One of the issues that has come up in the Academic Writing Studio is the relationship between motivation to write and finding the writing you need to do meaningful. This is not a new problem but the current crisis may have brought it to the fore. You may already struggle to prioritize writing or treat it as real work, and this becomes harder when you have additional demands related to delivering teaching remotely and when your students have additional needs. Trying to work from home while your partner and children (if you have them) are also at home is more difficult than writing at home during normal circumstances. The stress related to the pandemic affects your ability to focus. In these circumstances, you may be more likely to wonder why you would make time for writing at all.
People vary in how they react to the circumstances we are in. Part of that variation is related to what’s meaningful to you. If your work is meaningful, you will find it hard to not be able to do your work or not be able to do it in the ways you normally do. If your work is not meaningful to you, you may relish the opportunity to be away from it and have time to focus on other things, especially if you are still being paid or have other sources of basic security.
Grief, pressure, uncertainty & your summer plans
While you don’t need more pressure to produce, you may be missing giving sustained attention to your writing or research. At this time of year you may have been looking forward to the end of teaching so that you could give it more attention and grieving the loss of the summer you’d imagined. Perhaps you had planned a writing retreat in a beautiful, peaceful location. Perhaps you were going to be doing more data collection. Maybe you were just looking forward to giving your project more sustained attention than is possible when you are also teaching.
The normal feelings you have about the balance between teaching and research at this time of year are mixed up with your feelings about teaching and research in pandemic conditions. The typical end of the academic year exhaustion is mixed up with the emotional exhaustion of coping with the pandemic. You may also be parenting or doing other caring work more intensely than usual or in more difficult conditions. You might not be able to see when or how you will be able to rest and recharge. Your spring/Easter break plans got cancelled. You anticipate your summer holiday plans also being cancelled. You worry that you will have higher teaching preparation demands during the summer if things can’t go back to normal for the beginning of the academic year.
It can be hard to disentangle external pressure, which you may have internalized through personal and professional socialization over many years, from intrinsically meaningful activity. I encourage you to attempt to do so. It may take a few false starts and pendulum swings. It may be impossible to get the balance right. But it should be possible to make the balance better. Uncertainty is extremely high right now and there are many things over which you have no control. Focus on what you do control as much as possible, even if the scope of your control feels small.
Prioritize intrinsically meaningful activity
If you are excited about something in your research and writing, prioritize the thing you are excited about. I’ve written 3 more posts that focus on how the pandemic may be making you question your research priorities: No, you don’t need to completely change your research focus, Shifting priorities within your research during the pandemic, Prioritising non-academic audiences during the pandemic. One of those may help you make sense of your feelings and make a concrete plan to reprioritize your research or writing activities for the summer. The rest of this post will discuss other ways you might approach research and writing this summer.
Writing vs data collection
If you suspected that your original plans for the summer were too ambitious (which is pretty common), allow yourself to blame the pandemic for dropping one or more of your original goals, especially if there is external support to do so.
One of my Guide for the Journey clients had been worried that she wouldn’t be able to complete the writing projects she wanted to complete and undertake a new phase of data collection for her funded project. The funder has offered an extension. Her institution had an internal competition for teaching relief to focus on research. She’s applied for teaching relief for later in the year in the hope that her research interviews will be possible then, and allowed herself to focus on the writing projects at a more sensible pace over the summer, especially now that deadlines created by conferences are also gone. This plan also allows her more time to think about how she wants this second phase of data collection to go and discuss a new possibility with a potential collaborator.
Your situation will be different. You are not required to change your methodology for the data collection you planned for this summer to make it possible within social distancing guidelines. It may be worth doing the work of writing out a new proposed methodology, ethics assessment, and risk assessment before you make the decision. You may also need to discuss the implications of delaying the work with your funder, head of department, or others. My point is that deferring the work in favour of analysing data you already have and/or writing is also something worth considering seriously.
You may also be in a position where the pandemic raises interesting questions for your research programme or provides an opportunity to collect data that would advance your research programme, even if it’s not what you planned this summer. You don’t need to completely change your research focus, but reprioritizing activities within your current general program may be helpful.
Reprioritizing writing projects
If there has been a writing project that you are doing primarily for the external validation and you are finding it difficult to motivate yourself to work on it, perhaps you can use the pandemic as a reason to put that on the back burner. Are there other projects that feel more risky but also more meaningful? Could you allow yourself to focus on that more meaningful work this summer? Or, could you give yourself this summer to explore what might be meaningful and focus on the earlier stages of the scholarly writing process where you explore and develop ideas without a concrete output in mind (yet). (See the early chapters of The Scholarly Writing Process for prompts.)
It may be that you still find your field or topic meaningful but are struggling to find the scholarly conversations in your field meaningful. I’ve written in more detail about the specific case of the pandemic making you realize that you have knowledge to share that is relevant to the current crisis. However, this may be an issue for you even if the issues that are meaningful to you aren’t directly relevant to the pandemic. Perhaps this is the summer you will allow yourself to explore wider conversations relevant to your scholarly work, and discover what your scholarly contribution to those conversations might be.
Putting writing and research on the back burner
Of course, other things may be more meaningful to you than research and writing. With this level of uncertainty and stress, doing things that seem worthless, pointless, trivial, or futile will only add to the stress. If writing really doesn’t seem meaningful to you right now, see if you can find a way to set it aside while you focus on other things. That might be shifting focus within the scope of your work activities (e.g. to teaching, student support, or collective governance). It might be shifting the balance between work activities and non-work activities (including but not limited to caring relationships). It’s not like you won’t be doing important things. Focus on what makes getting up every day worthwhile.
In addition to those linked in the text …
Academic ‘disaster scripts’ in a time of disasters by Katherine Firth addresses what may be your initial instinct to ‘rise to the challenge and over-perform and push through’.