On writing

The wonderful Kate Bowles wrote a blog post last week that has had that marvellous ripple effect both twitter and blogs (see here and here).  Kate express so many of the frustrations around writing that many academics face. Academics have to write all the time, but what we have to write, is often not what we want to write.  This is particularly true the further up “the chain” you get.  The post is also a writing call to arms where Kate openly shares her plans to reinvigorate her writing over her next academic semester.

I’ve been trying to write a response to Kate’s post and the responses it generated, for about a week now. As so often, life, the rain, and a myriad of other excuses meant that it hasn’t happened until today. That time delay has made me reflect a bit more on my own writing process. So this post is going to be quite different to the post I had in my head last week. The pithy little phrases that were running around my head have now disappeared. What follows is about my writing process, where and how I get and loose my motivations to write.

Up until a few months ago, when I was in full time employment, I had to carve out my writing time. I didn’t have a budget line for writing as Maren alludes to. In fact writing my blog during official office hours was probably my own little bit of rebellion in that I knew it was a really important part of my own CPD even if it wasn’t formally recognised. And when I say “my writing” I mean the writing I wanted to do – primarily my blog and most of last year a book. I was doing a lot of other writing, but it was mainly the kind to bullshit writing Kate described in her post.

I have no illusions about my writing. I’m not a great writer by any stretch of the imagination. Unlike Martin, I’ve never had literary ambitions, but over the past 14 years I have been writing consistently on my blog. The freedom of writing in a blog has given me has, on reflection, not only made me a better writer but it has been an integral and central part of my evolving sense of agency.  

I don’t really like formal academic writing, I can do it, but I find it quite stressful and so not that enjoyable. It’s a different kind of “have to write” from writing bs strategy documents, with its own set of values and recognition. Blogging gives me a sense of freedom from those stresses.  

One of the great things about blogging is its immediacy. Sometimes the urgency to write something is just  there and something just needs to get out. With a blog you can do that. No need to use a formal academic writing style, no waiting for reviewers comments, no waiting for editorial decisions you just write and hit publish.

Over the past couple of years I have struggled to write when the world seems to hitting new levels of craziness everyday.  I felt I was loosing that sense of urgency, that sense of having anything of value to say. Weekly posts became bi-weekly sometimes monthly, the list of draft posts became longer.

But the craving (habits take a long time to die) was , and still is there. That feeling of needing to write, to sort out my thoughts, to maybe get a comment from someone like Kate (who always sees more in my writing that I can) was always at the back of my mind. 

Now I’m working part time, I don’t have the stresses of institutionally focused writing – hurrah. But I do still relate to the need to use certain language. I still have to write reports, proposals etc so I need to “talk the business talk”.  But that is more balanced now as  I am making more time to express myself in different ways. 

My blog is still  a really important part of my professional identity, so I want to keep the writing habit going.  My notions of work time are changing, my practice is changing. I am one step removed from everyday institutional practice, from the all consuming institutional ‘have to write” scenarios.  In one way that should, and does make writing slightly easier. On the other hand my sense of focus is different so I am having to adapt to that.  But that’s part of the joy of writing, finding a way to do just that.  

As any writer knows, the biggest part of writing is actually reading. Reading what others are doing, what, why and how they are sharing is invaluable.

As Kate’s original post and her recent post this week, showed, reading other peoples writing can so often provide that sense of personal urgency (and agency) to write something yourself.  In these troubled times, I hold dear the acts of kindness other peoples writing provide. Pieces like this article on a pedagogy of kindness by Catherine Denial which I spotted last week.

Sharing these written acts of kindness, commenting if you can (also one way to do a little bit of writing) really does help to keep us all a little bit saner in this crazy, crazy world.  

Reconnecting with virtually connecting at #digped

Community – being part of, how to be part of, why not to be part of, how to support, how to sustain. Community, it’s at the heart of everything I do, particularly in a professional context. 

Last week I reconnected with  the Virtually Connecting community,  one of my favourites, but one I have kind of slipped away from over the past year. I joined a couple of the sessions from this years Digital Pedagogy Lab. A community I feel connected to but don’t really feel a “proper” part of as I have never been to one of the physical events. I see myself more of an interested observer. But more on that later.

I’m always in awe of the core Virtually Connecting team and how this community has grown and sustained itself to allow access for so many to conferences and events that they can’t make it to person.   If you haven’t joined any sessions I would thoroughly recommend trying one.  

I have written before about my own mis-understanding of virtually connecting. At first, I just presumed it was only for PhD students. I think I got this impression as the people I knew taking part seemed to all be doing PhDs or involved in funded, active research projects. So, for a while I really just excluded myself as that didn’t apply to me.  However once I found out that wasn’t the case, I as they say “got with the programme” and have been a virtual guest and an occasional onsite buddy.   It was great to be back last week. I have now updated my notification settings on the slack channel, and will more active in this community again.

Digital pedagogy lab is kind of a mythical place for me. One where all the “cool” North American people I follow on twitter congregate, and talk about all the really interesting “stuff” in education.  The sense of community from the onsite folks I felt was even more heightened this year.  Robin de Rosa’s keynote at the end of the week covered many aspects of community- too much to cover here so just watch it.  I loved the way she wove in so many constructs of community and some of the dangers that the marketization of notions of community are bringing to education.

The first keynote from Ruha Benjamin clearly had a profound impact on the participants. After watching it I can see why.  Make the time to watch it.   There was a community element running through this too, though the main focus was on the sociological development of technology, questioning the “norms” of technological innovation.  Ruha highlighted how we are forced to live inside someone else’s imagination. More and more their vision turns technological developments into “misery for some, monopoly for others”.

There is a need for increased criticality around technological developments that question the implicit norms of design. That are designed with a stereotypical, white, (probably male), global north bias, which reinforce inequalities through a veneer of increased productivity and lower cost.  

Listening to Ruha’s talk I was once again reminded of how privileged I am and how I need to ensure that I keep pushing the boundaries of that privilege, to try wherever possible to ensure that I am not allowing implicit norms to continue. 

Digital pedagogy lab is the perfect place to discuss these issues. From what I saw and heard at the VC session I participated in, and some to the twitter activity, there was a real sense of critical engagement with these issues. But when everyone from the face to face gets back home, how much of a difference can they really make?

Robin’s keynote, it was interwoven with stories from people about their experiences of not being valued within their direct institutional community. Robin started by sharing her own experiences. So many of the stories resonated with me.  One of the reasons I gave up my job ( a good Senior Lecturer post)  was that ever present presence of being undervalued.  That’s one of the reasons external communities are so important, they really do give strength and support when it’s not readily available from within your institution. They so often give you the energy to keep going. They give you questions to ask of yourself and your community. 

I’m not going to dwell to much on the some of the other parts of Robin’s keynote about outsourcing  as I am how consultant. Well, I’ve got to fund my impoverished artist lifestyle somehow.  Just to say I am a consultant who is all about care and understanding, not about revenue, or undermining of institutional knowledge, experience and skills. I hope what I do augments, not replaces anything that could be done in-house.

My professional life has taken a dramatic change this year and I am still adjusting to my new working life.  I have disengaged from some communities to an extent. I don’t have the same urgency for external support. However, for my own relevance (and sanity as much as anything) I do still need to be part of many communities.  I’m just going through a process of readjustment. Ironically I think it will be much easier for me to actually attend the UK Digital Pedagogy Lab next year than it would have been if I was still in my old job.

So, as ever, this has ended up being a bit of a rambling post, but thank you to everyone in all the communities I interact with. You all make a huge contribution to my life. Together we can make a difference.