Writing Better Won’t Cure Your Academic Woes

May 22, 2017

It’s a truism that those of us who devote our careers to academe do so out of “love for knowledge” — producing it, advancing it, passing it on. But, in the trenches of academic life, juggling endless professional and personal commitments, love usually isn’t enough to get articles and book manuscripts written and grant proposals submitted.

Naturally, a genre of self-help writing manuals has seductively marketed itself over the years to academics in search of the magic tonics that will help them improve their writing and increase productivity when love just doesn’t cut it. The standard-bearer is Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing (1990), which paved the way for works like Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (1998), How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (2007), and Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing (2012).

Into this genre arrives a new contender, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (Harvard University Press). Sword, a literary scholar and director of the Center for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, takes her title from a Charles Bukowski poem that depicts a suffering artist longing for the perfect conditions to create: the right time and place, filled with air and light. “No baby,” Bukowski writes, “if you’re going to create / you’re going to create.” There’s a parallel, for Sword, in overburdened academics who tie their writing goals to fantasies of sabbaticals, remote writing cottages: Goldilocks conditions that would finally “allow” them to write what they want the way they want to. Forget that, Sword urges: If you’re going to write, you’re going to write.

Why do we perpetuate myths about ‘productivity’ when they consume us with doubt and envy?

By her own admission, Sword “offers no ready-made blueprint for academic success.” Instead she presents “flexible, customizable” tips — try “cross-training” by actively switching up your writing style, start a writing group, et cetera — aimed at broadening the very definition of success to include “not just publication rates and professional kudos” but also less measurable goals, like “craftsmanship, collegiality, pride, and even joy.” This approach is a refreshing break from the conventions of a genre that offers neat, one-size-fits-all solutions to writers’ struggles (for example, Boice’s “unblocking” methods, especially his prescription that academics should write in brief daily sessions of around 30 minutes).The real triumph of Sword’s book stems from the extensive interviews she’s conducted with 100 prominent academic writers and editors. Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, describes her goal to make scientific writing more engaging by incorporating “a sort of American plain style, like the New Yorker style from the thirties.” Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, relates how he learned to write “by savoring examples of good writing and reverse engineering them.”

Each chapter is peppered with personal experiences and admissions from successful academic writers, covering subjects that include work-life balance and peer reviewers from hell. Sword draws suggestive lessons from the diverse responses but stops short of issuing catch-all directives. When it comes to the idea that rigid schemes for making time are the only way to get writing done, she assures us, “there is no ‘right’ time for writing.” The same goes for finding the perfect place for writing: “The best place to write is anywhere you do.”

But if the best way to write is any way that works for you, why read a writing manual? Because, though subtle, Sword’s larger project of convincing academic writers that there are many ways to measure and achieve “success” is quite significant for its delicate destruction of the myths that the self-help industry for writers has propped up.

Myths about our colleagues’ productivity and success can shape our professional lives, even if those tales are acknowledged as “freakish” outliers, like Yale’s Harold Bloom supposedly reading 1,000 pages per hour in his prime, or Princeton’s Anthony Grafton pumping out “about 3,500 words per morning” four days a week (a scale of productivity known as the “Grafton line“). Such stories seep into the professional unconscious, creating our images of ideal academics and what it takes to become one.

We fixate on what these mythical figures seem to possess because it, like the airbrushed beauty of advertisement models, feels tantalizingly attainable — an idea seemingly confirmed whenever someone we know, who at least outwardly embodies the ideals of productivity, wins an award or publishes frequently. This perpetuates a deadening professional culture of suspicion, anxiety, envy, doubt, and bitterness — everyone displays successful facades to one another while secretly wondering how to attain what they suspect others have already found.

Everyone has strengths, but these mythical facades allow individuals to appear as more than what they are. And we continually let them shape how we act and feel toward one another because, when they work in our favor, it can benefit our careers and reputations. But at what cost?These facades can sometimes seem innocuous, like when people pretend they’ve read something they haven’t. At other times they’re heartbreaking, like when nearly every grad student in a department is suffering from psychological distress, but, fearing that they’re the only ones, all pretend to be fine — which just amplifies everyone’s existing fears.

These fronts, airs, and pretenses give a venerable glow to everything in academe, and they terrify you when you’re starting out. They confirm your worst fears ­— that your colleagues and role models know way more than you do and are more fit for this work than you are.

I remember being quietly frightened by the mile-long reading lists that other grad students had concocted for their qualifying exams. How were they blasting through a seemingly infinite number of theory-heavy books while I was reading Of Grammatology for a month straight? If you hang on, though, you begin to realize it’s mostly for show. If they are “reading” the books they say they are, they’re not doing it well.

New shades of such anxiety await you at every professional echelon. They plague our perceptions and interactions, whether we’re competing for jobs or, if we’re so “lucky,” competing for tenure, grants, name recognition, or that nebulous distinction of just “knowing more.”

Why do we keep up this facade-driven culture when it’s so emotionally draining? Why do we perpetuate myths about “productivity” and “success” when they consume us with doubt and envy?

Such questions demonstrate the value of Sword’s work in Air & Light & Time & Space to catalog the testimonies of people who seemingly embody these myths of infallibility. And, spoiler alert, their experiences are punctuated by moments of failure, rejection, and doubt just like our own. If only more academics would open up about such experiences, Sword wonders, perhaps then we could see our “own frustrations as normal and even necessary speed bumps on the road to successful writing.”

To say there’s an elephant in the room, though, is an understatement. Sword’s book demonstrates the harsh limits of teaching “success” and “productivity” in academe without treating the neoliberalization of higher education as the crisis that it is.

The academic industry has organized itself around the core principle of insecurity: Academic labor has been systematically devalued; contingent faculty members fill more than 70 percent of all current teaching positions in the United States; the divide between available academic jobs and the number of people graduating with doctorates is the widest it’s ever been. Insecurity is neither temporary nor a fringe state; it’s the status quo of professional academic life for the younger generation of Ph.D. candidates and adjunct professors (unlike for the many senior academics whom Sword interviews).

And yet graduate students are largely trained for (and trained to want) the kind of jobs their advisers have, which most will never get, while receiving writing advice that presumes they will be working under conditions that have been a statistical rarity for years. This is indefensible. It also highlights the desperate need for a communal overhaul of our sense of “knowledge production” — of the systemic exploitation and false hopes that make it possible, of our continuing complicity in such a system, and of the collective effort it will take to liberate love of knowledge from this Hobbesian hellscape.Sword is not oblivious to these problems:

But what about the many aspiring authors — especially Ph.D. students, untenured or adjunct faculty, and other members of the “precariat” … who suffer from crippling negative emotions that in turn impede their writing? In the short run, the “unblocking” techniques recommended by Boice and his followers may prove an effective remedy: remove emotion from the equation; adhere to a daily writing schedule. … In the long run, however, the road to productivity will be a long and tedious one unless you can find meaningful ways to pave it with pleasure.

Sword recommends things like exercising before writing or making writing a social activity, but the most lasting way to find pleasure in your work, she emphasizes, is to embrace and foster its artisanal nature: Love your craft, craft with love for your tools and materials. This is a sensible twist on the advice that grad students like me often receive from advisers: Love what you do, do it because you love it, and remember how lucky you are to be doing what you love. “The road to productivity” will be unbearable, especially for those of us in the precariat, if we can’t find ways to enjoy our work.

Frankly, and with all due respect to Sword, that’s just not good enough.

In her conclusion, she reveals that her book is anchored in a peculiar reading of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the habitus. If we focus on bringing more freedom and pleasure (“air and light and time and space”) into our individual writing habits, she argues, then “we can transform the habitus of scholarly labor into a dynamic habitat where all writers can flourish.”

It may seem unfair to drag a book about “how successful academics write” into a debate about big theoretical questions it’s not trying to answer. But Sword’s proposal reveals the perilous disconnect between the academic world that younger academics think we’re working in and the one that we’re actually working for.

Habits, Bourdieu argued, consist of repeatable individual and collective practices. The habitus, by contrast, is a kind of acquired system of common sense that structures or regulates our practices before we even think about them. Crucially, for Bourdieu, while we have more control over our individual habits, the habitus is “a product of history,” shaped by class structures, political economies, cultural customs, and traditions.

Thus there’s a backward logic to the belief that forming writing groups or experimenting with different writing genres is going to somehow shake the historical foundations of contemporary academe’s habitus. That’s not how it works.

Sword’s book is excellent at arguing for ways that individual academics can learn to take more pleasure in their writing. But it’s going to take a lot more than self-help books about cutting a “path to academic success” to bring about structural changes in a higher-education system hell­bent on devaluing academic labor. We could start, I suppose, by considering the scene in the movie World War Z, in which thousands of zombies pile on top of one another so a few can make it over the wall.

There’s cause for hope in movements to collectively empower those whose labor is most heavily exploited, whether contingent faculty members’ joining the Service Employees International Union or the local bargaining efforts of grad-student unions like the Graduate Employees’ Organization at the University of Michigan and Local 33 at Yale. But such work must be accompanied by broad campaigns to strip academic “success” of the pernicious myths that encourage us to view “success” in individual terms instead of in terms of class or community, as we should.

Like bear traps clamped onto our spleens, the contemporary academy holds us in place with such polished myths, which tell us who we are or who we should be — myths about how productive we’d be if we “focused more,” about our mental health being an entirely “personal” issue having nothing to do with our exploitative environments, about academe being a meritocracy, about the golden shores of tenure waiting for us if we just swim hard enough. Uncompromisingly, publicly, communally, we need to renounce our allegiance to these myths and throw them into the fire for good.

By Maximillian Alvarez

Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the departments of history and comparative literature at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.