Monday, May 05, 2008

Writing and Teaching

"It was too wonderful a morning to surrender myself to the machine."
Henry Miller

Most academics will teach even if they have not had time to prepare their lesson. They will normally decline meeting and seminar invitations if they are scheduled teach at the same time. Many academics will even teach with a cold or a headache or some other physical disorder.

Writing sessions are much more vulnerable to cancellation. In fact, people rarely even put such sessions in their calendar. There is a general sense that one will write when one has time to do so. And one never has enough time, of course. How often do you cancel a writing session because you are invited to a meeting or are asked to cover a colleague's class? How often do you say, "Sorry, I'm writing at that time. Can we meet later in the day?"

Worse still, even a very strong intention to write can be overridden by a vague feeling that one doesn't quite know what one will say, or by the sunrise of a morning that is simply "too wonderful" (Miller's "machine" is his typewriter). This, it should be noted again, is rarely the case in teaching. If a teacher doesn't "feel like" teaching, or goes for a walk in the park instead, we'd consider her irresponsible. If she cancels class because she doesn't know what she will say that morning, we consider that a kind of personal crisis. And yet, if we get up one morning and are "unable" to put two words together about our research (as planned), we simply shrug it off as a lack of inspiration and read the newspaper instead.

The obvious reason for this is that we have a harder time committing to ourselves than to others. The bigger the group of people that depends on us, the more likely we are to simply show up. (We are also more likely to prepare for class than for our writing sessions, but I think this is in part because we know we will be there for the former and will therefore have to actually experience our own unpreparedness.) The solution, then, is to see your writing commitments as social obligations.

So when planning your writing, keep in mind that your published work informs the research conducted by your peers. Writing is the means by which you share your knowledge with others; it is not just a means by which you further your own career. Your writing responsibilities are as serious as your teaching obligations from a social point of view. When you sit down in front of the machine you are doing important work for the community. If you need reminding of this, try to arrange deadlines with your colleagues that commit them to reading what you've written. Or get yourself an editor like me.

Yes, it is a very beautiful morning in Copenhagen.

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