How to Write a Lot (Even at a SLAC)
I’m arguing for a revolution.
But first, a bit of backstory.
Last week a group of our faculty gathered over some dinner (and delicious pastries) for our Fall Faculty Learning Community. We discussed Paul Silvia’s slim tome How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Academic Writing.
Recommendations from the Book
Silvia’s recommendations all center around the idea that the only hack you need to get more writing in your life is to schedule regular times in your weekly schedule to do so, and to then ruthlessly defend those writing times.
He proposes every objection you might have to this thesis and one by one knocks them all down.
Do you feel the need to wait to “find” time to write, perhaps winter break or summer break or spring break, and then engage in what he calls binge writing, and then always ends those breaks lamenting about how little you got done? You don’t look for time to teach or do service or eat meals – writing is an instrumental part of your job as an academic, and you need to treat it like a necessity, not a luxury. You need to create and then defend time in your schedule to do it.
Do you tell yourself you need to wait until you feel inspired to write? Silvia presents data to illustrate that in contrast to intuition, people feel most inspired to write when they have regular times for writing in their schedule.
Do you eternally feel like you need to read a few more articles or do a few more analyses before you can get started writing? No sweat, Silvia argues, just do these things during your writing blocks. Anything that progresses your writing counts.
He doesn’t shy away from some tough love. “If you don’t plan to make a schedule,” he writes, “gently close this book, clean it so it looks brand new, and give it as a gift to a friend who wants to be a better writer.”
An Illuminating Discussion
In the discussion of Silvia’s ideas and whether or not they fit with our particular teaching and service load, I shared with my table that Silvia’s ideas are all echoed by Stephen King in his wonderful book On Writing. I told my tablemates that since (re)reading Silvia’s book I had made the sign below for my office door.
Reactions were mixed. Several faculty members wanted me to share the sign. Others seemed uneasy with the idea of a closed door.
Associate Professor Lisa D’Souza shared that when she began working at Assumption College, Nanho Vander Hart (who happened to be sitting next to her) was chair of the education department and their offices were next to each other. “I learned about the culture here from Nanho,” Lisa said, “She is on campus every single day and her office door is never shut. She is always available to faculty and students, and I tried to emulate that right from the start.”
Others at my table seemed similarly uncomfortable with the idea of closing doors on colleagues and students.
I pushed back. If we are hired to accomplish a balanced trifecta of teaching, scholarship, and service, how can we accomplish that if we don’t carve time out for scholarship? Moreover, doesn’t our scholarship directly enrich our teaching? And doesn’t being scholars in our field enhance the reputation of the college, thus also enhancing our service to the college?
Last spring our Learning Community focused on Discussion in the College Classroom by Jay Howard. He is a sociologist who studies social norms in the classroom that govern how willing students are to participate in discussions. Social norms in academic settings have thus been on my mind.
I realized that what I was pushing back against was a college-specific social norm that centered around endlessly prioritizing teaching and service over scholarship. Which of course is part of what makes our college extraordinary – the love and care all of our faculty bring to our students and to our college’s endeavors. This norm is also part of the special appeal of small liberal arts colleges in general — both for those of us who love teaching, and of course for parents and students looking for that particular flavor of higher-ed.
I would never argue that this deeply held value should change.
But what I would argue is for more moderation in our approach to the trifecta of demands upon us. I argue that prioritizing scholarship helps our students and our college as well as our own careers. That we are allowed to shut our doors to read and to think and to write. That we deserve that time to remember what first drew us to a life of the mind.
A Call to Revolution
In the larger group discussion, I shared these thoughts and wondered aloud whether we could change these norms surrounding the importance of writing and scholarship, to start a small intellectual revolution. Several faculty members seemed to warm to the idea of a collective change of our norms. One attendee suggested that we could advocate that the master schedules we all fill out include blocks for writing and scholarship as well as for teaching and office hours. Another mentioned keeping writing blocks in mind when requesting teaching times in the spring, intentionally setting class schedules so that the hours when his mind is the freshest for writing aren’t taken up by classes or office hours.
People who felt they would still feel uncomfortable with closed office doors discussed the possibility of writing from home or in coffee shops.
Everyone seemed a bit energized and excited about encouraging each other’s scholarship.
And the Revolution Will Be Social
At the end of the discussion, most of the attendees met with smaller groups interested in leveraging the power of accountability, deadlines, and social support to encourage their writing efforts. We facilitated organization of three types of writing groups: one in which groups meet biweekly to share deadlines and goals and progress, one in which groups join each other for side-by-side silent writing, and one in which groups share and provide feedback on actual drafts.
Local folks, keep your eyes peeled for an email from us about the side-by-side silent writing – we’ll provide the schedule and the space in the CTE conference rooms, and you can drop in whenever you like to do some writing with colleagues.
We’ll even shut the door for you.