By Susan Carter
It’s the start of another new year, and this first post dares to be absurdly positive given how tough the last few years have been for doctoral writers and those who support them during full or partial COVID isolation.
The cheerful New Year’s message here is that doctoral writing is an act of self-transcendence. That it offers a way forward, a portal to other dimensions and a ladder to unknown heights with both dangers to confront and goods to be won. It’s tempting to draw on classical heroes and their tales as similar to the doctoral journey–(or to go downmarket with the many children’s stories that feature threat, fear and ultimate reward, like Jack and the Beanstalk).
The start of a new year offers the time when we turn to making our lives more purposeful. The thoughts in this post could be used as provocations in a doctoral writing retreat or workshop.
That doctoral writing entails self-transcendence can, perhaps, seem a huge claim, but one I think is defensible. I’m hoping that in learning to survive these tough times, you have learned how to be mindful, slower, and more thoughtful, and open to what can be construed as positive.
Let’s start with a quote from Walter J. Ong (2002, p. 174):
Writing introduces division and alienation, but a higher unity as well. It intensifies the sense of self and fosters more conscious interaction between persons. Writing is consciousness-raising.
The quotation sits on the cover page of Martin Hauberg-Lund Laugesen’s (2021) doctoral thesis. Martin visited the centre I worked for at University of Auckland while he was writing his PhD, and we shared workshops on doctoral writing together. His thesis has inspired this post, because his empirical study offers the provocation of thinking positively about academic writing. I think I need some of that positivity right now.
Writing opens up the writer’s world
In his dense, well-researched thesis, Laugesen notches up the transcendental power of writing to expand understanding, drawing on the works of the likes of Bakhtin and Ricoeur. Laugesen writes:
Writing, in other words, [enables] a kind of critical-constructive self-transcendence that is capable of letting the writer experiment with new ways of understanding, being in and appreciating the world …. (2021, p. 16)
Cally Guerin has recently questioned the idea that writing is a way of thinking, and Laugesen (2021) takes that idea further: writing does not just enable thinking, but also enables the continual achievement of novel intellectual perceptions. Having undergone such a writing-fuelled process of learning and becoming is what makes graduating from a PhD so special. One has written oneself to a new partial identity as psychologist, historian, philosopher, a scientist or an engineer; writing has enabled one has become a legitimate and full-fledged member of the discursive world of one’s discipline.
It seems a common challenge that thesis writers find it difficult to express in writing what their work means. It’s easy to feel on submission that one’s written work is not finished, and that all that research and writing hasn’t yet yielded its full potential. Yet the process of writing and revising through multiple iterations will have honed the ideas as well as the expression of them.
Might it be true that revision is not just about getting through examination, but is about seeking and reaching genuine understanding and in the process achieving a higher level of satisfaction with one’s writing? In writing feedback and discussion around that, I have long noticed how stopping to consider (argue, explain) the most accurate word is one way to interrogate the deep-level meaning of what the doctoral writer wants that word to say. Words are doors and choosing specific words over others entails entering through certain doors to the reverberating sound of the shutting of others.
Nuances and connotations of words, often the ripple of their metaphoric potential, offer quite simply the option of critiquing ideas. When you ask yourself whether the best word is the one that conveys something spatial or the one that suggests something questionable, you are also pushed to thinking about what really lies at the heart of your own ideas.
Engaging in revisionary rewriting of one’s own drafts offers doctoral writers a route to deeper levels of understanding and meaning; when they eventually achieve that, they do so due to what Laugesen terms writing’s powers of self-transcendence (see 2021: 195 ff). The sometimes surprised state of mind of certain student writers is tellingly exemplified by one of Laugesen’s research participants. Commenting on her experience of having transcended her own horizon of experience through her engagement in writing, she tells him: “[M]y world is being opened up” (2021: 196).
Falling in love with (re)writing again
Claire Aitchison has assembled a list of reasons why she loves academic writing. The metaphors she uses suggest self-transcendence: trance, escape, therapy, solace. I’d add total immersion, those rare writing times when you become so absorbed in your own writing that the world around you vanishes – and another one opens up, we might now add with Laugesen’s thesis in hand.
Cally Guerin read an early draft of this post and directed me to Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow theory’: exactly what I had in mind—please do click on the flow theory link I have just given and read down to see 8 characteristics, what happens to the brain when you are in flow mode, and how to achieve it. Doctoral writers need to be encouraged to flow into the process of writing.
Sometimes, yes, sometimes writing is sheer drudgery. Sometimes writing fills me with artisanal impatience and self-loathing: “Why is this so boring, or turgid, and why am I such an idiot? Why am I even doing this?”.
Occasionally, though, I find myself in a state of transcendence, immersed, deeply fascinated with the topics at hand, sure that this is what I was born to do: explore and learn about the phenomena and nuances of the world. This is grinding towards being a manifesto, a witness statement, a testament to something. I’m not sure what this thought is good for, whether a writing seminar could advertise itself as striving for transcendence or whether that risks judgement and failure.
This year, though, I want to drive myself to seek self-transcendence. I want to find that again.
P.S. Martin has promised that he will author a post for us in the future. Meanwhile, if you can contribute to this argument that doctoral writing opens new worlds once the risks and challenges are overcome, please post a comment.
Laugesen, M. H-L. (2021). Written engagement: Towards an empirically grounded phenomenology of the experiential interrelationship between undergraduate students’ exam writing and study engagement. Doctoral thesis from the University of Southern Denmark.
Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. Routledge.
And I want to check out:
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The psychology of happiness: The classic work on how to achieve happiness. London, UK: Rider.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004). Flow, the secret to happiness [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Random House.