Monthly Archives: August 2013

Willpower vs passion


When I wrote about writing thresholds, I didn’t talk about what caused me to cross the threshold but rather what I was experiencing.  It occurred to me that some people might think that I crossed the threshold through sheer self-will and discipline.  In other words, that I am an enormously disciplined person who can force myself to sit down, write and produce papers.  Those of you who know me, will know that I’m not a fan of ‘discipline’ at all.  This morning, I read a quote by Annie Dillard:


“There’s a common notion that self-discipline is a freakish peculiarity of writers – that writers differ from other people by possessing enormous and equal portions of talent and willpower.  They grit their powerful teeth and go into their little rooms.  I think that’s a bad misunderstanding of what impels the writer.  What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books.  It’s a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning.  It’s a challenge to bring off a powerful effect.  You don’t do it from willpower; you do it from abiding passion for the field.  I’m sure its the same in every field.  Writing a book is like rearing children – willpower has very little to do with it.  If you have a little baby crying in the middle of the night, and if you depend only on willpower to get you out of bed to feed the baby, that baby will starve.  You do it out of love.  Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong.  You don’t have to scourge yourself with cat-o’-nine-tails to go to the baby.  You go to the baby out of love for that particular baby.  That’s the same way you go to your desk.  There’s nothing freakish about it.  Caring passionately about something isn’t against nature, and it isn’t against human nature.  It’s what we’re here to do.” Annie Dillard.


Your motivation might not involve words and language.  It may, instead, revolve around the substance of your research and the priority you give it.  Your need to write this paper lies in the importance of getting this message out.  Perhaps not because it will be read by millions but because the publication will give you credibility and authority to participate in further discussions on this topic.  The bigger aim is to change things, to make it better – whatever ‘it’ is for you.  For me, my aim is always to change student experiences of higher education so I focus my research on pedagogy.  That’s where it becomes meaningful for me and that’s why it is important for me to cross the threshold and finish the paper.


What’s meaningful for you?  Where does your passion lie?  Is that where you are focusing your energies?




Writing thresholds


I’ve had three weeks devoted purely to writing papers.  During these weeks I’ve noticed a pattern in the way I get writing done.  The first stage is a long thinking stage which could take months or even years as was the case with one paper.  In the thinking stage, I collect articles, read, write notes, write the problem/purpose statement for the paper and I think about what I want to say.  This stage takes place, in and around all the many other tasks in life. And it involves writing lots of notes. Then I reach a point, usually because there is a deadline when I decide to block off a few days and stay at home to write.  I stay at home because I won’t get interrupted and because when I’m in this phase, I really focus and the house can burn down around me and I wouldn’t notice.  I try to block off a minimum of three days if I can.  The first day involves stops and starts of writing, lots of frustration, some cursing, some queries to the heavens about why I put myself through this and quite a lot of nothing happening.  I have patches of writing but nothing coherent.  I go to bed thinking that I will never get this paper written.  The next day I’m conscious that I have to get the paper written and I’m running out of time. It is almost as if I have to cross a physical threshold that involves making an embodied decision that the paper will be written.  From that point, I start seriously writing.  I don’t mean that the paper is written perfectly but that I end up with a coherent whole that can be revised and edited into a finished piece.  If I don’t consciously cross that threshold, the paper stays elusive.  I’ve been trying to understand what that threshold is. 

Wisker and Savin-Baden in a paper called ‘Priceless conceptual thresholds: Beyond the ‘stuck’ place in writing’ (London Review of Education, 7(3), 235-247, 2009) talk about conceptual thresholds in writing.  One such threshold surrounds ontological questioning, where academic writers experience a questioning of self and how that self relates to being in the world.  Being criticised, feeling uncertain about having something worthwhile to say and querying the value of writing and publishing can bring this on.  Conceptual thresholds also relate to the language and knowledge of the discipline or discourse we belong to.  What counts as valuable knowledge?  As writers we sometimes get stuck as this threshold because we feel we cannot contribute at the level expected of the discipline/discourse.  Wisker & Savin-Baden (2009) suggest that patchwriting (drawing from other’s work), mimicry (following other’s work), critical friends and pushing through as ways to cross these thresholds.

I agree with Wisker & Savin-Baden and I think I experience conceptual thresholds throughout the process of writing a paper.  But the threshold I experience that I’m talking about here, relates more to the emotional experience of writing.  I think my body knows how difficult it will be to sit for the next 6-8 hours and become immersed in an extremely complex and taxing task.  Even after that 6-8 hours is up, there will still be a lot of work involved in getting the paper finished.  I think my body resists before the threshold.  The day that I spend cursing and in frustration is preparation for crossing the threshold.  In crossing the threshold, I know what is coming but am now prepared to engage in it.  It is a conscious decision, that then allows me to engage in the difficult work of constructing knowledge out of nothing, of pulling together disparate thoughts into a coherent form, of responding to an ongoing discursive dialogue even though I may feel I have nothing to contribute.

We all write differently and our processes are unique.  You may not experience the same threshold as I did but I think it is worth thinking about what writing thresholds you do face.  Can you identify them?  What helps you cross them?


Professorial melancholia


I came across the most fascinating paper yesterday by David Machell ‘A professor realises the potential poison of ivy’ Innovative HE, 16 (2), 1991.  Although it doesn’t relate directly to writing, indirectly it provides a lot of insight on some of the reasons why academics stop writing in their careers.  It’s a psychology paper based on 300 interviews in the US.  It’s about ‘professorial melancholia’ (PM) which is ‘defined as a progressive emotional process’ (p.174). The process is one of increasing negativity, decreasing motivation, negative attitudes and diminishing self-esteem.  Machell identifies 3 stages.  The onset is due to two irrational beliefs about the self (p.174):


a)    “We must be thoroughly competent, adequate, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects.


b)   We must be loved by everyone and everyone must approve of everything we do.”


Stage one begins when the academic is a student.  Good students are often perfectionists who see the self as perfect in order to feel satisfied.  Straight A’s reinforce this and result in ‘adulation, praise, attention and success’ (p.174).  This behaviour and adulation is the vehicle to belief b) that it is necessary to be loved by all: “The person is truly a ‘star’ and becomes dependent on being a ‘star’ to gain his/her sense of worth” (p. 174).  The ultimate academic star is the PhD.  When students becomes academics they are dependent on the academic environment that fed them as a student.  When students enter academia, they have had years of conditioning and reinforcement of seeing themselves in this way.

Once an academic, the situation changes because it is more difficult to achieve A’s and to receive the adulation of star status.  Even if one does, it is hard to sustain.  Consequences of this change are behaviours like looking at colleagues as competition and with suspicion; ‘unresponsive’ students are seen as weak and as ‘desecrating the discipline’; pressures to publish ‘ignite ‘fear of imperfection’’ and internal anxiety intensifies; and ultimately feelings of inadequacy increase, self-esteem diminishes and imposter/fraudulent emotions increase.   Anger, from hurt and lack of approval increases as well as bitterness towards all aspects of the profession (money, time, status, rewards).  Games of one-up-man-ship towards colleagues, students and administrators become part of the academic’s coping mechanism.  The academic often then groups together with other sufferers where they feed off each other and increase in dysfunction.

 In the middle stage the factors worsen, delusion increases and the academic cannot see the self without distortion.  As time goes on, the person becomes more disillusioned and often isolates him/herself, depression and resentment increases, so does self-disgust.  Scholarly work decreases.  In the late stage, students and colleagues are seen as enemies.  Disrespect, anger and rage characterise the academics interactions with others.  Withdrawal manifests in elitism and arrogance.  Paranoia (they’re talking about me; they want to get rid of me) and unrealistic generalised thinking persists.  Academics become ‘spent’ where they can see nothing of value in their careers which is often seen as burn-out but is actually a more long-term insidious process.  Low self-esteem and fear keep academics from leaving the profession even when they are extremely unhappy.  In the last stage, the person may become prone to alcohol and other abuses, relationship abuses, rage reactions and suicidal behaviour.


 How does one come through this? Machell has several suggestions:


·      Accurate labelling and expression of feelings (vs analysing)


·      Self awareness (surfacing irrational thinking)


·      Sharing with empathetic others


·      Involvement rather than isolation (volunteering)


·      Developing other qualities such as creativity


·      Learning from positive human contacts


·      Fostering a sense of belonging.


 Machell also notes that the academic environment is a breeding ground for this condition.  The university is based on a perfectionist, individualised and competitive ideal.  For example, academics are often seen as not in need of holidays or that time off is really research time. There is also the idea that academics should work alone and if they can’t succeed alone then that is considered failure. 


 I thought the article so interesting, not least, because I could see evidence of PM all around me.  It explained some of the actions of older colleagues particularly. I often work with academics who are stuck in their writing because they are disillusioned.  But I could also see it in myself.  Especially now that I’m on the tenure track which is part of the approval process.  It’s where you get told that you are worthy enough or not.  I’ve experienced a growing obsessiveness around publishing that I have never had before.  I push myself so hard and in the back of my mind, I’m saying ‘for what?’  Now I understand.  I will now be asking myself:  Am I doing this for approval or because I want to do it?



Reflection, identity and writing productivity


I have just returned from South Africa where I ran several workshops both at Wits and UJ.  I always find the questions from participants to be thought-provoking and this time was no exception.  When I’m in the midst of a workshop, I’m focused on the points I want to get across, but on the drive home, the next morning and at odd moments after that, I find myself thinking about a question someone asked. 

I always begin a workshop on research writing by stating that in academic contexts when we write we always convey an argument (rather than a ‘truth’) and that argument becomes more ‘truth-like’ when the evidence convinces the audience and more opinion-like when it doesn’t.  Some arguments are very subtle and embedded while others are upfront and obvious.  We, as academic writers, make the choice based on the discourses we work in.  I always urge researchers to be cognisant of what they are arguing even if they decide to downplay the argument in writing. Otherwise one writes an argument into the paper without even knowing it.  One workshop participant asked me: “But if you know what you are arguing, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the research?”  The ‘simple’ answer is that (for me) all research is ideological, so any researcher carries a worldview into the research, in the way s/he sets up the research project or frames the questions.  That worldview carries an implicit argument.  You can still be open to contrary results but only if you are aware of your position/argument.  Sometimes worldviews are so deeply part of who we are that it is difficult to pull it away and hold it up for scrutiny.

The more complex answer to the participant’s question is that when a researcher connects worldview, identity as a scholar and research interests, research becomes meaningful and writing that research becomes an imperative rather than a chore.  The only way to make these connections is through reflection – reflection through writing, I would argue.  I keep a journal on my desktop, for my eyes only, and in there, I reflect on what I believe, argue, and what I take for granted.  When I’m writing a paper, I jot thoughts down in the journal on what I’m trying to say.  Some of those thoughts go into the paper, others don’t.

Stephen John Quaye (reference below) has written a lovely paper, well worth reading, about exactly why it is so important to ask yourself questions like:  What is my role in this research?  Why does my identity matter when I’m constructing interview questions?  Whose interests does this research serve?  How does this research serve my interests?  Somewhere, underlying these kinds of questions is the tangle of our worldview and identity as researchers and our implicit views of this research project – which often appears as our argument.

Well, I hope this has generated some food for thought and I would love to hear your comments.



Quaye, S.J. (2007). Voice of the researcher: Extending the limits of what counts as research.  Journal of Research Practice, 3(1). ArticleM3.