By Susan Carter
It’s customary for DoctoralWriting to begin a new year with a post based around that theme: new year’s resolutions for better doctoral writing practice. A new year offers a turning point, an invitation to audit how the previous year played out, and to plan for a productive writing year ahead with renewed energy. Here’s 2017’s new year’s post, 2015’s and 2014’s. In 2016, our new year’s post celebrated and acknowledged guest contributors. These previous year’s reflections are inspiring posts, worth looking at again. Maybe it is reasonable to approach each new year ritualistically: it is not the particularity of each new year that matters, just that each turning point offers again the chance to review and plan ahead.
I’m wondering too whether it is common that when we academics return to work after Christmas, we have spent time reading fiction over the break. In our family, a good book is a common Christmas gift, and the Christmas break is one time of the year when there may be time to read. I find that stories often give me ideas for doctoral writing workshops.
Those I read this year were about workers with demanding jobs, at the whim of employers they puzzled over to understand: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and Transcription by Kate Atkinson. The White Tiger is a cynical, savage expose of corruption in India, while Atkinson speculatively reconstructs a female character who worked as a transcriber for the MI5. The books’ intentions are very different.
But what was similar was the subservience of the protagonists to their employers, and their efforts to understand and manage their work. Can you see why doctoral candidates’ subservience to their writing kept surfacing in my mind?
The books I read took me back again to the point that writing is effectively a job of work for doctoral students, as it is for me, an academic. In amongst what is puzzling, frustrating or dismaying about research writing, our best approach is to figure how to do it effectively. After reading these two books and thinking about doctoral writing as a job of work, I pondered that fictional stories are often thought-provoking, reminding us of how we want to be, and sometimes of what we want to avoid.
Back at work, and thinking about the first few workshops I’ll be facilitating for doctoral students, somewhere amongst them I’d like to trial one that invites candidates to tell purposeful stories, purposeful in being stories with morals that can be applied to doctoral writing.
I’m hoping that telling a story and then applying it to doctoral writing works for others in the way it does for me. A well-expressed quote from Donald E. Hall notes that ‘Our lives are narratives entangled with other narratives, all demanding interpretation and response…’ (Hall, 2007: 21). That seems nowhere more relevant than with doctoral writers, who almost constantly think about their own research and writing at the same time as their lives offer other narratives, with their inner minds making sense of the intersections of narratives. So many doctoral writers have travelled to new countries to undertake a doctorate, and all have their private lives outside of the engrossing work that they are doing: thinking, researching and writing. I like trying to find stimulation in ordinary life experiences to push along practice with writing.
As I prepare new workshops for 2019, my story exercise will include forewarning:
“Please come to the group with a short story you can tell in 5 minutes that reminds you about some aspect of doctoral writing. Ideally, it will be a story that teaches something about attitudes to the work of doctoral writing.”
Now, I know how emotional research writers get: writing can feel just too difficult, like drudgery, time-demanding, boring to write and boring to read, so there is often negative emotion around it. What I am hoping that stories might do is give inspiration for seeing it more positively, so that what is challenging is also interesting, able to be seen as an adventure. This may be optimistic—I’d love it, though, if I could persuade doctoral writers that the job of work they have is actually pretty good by comparison with some jobs, and that they are willing to apply new year energy to doing it, and learning to do it well.
That will be my new workshop to start off this year, and I will also be rolling through favourites, some of which are to be found on this academic blog. I like peer review writing workshops, and try to factor those in more or less monthly. I will run two on conference presentation, one on writing the thesis abstract, and one where we give each other feedback on the spoken presentation, and its material. A colleague will do a very good workshop on the design of power point slides, and the way that images convey a depth of meaning—and are so much better than prose. I will do a workshop on the first year, and how to get through the provisional year review, and probably several on publishing articles from doctoral research.
At this stage, after the glorious pleasure of reading novels, though, the workshop that most interests me is the new one I’ll host around the idea of stories as inspiration. I’m hoping you might put up a comment with other ideas for doctoral writing workshops, especially if you also have new workshop plans you intend to try out.
Hall, D. E. (2007). The Academic Community: A Manual for Change. Ohio: Ohio State Press.