Academic Writing

Kind of an #AcWriMo post – Writing Groups

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Each year I try (and usually fail) to participate in #AcWriMo, and write a corresponding post on this blog. You can read 2014’s and 2015’s posts here and here. This year, I had a vague #AcWriMo plan. As ever, I wanted to write more, but I didn’t have specific goals and I wasn’t at a point in my research process where I could spend a full month writing many thousands of words. What I did end up doing this year however, ended up being even more important than my previous frustrated attempts at participation. Inspired by a twitter conversation with @LucieWhitmore we set up a weekly writing group, something that has completely changed my attitude towards writing.

I’ve written before about being a habitual binge writer. Someone who spends vast chunks of time writing and revising in advance of an ever-looming deadline. I don’t write daily. There’s always a valid reason: too much teaching prep, too many emails, too many job applications to do instead. And this term has been no exception – I’ve been teaching five classes a week on two different courses, and have fired off numerous job and fellowship applications since October. What has made the difference however, is the writing group, which has made writing a non-negotiable part of my week. Like teaching, writing is now deliberately and specifically factored in to my week. I can’t not attend, as I’ll be letting my fellow group members down. I can’t do anything else whilst there but write, thanks to the gentle peer-pressure that attendance exerts.  It’s this non-negotiability that is so important. Writing was always the first thing to go, but now (thanks to twice weekly sessions) I know I have dedicated writing time each week.

The group roughly employs the format from TORCH’s own Academic Writing Group, which you can find more information about here. There’s a lot of great literature on starting you own academic writing group available online, but this post on Pat Thomson’s blog Patter is an excellent starting point.

For me, our little Writing Group has fixed an issue that I was long trying to achieve via my participation in #AcWriMo – establishing better writing routines. And while I’m not quite at the point of maintaining a daily writing practice, this seems more achievable than ever before.

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Between. Reflections on a year post submission (part 2).

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This is the second part of my series on life after the PhD. This week, I’m discussing the importance of an institutional affiliation, and what that means for how you’ll spend your time post-completion.

The Institutional Affiliation

Before I begin, I should say that this advice is in no way meant to deride the significance and contribution of independent scholars, many of whom produce important, innovative work whilst unaffiliated with a particular academic institution. Given the current state of the job market, alt-ac routes are becoming an increasing – and often exciting – reality for many, offering valuable alternatives to the traditional academic route I’m discussing here. For the time being however, I want to draw attention to a few of the benefits of maintaining your affiliation following your postgraduate degree.

Affiliation means having an institutional email address, access to on-campus facilities (e.g. teaching and research rooms, common staff areas, the library, university special collections), and often a healthy printing budget, the benefits of each of which should be self-evident. If teaching at a local institution is not an option, enquire as to the possibility of a non-stipendiary fellowship in your awarding institution/department.

Teaching 

Teaching, which will provide you with said affiliation, a viable way of supporting your research whilst simultaneously adding lines to your CV. Many of you will have taught during your PhD, and if possible, I’d recommend keeping that going, as your familiarity with the courses you’re teaching on will really help you to limit the time you devote to preparing. Beyond this, (time permitting) I’d also recommend seeking out teaching in other departments in your PhD’s host institution – I ended up teaching on courses in four departments and three schools, which, although challenging, has been an unparalleled source of income and pedagogical development. You might also want to think about local alt-ac teaching opportunities – for art history this might include ventures such as The New School of Art – as well as tutoring on subjects related to your discipline.

Organising Events 

Being part of a HEI can also provide crucial access to the funds and venues necessary for organising all manner of events, something that can be important both in terms of contributing to current debate in your field, or simply as a way of fostering a continued sense of belonging (which can be particularly significant in the period post submission). The possibilities of what you could organise vary wildly, but between organising a conference relating to your postdoctoral research, a panel at a disciplinary conference, a public engagement event, a seminar series, a reading group, or a postgraduate or early career researcher focused event, there’s bound to be something to suit your needs and the specific demands on your time. I organised a research seminar series – Edinburgh’s Eighteenth-Century Research Seminar Series, which is about to go into its second year – as well as a panel at this year’s Association of Art Historian’s Annual Conference. Organising the seminar series was beneficial in a number of ways: it allowed me not only to meet emerging scholars in my field, but to engage meaningfully with their ideas; it improved my skills in applying for and securing funding; and it encouraged me to build relationships with the Series’ host institution, Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

Perhaps more significantly, organising our AAH panel allowed me to think through some key ideas for my postdoctoral research, the development of which I’ll discuss in my next post in this series, which will examine starting your second major research project.

The Writing Productivity Pipeline

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Like many researchers, I’m both interested and invested in the idea of productivity and the varying methods used to increase it. So it was with enthusiasm that I read Erin Furtak’s recent article My Writing Productivity Pipeline in which she outlined her system for documenting her manuscripts as they progressed from initial idea to published document. The article is well worth reading for Furtak’s encouragingly frank and positive viewpoint alone (e.g. ‘I always view a rejection as a revise-and-resubmit, but to another journal’), but the pipeline itself has the potential to be a real productivity hack.

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Quickly implementable in either paper or digital formats [see my version above], the pipeline has a number of compelling features:

  1. Preservation. I often want to record both ongoing and new projects in something other than a list format – the pipeline offers a cohesive archive of ideas either to be immediately developed further or to be followed up at a later date.
  2. Encouragement. The pipeline functions as a compelling visual prompt and reminder that a. you have exciting ideas that you really should take the time to develop for publication, and b. you have A LOT of exciting ideas. Better be getting on with those then.
  3. Customisation. Furtak’s own pipeline is merely a guideline, and in fact the pipeline’s various stages can be customised for both the kind of research you do, and the level of complexity necessary to get each idea worked up for publication. If you thrive on the feeling that you’re making constant progress, break the stages up into smaller levels of implementation, e.g. between ‘Manuscripts in Draft Form’ and ‘Almost Ready for Submission’, add extra stages such as ‘First Draft Edited’ or ‘References Checked’. Likewise, if you’re an art historian you might want to add a stage for ‘Image Permissions Acquired’.
  4. Identification. As Furtak herself notes, one of the key functions of the pipeline is to show where there are blockages. Tellingly for myself, (as I’m sure it is for many) this is between the ‘Manuscripts in Draft Form’ and the ‘Submitted’ stages [see below], which suggests to me that I have a good amount of manuscript drafts that I simply need to spend the time editing. Similarly, I have a blockage between ‘Draft Proposals’ and ‘Proposals Under Review’, which likewise tells me that whilst I have a number of solid ideas, they’re not yet developed enough to be submitted to a funding body. Moving forward from this, I can try to understand the root causes of these blockages, and to schedule time and energy accordingly to ensure their reduction.

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I haven’t yet spent enough time with my pipeline to assess whether it has improved my rate of productivity, although what I have noticed is that I’m suddenly very aware of what I’m project I’m currently working on and getting that project moving along through the next stages of the pipeline. It also removes a lot of the procrastination that’s tied to deciding what to work on next, as you have a clear guide of what needs doing to any project at any given point in its gestation. I’ll post an update to this blog post in a few months, by which point I will hopefully be able to see a tangible improvement in my rate of productivity. In the mean time,  I strongly recommend reading Furtak’s original article, and trying out your own writing pipeline.

Award: Design History Society Research Travel and Conference Grant

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I’m thrilled to have received a Design History Society Research Travel & Conference Grant for my project, From House to Home: Gender, Identity & Emotion in British Domestic Space, 1750-1830The project develops research from my PhD thesis for publication as a monograph, and explores the complex relationship between the production and consumption of domestic space and issues of identity, affection, gender, and sexuality.

Specifically, the Research Travel and Conference Grant will facilitate the completion of crucial primary research for this project, to be conducted at a number of repositories including the British Library, where I will consult the papers, journals, and correspondence of Caroline Lybbe Powys, Anne Seymour Damer, Mary Berry, and John Wilkes; as well as the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Wellcome Library, where I’ll view further correspondence from Mary Berry.

Stay tuned for more posts on my monograph project as it develops.

Materializing Gender in Eighteenth-Century Europe

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My chapter ‘Taste a-la-Mode: consuming foreignness, picturing gender’, has just been published in Jennifer Germann and Heidi Strobel’s edited volume Materializing Gender in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Ashgate/Routledge).

A description of the book is available below:

“Art history has enriched the study of material culture as a scholarly field. This interdisciplinary volume enhances this literature through the contributors’ engagement with gender as the conceptual locus of analysis in terms of femininity, masculinity, and the spaces in between. Collectively, these essays by art historians and museum professionals argue for a more complex understanding of the relationship between objects and subjects in gendered terms. The objects under consideration range from the quotidian to the exotic, including beds, guns, fans, needle paintings, prints, drawings, mantillas, almanacs, reticules, silver punch bowls, and collage. These material goods may have been intended to enforce and affirm gendered norms, however as the essays demonstrate, their use by subjects frequently put normative formations of gender into question, revealing the impossibility of permanently fixing gender in relation to material goods, concepts, or bodies. This book will appeal to art historians, museum professionals, women’s and gender studies specialists, students, and all those interested in the history of objects in everyday life.”

More information on the book, including some initial reviews, is available on the Routledge website.

The Viva

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I’m excited to announce that I passed my viva with minor corrections on Thursday. Despite several sleepless nights and countless hours of worrying, the event itself was fine. In fact, it was an enjoyable and conversational discussion of my research, during which I benefitted from the keen critique and probing questions of my two examiners.

However, the process wouldn’t have been nearly as smooth had I not received advice from a number of colleagues and friends. Particular thanks must go to my two supervisors, as well as Dr. Natalie LusseyDr. Isabella Streffen, Dr. Ellie Mackin, Heather Carroll, Elisabeth Gernerd, Dr. Sally Holloway, and Vicky Holmes, each of whom shared links and sage words prior to the event. In that spirit, I wanted to write a quick post documenting the blog posts, podcasts, and videos that I used as part of my own preparations, in the hope that others might find them similarly useful.

1. Top 40 Potential Viva Questions

I consulted several such lists whilst preparing for my viva. Whilst not many of these questions actually came up, preparing and practicing the answers I would give to them, provided my viva prep with a focus, encouraged me to think critically about my thesis, and helped to soothe my nerves.

2. PhD Surgery: how do I prepare for a PhD oral examination (viva)?

Vicky Holmes recommended Tara Brabazon’s excellent PhD Surgery video series to me. Prof. Brabazon is deeply invested in postgraduate development, and has written and made a number of informative podcasts, videos, and articles on the topic of the viva. Her podcast, ‘Ten Tips for a PhD oral examination’ is here, and her ‘Practice Questions for a PhD oral examination’ is available here.

3. Viva Survivors Podcast 

The final source I’m going to recommend is the Viva Survivors podcast, which is run by Nathan Ryder, and asks people ‘about their research, their PhD, what they did […] how they prepared for their viva and what happened on the day’. The podcasts record the range of experiences that the viva can encompass, providing essential nuance to a narrative that is often dominated by horror stories. The podcast archive is available here.

Stand out words of advice from various sources were to relax, to breathe, and to write down the questions posed by your examiners before answering, as well as to ask to take a break if you feel it to be necessary. Perhaps the most useful advice I received, however, was not to over-prepare. Despite the temptation to prepare set answers to a set list of questions, it’s important to answer the question you’ve been asked, not what you wish you’d been asked.

With a mind to my post from earlier this month then, you might be wondering how my AcWriMo is going. Whilst I am definitely behind in terms of ‘academic writing’ in the strictest sense, preparing for my viva encouraged reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of my thesis, its key contributions, and its central argument, whilst the viva itself was an exercise that helped to crystallise plans and strategies for turning the thesis into ‘the book’. Whilst AcWriMo stresses the importance of writing, preparing for my viva has emphasised the equivalent importance of prolonged periods of thinking, a strategy I will take forward into the final stages of the month of November and into ‘DecWriMo’.

Some thoughts on #AcWriMo

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I had meant to publish this on November 1 but essay marking got in the way. Which, I guess, is appropriate for a post about struggling to find the time to write.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I have yet to enjoy a successful AcWriMo. Far from managing the vast swathes of academic writing that many seem to achieve during the month of November, I have succumbed to the realities of what I have perceived to be as more pressing commitments. I fear this year will be no different. With a looming viva voce examination, a conference two weeks later, and several job applications due, my chances of a highly productive November dedicated to producing reams of academic writing seem limited. Accordingly, it was with some trepidation that I signed up for this year’s AcWriMo, which began on Sunday.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of AcWriMo. For the last two years I have enjoyed and benefitted from the sense of community that the event fosters. Furthermore, the opportunity presented by AcWriMo for learning about the task and craft of academic writing is also unparalleled. Nowhere else will you find people talking so often and at such length about #acwri as during this month. As a historian of process, this renders AcWriMo particularly seductive.

So why have I consistently failed to reach my AcWriMo targets?

Crucially, I feel that my approach to AcWriMo has just been wrong. My Novembers have not been uncharacteristically busy. Yet I have gotten it into my head that for reasons x and y, my November has no time for AcWriMo. However, it would be the same for any other month of the year. Very few academics have the luxury of putting aside November to only write. Many, like myself, will have important pedagogical and administrative commitments that all too often get in the way of academic writing. And that is the very point. AcWriMo, in my opinion, isn’t really about producing the 50,000 words that participants in NaNoWriMo aspire to write. Instead, the month is about breaking and changing habits, making time for academic writing, no matter how few words, or how short a period of time you can dedicate to it.

Accordingly, for this year’s AcWriMo I have decided to lower my expectations. Unlike last year, I don’t have a detailed plan for how I will write a draft of a book and two journal articles, all the whilst marking essays, preparing for my viva, and writing a conference paper. What I do have, however, is something much simpler: the desire to get into a habit of writing everyday. No specific word-count to aim for, just a shift in my working habits to make some time for daily writing. I will let you know how I get on with this in a few months.

I’m lucky that my December is actually (relatively) open. Whilst I will presumably be dealing with thesis corrections and completing several job applications, teaching will have finished and I will have much more time for acwri. I’m hoping to capitalise on the good habits I began in November, so that (what-some-call) DecWriMo can be the ambitious month of academic writing that I’ve been waiting for. But it will be those good habits that I started in November that will be the key to success in this. Not every month will be December: many more will look like November. And that is where my successes with this year’s AcWriMo will be most crucial.

For more information on AcWriMo and how to sign up, see PhD2Published: http://www.phd2published.com/acwri-2/acbowrimo/about/.