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By Claire Aitchison

Recently I have been reflecting on this idea of caring – and especially on the possibility, and consequences, of ‘caring too much’.

Last week I spent time with a friend and colleague who was contemplating leaving the academy. Despite caring very deeply about her discipline, institution and faculty – and having devoted decades of her life to these things – an accumulation of issues was causing her severe discomfort. What struck me as she talked through her growing disillusionment was the phrase “It’s reached a stage where I just don’t care any more”. I wish this had been the first time I’d heard a respected colleague say this. Unfortunately, in my work as a consultant across a wide variety of institutions, I hear this sentiment all too often: both from research students and academics. And more than once I’ve heard the corollary advice “You care too much; that’s your problem!”

What brings people to a point when they no longer care? What does it mean to care too much or not enough, and what’s the affect on doctoral writing?

Scenario one: passionate beliefs

In one of my doctoral writing groups a participant offered feedback to her peer saying her writing was “too emotional”. Others agreed. Someone said something along the lines of “I have a background in activism myself so I see where you’re coming from, but my supervisor has taught me to remove the passion.”

We all felt uneasy for the author because she did feel so deeply about what she was writing about – but we also thought there was some truth in the feedback she received from the group, no matter how uncomfortable it was to hear, or difficult to give. Olga reluctantly agreed and expressed surprise at how clearly her feelings were represented in her writing, saying “And, I thought I’d toned it down!”

When we, or our students, care very deeply it is hard to employ the kind of objectivity that is necessary to counter assumptions, be open to alternatives and conduct deeper investigations of possibilities. Personally, I find I respond negatively to an over-emotional account because I find it unconvincing – I enjoy being challenged by a well-argued position, rather than by a passionately held one.

These are some of the tell-tale signs of an overly emotional piece of writing:

  • exaggerated (and unsubstantiated) claims, such as “the general public is ignorant of these facts” rather than “the research showed that this is rarely taught in schools nor raised in the media”
  • the use of value laden words eg “the community’s unjustified prejudices” rather than “the community’s response grew out of an historical event …”
  • shows bias or stereotyping of groups eg “their typically over-reactive behaviours”
  • when an author works in binaries. Black and white thinking disallows a nuanced attention to complexity and signals an authors’ selective reading of the literature
  • failure to acknowledge in any serious way alternative perspectives, evidence and viewpoints. This is often evidenced in the text by scant use of hedging or modalities.
  • overuse of adjectives or adverbs eg “outrageous and hideous slaughter”

When writing is characterised by these elements, it loses credibility –the author has positioned themselves as a passionate believer in a cause rather than a serious scholar presenting the outcome of objective investigations. Passion is good, but care needs to be taken as to how that translates into the writing.

Scenario two: the time for caring is over

“I’ll write it like he wants: I just don’t care any more”

“I’m over it: let’s just get this finished!”

I suspect those who work as writing support staff outside the supervisory relationship will have heard similar confessions – from both students and supervisors.

The doctoral journey is a long and exhausting one and it is understandable that students and supervisors can reach a point where the need to move on overrides the desire to make perfect text. Both doctoral students and supervisors can feel worn down in the very final stages of the PhD. What may have seemed important early on, may become less so in retrospect and especially in comparison with the desire to complete. I’ve seen once dearly held visions, for example, for a certain kind of writerly voice, or beautifully presented doctoral thesis, abandoned in the last six months. In other cases a supervisor may feel their student’s work isn’t as good as it could be, but that it’s good enough to get across the line and so theses and scholarly journal papers are submitted prematurely (Paré 2010).

There are points in this journey too when even the most capable authors can get stuck from caring too much about their writing. Writing fast and without care is a powerful antidote for the kind of writers’ block that comes from striving for perfection (Elbow 1981).

Scenario Three: “S/he just doesn’t care”

It’s not surprising that those in a supervisory relationship, particularly over time, will care differently. Some supervisors ‘care’ more than others, and one may argue that students will care more about their project than those on the supervisory panel, and that a supervisor’s care will be closely tied up with a care for their reputation – perhaps even eclipsing their care for a student.

But can a supervisor care too much? I’ve recently worried about a situation where this may be the case: a very capable student was cautioned against what was perceived to be a high-risk project. The supervisor was not well experienced in the alternative methodology favoured by the student and was concerned to avoid trouble. I know the supervisor was motivated by a care to protect the student from harm – to minimise the risk of delayed completion, or worse, a poor examination outcome. In the end the student undertook the ‘safe’ option: a project that was eminently doable, but unlikely to stretch the student or challenge the field. Sadly too, it was a project that the student didn’t really care for.

I am also aware of the human cost to both students and supervisors whose care drives them perhaps beyond reasonable limits, making a work life balance impossible. There are very real dangers for those who ‘care too much’ in an accelerated academy where expectations for written productivity are ever increasing. Some supervisors put extraordinary hours of care into their students, and not all institutions adequately acknowledge and reward this.

Passion is good – after all I tell my students they’ll need to be passionate about their topic to last the (doctoral) distance. Some topics will always engender strong responses; for example, where there are victims and perpetrators and deep political, cultural and social divides, as, with genocide, the treatment of refugees or rape. But I have been prompted to think that it’s not bad sometimes to care less passionately – that is, I’m advocating the value of standing back to get some emotional distance to be able to bring more objectivity to one’s writing and thinking.

When it comes to writing, perhaps the most valuable thing about caring is that it is the moral foundation and most fantastic energiser for driving and sustaining one’s motivation.

I began this post by wondering if it is possible to care too much. In this reflection I know I have only just scratched the surface: I’ve used the blog to flesh out some early thinking and to give me directions for further research into the concept and practices of caring and doctoral writing. I’d welcome other musings – and suggestions for further reading and reflection.

References:

Elbow, Peter (1981 ). Writing with power: Techniques for mastering the writing process New York Oxford University Press.

Paré, A. (2010). Slow the presses: concerns about premature publication. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (Eds.), Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond (pp. 30 – 46). Oxon: Routledge.

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