Writing: It’s more than words #AcWriMo2018

some of my writing spots

I’ve slowed my blog writing down this year, but I am writing. I am writing other texts. I am trying to use November—also known as Academic Writing Month or #AcWriMo—to move one writing project forwards.

During #AcWriMo writers often set word count goals, and words are—of course!—important. I have been working towards a word count and counting words in incremental amounts. I have a handwritten list and when I get to a word milestone, I put a satisfying line through it. But there is more to writing than words.

Reading

In order to write words, especially in academic writing, I read as I go. Papers, journal articles, freshly published books. This is so that I know the field within which my writing operates, and so that I can situate my work alongside other scholarship and amongst other writers. Writing-while-reading, going back and forth between the two, is slower than ‘just’ writing. Sometimes it is incredibly slow!

Contribution

I need to be careful that I don’t spend too much time reading and summarising the work of others. After all, my text is my contribution to the field. I need to make sure there’s enough me in my writing. What am I contributing? What do I have to say? What are the takeaways for my reader? I need to remember to put this up front. In one of Tara Brabazon’s recent vlogs, she said ‘don’t bury the lead’. My argument and unique contribution need to be front and centre, not buried in the middle or tacked onto the end. This is a challenge for an early career scholar who sometimes clings to the authoritative voices of others rather than foregrounding her own. As my supervisors said to me late in my PhD candidature: more me, less others!

Structure

I will also need to examine the structure of my writing. Does the text hold together effectively? Do the headings and sub-headings reflect the logical arc of my argument, and the journey through which I am taking the reader? Are all the bits relevant, and does each section of text have a clear purpose? I have been revising structure as I have gone along, but need to continue to be mindful of it. This means zooming out to a bird’s eye or balcony view from time to time.

Editing

Writing is more than churning out words. I can write a lot of words in a short time, but that doesn’t mean they will be good words. They might be edited out later on, or polished to an unrecognisable version of what they were when they flew from the keyboard. I will need to focus on editing, including printing the document and editing with a pen.

It is during the editing process that I am often taken back to a blog post by Pat Thomson, in which she writes …

It’s 7. 30 pm and Pat is in the lounge room reading. She is examining a thesis but finding it hard to stay awake.

I don’t want to be the writer sending Pat (or my imagined reader) to sleep. In her hypothetical example, Pat is reading a thesis for examination, but my reader will be reading out of choice, not obligation. How do I help them want to read on through my writing? I need for my writing to be enjoyable, accessible, and with effective personal voice. I need to signpost what I am doing and where the text is going, but not in a way that is laboured and mind-numbing. I need to iron out the clunky and clumsy bits. I need to work on flow and flair.

Onwards

So, I am writing this Academic Writing Month. But it’s not as simple as counting words and hitting quantitative targets. I will approach my writing from different angles and for different purposes. I will remain mindful of my end point and protect regular time to visit my manuscript and pay intentional attention to it.

Happy writing!

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Teachers and school leaders: Why write?

I challenged myself at the beginning of the year to do less good things in order to do even better things (thank you Dylan Wiliam, for the soundbite inspiration). I work full time as a teacher and senior leader in a school; have a young family, and am myself a human being with relationships, interests, and needs (this last one is something those of us in caring and teaching professions sometimes forget in our commitment to help others).

And I write. On this blog, for academic journals, for education books, for conference presentations. I have also been co-editing a book and a special issue of an academic journal. In order to give back to the machine of academic writing, I also peer review papers for academic journals. All of this is unpaid work and volunteered time, especially as my day job is to serve the students and community of my school. I do have an honorary academic position with a university, but it is just that: honorary. There is no financial reward or professional expectation that I engage in the world of academic publishing.

I’ve been reminded about the writing part of my life this week, as a couple of papers and a chapter have resurfaced from the academic publishing and peer review pipelines through which they have been traveling. Writing for academic journals and books is like that. It comes in peaks and troughs, with pieces disappearing for a time before reappearing to be re-thought, re-written, and re-submitted. There is the original writing of the paper, chapter, or conference abstract—sometimes an immersion or deep dive; sometimes a laborious stop-start process; and sometimes a collaborative dance between authors—followed by the first submission. Then there is the wait for peer reviews, which can take months at a time. By the time the reviewer comments appear, the paper can be looked at with fresh eyes and new energy. Then it’s revise, resubmit, repeat. Once an abstract is accepted it’s time to think about preparing the presentation (ok, maybe not until closer to the conference date); or once a paper is accepted and it goes into production, contracts, queries from copyeditors, and checks from typesetters follow.

So why do I spend time in these writing, co-writing, and revision processes? Why write at all when the job of a teacher or school leader is so busy already?

Here are my three top reasons for engaging in academic writing as a teacher and school leader.

  1. WRITING BEGETS READING

It may seem counter intuitive, but to engage in writing, I need to engage in reading. Each time I write or revise a paper, chapter, or a blog post, I return to research literature in order to check in with the current state of play in education research. So academic writing incites academic reading and engagement with research. It keeps my thinking current and keeps me on top of education debates, knowledge, and research findings.

  1. PEER REVIEW BUILDS MY CAPACITY TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK

The peer review process is usually double blind, which means that the reviewers don’t know who the author is, and the author doesn’t know who the reviewers are. This means that peer review feedback on academic writing is very honest. There is no sugar coating or euphemising of feedback. Reviewers tell you what they think: the good, the bad, and the brutal. They pull no punches.

Receiving peer review feedback has helped me to be a better receiver of feedback in my working life. It means that I have a process for considering critique. In the school environment this might be honest comments submitted to anonymous staff or student surveys, or verbal push back from staff about a change or a professional expectation.

I sit with difficult feedback for a while. I consider it and turn it over, step away from it, and return to it seeking to understand the perspective of the reviewer. I ask myself questions like: What didn’t they understand and why? What could be made clearer or more meaningful? What assumptions might I have made in my writing or decision making that need adjustment in order for the work or intervention to be improved?

Engaging in double blind peer review has meant that I actively seek out critical, candid feedback, and that I can sit with, consider, seek to understand, and then thoughtfully act upon that feedback.

  1. CONTRIBUTING A PRACTISING EDUCATOR VOICE TO EDUCATION NARRATIVES

There is a necessity for, and a credibility that comes from, teachers and school leaders having a voice in education narratives. We are the ones each day in classrooms, with students, communicating with parents, considering the hard and soft data of our practice and making hundreds of decisions per day. Writing about our work, our experiences, our thinking, our expertise, and our wisdom and problems of practice, promotes conversations between educators across contexts and contributes practitioner voices to education narratives, so often dominated by those not actually in the business of teaching.

The upcoming book I’ve co-edited, Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, is all about the importance of listening to, and inviting to decision making and policymaking tables, teachers and school leaders. It argues that education systems should not be top-down and driven by political election cycles and vote-grabbing, but by deep engagement with the teaching profession and those who actually work, every day, in schools.

I hope that my writing encourages others working in schools to speak out, and to write about their thinking, experiences, and expertise.

Reference lists as sites of diversity? Citations matter.

Last year at the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference, I had a coffee urn conversation that has stuck with me. Professor Pat Thomson challenged me on my citation practices, specifically who I cite in my writing around education. I have thought about this brief interaction a lot since then, and it has influenced my academic writing.

I have found myself asking: Who am I citing? And why?

I realised that my academic reading is influenced by my pracademic life, in which I work full time in a school and hold a research adjunct position in a university. I am not situated in a university department, and often come across particular authors and publications because I am exposed to them as an education practitioner working in a school, who engages in professional learning marketed to educators. These kinds of publications are quite different from critical education scholarship that questions normalised knowledge theories and critiques entrenched social structures.

Who we cite positions our work in a field. It aligns us with particular epistemologies and ontologies; ways of knowing and of ways of being. It can polarise us from others. In this blog post, Pat Thomson puts it this way:

Who cites who is not a neutral game.

Since my conversation with Pat, I have been much more aware of my own lack of neutrality, of the ways in which my own citation practices amplify some voices and ignore others. I have been more aware of my potential responsibility as an author to be mindful of not only with whom I situate myself, but whose work I might be ignoring in the process.

This week is NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week in Australia, a week in which Australians celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year’s theme—Because of Her, We Can!—invites Australians to honour the often unacknowledged stories of Indigenous women. Three Indigenous education scholars whose work I follow are Professor and Ngugi/Wakka Wakka woman Tracey Bunda, Kamilaroi woman Dr Melitta Hogarth, and Wagiman woman Dr Marnee Shay. I wonder how non-Indigenous scholars can cite the work of Indigenous academics. UK independent researcher Dr Helen Kara reflects on her work with Indigenous literatures in this blog post, noting the long history of Indigenous scholarship and the ethical and relational dimensions of engaging with it as a Euro-Western researcher.

Previously I considered things like how recent my references were, or what kinds of texts they covered. I now ask some different questions of my reference list:

  • How does this list situate my work in the field? With what kind of scholarship am I aligning my work?
  • From what nations, cultures and classes do my references come? To what extent do they represent Euro- or Anglo- centric ways of knowing and being?
  • What is the gender mix of my reference list?
  • Whose voices are silent? Whose scholarship have I ignored or excluded?

While during my PhD I tried to read everything I could get my hands on, and find a place for it in my literature review (Look, Examiner! I have read all these things!), writing for journals has helped me to be more judicious in selecting literature as part of an argument and part of a greater research conversation about education. Conferences now avoid all-male panels or all-white keynotes. Can we also approach our reference lists as sites of diversity and inclusivity?

Feedback: It’s emotional

it’s emotional (Jeanne Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows)

The red pen is symbolic of marking. It’s viscous crimson ink, staining crisp white pages, is bedded in the history of giving feedback on written work. It stands out from blue or black writing, allowing corrections to be seen. That’s probably why the default colour for Microsoft Word tracked changes is red. It’s bold, noticeable, stark.

The red pen has also been at the centre of controversy. In 2008, 2013, and as recently as 2016, there were international articles arguing that marks made by red pens on student work were threatening and confrontational for students, and that teachers should stop marking with them. In 2010 Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris found that teachers using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than teachers using blue pens. A 2013 study by Dukes and Albanesi was central to renewed furore, arguing that marking with red pens can upset students and lead to weakened teacher-student relationships. Some educators retorted that the whole idea was silly and continued to wield their red pens. Some schools responded with ‘rainbow marking’ policies in which teachers armed themselves with red-free sets of highlighters and pens. Yellow! Pink! Purple! Green! Blue!

This week a student asked me to look over a practice exam response he had done in his own time. I was sitting next to him and asked if he had a pen I could use to give him feedback on it. His immediate response: “Do you want a red one?”

Pat Thomson yesterday published this post about the ‘bleeding thesis’, explaining that doctoral students can feel like the pages are bleeding when they receive red scrawling annotations and red tracked changes on their drafts. I have heard high school students complain similarly about the ‘bleeding pages’ of their marked work. “Oh, my essay looks like it’s bleeding!”

When I was editing my PhD thesis I had a swag of Artline finline pens. My personal favourites were green, purple, and dark pink. When I was in a self-flaggelatory mood, I would use red. It felt like punishment, a dark culling of my words, permission to be ruthless with my writing.

Yesterday a colleague emailed me a draft paper and asked me to ‘scribble on it’, so I annotated it with my reactions, thoughts, and suggestions. Part of their email response to my annotations was “I feel like I am getting your feedback on a Lit essay I’ve handed in, and admit to feeling a certain amount of pride at the ticks and double ticks!” Yes, I ticked those parts of the paper that resonated with me or I felt were important (a hard English teacher habit to break). I know my students scour their marked work, counting the ticks. They often call out “I got a double tick!” And now that I think about it, I annotated my colleague’s draft in green pen.

Of course, it’s not really the pen that is important. It’s the quality of the feedback that matters. A tick can be meaningless (but nonetheless emotion-inducing) praise, unless there is an understanding of why it’s there. This 1984 study by Semke found that teacher-written corrections do not increase writing accuracy, writing fluency, or general language proficiency, and they may have a negative effect on student attitudes. Dylan Wiliam points out that feedback can help or hinder learning, and that the feedback-giver/feedback-receiver relationship is key to feedback’s effectiveness.

It is neither possible nor desirable to give great quantities of feedback. As an English teacher, I have to constantly navigate the balance between giving meaningful feedback to help students move forward, and balancing my marking workload. Over my career I’ve developed a suite of varied strategies to ensure students are constantly engaging in feedback over their work, without me constantly collecting and correcting workbooks or homework. I’ve found I can give every student some brief, immediate feedback verbally if I check homework in a lesson once students are working. I can set peer and self assessments designed to engage students with the task and the work so that they are empowered to give themselves and each other relevant feedback. I can work with individuals and small tutorial groups to give targeted feedback. I constantly ask myself: Who is doing the mental work? It is the student who needs to be thinking and working to improve; my correcting errors ad nauseum is going to have little impact.

But feedback, written and otherwise, is emotional. Sometimes feedback can feel collaborative and inspiring and propulsive and nurturing (a thank you shout out to my co-authors on various projects, and some generous reviewers!). Sometimes it can feel brutal and visceral and dismissive and unforgiving. Sometimes it’s a warm embrace and sometimes it’s a swift kick in the guts.

The harshest feedback I’ve seen hasn’t been from the ink of a red pen, but from anonymous peer reviewers for academic journals. This Twitter account might give you an idea of the kinds of feedback some academics receive about their work. It cites reviewer comments like, “You have put in a lot of effort answering a question that should have never been asked” and “The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.”

We need to be ok with failure, as suggested by this post on self-esteem that a friend shared with me this week, and as I explain in this post, in which I share some harsh verbal feedback from one of my PhD supervisors. As I said in this post, receiving peer reviewed feedback can feel like simultaneously getting a high five and a punch in the face. One thing that doing a PhD, receiving feedback during the journal double-blind peer review process, and being a reviewer myself, have taught me, is that we need to train ourselves (and our students) to be resilient and interested receivers of feedback. By ‘interested’, I mean we need to be curious about what we might learn and open to listening to even that feedback which might hurt at first. If I find that a reviewer or colleague ‘just doesn’t get it’, I need to be able to take that as a sign that I could make my intention clearer.

As marketing consultant Jay Baer would say, when it comes to feedback we need to hug our haters. Or as a colleague of mine says, we learn most when we welcome complaints. It is through seeing our work through the eyes of others, and by being open to criticism, that we can figure out how to push our work forward, improve it incrementally, take it in a new direction, or defend it more vigorously.

The oasis of writing

Sometimes we need an immersion in a cooling, calming place of our choosing. That might involve turning off our devices, turning away from social media, turning towards what nourishes us. It might be sitting in silence, or playing music loud. It might be the catharsis of working with our hands, or the release of letting them rest. It might be solitude or connection, work or play, stillness or movement, mindful or mindless.

School is currently out in Western Australia, and while I am working, I have been taking time out across the break to bathe in oases of sorts. I’ve been on a brief holiday with my family, pottered around the house, seen friends and indulged in another haven of mine: academic writing.

Those of you who write for a living or are in the throes of a PhD (Oh, the unicorn-dancing-in-a-champagne-waterfall highs! Oh, the despairing bottom-of-the-dark-pit lows!) might roll your eyes or baulk at writing as an oasis. But after a term of working full-time in an exciting but challenging newly-formed role in a school, selling a house, buying a house, moving house, parenting my two lovely children, and trying to maintain relationships with family and friends, I was ready for a break from the relentlessness. From feeling like the mouse on the wheel, full of urgency and repetitive motion. Not only that, but both social media and real life have had their share of challenges lately. Academic writing has been a welcome and nurturing reprieve; simultaneously mental work and a mental break. Academic writing continues to be like my PhD, which I sometimes managed to think of as a holiday from all-the-other-things, or intellectual me-time, although without the weighty pressure or looming examination. Papers and chapters are more bite-size and more varied, and pleasingly always at different stages; just as one becomes difficult, another is coming together or being accepted.

Of course academic writing is not easy or necessarily enjoyable. With it comes challenge, struggle, sometimes brutal feedback. It helps that the acwri I’m doing at the moment is writing I want to do. I’m engaged, interested, motivated, intrigued. I’m learning, growing, pushing at the boundaries of what I know and can do. Academic writing allows me to extend myself in different ways to my school role.

Some of this writing is solo, but I’m also writing papers and chapters collaboratively, something still pretty new to me. Perhaps the collaboration is the coolest part because working with others takes me out of my usual groove, my usual ways of thinking and writing. It gets me engaging with others’ words and these spur my words on. Our words are like gifts from a science fiction world; they shapeshift and take on different lives as they are passed back and forth between authors.

This kind of writing and collaboration is somewhere for a writer to luxuriate. Nestle in. Be cocooned by the writing while at the same time deliciously confronted by it. I brace for feedback but at the same time allow myself to be vulnerable and to be shaped. To read unfamiliar theory, try alternate approaches, or to tinker with new ways of theorising, researching and writing. To have one or more other writers to generate and energise.

It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a welcome distraction from the daily rush of work during term time and the barrage of angry educators slinging accusations at one another on Twitter (thank goodness for my arguing on EduTwitter bingo card!). This holiday break I’ve worked on a solo-authored journal paper and a collaborative chapter so far. I’ve got one more collaborative chapter to look at over the next few days. I’m looking forward to it. Like a cup of tea at the end of the day after the kids have gone to bed, for my pracademic self, straddling as I do the worlds of school and academia, academic writing can be a moment of ‘aaaaaahhhh’, of indulgence, of me-time.

Writing productivity this Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo 2016

acwri at Melbourne airport

acwri at Melbourne airport

November isn’t just Movember and Dinovember. It’s also Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo), the time for academics to publicly shout their writing goals from social media soapboxes everywhere. Ironically, at the moment work is taking over all my working and spare hours and my academic writing pipeline is suffering from inertia as a result. I haven’t been able to make the time to acwri, despite making constant lists that include acwri targets (respond to revisions! write draft paper! scope out argument! complete literature review!).

For me, academic writing is both unpaid work and a labour of love. While I don’t need academic publications for the work I do in my school, I write journal and conference papers because a) I think my research and writing have something to offer, something to say, and b) I enjoy the writing, the writing-thinking, the off-shoots of ideas from my PhD thesis that I now get to play with, and opportunities for co-authorship.

This blog both gets in the way of my academic writing and helps with it. It takes time and discipline to blog (I try to blog at least once a week, usually on a Friday), but I find that blogging keeps my writing wheels oiled and turning, which flows over into my scholarly writing. By blogging weekly, I never feel out of writing practice, even during these times when my academic writing slows to a barely perceptible drip.

Despite my inertia of the last few weeks, I share below some of my own approaches to academic writing productivity. I could call this ‘5 tips for productive writing’, but I agree with Naomi Barnes that tips aren’t always helpful.

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Count more than you can count

I wrote last AcWriMo that successful writing is more than word counts. Sure, sometimes it’s motivating to hit a word count milestone. Every time I hit a 10,000 word number during my PhD felt like I was getting closer to somewhere, something, the end product.

If, like me, you write a lot and often too much, it can be satisfying to cull words, to watch the count go backwards. I cut 15,000 words from my PhD in the final editing stages. There’s joy in word cutting, too. Refining, pruning excess, making the writing better, stronger, clearer.

Sometimes it’s useful to use a Pomodoro timer or a bomb timer to give a sense of writing focus and urgency. I rarely use timers, but I often write to the time I have. One hour while the kids nap. Forty minutes between weekend commitments. Stolen moments before the family wakes. Having such little writing time means that I am highly absorbed when it comes. There’s no time to be distracted, dithery or unfocused. I prepare writing goals and materials for the times I map out, and when they arrive I write like a tropical cyclone.

Write where it works for you

I need quiet or a steady hum to write. Total silence works, but I can’t often get silence, or even solitude, at home, unless my husband takes our sons out.

A busy café with indiscernible noise also works for me. I love writing in cafes because a) I don’t feel alone as I‘m surrounded by people, b) I’m not distracted by domestic chores, c) there’s good coffee and d) it can make writing seem more pleasurable, like a holiday or an indulgence. I love the low hum of indistinguishable conversation as the soundtrack to writing.

I even considered acknowledging some of my favourite writing cafes in m PhD acknowledgments. The owners and baristas recognised me. I was the polite woman who would sit alone, drinking two coffees over two hours, tapping away at my keyboard or shuffling through annotated drafts. Quarantining myself in a public space for a specific block of time allowed and motivated me to just write.

Write when it works for you

Know your most productive times. I am at my best between 7am and 11am. This is when I zing with energy, ideas and the kind of focus that means that words and solutions come easily.

I am at my productivity worst from about 3pm to 6pm, during which I usually have the least physical and mental energy. Then I have a strange energetic renaissance between 8pm and 10pm, which are often the hours that I blog. Yet, sometimes in the evening I am too tired for anything but the most menial tasks: calendar entries, checking references, basic admin. I’ve learned that it’s better to close the laptop rather than stare uselessly in a kind of slo-mo catatonia.

To write my PhD, I had to leverage my best writing times and avoid my worst ones. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending time writing and not getting anywhere.

Use the in-between times

The shower, sleep, a walk, standing at the checkout, taking children to the park. These are all opportunities for cogitation and idea percolation. I often find, especially if I know I’ll be racing between commitments, I will deliberately plant a writing problem in my mind by thinking deeply on it for a time, and then let go of it, knowing that my brain will somehow continue to chip away at it while I do other things. Sometimes I revisit the problem mindfully, and sometimes a solution or idea will bubble up, unsolicited. Our writing solutions and growth often happen while we aren’t watching.

Work with others

I am new to co-authorship, but am finding that the writing relationships I am now nurturing push me beyond the kind of thinking I do on my own. I’m exploring new theorists and fresh methods. Collaborative writing can grow us beyond our writing selves.

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Despite my inactivity thus far this #AcWriMo, I appreciate the social media reminders of the importance of academic writing, and of making time and space for it. This is true even for someone like me who is on the academia outer, an adjunct and a practitioner in another field.

I can give myself permission to ride the ebbs and flows of work, writing, parenting and being a friend/spouse/daughter/sister/colleague. For now I will keep scribbling my acwri lists, keep revisiting my acwri goals, keep putting my eye to my acwri pipeline. I’ll get it moving again soon.

The gift of failure

surf fail from redbull.com

couch surfing fail from redbull.com

This blog post is a bit of a sequel to last Friday’s blog about the influence my teachers have had on my educator self. It’s a continuation of the reflections about what kinds of life-wide experiences have shaped me professionally. Telling my own story is related to this paper in which I wrote that those things that affect our professional educator identities are collaborative and individual; occurring in life, school, and work; and requiring elements of support and challenge. Personal life experiences, as well as professional experiences, shape educators’ beliefs and practices.

I’ve alluded to some of my wobbly moments when I talked about embracing my discomfort zone, learning that I grow most in times of challenge. But I’m often not always up front about those times. I usually prefer to paint my own narrative with a rosy hue. I tend not to focus too much on failure, but rather on areas of celebration and of improvement. I don’t enjoy lingering too long on soul-crushing defeat, although I am comfortable learning from missteps. Below, however, I provide a glimpse into my long and ordinary history of failure and disappointment, and how that has shaped me.

My childhood of course consisted of experiences in which I was not successful.  The Mathematics classroom and the sporting field were arenas in which I learned what it felt like to be a failure. I distinctly remember a moment in primary school when I asked my mum to keep me home from school on Sports Carnival day so I could avoid having my lack of athleticism paraded for everyone to see. I was thinking of the events in which I would have to compete, against children at least a year older than me, and in which I would ultimately lose. I distinctly remember her answer, which has stuck with me: “You are good at school every day. You get to be the person who enjoys success in class and feels good about herself. Today is the day for other students to have success and feel good about themselves.” I’m pretty sure her response was along the lines of, “Today is the day you get to be crap at something; now go and be crap at it,” and the insinuation that this was somehow valuable for me. Of course my primary school self was mainly upset that I had to have a day of feeling sub-par and coming last, but even at that age it allowed me to feel grateful that I only had to feel that occasionally. What about the students who felt like failures every day in every lesson, for whom school was a place of constant embarrassment and not being good enough?

This experience shaped my teacher identity. I try to remember in my teaching (especially as my subject is a compulsory one), that many of my students may not be enthusiastic about the subject or good at the subject; they may come with preconceived negative emotions, reactions, and expectations. They may have been imprinted with years of feeling failure in English, feeling exposed when asked to read aloud or feeling alarmed and distressed by corrections on their written work. How, I ask myself, do I engage and ‘get’ those students for whom being in an English classroom is a challenge or makes them feel like a failure, an idiot or a fish out of water? How can I make the experience of my classroom a more positive one? How can I make them feel understood and confident?

Much later, I was shaped by my experiences of failure in my PhD. I have described before the pits of PhDespair. I remember the moment when one of my supervisors said to me about a draft chapter, “When I read your research proposal, I thought you were a really good writer (pause for effect) and then I read this.” My supervisors told me that I needed to make the argument of the chapter clearer. This advice bemused and frustrated me. As a teacher of English and Literature, and someone who has ghost-written, copy-written, and creative-written in various contexts, I felt like I was now the remedial student in class who could not comprehend what was expected of her, or what good (academic) writing looked like. At these meetings I would nod, and afterwards I would go home, still confused. (It felt a lot like when my dad would help me with my Maths homework; eventually I would nod and say I got it, but I remained confused about how to achieve success.) I repeatedly went between my notes from my meeting with my supervisors and my draft chapter, trying to find a way to action advice that I did not fully understand. What would it look like if I was a critical reader and a clear academic writer? Clearly not what it looked like at that point in time. The proverbial sweat and tears on those early pages was intense and immense. I struggled, grappled, tried, yearned to ‘do it right,’ to understand what doing it right looked like, and still felt as though I was poking around in the dark with a flaccid stick, blind and impotent.

This experience was uncomfortable, squirmy, and difficult.  And it was in that space in which I started to make incremental changes, small steps towards understanding, towards ‘doing good research’ and ‘doing good academic writing.’ It is that space in which I which I was growing, transforming and learning. 

Meanwhile, that same week I provided my English classes with exemplars of good answers and worked through what it looked like to have written a piece which clearly addressed the criteria. While providing models is a part of my normal teaching practice, it certainly came to the fore while I was searching for it for my own writing.

As time has gone on, I have found that place of struggle less dark and more invigorating, because I’ve grown to see it as a place of breakthrough, rather than a place of breakdown. Peer review continues to be a place of growth for me. As I said in this post, receiving reviews often feels like simultaneously receiving a high five and a punch in the face.

We all fail at some things, some times. Some of us fail more than others. We hear terms like ‘growth mindset’ (which has been almost decoupled from Dweck’s research in some  buzzword-happy arenas) and phrases like ‘FAIL = first attempt in learning’ and ‘fail fast, fail often.’ But failure is not a catchy slogan or a viral meme. It is a deeply felt experience that shapes us. 

The more I fail, the more I’m able to see failure as an opportunity, rather than a slight. Failure and disappointment are inescapable parts of being a human. From childhood we develop strategies to sit with the emotion (disappointment! despair! anger! anguish! incredulity! imposter syndrome!) before, hopefully, rationally moving past the emotional to a place where we can be logical and take positive action. We have choices in how we respond to success and failure. We can develop ways to approach those moments in our lives. Acknowledging failure as a part of our cycles of being, doing and feeling means that we can face it, sit with it, and see what gifts it might offer us.

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts. ~ Richard Bach