Category Archives: writing

Working in the Garden

Today–the day after hurricane Earl missed the coast of New England–the weather is sunny, breezy, dry. It has been a beautiful day to sit in the garden with the dog and read about women’s work in the nineteenth-century United States. This is a history that is often romanticized and one that we often think we know better than we actually do.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been discovering how much I have idealized a pleasant work pattern that I established for a few weeks in July and August, one in which I spent much of the day outdoors with the dog, following the shade around the garden, reading and beginning to poke at an article project that has been on the back burner for longer than I care to think about. There was pleasure and hope in those weeks, at least in part because they came before the drudgery, anxiety and–most significantly–perplexity that have characterized this particular writing project more recently. Clearly, a heavy overtone of nostalgia colors my mental picture of those summer days so recently past. Now, as the weather begins to cool and I note how challenging I have found productivity on days when I have been unable to practice my idealized work pattern, I realize that I must establish alternate sites for reading, thinking, and productivity.

The living room holds several comfy reading spots, but my mind turns more convincingly to the landing at the top of the stairs, a space with good light and enough room for a cozy reading nook. That space degenerated when I was focusing on clearing the spare room so that guests could stay there comfortably over the summer, so now it’s time once again to establish a new order in a portion of my living space.

Such order need not be pristine nor finished by any means. A quick look at my beloved garden workspace demonstrates this point. The dog looks cleaner than she has in weeks, mostly because–before her hurricane bath and during the very hot weeks that preceded today’s halcyon weather–I allowed her to dig holes at will so that she could follow her dog nature and keep cool by lying in dirt only recently exposed to hot surface air. Among the spots in which I allowed the digging was the future brick terrace, currently a 9′ x 13′ patch of dirt outside the back door.

Straight ahead of me, as I sit in my reading, writing, thinking chair, a mature garden of shrubs and perennials rewards the years of planting and tending that I have given this space since I bought this house in 2002. But to my right, the area one friend kindly designated my “workspace” attests to the tasks that remain before the garden I survey becomes the garden I see in my mind’s eye. The hole in the tarmac that covers a full one-third of this suburban oasis witnesses my determination to unpave the area and plant it as lushly in the next eight years as I have the other two-thirds of the space in the past.

The chaotic “workspace” reminds me to honor process, to appreciate the annoying drudgery and anxieties and perplexities of a project’s many middles and to have the patience to persevere. That I can turn away from the chaos and focus my attention on the pleasures of gazing on the results of my earlier labors reminds me that such patience and perseverance will be rewarded.

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How many words?

Yesterday, I was thinking about choosing to count all of the email I write for various projects towards my 200-word goal for the day. This has everything to do with my currently being all too distracted from the scheduled writing that I have been trying to learn with Wendy Belcher’s workbook. Of course, lowering my standard in this way is a slimy trick to play on myself, and I won’t do it. But it does recall to me a set of issues I’ve struggled with just about ever since I began teaching: academics write all the time. We write syllabi and email and course websites and responses to student work and recommendation letters and committee agendas and grant proposals and and and and and and and…. Writing up our research is only one kind of writing we do.

Which of course is why we need sabbaticals to focus on writing about our research. The more experience I pile on as a faculty member, the more I understand the seven-year cycle of teaching and sabbatical as being about an ongoing process of building productive habits of reading, research, and writing, watching them degrade as we turn our focus to teaching, and rebuilding them during a semester or year of sabbatical. We all know that there is evidence suggesting that teachers who make time to read and research are more successful in the classroom than those who don’t. (Sadly, I don’t have time to look up a citation right now.) One thing I’m noticing this particular sabbatical is how many of Belcher’s pieces of advice are things I say to my students about writing and how surprised I am to think about applying them to my own work.

In fact, it’s been a particular challenge for me to move my thinking from the teaching space in my brain to the writing space, and I find myself having to continue to make the shift consciously much more often than I would like now that–according to my own definition–I am already three months into this sabbatical. And I’m wondering how much of that difficulty is related to the fact that part of the entropic effect on my work processes over the past six years has occurred through my unfortunate redefinition of writing to include all of that other writing that goes with the classroom part of my career.

So. This time last week, ProfHacker recommended “The Rule of 200”, which is about writing 200 words on a project every single day, including weekends, holidays, and even on your birthday. That rule reminds me of a recommendation I heard from a colleague several years ago, which one might call “The Rule of 1000.” In this model, you write four pages every day before you leave the office. Not really a workable marker, of course, if you write at home, like I do.

I think what I’m trying to do right now is to use this blog and the many other ways and places in which I am writing during this sabbatical to think through a bit of a block that distractions have built for me over the past two weeks. First, I spent three full days away from my current article project and doing heavy brainwork in a TEI workshop. That was fun because it gave me a chance to access the math part of my brain, which goes sadly underused most of the time since I spend so much of my life with words. And then, I spent a lot of time either writing or talking about various grant projects, which also require the kind of attention that I would on a “normal” writing day give to my main article project.

I guess what I would like to learn in the next few months is how to be able to bring at least half that level of brainwork to at least 200 words on the article project every day, no matter what other brainwork I’m doing, so that I will be able to produce as many finished pieces as I would like by the end of January. Wish me luck. Or better yet, light a candle for me.

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On Sabbatical

I’m impressed with how many of my colleagues, near and far, are also on sabbatical this fall. Several times in the past couple of weeks, I’ve learned that I have companions in the solitary tasks of research and writing, and that feels good. It also presents uncommon opportunities, and I’m taking advantage–both here at home and online–to make various research and writing projects social, which helps me with productivity and is easier to maintain during sabbatical than it is during a regular teaching semester.

Many of these sabbatical colleagues seem to be thinking of their time to focus on research and writing as starting now, with the beginning of the academic year. In contrast, I’ve been trying since about April to think about my sabbatical as beginning in May or June. In fact, there were moments–joyful moments–throughout the spring semester when I could mark my impending absence from the classroom in the fall. When my department was planning the course schedule for this year, when students were registering for fall courses, when the bookstore called for book orders. And of course there were ways in which the academic year extended into May and June. Commencement never happens until the weekend before Memorial Day, and this year a search bled into June. I’m very pleased with the success of that search, by the way, and the promise it holds for the future of the college.

So now, as my colleagues not on sabbatical are gearing up for fall classes, I can take this moment to look back on the first three months of my sabbatical, which are almost complete. And I can say with some pride that I have begun to establish a pattern of research and writing that I hope to continue to make into habits that I will be able to maintain when I return to the classroom in the spring. I have been using an iPhone/iPad app, Daily Deeds, to fix habits for both scholarship and housekeeping. And Hiveminder has become my app of choice for managing my long and ever-growing to-do lists.

Putting all of these together, I hope that during this sabbatical I will be able to imprint some new patterns for writing and other work, thus making my process of living as an academic both more productive and more fulfilling once the sabbatical is over.

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Sabbatical Resolutions

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s ProfHacker post about New (Academic) Year’s Resolutions prompted me to think about how I see the kind of goal setting that prompted this blog and other strategies I’m using while I’m on sabbatical this fall. In her post, Fitzpatrick noted how the beginning of the academic year has parallels to the beginning of the calendar year. She outlined three simple resolutions for exercise, diet, and caffeine consumption that she hopes to make part of her routine to support her writing life during sabbatical and beyond.

Like Fitzpatrick, I use moments like the beginning of the academic year for “resolutions.” Since I tend to view my scholarship more in terms of failures than of successes, I am trying to shift my perspective during this sabbatical. My goal is to learn to see beginnings more as recurring opportunities for assessment and adjustment than as some kind of new way to judge my failures to live up to unreasonable ideals.

Since I started this whole academic life with studying nineteenth-century intentional communities and have done a lot of reading in feminism and utopia, I try to see both research and teaching as more about process than about blueprints and results. Perhaps ironically, I am having some success using a blueprint in the form of Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. At week seven, I find myself a bit behind on the work, and this post marks an effort to try something different as beginning of the day writing to build momentum.

Belcher provides a kind of syllabus for productivity that works as a nice parallel to Fitzpatrick’s notion about the beginning of the semester. Each Monday, of course, begins a new week, and each week starts with an opportunity to look back, celebrate the successes that come with having made it thus far, and then plan for the week ahead. Thus Belcher’s workbook makes seemingly obvious facts like Monday’s place at the beginning of the week into conscious moments to make concrete the kinds of opportunities for assessment and adjustment that we associate culturally with the resolutions that some of us make on January 1.


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