By Susan Carter
You probably don’t pay much attention to the image we have as our banner branding the DoctoralWriting SIG blog. Take a look at it now—there’s a hand at the keyboard of a computer, and it holds a ballpoint between two fingers telling of work on both hard and soft copies and thinking across both. Over to one side there’s the top of a notebook and a document held together with a binder clip, evidence of all the reading and interconnection of texts that sit behind academic writing.
That’s a pretty neat image for a blog on doctoral writing, right? But what you do not know about is the back story to this image, a story that contains a rabbit. This post discusses why the rabbit is missing as an analogy to what you might leave in or take out of doctoral writing.
The photograph is Claire’s, and it features her daughter at work some eight or so years ago. Why would she have taken such an image of her daughter’s writing hand at work? Well, the original photograph included the family’s pet rabbit, Marmalade, performing the loyal-pet task of sitting with her while she worked, and looking as though it was interested.
I mentioned in my previous post how acknowledgments fairly often mention gratitude for loyal pets, including the cat who always sat all over everything and the dog who stayed under the desk as a constant companion. Pets can be great supporters of doctoral writing.
Claire, Cally and I talked quite a bit about the benefits and drawbacks of including the bunny. In the end, it shook down to two considerations that are both social. The first was thinking about our reader, and the second was thinking about ourselves.
First social consideration: the reader
A reader would focus on the rabbit; the rabbit is more visually captivating than the keyboard and human hand. A reader might wonder, “What is that rabbit thinking, attentive despite her drooping ears and whiskers?” However, the blog is about doctoral writing, not about rabbits. The rabbit is a red herring to the message we want to convey, if I can mix species so wildly as to suggest something genetically modified. We’d be misleading if we included the rabbit, even though it’s quite cute (unless you come from the farming community, in which case rabbits are pests). A benefit to including the rabbit, then, is attracting readers’ attention at the start of something, but the drawback is misleading them as to what it is about. We discussed together Which social manoeuvre matters the most? That is often a question to pose when you are considering what to cut out of academic writing.
Second social consideration: our self-projection within our research community
The second social factor is about how we want to present ourselves, and what personae or voice we want to establish. Did we want to identify on every post as bunny lovers? Well, as much as each of us appreciate the value of pets in terms of the psychological well-being of humans, actually, when we started this blog rather nervously back in 2012, we wanted to make sure that we were recognised as being serious about doctoral writing. We asked ourselves What identity do we want to present to our discourse community? We didn’t want to be represented by a bunny. The benefits of including the rabbit meant we would look more holistic, more homely, more snuggly and not scary. We’d avoid being mistaken for the grim all-knowing professor.
The drawback would be that we might not be taken as serious scholars. And we are all women. Can I be so brazenly positivist as to suggest that gender biases make it safer for men to present as snuggly and not scary than for women to do that same thing? I do actually believe that women are a little more at risk of not being taken seriously than men are due to centuries of gender bias. I know that this view can be problematized in various ways, but still….peripheral considerations that matter to an author should be part of the considerations about what stays or goes.
It’s often the case that, when revising academic writing, authors need to think about whether the inclusion of something cute (aka interesting) is relevant or not. Generally, if it is not relevant, it is probably better to cut it out, or somehow frame it carefully so that it is clearly subordinated to the main point. (You might notice I am doing that here, exploiting how appealing Marmalade the rabbit is while still insisting that doctoral writing is what matters.)
Often decisions regarding what stays in and what is excised will rest on the weighing up of positives and negatives that have to do with social negotiation. After what is now decades of academic reading, I inevitably find respite in academic writing that surprises. Homeliness, humour, aesthetic beauty all have great appeal. Nonetheless, there are costs and risks in surprising.
I’m sure there are exercises to tease out what values authors most want to be known for, and what personae they would prefer to avoid. We’d welcome posts or comments describing these, or adding your thoughts about whether to leave the rabbit in or out. Metaphorically speaking…