In the 21st Century with higher education budgets shrinking from state legislatures, and small liberal arts colleges going bankrupt, it’s a stressful time to be a professor. The standards seem to keep rising for getting a job, getting tenured and promoted. Yet, for many of us, this is the life we want. The freedom to teach and write about what you care about, is really a great way to make a living, even a privilege. The academy is also one of the few places left in American society where some professors, certainly not all, have the possibility for job protection known as tenure.
Once you clear the first hurdle, and get a job as a tenure-track professor, you can take a deep breath. And then get ready, set, and prepare for the next hurdle. Your first task is to assess your situation. Just what are the requirements to get tenure? Be sure to do your homework. Look at the vitae’ of those recently tenured. Interview your colleagues and the Chair. In most 4 year colleges and universities, you will be expected to write as well as teach and contribute to the campus community. The question is what percentage of your evaluation is based on teaching, what on service, and what on publications. Pay attention to the local norms, and organize your career strategy accordingly. If you, like most professors, have to do research and write, at least to some extent, how do you juggle all these tasks? Teaching and service work create immediate demands on your time, and you face immediate sanctions if you do not show up to your classes or your committee meetings. The consequences for not writing are not immediate, so it’s easier to procrastinate. But think about your undergraduate students. Do those who write their papers the week they are due get a good grade? Of course not. Nor will you be promoted if you put off your writing day after day.
An alternative to procrastination is to celebrate your identity as a writer. After all, whatever research you do is only intellectual self-stimulation until you’ve made the effort to communicate your results or ideas to others, until you write them down. In graduate school, most of us develop our identities as researchers, and teachers. But if we are to be successful as academics, we need to own our identities as writers. Writing is not just an add on, the way you share your findings. Writing is not just something you do, a writer is something you must become.
Repeat after me, you are a writer. You are a writer. Writer’s write. They write because they have something to share with the rest of the world. They have a contribution to make. You have a contribution to make. If you are not convinced this is so, you may be in the wrong job. If you love to teach, and really have nothing to write, find a job that rewards you for being a great teacher. But if you have a contribution to make, you must organize your life so that you can give that gift to the world. Your writing is important beyond your ability to stay employed. What you have to say matters. An important first step to success is to find other writers to meet with regularly. You don’t have to be in the same field, but being at the same career stage is a good idea. Tell each other what you intend to do, and how, each week. And then report back. Don’t be ashamed if you fail to meet your goals, use this accountability team to figure out why, re-group and try again next week.
The most often cited research shows that most people are more productive if they write every day. If you write just 45 minutes a day, you will have written for nearly five hours that week, even if you skip a day. Try that, since evidence suggests it works for most people. See if it works for you. I’ll tell you a secret, it doesn’t work for me. I simply can’t clear my mind enough to write on days when I’m teaching a three hour seminar. Nor can I clear the headspace on days I have long committee meetings. I just can’t. So I don’t try. What do I do instead? At least once a year I go away, by myself or with another writer (not my husband!). I go away for a writing week. Sometimes I rent a cabin, without internet, in the mountains in Colorado. One year I went to write in the tiny cabin of a sailboat off season. I’ve also gone to professional writing retreats. I so believe in the effectiveness of a yearly retreat, that I now hold one for academic writers a few times a year. A once a year retreat may boost your writing but it won’t get you tenure. You have to find a regular writing practice that works for you. If you can’t work on days you teach, or perhaps on days you meet with your collaborators, then stack your work by the day. I can do research related tasks, read an article, find some citations or run an analysis between meetings. That counts towards your 45 minutes a day of writing, and might be easier for you than actually typing words on a screen. I cannot write or even seriously revise unless I have quiet and a block of time. So I keep one full day a week for nothing but writing. I find I am productive writing in my home office one full day a week, with no distractions. Don’t try this, of course, if you have children at home. Or if you are the kind of person who can’t write at home until the dishes are done and the beds made. You need to find a pattern that works for you. But if you are to be a productive publishing scholar, you must find a writing practice that you can follow.
Repeat after me. You are a writer. A writer writes. You need to find a writing style that works for you. I recommend once a year to find a way to hide out from your other responsibilities, perhaps borrow a friend’s cabin in the woods off-season, or go to a writing retreat with the benefit of a writing coach and accountability group. Even more important, however, is to plan a weekly schedule that you follow religiously. Block out your writing time, whether it’s on a daily or weekly schedule, and make that time sacred. Find a few colleagues to share your weekly goals with, whether at a local coffee shop or a Skype call, and hold each other accountable for adhering to your writing schedule. You are a writer. A writer writes and publishes their work to make a contribution to the world. Your work is important and if you do not write no one will ever have the benefit or your wisdom. You are a writer, and one lucky enough to have a job that pays you to share your contributions with the world. Looking forward to reading what you have to say.
Professor Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is known for both her academic writing, including her latest book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us and for writing for a public audience including editorial in the Seattle Times, CNN.com and Raleigh News & Observer. She has taught writing classes to graduate students at UIC and to graduate students and faculty at universities throughout Europe. She also hosts writing retreats bi-annually and can be reached at RismansWritingRetreats@gmail.com or http://www.barbararisman.com/rismans-writing-retreats.html