Friday, June 29th 2012

Make Yourself Accountable

A notebook full of writing with a pen resting on top of it.

I wrote this blog post in longhand before typing it. It's nice to shake things up sometimes. Image by tonyhall via Flickr Creative Commons.

My greatest insecurity as an assistant professor is scientific writing and publishing. My training and abilities were already somewhat strong in teaching and mentoring, as well as planning, conducting and analyzing research. Something about that last step from conference presentation or analysis to paper terrifies me, though. While I can identify the various experiences that led to this, it seemed to me the problem wasn’t going to go away with therapy, but action, because for me action itself is a kind of therapy. I find it useful to freewrite, to use my writing as its own kind of inquiry, and that’s from where my comfort with bad first drafts arises. The point where I get stuck tends to be downstream of when I first put that pen, or cursor, to page.

In this job, I found I could avoid writing very easily. I took on teaching and service obligations that I considered important, yet really had no business doing as a junior faculty member. I started a blog (ahem), thinking writing for a different audience would help me get over writing to my peers (it has and hasn’t, a post for another day). I mentored the crap out of a slew of undergraduates. And somehow each day would pass and the writing wouldn’t get done.

The two things that have worked are mentoring and accountability.

A week ago, my husband and I attended a STEM writing retreat. It was largely unstructured writing time while the kiddo attended a science camp, so we had no choice but to approach the retreat as a team if we were to get anything done. We’d discuss our goals for the day at breakfast, reassess at lunch, and at night once the kiddo was down we’d share our writing, usually just a few paragraphs or pages. We’ve only recently gotten back into reading each other’s work, out of desperation more than anything else. And I have to say, it’s been a real pleasure getting reacquainted with my husband’s work (and I like to think he has enjoyed mine). I think we have both gotten better at writing for a broader audience, which is why this trade is working again.

With dual NSF CAREER deadlines approaching, we are still checking in with each other post-retreat. Yet if we were only reading each other’s work it would be accountability without direction.

Enter the two other means of accountability I have – an NSF writing group, and the vicious pen of the Bastard Colleague from Hell (BCH, and yes, that’s what he prefers to be called). Every week or so I meet with a few other social scientists and one of our illustrious Vice Chancellors for Research, here at the University of Illinois. We discuss our projects and exchange a few pages of writing, then get down to business. I appreciate the candid questions my colleagues pose, as much as I fear every time they find one of the problems I was hoping no reader would catch. Then I patch it up, send my work to the BCH, and he tells me I’m Doing It Wrong. Then I start over yet again.

Where the writing exchange with my husband is more about the accessibility of the writing and how well we convey our ideas, the BCH and writing group criticism is all about the science. Their questions and the way they push me are very challenging. I am glad to have this kind of peer and senior mentoring.

Between my husband, BCH and the writing group, four full years into this job, I finally have most of the accountability and mentoring I need. The skills I need to develop relate to how I promote my science to my peers, and how I pitch my study design. The assistance I’m getting helps me inch my way towards my goals. (Ah, and goal setting. I will have to write a whole other post on that one someday.)

Now you: where do you need help? What can you do to get it? And while we’re at it, what would it take to implement better training for grads, postdocs, and early faculty so we hit the ground running?

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