Life in the margins

For one crowded hour
You were the only one in the room
– Augie March

I’m sitting in a plane winding my way back home after 9 days in the UK for work. I’m reading and providing feedback and editing suggestions to the first 3 chapters of my sister’s masters thesis. Here in this flying bird I am utterly absorbed in the act of reading, thinking, critiquing and questioning. I put music on and Augie March’s ‘One crowded hour’ begins to play. As I listen I have a bodily, visceral response to the music and the lyrics. I am momentarily distracted from the task of reading the chapters and I make a conversational note in the margin telling my sister this – sharing this snapshot of something from the world outside her thesis – speaking to her as a reader while responding as a reader of her work. I’m instantly captured by this thought, by what it is that goes on in the margins.

What can I learn about myself and my pedagogies of supervision by examining the margins and my annotations? I hadn’t explicitly considered this before- I’d responded to work as an academic reader by making notes, questions, comments, but I begin to wonder what knowledge I can generate for myself through examining the nature of my annotations. It seems to me that what I do in the margins is tacit and taken for granted and I wonder what I would find if I turn a lens on myself. I’m interested this as I’m putting together a self-study project that explores my pedagogy as a supervisor and this gives me an idea for the project. I wonder if my notes and annotations have a particular focus? Do I devote more time and attention to issues of grammar? To the mechanics of language? Or am I more interested in theory? In conceptual ideas? On the articulation of the methodology? Do my annotations shift and morph in focus through different chapters of the thesis?

What is it that I am seeking to do through these annotations? Am I (simply) giving feedback? Pointing the way forward? Trying to foster deeper thought from my students? Tying to encourage them to think about some of the conventions of academic discourse and ways they can enter the conversation?
For one not so crowded hour on this plane, the work is the only one in the room. I’m focused on it and all of what it says. But in undertaking this focus and engaging in life and annotations in the margins– what do I convey about myself and my pedagogy of supervision? It’s time to find out.

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Procrastireading and writing

It was late at night and I was trawling through Twitter looking for interesting links about academic writing. I tapped, I scrolled, I skimmed. I flipped from one site to the next, a whirling dervish, and even while writing this I find myself flipping to the net in an effort to address my own ignorance- I use the term whirling dervish without even knowing where it comes from, an expression from my youth. So again, I am scanning, scrolling, eyes flying through information and I now wonder if I’ll ever use this expression again in this way, as now the concept of the whirling dervish has been fundamentally transformed.

A digression? An interruption? A juncture?
My action is all of these things – is this positive or a negative though?

I’ve been pondering this for the last couple of weeks after meeting with a colleague who said she struggles to concentrate on a paper for any length of time. Them last week I was meeting with Siobhan O’Dwyer who runs virtual shut up and write sessions (which you can find on Twitter @suwtues). We were talking about our reading and writing habits, pondering whether having a world at our fingertips makes us more likely to develop different types of skills and if this development of a skill set is at the expense of others?

All of this made me think about my own habits- am I engaging in procrastiwriting and procrastireading techniques- the reading and writing I do when I’m not doing ‘proper’ reading or writing? My reading on twitter, blogs, from books about writing – is this just procrastireading? Reading that takes me away from reading journal articles that might inform my academic writing? Is this blog, my home farm blog, my tweets, my Facebook posts, my scrawls in my writing journal – is this really procrastiwriting? Writing that takes me away from the act of writing journal articles, books, grant applications – the types of writing that will foster my career ( according to the rules of the game).

So is this writing or reading a waste of time? And if I believe it is valuable why do I refer to this as procrastiwriting or procrastireading?

I ponder on this for a while before coming to the conclusion that procrastireading and writing is important. This writing and reading does play a central role in enabling me to conceptualise the work I’m doing to make connections between my ideas and those of others, it enables me to jump into the stream and then out again, at will. It enables me, as Laurel Richardson argues to write (and read) myself into understanding. For me, there is a great pleasure that comes from reading about other people’s writing processes, particularly the habits and processes of other academic writers. It is reassuring to hear the tales of others as they struggle over words, twist concepts into a shape that will effectively frame their research, and return time and time again to pesky, difficult concepts. So while some of what I do might seem mindless- it is an act of translation, as I read and interpret their processes. I am a voyeur, a collector, a processor. I am all of these things until I morph and become a creator, engaged in an assemblage of facts, minutiae and trivia until I then become a purveyor, a seller of ideas.

Then the cycle begins once more. A bower bird of electronica, I retweet, favourite, like, upload, bookmark, copy, paste and pin. I fall in and out of the stream. I am connected, disconnected, present and absent.

And you? Reading this, are you procrastireading? Or are you engaged in a dialogue? A dialogue, not with me, but with the ideas in your head? How do the puzzle pieces fit together for you in this reading and writing process?

Picking flesh from bones

I woke up this morning thinking it was Saturday before remembering with a thud that it was only Tuesday. For a moment I wanted to pull the doona over my head and pretend it was the weekend. Maybe I should have done that. Instead, I did what most of us do, lie in bed, check our phones and our email. During the night, whizzing across from overseas came a rejection email for a paper I’d submitted 6 months ago. It was a one line rejection saying the reviewers felt the argument could have been clearer. That’s it. No more. No less. Deleted from the system, my little papery bird was unceremoniously dumped back to me, wings snapped, feathers ruffled, neck possibly broken.

Do we ever get used to the rejection that comes with academic life and writing? I read this blog post the other day from Raul Pacheco-Vega on rejection and it was this I was thinking of this morning as I read my rejection email. At the end of the piece he argues that we need to accept the rejection as part and parcel of academic life, and yet, there is such a sting when we get our work back. I’ve written before about having my papery birds rejected and yet, I’m not sure that I’m getting any better at responding to the rejections when they come. Some might wonder why I put the moments of rejection up in lights- why advertise that you had something rejected? I think it’s important to make comment on the fact that rejections will come. If they are ‘part and parcel’ of academic life as Pachecho-Vega says (and we all know they are), then I think it’s important to consider the process of how we go about dealing with the next steps. How can I encourage my higher degree students to experiment with writing, with rejection, with failure, with success, if I am not going to share the process in all its mess and complexity?

I find it all too tempting to delete the file from my computer never to be seen again, cast it adrift and set it down as a bad piece of writing. It’s not as simple or as hard as that though. This morning, I set my phone aside, and lay in bed beneath the warmth of the doona for another 20 minutes. When I got up I grabbed my laptop, located the file, opened it and began to read. Eyes like a vulture, I began picking over the bones of this rejected paper, looking for plump pieces of flesh that I could carve off and begin to shape into something new. A couple of lines in particular struck me, half-formed ideas that might be developed into something more substantial. I selected, I copied, I pasted into a new document. I now have a new document composed of ideas, phrases, paragraphs that I don’t want to abandon just yet. I printed it off and slotted it into my diary to look at later. The full paper I filed in my ‘other writing’ archive folder. Maybe I’ll return to it, but it is unlikely. Instead I’ll take these new fragments and begin the writing process again, bearing in mind the short feedback I received about making my argument clear. I’ll return to the ‘so what?’ question and I’ll write a new tiny text. The process recommences.

Maybe I am getting better with dealing with paper rejections when they come after all. Perhaps this is the process and strategy I will use from now on? What about you- what do you do?

A passion for teaching and learning

Semester has started and with the arrival of the new semester, the halls and classrooms have been filled with excited, new students ready to undertake their journey to be teachers. I’m teaching in a number of our teaching programs this year and at the end of last week I was waxing lyrical about how much I had loved the beginning of semester and working with our new students. Whether in our MTeach, Joint Degree, or PE program, my students have been enthused and excited about the start of classes.

On Wednesday I had a panel of teachers come in to talk to my first year Joint Degree students about teaching. It was a diverse panel, consisting of a teacher who finished her degree last year to teachers who have worked for a number of years in a range of contexts. We began with the question ‘why did you become a teacher?’ – a question that is deceptively simple and, yet, complex and challenging to answer. At the end of the session, one teacher said to me ‘I feel so exposed when I answer that question, teaching is so much a part of me that it involves opening myself up in ways I hadn’t thought about’. I asked him if it made him feel uncomfortable to have done it and he replied, no, just that it was something that gets lost in the hustle and bustle of teaching, and reconnecting with that question causes contemplation of the journey of becoming and being a teacher, a journey that is both an emotional and cognitive endeavor.

In hearing the stories of how these people came to be teachers my students began to see an insight into the richness and diversity of the teaching profession. We heard stories of people who had flirted with the idea of being teachers early in their lives, but through circumstance, chance, and life intervening, it may have been time before they found the path that led them to teaching. Some of them would have easily gained entrance to teaching courses, being what some would describe as the ‘best and brightest’. Others experienced challenges with their high school education, or their initial forays into tertiary education. One started uni in a science degree, only to leave and take up an apprenticeship, qualifying and working as a mechanic before turning to teaching when the need for an intellectual challenge called. If we apply stringent rules about ATAR scores as the only thing that matters in teacher entrance requirements it is possible a couple of these people would not have become teachers, and yet, these are teachers who have impacted on hundreds or thousands of students in positive ways. They are teachers who have helped students to grow, to learn more about themselves, to open up their eyes to learning. While I’m not really into measuring ‘impact’ in numbers, some of these people are teachers, who, when we look at VCE data have ‘value-added’ to their students, guiding students to scores over 40 in VCE subjects.

In each story of the journey to being a teacher, there was the thread of learning. Some of the teachers are still studying, others have taken time out of teaching to do more study and then returned back to it, they study in formal and informal ways, and what was pervasive is that these teachers are learners. One spoke of teaching as a lifestyle, but not in the simplest form that suggests it’s a job with holidays, but in a way that evoked the notion of a vocation, a lifestyle that involves a constant learning, relearning, shifting, shaping, thinking, reflecting and interacting with others.

The notion of relationships permeated what teachers spoke about and the things that they found rewarding in their work. The care that they have for students, for providing learning opportunities that enable students to learn more about themselves and the world around them was obvious. They did not gloss over the challenges of the work, did not shy away from the fact that teaching can be tiring, demanding, and that as teachers, it can be rare to receive acknowledgment and validation of the work they do. So why do it? One spoke of the ways their own life had been enriched by the many students and colleagues that they had come into contact with, a criss-crossing of lives, experiences and ideas. Another spoke of meeting students years later and trading shared memories of the moments spent in classes, the things students recall, remember and file away.

My first-years were engaged in these powerful stories of teaching and learning. They took notes of things the teachers said, jotting down and recording the things that these teachers described as central to their work. They asked questions that showed, that, only 2 weeks into their course, they are thinking of what it means to be a teacher and to be a learner. I thought about how lucky I was to be able to hear friends and colleagues I have known for years, talk about the passion they have for teaching and for their work with young people.

I walked away convinced and reminded that there is no job like teaching. As some policy makers and bureaucrats may try to confine the work of teachers to a list of competencies, they cannot capture the complex and multi-dimensional work that teachers do, the relationships they establish, the way they focus on knowing and growing the students in their care.

Yesterday I met a group of Masters of Teaching students at the school where I returned to work 0.5 last year. They were there for a day of observation, and I was meeting with the principal. In coming back to the school, I fell back into the ‘family’ of teachers I had worked with, I ran into students who I taught last year and we shared stories of what we were doing. I sat with the DP at lunch and we joked about school and teaching as the Hotel California ‘you can checkout any time, but you can never leave’. He returned later, sat down and said ‘We really miss you, you know’. A year 8 girl came up to me at the office and said ‘I really miss you Miss- you made learning French so much fun’. Strings spun out, connecting me back to all of these people, to who I am as a teacher, to who I want to be as a teacher educator, to my pre-service teachers. Depending on where I am, the strings twist, they slacken, they become taut, but they do not break. Teaching, school, teacher education. All of these are the Hotel California for me. I can checkout, but I can never leave.

My first year Joint Degree students stand on the shore, ready to plunge into the sea of teaching. One of my Masters of Teaching students said yesterday that he hasn’t even got beyond the breakers yet. I’m lucky to swim out with them, sharing stories of our passion for teaching and learning.

Working with the selvedge

In my last post I wrote about the value of critical friends and the way they can help you see the flaws, gaps and bumpy sections of your writing. After getting a critical friend to read the paper draft I’d put together in my DIY writing retreat I had a good plan for where to go next in the rewriting journey.

I took to my paper with gusto, slashing some sections, rewriting others, trying to get it all to hang together neatly, in the same way that I try to line up pieces of fabric when sewing. I look for the grain of the fabric, I work with the selvedge to stop the fabric from fraying. In the rewriting process, I look for the selvedge of my paper, linking pieces together to ensure that the paper as a whole is strong and works in unison.

As is so often the case, I turn to Pat Thomson’s blog, to find that she has so eloquently captured ideas that I’ve been tossing around in my brain as I try to get things clear. In her latest post http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/good-academic-writing-its-about-revision-not-editing/ she articulates much of what I’ve been throwing around. She argues that the key part of writing is the revising , not the editing and that nearly all academic (and other writers) have to engage in this business of rewriting. It is in this process that we get to the heart of what our work could be and shape it into a final version. For me one of the most important things to remember in shaping new pieces of writing, is to ensure that I don’t leave that revisioning process until after I’ve sent the work in to a journal. When I worked as an intern on an international journal, this was one of the things I saw, people who’d sent their work in too early, before they had a critical friend cast a gaze over it. The temptation to rush is strong in academic writing, and yet, ideas need time to formulate, papers need time to sit and rest, so that we can return to them with fresh eyes, eyes that are not filled with excitement at having finished a draft.

So today after letting my paper rest for a week and after having two more critical friends read it over, we decided that it was time to submit it and to see where it goes from there. I read something the other day about always having one paper in draft form underway and one under review as a good goal for academics. At the end of last month, I submitted one paper, and then kicked this one off. Now that I’ve submitted this one, it’s time to turn my attention to a half-finished paper I had on file.

 In tackling this one, I think I need to go back to the very beginning. Time to revisit what Thomson and Kemmler describe as the tiny text to see if what I wrote is actually where I want to take that paper. While I have a half-formed paper, I don’t think it will be as simple as saying I can just finish it off – there must be a reason why I left it half-written on my computer and my guess is that I rushed to begin it, without a clear sense of what I was hoping to achieve in it, and then, with loose foundations, I found I couldn’t build on it. So, it’s time to go back, to work with the selvedge of that paper and stitch it into something new.

Critical friends, coffee and the writing process.

 In my last post (https://sharonmcdonough.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/diy-writing-retreat/)  I wrote about my DIY writing retreat where I locked myself away in the solitude of my farmhouse and crafted the draft of a paper in 2 days. At the end of that post, I reflected on the fact that perhaps the only downfall of the process is the lack of critical friends when you’re running a DIY with just you. As I identified in that post, once I’ve written the paper and read it a couple of times, I can no longer see it for what it is. I see it as what I want it to be, what I think it is, but I cannot reflect it back to myself in a way that enables me to step outside it, and I definitely cannot do that the day that I write it. With some time it is possible to look at the paper in another way, but it is crucial that I get eyes other than my own to read it.

 Finding critical friends to read your work can be a challenging and difficult process. A new colleague stopped by my office the other day to ask who might be a good person to give a draft of writing to and I, have at times, wondered about who I might seek feedback from. I’m lucky to have a couple of people that I have written and worked with, who seem happy to read my drafts and provide thoughtful and generous comments. This was not good planning on my behalf though, just luck that the people I like and like working with, are happy to read my work and sit and discuss the ideas that spring from it. My critical friends write about similar concepts to me, they know the field, the literature, the methodologies we draw on and this enables rich, fruitful discussions about the work.  My friend and colleague, Maryann is a constant reader of my work, and today we sat in the coffee shop with my paper draft and she talked to me about her reactions to the paper as a reader. She’d already sent me some brief feedback the day before and I’d already started thinking about how I could take her feedback on board and use it to shape the paper into a better version of itself.

 This is not a natural or easy process for me. I have a tendency to write and then think ‘that’s it, I’m done’. I pour myself into my drafts and am exhausted once I finish them. Whenever I first look at feedback, either from my trusty critical friends, or from reviewers, I’m instantly shocked that they didn’t love everything about my work. How is this possible? How can it not be the best piece of writing they’ve ever seen? In this reaction, I hold myself up to impossible standards. I tell others, including my undergraduate and my HDR students, that writing is a process, that no-one gets a perfect draft first time, that it is important to embrace the SFD (shitty first draft) and to develop the work from there. Yes, that’s all fine in theory, but in reality, I want to be able to write a perfect piece, FIRST TIME, EVERY TIME. So there is a certain thud in my brain when I get feedback and realize that like every other writer, I am in a constant process of revisioning and rewriting.

Today with Maryann, we unpacked the ways the paper might be stronger, the ways I might play with the structure to lead my reader through my argument more effectively. In this paper, I’m adapting the work of someone from a different discipline and applying it to my own field and in my draft, I’ve found it difficult to find the balance between acknowledging that I am adapting someone else’s model and claiming the space for my own argument. Maryann sat while I talked through the way I could revise and reshape the paper – and I was struck again by the importance of critical friends in the writing process.

I walked away and scrawled all over the hard copy of my paper. Some parts need to be moved, some need to be tweaked, one needs to be chopped out and another new piece slotted in.  Once I have a clear sense of what I want to do in the rewriting process, I’m keen to throw myself into it. Any initial discomfort I had about not writing a perfect draft vanishes after chatting with my critical friends, and with a coffee in hand I’m ready to tackle the next part of the writing journey.

 

DIY Writing Retreat

 This week I’ve been holding a do-it-yourself  (DIY) writing retreat at home. The idea began on Monday when I read a book from another discipline and was taken with the notion that one of the ideas could be adapted for application in teacher education. I played around with it using some existing data and it seemed to work well. This article wasn’t on my publication plan for the next couple of months, but I’d just submitted one paper, sent the beginnings of another writing project to a colleague for feedback and was about to start work on one of the papers from my publication plan. Instead this idea grew bigger and I thought of a journal that might be interested in publishing a paper on how the approach could be adapted and applied. Next step then was to write a paper exploring it. Easy hey?

Tuesday I was off to Melbourne for a meeting with a research colleague from another institution so I thought I’d start the day with a solo shut up and write to get my ideas down on paper. I began with ideas for the skeleton abstract using some of the prompts from Pat Thomson’s blog post of a writing course she ran to get me started: http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/day-one-writing-course/  Just free, spontaneous writing, putting in references where I could pull them from the top of my head, but otherwise, just writing the ideas knowing that I could build the literature and references in later on. 1000 words later I was ready to hit the road, feeling smug and self-satisfied at my morning.

Sitting in a busy Northcote café my colleague told me that she was heading off a 2 day writing retreat that she had organized and the faculty had funded. They were running 4 parallel sessions, 2 keynotes, everyone had written draft papers and they were locking themselves away from campus in a picturesque location to focus on writing and talking about writing. I was almost sick with jealousy! 2 days to talk and think about writing and only writing. I’d been following the tweets of some UK researchers who had been on a writing retreat, and I’d also followed the thesis bootcamp tweets online as well. There seemed to be something incredibly productive that could come from having a couple of days designated to writing and writing alone, removed from the shackles of normal academic life and perhaps normal life in general. I drove home, wishing that I could have been there, wishing that my faculty had the same thing, wishing, wishing, wishing.

Wednesday I woke up and an idea had been infiltrating my sleep. I live on a picturesque olive farm having moved here only 5 weeks ago. I’m surrounded by peaceful, still surroundings. Why do I need to go anywhere else? I could run my own writing retreat. I had a quiet study, a trusty writing companion in the form of a dog, paddocks to roam in and trees to gaze at when I needed inspiration. I had two clear days in my schedule due to an all day meeting being cancelled. I drove into the office and left a note on my door saying I was off-campus writing and to email me and I headed home. I had in my head Inger Mewburn’s write a paper in 7 days, you can check out the slideshare here if you haven’t seen it http://www.slideshare.net/ingermewburn/write-that-journal-article-in-7-days-12742195

I began picturing a magazine for academics, no glossy headlines about dropping a dress size in 7 days, or boosting your sex life. It’s all about boosting your output! Increase your writing potential! Write that paper in 7 days!  Hmm  – I reckon I could be onto something here!

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I turned back to my 1000 words from Tuesday and I didn’t hate it. I kept writing. I searched for articles to fill in gaps, I read them, I gap filled. Oh, how I love journal databases and a speedy internet connection. I took a break and cooked a proper lunch and ate it while reading the Weekly Times and gazing out the window. I returned to my desk and kept writing. I tweeted about my progress and the tweet community gave me support and encouragement to keep going. I participate in a fortnightly shut up and write and regular tweeters whizzed words of encouragement through cyberspace. At 5, I pushed my chair back, grabbed my sleeping canine companion, laced my runners and ran through the paddocks, blood cursing through my veins and ideas swirling in my brain. I came back in, cooked dinner and kept writing. I wrote and tweaked and at 8.30pm pushed my laptop away, declaring enough for one day. The word tally sat at 4, 359 words and once again, I didn’t hate them.

I woke Thursday morning looking forward to my day of writing. I sent some emails, responding to the most urgent and telling others I’d get back to them on Friday. I sat down at my desk and began. Today things weren’t as easy as yesterday but I was beginning to get to the end of the paper and trying to draw the threads of my ideas together in ways that might be meaningful for readers. Soon I was finished a complete draft of 4900 words. I was hoping for an article just over 5000 words all up and I figured that a starting draft of 4900 wasn’t bad in getting me on track.

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I picked up my pen, clutched a cup of tea and began to read through, trying to adopt a critical reviewer’s eye, picking faults and holes in my argument and process. Pages scrawled on, I returned to the computer screen and made some changes. It was then that I started to think about the flaw in my DIY writing retreat- I’d done a chunk of writing, I had a draft paper, but I had no colleague with me to talk through the ideas, to share a paper with and to get feedback – I had no critical friend on hand and I needed eyes other than my own on this thing! I emailed it off to a friend and colleague and hoped that they might find time in their busy schedule to have a read.

 As a process the DIY writing retreat has been hugely productive for me and has kick-started my academic writing year. I started with an idea, some data and a space in my calendar.  I ended with a fully formed draft of a paper and a commitment to trying to find the space in my calendar to do this more often. I’ll keep you posted on how the paper goes!