Writing Together: Working Towards New Cultures of Writing in Academia
By Vasudha Katju
If there’s one aspect of my PhD that I would redo, it would be how I wrote my thesis. I did most of my writing alone, in my room at home. A teacher in my centre had said, during our orientation, that research is a lonely process. Nothing brought that loneliness home to me like sitting, every day, typing away, engaged in a constant conversation with myself.
I wasn’t living alone at the time; I was living at home with my parents. Yet I was in a crucial way isolated. And research scholars from my university living on campus seemed to feel isolated as well. They were living in hostels on a campus that is highly active, where students are very sociable, and where academic and extracurricular activities are constantly going on. But this did not seem to automatically lead to a greater sense of connection with other researchers and writers.
Academic writing is social. The arguments we make and ideas we debate are part of academic debates, dialogues and conversations which began long before we arrived on the scene and will continue after we depart. The norms of writing and publication that we must follow too come to us from without, and at least some of our academic training involves learning these norms (citing, quoting, paraphrasing, etc.). We write with an audience in mind. Our writing must be published to be of value in the academic marketplace. Our research may be ground-breaking but has little worth if unpublished.
This then is the paradox: while academic writing is social, the day-to-day activities that go into creating that piece of writing engender isolation.
Isolation and loneliness are in the nature of academic writing. This type of writing requires you to spend a lot of time in your own head, conversing with yourself. Ironically, though it’s done for public consumption, it is also deeply personal. We’re constantly asked what new and original contribution we are making in our fields, what new dimensions we’re bringing to ongoing academic conversations and debates. Writing involves putting something of our personalities – our intellect, ideas, political and personal commitments – into the public, to be debated, evaluated, and judged.
Unsurprisingly, then, academic writing becomes a source of tremendous fear and anxiety. Putting a piece of yourself out there, to be critiqued and judged, is a scary prospect. Many of us, I suspect, avoid making our work public due to this fear. Additionally, putting our work out there, whether orally or in writing, often yields deeply negative results. We’ve all sat in seminars where the audience has been dismissive, insulting, slow to listen and quick to judge. Why would anyone rush to make their work public, knowing that this the reception they will get?
Over time, I’ve learned that the way to cope with the dilemma between the need to make my work public, and the fear of making it public, is to extend the social aspect of academic writing, as far as possible, to the process of writing itself. I’ve done this, over the last few years, in and through writing groups.
Presently, I’m part of two writing groups. Both consist of either past or present women research scholars from Jawaharlal Nehru University, working on theses or papers and books. We all met either as students of the same centre (and indeed, the same supervisor), or through common friends across different centres of JNU. Some of us have been friends for a while; others were acquaintances, or didn’t know each other, before joining the writing groups. We all, I think, fall into that somewhat amorphous category of ‘young academics’: either PhD students or newly-minted teachers. Our ages stretch from the late 20s to the early 40s. Some have been full-time students for some years, and some have returned to academia after several years of work. We’re from different caste and religious backgrounds, yet to the extent that fluency in English can be seen as the consequence of a certain class status, we seem to share a similar class background.
The first group meets over Skype, as the four members are all in different parts of the world. We meet online to discuss our writing goals and ongoing projects, to share how far we’ve come and to commiserate over the deadlines we couldn’t meet. We share our ongoing work, bounce ideas off each other, read each other’s’ writing, give and receive feedback.
The second group manages to meet in person. This group developed when some of us began working on a book project together. After a while, it became clear that we were not meeting our goals. We began to meet to discuss the challenges we were facing in our work, and then spend a few hours writing together. This process helped many of us to work through our various obstacles and meet our deadlines. The experience was positive enough for eight of us to keep meeting after the project deadline. We meet a few times a month. We can choose to share what we’re working on: for example, someone might solicit feedback on the outline of a chapter, describe where they’re stuck on a paper, or ask how best to respond to a call for papers. We also spend a few hours writing together, working on our individual writing tasks.
Getting these groups going, and keeping them running, requires a lot of work. There are practical problems: for example, we don’t have a dedicated space for meetings. So every time, we have to figure out a space to meet: in our university, at someone’s home or hostel room. Someone has to do the work of putting the meeting together, finding a space, or hosting the group in their home. In the case of the group which meets over Skype, meetings have to be scheduled keeping in mind the time differences between members’ locations (and someone has to be prepared to either get up early or stay up late for the meeting). Both groups have to work around members’ work and family commitments.
Members have to be prepared to spend a lot of time engaging with each other’s work. This is difficult when you’re busy, stressed, or distracted. It takes discipline and concentration to absorb and meaningfully discuss someone else’s work, especially when it involves the details and nuances of a topic with which you’re barely familiar.
It’s also an effort to create an atmosphere that is enabling and conducive to the sort of open conversation that these spaces require. Both groups are of peers, who are working on or have recently submitted their PhD theses. Some sense of solidarity, I think, emerges from our shared suffering. We can understand what someone means when they say they don’t even feel like looking at their work; when they tell us that constant typing is giving them back pain; when they complain about distant relatives who don’t know what they do, why they do it, and also, why they’re not done yet. It’s an effort to be present for the other person, listen and speak with compassion, and not dismiss another’s problem because you personally haven’t experienced it.
I don’t want to present an idealistic picture of the writing group space. Things don’t always go according to plan, and we don’t always get as much done as we want. Also, there are some for whom it hasn’t worked, and I’m sure many for whom this sort of space does not work. Some are more comfortable writing when physically alone. Some may not want the sort of feedback we have to offer. Some may feel an absence of reciprocity: that they are putting more into the group than they are getting out of it. Some might stay away because they feel guilty for not being able to commit as much time and effort as others. Some may need forms of support that these groups do not offer. Some may hesitate to circulate their unpublished writing; I imagine it would be difficult for a writing group to function without a high level of trust and respect for boundaries. Others might, depending on their circumstances and preferences, find other ways to combat the loneliness and fear of academic writing.
For those of us who stuck around, however, what works is, I feel, the honesty with which we approach writing and academic work more generally. There is no room in the processes we have adopted for the polite fiction that academic writing is effortless, emerges from pure merit, and is a joy from start to finish. Rather, we’re open about our stresses and anxieties. We try to be honest about work that is going too slowly, the inadequacies in our arguments, and the anxieties of sharing work with strangers in conferences and seminars.
Articulating these problems helps us to find solutions. Someone will have read something that’ll help me work out an argument; someone will help me make sense of a reviewer’s comments; someone will catch typos that I missed; someone will have an idea for what to do next when I’ve written myself into a corner.
But these spaces also offer deeper forms of support. They are spaces to share anxiety and discuss things that are not working out. They are also spaces to listen to others express their worries, share setbacks, express their struggles, express the fear of failure and ridicule. This is why, though we’re not always as productive as we hope, there is still a sense of community that keeps people coming back.
It might sound like we’re a bunch of writers/researchers who periodically get together to gripe. But griping has its uses. Listening to others’ problems is actually very refreshing, and helps me to put myself and my work in perspective. It helps me to erode the idea that I alone have not got it together. In a situation where we only hear of others’ successes, it’s honest and refreshing to listen to someone share their struggles and failures. There is the practical part of it also, as I said above. But I think more important, or at least as important, is a sense of solidarity.
These groups also help to erode perfectionism. For example, in one meeting, I set out my writing goals for the next six months. There were quite a few writing projects, and after I went through my list I asked the group if they thought I was being too ambitious. Yes, came the immediate reply. This is too much, dial it down a bit.
This is an important (and rare) message to get in an atmosphere which tells us that we should be prepared to give 110% of ourselves all the time. But it’s important to note that it’s liberating because it’s coming from a space of care, support, and encouragement. I’m not being told ‘you can’t do it, you aren’t capable’; instead, it means ‘don’t overdo it, don’t burn yourself out, set realistic goals.’ And I know that whatever goals I do set, the group will help me to achieve them.
Contrast this to an incident which occurred in an academic writing workshop I attended, on editing academic work for publication. This was just a few months after I submitted my PhD thesis, and as it turned out, I had the most recent PhD submission in the room. During one session, the facilitator was out of the room and the group got to chatting. One of the attendees called out to me from across the room: ‘You know, you shouldn’t be here. You just submitted. You should wait at least two years before trying to revise anything. You’ll get many insights.’
Many people have told me to let the thesis lie fallow for a while before attempting to revise it. But this off-handed “you shouldn’t be here” struck me like a kick in the gut. The opinion wasn’t the problem, it was the casual dismissal and lack of consideration. It came as (unsolicited) advice from someone who had no real engagement with me, no empathy towards me, no investment in my success. I doubt the person who said it even remembers it, and equally, I doubt I’ll ever forget.
Spaces of trust and sharing have to be consciously created. What we’re doing in these groups, through that trust and sharing, consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, is developing a new work ethic, and a new culture of academic writing. It’s a move away from the prevailing individualistic and competitive culture of academia and an attempt to develop an ethic of care. The more we recognise that the prevailing culture of academia does take a toll on us, the more we will need and want to create spaces that allow for a less perfectionist work ethic, a more honest and compassionate mode of engagement with each other, and a different sense of self.
I thank Roopa Rathnam and Roma Bhattacharya for their comments on this essay.
Vasudha Katju is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her doctoral research is on the autonomous women’s movement in India and engages with questions of mobilisation, movement organisation form, and contemporary feminism within this movement. Her research interests include gender, feminist thought and praxis, and social movements. She is also interested in the processes of academic and creative writing. These include both the stylistic elements and relational aspects of writing. She has taught gender studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi, and has also conducted workshops on academic writing for students.
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