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.

On cognitive load

I’ve been thinking recently about cognitive load theory (CLT), a theory founded by John Sweller in the 1980s. Bear with me. I’m not intending to use seductive sounding terms like ‘cognitive architecture’; or to suggest that I am an expert on CLT; or to delve into discussions about intrinsic, extraneous and germane cognitive load; or to articulate the problems with self-ratings of perceived mental effort. This is more of a loose layperson’s pondering around the effects of the influence of new information on working memory.

CLT posits that human working memory cannot process many new elements at any one time. A couple of weeks ago I moved house and the resulting chaos had me realising the effects of putting a heavy load of novel information onto the working memory. Despite the mundanity of the challenges of moving into a new home (whitegoods don’t fit, furniture doesn’t work spatially, boxes crowd in threateningly, kids don’t sleep well, the house makes strange noises), in the first week at our new place I left my yoga clothes at home once and left my phone at home twice. I was constantly struggling to remember where I had to look to find plates, cling film, toiletries, members of my family. I had no sense of routine or stability.

For me, the mental work of existing somewhere new, without the automaticity that comes with entrenched habit (or, as cognitive load theorists might call it, cognitive schemata in my long term memory) was immense and intense. I felt that I was living in a fog, and existing at about 40% of my usual capacity. The simplest of tasks were arduous, time consuming, and took what seemed like excessive cognitive effort. My husband asked me what was wrong with me; I knew that the relocation had taken my working memory beyond its capacity to cope. I was moving as through wet concrete. I felt displaced.

Now, learning a new house isn’t the same as learning new, complex, domain-specific skills (although I could talk long and hard about the gurgling of the fishpond interrupting sleep, the mental effort required to drive in the right direction home from work, and the impossibility of finding a sensible place for everything in a new kitchen). No doubt there were aspects of my experience that were environmental and affective as well as cognitive. Yet, the disorder and discombobulation I felt in my first week in my new house were a stark reminder of what students might feel when confronted with new content in a classroom with which they are not yet familiar, or with a skill that they might approach without the appropriate embedded prior knowledge and automation required to succeed.

As Greg Thompson has recently blogged (channeling Derrida’s student Bernard Stiegler), writing (like this blog post) can construct a mental prosthesis, a kind of corporeal residue of an experience that, left to the memory, would fade in intensity over time. Unlike Greg in his story of being concussed in Banff, I will have no physical remnants of moving house, nor any of the entertainment value of the story. No doubt soon the uneasiness will fade into that vague unnoticed feeling of being at home in instinctive motion.

In this post on the doctorate I reflect that:

Once we have learned something, we cannot always remember what it was like to not know it, making it difficult to teach or help someone. By (b)logging my writing memories as they happen, perhaps I can archive my not-so-good-at-academic-writing self. Reflecting-on-writing by writing-about-writing – in a kind of meta-writing – helps me to document my academic writing journey. … blogging helps me to have a Hansel-and-Gretel breadcrumb trail back to my less capable self.

As someone becomes more expert, they often ‘black box’ their expertise, as Pamela Hinds explains in her 1999 paper ‘The Curse of Expertise’. Experts are unable to accurately predict the time and difficulty novices need to complete a task. Intermediate learners, Hinds finds, are more helpful for novices as they still remember and understand the problems of being a beginner. This is something I wonder about in terms of academia as well as teaching. Do doctoral supervisors ‘black box’ the PhD or EdD experience? Are they able to break down the steps of the doctorate for their students, or are veteran professors too far removed from the struggle and journey of the neophyte researcher? In a classroom, do teachers expert in their subjects have the capacities to break down the content and skills into accessible enough elements for struggling learners? Can an expert coach can break down the steps of coaching once they have internalised the philosophies, knowledge, and processes? Once the work of the mind is internalised and automated, much mindfulness and precision are needed if we are to teach others. Expertise may be a curse, but my house move has reminded me of the curse of the beginner. I yearn for repetitious automation.

So, as I use the daily practice of living in my new house as a way to build a long term memory schema, I am beginning to relax. Nothing yet feels automatic or fluid—and I still feel the newness and unfamiliarity of my surroundings—but I know that at some point I will forget the uneasy, cognitively prickly effort that came with moving house. I’ll happily float through the new place on auto-pilot, even in the dark of night or the first sleepy moments of the morning.

Why selling a house is like finishing a doctorate

Sold! Now what?

Sold! Now what?

This week my husband and I sold our house and bought another one, so it’s been a week filled with terrifying leaps of faith, trembling uncertainty, and dizzying highs that have involved actual whooping and jumping up and down. During this selling-buying-a-home experience, I was viscerally reminded of what it feels like at the end stages of a PhD.

Firstly, no matter how much work you have put in to getting your home ready for sale (or getting your PhD ready for examination), you don’t know how it’s going to go in the marketplace (or examiners’ eyes). There’s nail-biting insecurity that you won’t get the result you want. The waiting is insomnia-inducing. What if there is a low offer or no offer (a major revisions or a revise and resubmit)?

Secondly, there is no clear ending to the process, and no clear-cut moment to celebrate. We put our house on the market in January, like submitting a PhD to examiners, and then we have waited for results to come in. On Sunday night we received an offer, but it didn’t seem time to open the champagne. Nor did it the next night when we accepted that offer. Yes, we had sold our house, but celebrating the possibility of being without a home for our family didn’t seem appropriate. We put an offer on another house, but until it was accepted we didn’t feel we could celebrate. Even then (and we did celebrate) we are still faced with small milestones to complete and dominoes to fall, before we know that both sales are unconditional (finance, inspections, settlement).

Similarly, the end of the PhD seems to go on and on. There’s thesis submission. There’s the waiting game for examiners’ reports. Often, there’re the revisions. There is acceptance of those corrections and conferral of the degree and the title of ‘Doctor’ (which for me, was marked by having just presented at the AERA conference in DC). The printing of the bound PhD thesis that will luxuriate on the library shelf. The rollercoaster of completion emotions. There is graduation. Then there’s the first aeroplane boarding pass with ‘Dr’ on it, and the first post-graduation event when you get to wear the floppy hat and doctoral robes. There’s even the identity tussle as you come to terms with your doctorness, just as I’m sure my husband and I will need to transition from our current home, which we love and in which we have raised two young boys, to a new home which offers up the stage for the next chapter in our story.

It was interesting for me to note the way that an unrelated life event could bring my memories of the tail end of my PhD rushing back so vividly. Perhaps some of life’s most rewarding experiences are those which test our mental toughness, give us sleepless nights, and which don’t have clear cut endings.

Cartoons to communicate science? #scicomm

With the knowledge of science we can solve resource limitations, cure diseases, and make society work happily–but only if people can figure out what in the world scientists are talking about and why they should care. ~ Randy Olson, Don’t be such a scientist

In 2015 the Oxford Dictionary word of the year was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji. This year I have seen PhD researchers communicate their theses via emoji on Twitter. Today Emerald Publishing and the Journal of Professional Capital and Community released the following cartoon abstract of my peer-reviewed paper ‘Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders’. The paper itself, which has so far been downloaded over 4000 times, is open access, and I have also blogged about it.

What do you think of the notion of a cartoon or graphical abstract of a research paper? Is this a way forward for science communication? Can we use visual language to make research more accessible and more widely read? Could you or would you be open to designing a cartoon strip or graphic-novel-style summary of your research?

designed by Emerald and posted here on JPCC website: http://jpccjournal.com/teacher.htm

designed by Emerald and posted on the JPCC website

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

Reflecting on my PhD graduation ceremony

my Tudor bonnet and graduation shoes

my Tudor bonnet and graduation shoes

My Tudor bonnet brings all the cred to the yard

At my PhD I worked so hard

Wherever I lay my hat that’s my home

Its soft black velvet quells imposter syndrome

The PhD is seemingly never ending. Its end is emotional. Completion and post-PhDness is identity-bendingly confusing. And in Australia, with no viva or oral defense, there’s no clear end to the PhD. No full stop. Certainly no celebratory exclamation mark. I’ve reflected that my PhD ended with a whimper, not a bang.

So, while I have tended to avoid graduation in the past (only thus far attending my Grad. Dip. Ed. ceremony because my mum was graduating from her PhD that same night), the messiness of post-PhD identity wrangling, combined with an inner desire for a rite of passage or moment of celebration, drew me to attending my PhD graduation ceremony. While I have enjoyed some other milestones – submitting the finished thesis, having thesis amendments signed off, having the published thesis book in my hands, being conferred with the doctorate and getting the doctor title – a university graduation ceremony seemed to offer the acknowledgement and closure I felt I was missing. It was the last PhD milestone. The final carved stone obelisk at the end of one road and the beginning of another.

How I felt attending my graduation ceremony, 5 months after conferment of my degree

how I felt attending my graduation ceremony (5 months after conferment of my degree)

Graduation didn’t disappoint.

It was a great reason to design and purchase some graduation shoes, but also to procure a Tudor bonnet, age-old symbol of the doctorate. With its stiff round brim, silken tassels and floppy (impossibly-soft!) velvet top, this hat is at once unflattering, medievally ridiculous, and a long-standing symbol of scholarship. The red satin facings on the front and sleeves of the academic gown (which is burgundy at my university), and the accompanying Cambridge hood, represent the doctoral degree. Altogether it is quite the ensemble.

It was a lovely ceremony that allowed PhD graduates to feel acknowledged and respected for their achievements. We processed in past the seated audience, leading in the academic faculty procession, and were the first of the night to receive our degrees. Each of us was introduced, with our name and a blurb about our thesis (its title and description), at which point we walked across the stage to be personally congratulated by the Chancellor and to receive our degree. We were then invited up onto the stage to sit behind the Chancellor, professors and other academic faculty, a gesture welcoming doctoral graduates into the community of scholars.

Graduation was a wonderful opportunity to bring together some of the people who had been supportive during the PhD. It was an excuse to share this ritualistic formality with family and friends. As PhD graduates, we and our guests had VIP tickets that allowed us to mix with other PhDs, their families, their supervisors (including mine; I’m her 24th PhD completion), the faculty and distinguished guests, in a private room beforehand. There were more drinks and refreshments following the ceremony.

I can highly recommend attending your PhD graduation. After a journey that is often isolating, long and difficult, without a clear end, the ceremony was special, memorable and about coming together with your favourite people (and an applauding auditorium).

I now feel more able to rock those robes, not just with a saucy dash of red lipstick, but in terms of owning the achievement and assuming-subsuming-becoming the doctoral identity. I’m more ready to continue to move on from the PhD into The Next, The Beyond and The As-Yet-Unimagined-Faraway.

#graduationselfie #rockyourrobes

#graduationselfie #rockyourrobes #lovemybonnet