Yesterday, my brother in law, a very intelligent and committed individual, defended his PHD thesis, completing years of study that have spanned the length of my career. Today, I finished writing my first academic piece of writing in ten years. It has less words in it than my average post here, but required so much damn thinking and technical skill! I had forgotten how challenging it is to write in academic style, and how much joy there can be in learning. I had also forgotten that I freaking hate the way I feel right before I hand in an assignment. When I write for this blog, people read it, and they may well judge it, but their criticism in no way impacts my life. The challenge of academic writing is that every word of it is going to be critiqued, challenged and assessed as worthy or not.
Honestly, I have loved the learning, even if the process turned me into a crazy lady rocking in the corner.
The difficulty, I think, was that I always studied with a group before this. I learn best through conversation, though hashing out ideas over a good debate, and then looking up the evidence to be able to make the points we had found. we had chocolate fish and wine and a guy sitting on the sofa watching McLeods Daughters. They were good times. This time, I was alone with my thoughts, and the thoughts were hard: the very topic of the paper challenged my thinking, literally. The goal was to determine what I know, how I know it and how I use what I know to achieve a thing. That is a lot of thinking about thinking for someone who doesn’t always think. I had no idea where to even start, and reading wasn’t helping… it just raised more questions!
Oh, and did you know, when writing for academic purposes, you can’t use memes? Or gifs? I mean, what am I without my silly pictures!?!
A good new friend was patient enough to read my paper at the 76th draft stage. She took to it with a hatchet…. a well intentioned and very helpful hatchet, which highlighted just exactly how far off the track I had gotten. Which allowed me, ultimately, to sort out my shit and actually turn the thing into some representation of an actual academic piece. thankfully, despite judicious use of a metaphorical red pen, she also discussed the content with me, because, geek that she is, it had excited her too. so I got some of that clarity I was looking for, and found my second wind.
Problem there, though, is that in academic writing, you have to back up everything you say. That requires reading lots of academic writing. I don’t know if you have done much of that, but seriously, it is hard work. You can’t do it without a highlighter, for a start. When you try, a baby duck cries.
Also, you can’t just read it. you have to make notes on what you read, what you thought it meant, what it made you think. If there is a great idea in it, you have to trace that idea back to it’s source and read that piece too. You have to critique the methods used to inform every single thing you read and decide whether or not it is worth paying attention too, in the grand scheme of all the information you have read. And then, at the end of all of that, you might not even use it! It’s time consuming and exhausting.
When I write something here, it is my pure, unadulterated, opinion. Sometimes I will back it up with someone else’ pure unadulterated opinion, but, mostly it is just from my brain to my fingers to your eyes. In an academic piece, you have to source things down to the right full stop and comma, with points off for the wrong font size. it makes for a slow going process… I have been actively writing and rewriting for weeks now.
The other thing about academic writing, is that it doesn’t care if you get sick (which I did) or your kid is hospital (which she was). It demands the same level of attention to detail no matter what else is happening in your life. It drains your brain of every ounce of energy and enthusiasm. And then, it tricks you into thinking you have it sussed. It makes you think you are en route to greatness, positively on the right track, actually even a little brilliant. Right before you discover that none of that is true, and actually, you haven’t answered the question at all.
By the time you are nearing the end of the process, you are lost in a sea of self doubt and humiliation. You thought you were smart, but you aren’t. You know now, that nothing will ever be easy again, because you made the mistake of telling people you were doing this, that you were excited to be doing it. What were you THINKING?
Anyway. Through all of that, you suddenly realise that you only have 48 hours left to write this damn thing. So you sit down and rewrite everything (in this instance, with the helpful notes from my dear friends critique piled up beside me. Suddenly, words appear on the paper, and words are removed with ease. The piece becomes concise and precise. The criteria from the marking grid are ticked off and the reference list is robust, and seems to have commas, full stops and italics in all the right places. You come up for air, read it one last time, and realise:
And then, as you ease your tired aching bones out of your desk chair, and reach for the wine you realise… that was just the first assignment… the next one is due in a month.
And that, my friends is why academia is not really my forte.