Is it the way that a concept is described? I become a bower bird, fossicking away ideas and thinking about how I might employ them in my own writing. The question of whether academic writing should and can be beautiful is best left for another post, so park that thought and we’ll get back to it.

So as I head into 2016 I’m taking my good reading intentions with me. So how am I planning on capturing the deluge? Well each day, I’m going to read from the paper cup so to speak. At one point late last year I got on board with #365papers. Now, I don’t know the genesis of this but the concept of reading one paper a day was a great way to get my reading habits and towers under control. I found I could keep up with the reading in my field and when writing a paper recently I was using many of the papers I’d read in my #365papers stint. So, I’m seeing if I can keep it going this year – one paper a day. As for that bedside table? Well I’m becoming all nightclub bouncer on it. Strictly a one in, one out policy. No getting onto the bedside table unless a book has recently departed from that space. I don’t want to end up squished by a pile of unread book shame and this is one way of dealing with it.

What works for you? How do you capture the deluge of reading?

 

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How far can I go before I am lost?

I’m a mess of contradictions and contrast.
The greatest of them are these:
I grew up at the beach and yet I cannot swim.
I love boats and yet I am terrified of the water.
At night I dream of gliding through still seas and yet upon the break of day, I struggle to submerge my head.

Growing up at the beach and being unable to swim (and there are lots of reasons why I never learnt, but this is not a tale about them) meant that I was always jealous of those who could race from the shore and hurl themselves into the churn of the ocean without battering an eyelid. On torturously hot days though, I’d stand on the water’s edge, calculating my risk. How far might I wander out before I would be lost?

As I get ready to begin another year as an academic, part of me is standing here on the shore, wondering the same thing.

This summer I began to face my fears and learn to swim.
This is not a tale about that either.
But, when learning to swim, I’ve had to learn a few things. If I want to float, I have to relax. Each time I tense my body, I begin to sink like a stone. It’s only when I lay back and relax, eyes open that I can begin to take in my surroundings and to enjoy the feeling of floating, a world of blue above and below me, and me, weightless, suspended between the two.

If I want to move forward, I have to relax. If I’m all froth and bubble, arms and legs flailing wildly, I make no progress, it’s only when I breathe, when I think about the relationship between my arms, my legs and the stroke that I can begin to find the power to glide me smoothly and almost effortlessly through the water. Anything else is sound, fury, but it does indeed signify nothing.

So how can my swimming lessons inform my academic life this year?

I’m standing here on the shore and around me, people are racing to the edge and plunging in, I’ve been reading blogs where people write about the way they’re going to tackle 2015, the writing they will do and the lessons they learned in 2014. Some of them write about the need to find balance and yet to me, they still seem like the carefree adolescents I was jealous of at the beach. They are brash, confident, sure footed enough to believe that the ocean of academia won’t throw them up and under. Me? I’m not so sure. Much like the sea, I love academic life, but also, like the sea, I’m wary of it. If I turn my back, will it wash over me to the point where I’m frantically trying to swim against the tide?

And so, I stand on the shore and wonder, how far I can go into academia before I am lost?

Prioritizing the essence of who you are (with thanks to Kat for reminding us of this).

I’m sitting in rooms at the Royal Society of Victoria, which according to their website has been part of Melbourne’s “intellectual life since 1854”. I’m here with 23 other people made up of colleagues and HDR students who are undertaking a writer’s retreat for 2 days. I’d had this idea that a writing retreat might be a way to bring together academic staff and HDRs to focus on writing in a time and space removed from the day-to-day bustle of normal life. I’ve done a couple of DIY writing retreats and I was interested in seeing how it would work with a group of people in a different location – and we were lucky enough to have some funding available to make it happen. With a colleague helping by doing most of the heavy lifting of the organization of the 2 days, the time was here and we were all arriving.

Part of the attraction of writing retreats for me is the ability to suspend real life. I always think of Bruce Dawe’s poem ‘Katrina’ when I think about writing retreats and his line about Katrina’s life being suspended between earth and sky. While a vastly different context, there is something about this notion of being suspended that comes to mind when I think about taking the time out to write. To do that in a place surrounded with history and surrounded by others who are also here for the same purpose seems like both a gift and a luxury.

The interesting thing is that when I left home, I didn’t want to be here, I was keen to stay home and continue with real life, I felt too busy to take the time out, wondering why it was that I had come up with this crazy idea and then committed myself and others to it. Yet, when I dragged my overnight case up the steps and into the library with 23 other people, a colleague came up and said ‘are we starting soon? I’m itching to begin’, and it seemed like a lock loosened in my brain. People who are here have been driven here by the need to write, the need to sequester some time away, the need to sit with the process, with the good, the bad and the challenging of writing.

We began by sharing what it was that we wanted to achieve while we were here and it was obvious that despite the fact that we were a mix of Education and Arts, academics and HDR students, we had connections and synergies in writing, topic, focus or stage. People filtered out into various rooms, setting up stations and beginning to work. We broke for lunch and people talked about what they had been writing, about life, they strolled in the sunshine, they came back in and started again. Some people wandered out early, heading back to hotel rooms, where as someone put it ‘I could pretend I was overseas’ and they sat down at their hotel desk and kept writing. It was that sense of the physical journey providing a gateway into another headspace, that in moving away from one town to another, you make a physical and mental shift into another way of thinking and of being.

Others talked about the freedom that comes from not having to fit writing into a scheduled block of time, but instead of being able to relish in it, to think of nothing else but that for 2 days. Our HDR students talked about the fact that they could meet and talk with others from our different campuses, that they, as beginning researchers and writers, could get a window into the process of what more experienced academics do, they could watch them at work and see the writing process in action. One spoke about seeing her own shitty first draft and comparing that with the polished work she read in journals and books, and about the realisation that this process of moving from the shittty first draft to the polished version is largely hidden, but here in this retreat, they could see and live the process with others. Another spoke of how the time was reminding her of the need to ‘prioritise the essence of who we are’ and of what drove us to academia in the first place. When she spoke, her words clanged loudly in the corners of my brain.

It was in the moments of sharing that I began to see what the benefits of taking this time might be. People talked about having the permission to write, the permission to ignore the incessant email, the marking, the teaching prep, the need to hang out a load of washing and, instead…
to just write.
To think.
To conceptualise.
To draft.
To imagine.
To create.
To play with voice.
To play with style.
To erase.
To rewrite.
To take a break and walk.
To return to the desk,
to the work,
to the words.

Time for AcWriMo

It’s that time of year when a lot of academics decide to take on the challenge of Acwrimo – or academic writing month. It doesn’t seem like a year has passed since the last acwrimo and so on this, the first day of the month, it’s time to set some plans for the month ahead.

If you’re not sure what acwrimo involves you can find posts online that will describe the way that novel writing month was adapted for academics by Charlotte Frost. There is also a google doc spreadsheet you can sign up to, although not everybody who participates signs on to the spreadsheet. I just read a tweet today from someone who is keeping a chart for themselves with stars to show when they’ve hit their daily goals. It’s always worth looking at the spreadsheet, particularly if you are a beginner, as it gives you a sense of the kinds of goals people are setting.

I’m a fan of setting goals that are achievable and for me and so that means thinking about what else November holds both personally and professionally. I’ve only just finished teaching and so I have a lot of marking to finish off, I’ve got two writing retreats (one for a research project, one with members of the faculty), a research sharing day and some research interviews to fit in during November. At the start of December I have a research conference to present at, so I need to do some preparation for that during November too. On the home front, I’ve got a lot on as my husband has an injured back which means that apart from the useful home life stuff, I have taken over all the farm work, and as we head into summer there is much to do to ensure the plants are ready to survive the summer heat. This means that when I leave work, I’m unlikely to have much other time to do uni work or writing. Basically it means that the month ahead is going to require careful planning and organization.

How will I fit acwrimo into that you ask? This is why acwrimo at this point is perfect for me. I’ve been starting to let my acwri slide as I’ve hit the busy end of the season, even though I know that it is important to keep in touch with my writing projects each day. Acwrimo will provide the motivation to do that as I can set a goal for myself and I can then tweet my progress to get support from a virtual community of academic writers all engaged in the same thing.

So, here goes, these are my not so grand goals for acwrimo:

1. Finish a paper that has been nearly three quarters finished for the last month. It’s time to set that bird into the air and see if it flies!

2. Write another paper that has been lurking in my brain. Get a good draft done and if possible send it off by the end of the month.

3. Write for at least 30 minutes for at least 5 days a week.

These goals should be achievable and I’m going to borrow the star chart idea and set up my own monthly chart so that I can track my progress. I’m hoping that it will kick start me back into good writing habits!

Rotating the research kaleidoscope

A couple of weeks ago I headed off to the beach on another DIY writing retreat. I went with a plan and a clear sense of what I wanted to accomplish and I came home with close to 4000 words of an article after my 2 day retreat. I probably could have pushed for more but something for me wasn’t quite working about the article. It wasn’t a writer’s block but more a methodological and conceptual block. When I filled in sections to the pre-determined headings in my head, something wasn’t fitting nicely. The puzzle pieces were there but they didn’t give me a sense of the final image. There was a block that meant that the picture wasn’t clear, the lines were fuzzy, the connecting parts of the image slid over and into each other rather than nestling harmoniously up against one another.

I came home and left the paper for about a week so that when I came back to it, it was with fresh eyes. I needed to have some time, distance and space from it so that I could see outside of the swirl of ideas and the block that I’d written myself into. In order to do this I decided that I needed to take to my paper with the eyes of a reviewer. As I’m writing this paper for a specific journal I already know the kinds of things reviewers will be looking for. I also had the added advantage of having recently attended a conference dedicated to the methodological approach I was drawing from. In one of the opening sessions of the conference, we’d been invited to act as reviewers by taking the characteristics of the approach and looking for evidence of them in some mock abstracts. Applying a critical eye to the abstracts we were looking for the key characteristics and how these had been explained in the abstract. I borrowed from this idea as a way to hopefully unblock my paper. List of characteristics and guidelines for the journal in hand, I created a checklist for myself of the types of things I wanted to see in the paper. Some people might groan at this idea, might loathe the idea that I was trying to reduce my writing to a technical checklist of the things I wanted to achieve in the paper. I’m certainly not recommending a write by numbers approach as the primary way to develop an article, but the reality of publishing in peer reviewed journals is that reviewers and readers will be looking for particular things and as a writer I had a nagging feeling that there was a conceptual or methodological gap that could become a gaping crevasse if I didn’t address it.

None of us can step outside of ourselves and so in adopting this approach I was trying to shift my perspective and lens by using the checklist as a way to check my paper for the conceptual and methodological ideas that I knew would be expected. As I read I realized my problem lay in conceptual framework. I had made an assumption in my paper that the reader was well attuned with the conceptual framework and the way that it connected with the research question and the methodological approach. This then required some rewriting. Rewriting I can do. Rewriting gives me a chance to make things clearer for the reader, to crack the window to my research ajar so that they can peer in, so that they can see what I see and how I see it. It helps if I think about my research like a kaleidoscope – each paper is filled with the fragments and pieces that make a picture, but if I don’t twist the tube and get the mirrors on the right angle then people reading my paper will be left to do it for themselves. If they rotate too far or in a different direction then they will get a different picture and my research won’t seem authentic to them. Stepping back and working out how I got the mirrors and the pieces to align in this way is something that needs careful attention. It’s something that can’t be rushed and here is where the redrafting becomes so important.

The writing retreat got me to a point where I had pieces of material in the tube and it is in the redrafting that I can rotate it before showing it to others to see if they can connect with the image. After I finish my rewriting I’ll do another do-it yourself review and then get a critical friend to look at it and give me feedback.

So the notion of a checklist might not work for you, but in thinking about how we engage in the process of disseminating our research, it’s worth spending some time reflecting on how we move through the process. How do you rotate the kaleidoscope to form a picture of your research?

The right journal for the right paper…

After the success of my DIY writing retreat earlier in the year which resulted in a full paper draft that then went on to be accepted with revisions, I was keen to lock myself away for another retreat to begin work on another paper. I’ve booked in days to have a retreat Monday & Tuesday of this coming week when I’m not teaching and this time I’m going for beach writing rather than a retreat on the olive farm. I’m lucky that I have retreat locations built in, living on a farm & having parents who live in a seaside town. The beach based retreat also provides the added bonus of having my parents make me cups of tea while I write! There are a couple of fave food places in my hometown that I will reward myself with as writing breaks, and of course, walking on the beach will be the way to kick start my brain when I begin to flag.

I don’t just head away with the goal of getting a paper started as I figure that’s a recipe for disaster which could involve me sitting at my computer for two days hoping that paper writing inspiration will come. The pre-retreat work involves looking at my publication plan and deciding upon which paper I will write, which data I will use and which journal I will target. I’ve got a framework for a number of possible journal articles based on some of my current research projects and the paper I’ve selected to write during this retreat comes from data collected last year. The main challenge I’ve faced with planning this retreat involves a dilemma regarding my target journal. The dilemma isn’t is much which journal to target but simply the fact that the journal I want to target is a journal that has already accepted one of my papers for publication this year. I’ve got some hesitation about writing another paper for that journal as I feel that I should be diversifying my publications and not sending things to the same journal. I’m torn between the positives and negatives of doing this.

The positives lie in the fact that by submitting another paper to this journal I’m trying to build up a body of work in this particular field, all the people I’m drawing from read this journal and publish in it. I think the topic of the paper is a perfect fit for this particular journal- in fact I tried to think about alternative journals to submit this paper to but it seemed like I was trying to jam a puzzle piece into a space it didn’t go. Most of the work I will draw from has been published in this journal. I think that I’m beginning to understand how to write papers for this journal as well, I read it a lot and have a sense of the structure, style and scope of the journal.

The negatives though lie in my concern about how this might he perceived by others. Will they think I am taking a more comfortable approach by submitting to this same journal? If I only submit to this journal am I shooting myself in the foot by limiting the exposure of my research and the chance to make others aware of my work?

I turn back to my publication plan to help guide me in this decision. Looking over the list of things I want to write, I see that other, future, as yet unwritten papers, have the scope to be sent to a range of different journals. This may be the last article I’m sending to this journal for at least the next twelve months. I could always write a different article during my writing retreat but this article begs to be written. It’s the one I think about when I walk through the grove, the one I’m pondering and planning as I drive to and from work. So the decision is made for me. I will write this article. I will target this journal and I’ll see how I go.

My pre-retreat work then involve some deliberations about which journal and once a decision is made it involves some more pre-reading so that I can flesh out my ideas in relation to the literature in the field and in relation to the theoretical frame of the work.
So the plan for this retreat is to get the bulk of a paper drafted, particularly the intro, lit review, method and analysis section. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to get the bulk of the discussion written as well.

But what about you? What are your thoughts on targeting the same journal twice in a year?

DIY update

A few weeks back I was thrilled to hear that Siobhan O’Dwyer who tweets @suwtues was running a DIY writing retreat. After fostering us through virtual shut up and write sessions on Tuesdays, she had decided to take on the DIY writing retreat as a way of getting some serious writing done, and she was kind enough to say that I’d given her some inspiration in making it happen. I travelled to Warrnambool to meet her during her retreat, where we talked about academia, books, writing, life and of course the DIY retreat. In a nice act of serendipity, a week after meeting her, and while she was on week 2 of her retreat, I got the reviews of the article back that I’d crafted during my own DIY stint. If you need or want a recap on my retreat you can find it in my older posts, but the general idea is that I locked myself away on the farm for 2 days with a target journal, a plan, some data and some food, and walked out 2 days later with an article drafted.

I sent my article to two lovely colleagues who gave me some suggestions and I made some changes before sending it in to the target journal. Four months passed and then the email arrived. Favourable reviews, some minor revisions to be made, but it’s looking likely that my DIY retreat article will be on its way to publication soon. I’ve targeted a multidisciplinary journal and had decided that I wanted to apply a tool from one professional field to my field of education to see how it worked. In doing so, it might give others the ability to apply a similar framework to their own work.

When tackling revisions I normally begin by rewriting what it is the reviewer is seeking clarification on, thus setting myself a to-do list for action. This morning, however, I tried something new having seen that Raul Pachecho-Vega had shared a great blog post on twitter. The post is from 2011 from Get a Life, PhD (http://getalifephd.blogspot.mx/2011/03/how-to-respond-to-revise-and-resubmit.html?utm_content=buffer20554&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer) and examines how to respond to revise and resubmit feedback. I really liked the suggestions in this post about putting together an excel spreadsheet with columns for reviewer, suggestions, response, done, and I used this as the beginning step of my revisions by identifying what exactly it was that the reviewers were seeking. In putting the suggestions into this document, I realized that the reviewers had similar feedback relating to clarification of terminology, something that is crucial in an international, multidisciplinary journal. It became the central focus of my revisions and involved adding more clarity around terms and moving these to earlier in the article so that readers had a base to work from. There are a number of steps in the blog post and I recommend checking it out when tackling your own revise and resubmit. One of the things I also liked was the way it made resubmission much easier. With my document clearly showing which reviewer had made which suggestions and my notes on how to address them, along with changed text, I was able to slot in my response to the reviewer feedback really easily in the online management system.

I think a process such as this is a really valuable one in enabling you to take feedback and process what it might mean for the paper, you can begin to build a sense of what the changed paper will look like and how it might hang together to give the reader a better understanding of your research. I find the table process also enables me to move beyond an emotional response to the feedback (what?! They didn’t love everything about my paper?), and instead to step outside my paper to see what readers find confusing or need clarification on.

One of the other things I have also started is a file that traces the kinds of feedback I get from reviewers on my papers so that I can begin to see common areas for improvement in my writing. In this paper the common element was terminology, in anther paper it was setting the international context more effectively. By creating a table that contains this kind of tracing of my writing I can be alert to these areas as I write to try and stop myself from falling into my own writing cracks. So with my paper revisions sent off and my file started, it’s time for a new paper, and a new DIY retreat project. Stay tuned and I’ll fill you in on that tomorrow!