One of the issues that has come up in both Office Hours (a group coaching session for members of the Academic Writing Studio that I’m holding weekly at the moment) and in the Establishing a Writing Practice class, is the relationship between motivation to write and finding the writing you need to do meaningful. I’ve written about this a bit before, Risking doing the work you find meaningful. I’ve also written about the relationship between meaningfulness and self-confidence, Where does confidence come from? Part 1: meaningfulness. There are several ways the issue of meaningfulness arises in the current situation which I’ll write about in separate posts.
During the early stages of shifting to working from home, one of the Studio members told me she felt like her writing projects were meaningless. Her field is public health but she does not specifically work on infectious diseases. She felt like she should be completely changing her research focus. I’m sure she is not alone. Your field may be different but a lot of different areas of expertise are clearly needed to address the pandemic.
The desire to do something useful in a crisis combined with your deep commitment to the value of research evidence makes this kind of crisis of meaning understandable. However, as I reminded the Studio member, your current focus is not irrelevant and isn’t going away. There are plenty of scholars in your discipline with years of study and research specifically on pandemic diseases, or other relevant topics, under their belts who are in a much better position to bring their scholarship to bear on the current crisis. You are intelligent and capable but you would have had to have started that more relevant research programme years ago for it to be truly useful right now.
If you are also feeling like this urge to completely shift your research focus to something more directly relevant to this crisis, stop. Breathe. Research is a long-term proposition. It is really hard to predict in advance what is going to be most useful. You did not make a mistake. Your colleagues have got this.
Your work is important.
There will be opportunities for you to share your knowledge to help policy makers, practitioners, or members of the public address a need they have at some point. Now may not be that point. That doesn’t mean the work you are doing is pointless. (see also Juggling in dystopian times, Part 2 and Being an academic in dystopian times, reprise)
Remind yourself why you chose this area to focus on, and why you have continued to find it meaningful. Remind yourself of the contributions you have made in the past, and of meaningful contributions others have made in your field. I will write separate posts about making less radical shifts in your research agenda to prioritise elements of your current programme that are more relevant, or to shift your writing priorities to communicate relevant knowledge to non-academic audiences.
Your emotional reaction to the scale of the pandemic is legitimate. You are allowed to feel your feelings. Your emotions are relevant to your decisions about priorities during the crisis. However, panic is not conducive to good decision making. Don’t make big changes to your research focus in a crisis.
Shifting priorities within your research during the pandemic looks at less radical changes you might want to make
Autonomy in pandemic conditions while focused on teaching and student support, using writing to support and document your decision making process, beginning with principles and values will be helpful. (audio version available)
Prioritising meaningful work when you are feeling overwhelmed and powerless (audio version available)