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by Cally Guerin

I have been visiting a number of universities lately, talking to other academics and travelling quite extensively. Fascinating as this has been, and in full recognition that it is a great privilege to have such an opportunity, I have to admit I was getting a bit frazzled by all the stimulation after a few weeks. Then I sat down at my computer to get on with some writing that had been patiently awaiting my return and suddenly I felt completely different — re-energized, focused, able to concentrate. Basically, I felt like myself again.

This experience got me thinking about the relationship between writing and academic identities. The reason I felt so good was not simply because I had retreated from all the new experiences and collegial friendships from the last few weeks; this calming sense of returning to myself seemed to be closely linked to actually doing some writing. This feeling resonated strongly with the literature that links writing and academic identities. Lots of scholars have explored this connection in detail, and if you don’t know their work already, I’d recommend:

Lee, A., & Boud, D. (2003). Writing groups, change and academic identity: Research development as local practice. Studies in Higher Education, 28(2), 187–200.

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision. Oxford: Routledge.

Petersen, E.B. (2007). Negotiating academicity: Postgraduate research supervision as category boundary work. Studies in Higher Education, 32(4), 475–487.

Barnacle, R., & Mewburn, I. (2010). Learning networks and the journey of ‘becoming doctor’. Studies in Higher Education, 35(4), 433–444.

Baker, V.L., & Lattuca, L.R. (2010). Developmental networks and learning: Toward an interdisciplinary perspective on identity development during doctoral study. Studies in Higher Education, 35(7), 807–827.

Brew, A., Boud, D., & Namgung, S.U. (2011). Influences on the formation of academics: The role of the doctorate and structured development opportunities. Studies in Continuing Education 33(1), 51–66.

I have tried to bring some of this together in a paper on rhizomatic research cultures.

For many of us, our academic identity emerges during the process of writing a doctoral thesis. That’s a long time ago for me — and I hope some further development has happened along the way — but there are clearly strong links between what we know, what we do, and who we are. For me, at least, writing is the familiar activity that reassures me that I know what I’m doing, that allows the jumbled thoughts to find clear expression, and that reminds me this is a central focus of my job.  It tells me that I’m the kind of person who can find the words to write about ideas; I can do it in grammatical, correctly punctuated sentences; and this is partly what I get paid for. When I’m writing I feel like I’m an academic — and it feels surprisingly good.

We should encourage doctoral students to enjoy this birthing of identity that occurs in parallel with writing the thesis, allowing plenty of space for them to actually enjoy the process of writing, rather than perpetuating the notion that it’s an agonizing process undergone by a tortured genius. Instead, remind these developing scholars that there’s nothing quite like the buzz one gets when the writing goes well. I genuinely believe that this equals any pleasure one can have in academic life, with its intense concentration and heightened sense of awareness. Does any of this echo your own experience?