Scholars on scholarship, writers on writing

Dr. Crazy offers a succinct defense of sabbaticals and research leave for scholars like her–like most of us–who don’t teach at R1s or in Ph.D. granting departments.  Once again, she explains why the dichotomy between research and teaching is a false one (emphases mine):

Anyway, I think the reason that the writing has been going smoothly this week… well, there are a few reasons.  One of the big reasons is that I’ve spent a lot of time in the past week thinking about teaching.  As much as I’m grateful for this sabbatical – and believe me, I am, and it’s been really, really good for me – I think that thinking about teaching helps me as a researcher.  If I’m too much in my head – too much in the research place – I lose sight of the fact that the scholarly side of things is about actually communicating with other people.  That the sort of scholarship that I like to read teaches me something, and so really, I can think about writing as just a different kind of teaching, and that takes a lot of the pressure off.  But a lot of times, I’m in my head.  And then I can’t write because I don’t know why I’m writing.  And I think my ideas are dumb, and I think there’s no point to any of it.  Except here’s the thing: there is a point to what I’m doing.  And it translates into what I’m going to do once I’m back in the classroom, and it translates into my broader ideas not only about my discipline but about what a university education should mean, ultimately.

See, this is the thing that pisses me off when people act like research is this thing that should be reserved for fancy types at fancy research universities, as if every other college professor should just shut up and teach and not worry about pesky things like having ideas.  I am a better teacher because I remember what it’s like to learn stuff.  Doing research is about continuing to learn stuff.This isn’t to say that top researchers are always better teachers or something that stupid.  Obviously that’s not always true.  But to say that we can just take intellectual inquiry and separate it off from teaching seems really [fracked] up to me.

Yes, exactly.  Research and teaching are in conflict with each other only insofar as they both take time and thought, and there are only 24 hours in a day and only 7 days in a week.  They are in conflict with each other in the way that (for example) walking the dog, working out, cooking dinner, and reading a novel are in conflict with our after-hours time.  We probably can’t do each of these things every night–we all need to find a way to get them all done by the end of the week, though.

Finally–via AHA Today, I found this nice clip from Book TV featuring Nell Painter, P.J. O’Rourke, and John McWhorter talking about their writing processes.  (Sorry–there’s no embed code, so you’ll have to click over there yourselves.)  Which style are you?  I’m a Nell Painter-type.  I take a while to get going, but once I get going, I’m in flow.  If only I could get going, I could be a contender, I could be somebody, instead of a bum.  Which is what I am, let’s face it.

0 thoughts on “Scholars on scholarship, writers on writing

  1. Yeah! Right on!

    So, do you have any advice for someone putting together her or his first sabbatical proposal? someone (not me I swear, I’m asking for a “friend”) who might need to get his or her research agenda going again? What might they do to not only get that research going while on a one semester sabbatical, but to sustain it while teaching?

    I’m headed over to Dr. Krazy’s place… right after I finish teaching my 11am class…


  2. Matt–tell your “friend” that it’s best to follow the instructions and write the sabbatical proposal according to the instructions of your college or uni. It won’t look anything like grant proposals you’ve written before–usually, the instructions are to write something that’s meant to satisfy questions that the board or citizens of your state want answered about the connections between your research, teaching, and service to the university community and your community at large. (At least, that was my experience.)

    Get examples of past successful applications from your colleagues, and borrow their ideas/language liberally. Remember, internal grant applications aren’t so much about you putting together a research project that’s coherent and interesting from the perspective of a historian. It’s about checking the boxes that need checking, so check them well and enthusiastically.


  3. I don’t think we even need to visit Dr. Crazy’s reasons. Sometimes my students ask questions, and I have to say there’s really been no good research that would answer them. Doing research helps provide answers. Non-western history probably encounters that earlier and more frequently than some fields, but I’d imagine it matters at the upper levels of all fields.


  4. As a non-tenure track person whose contract includes no research component (and hence, I can’t use any publications to boost my scores in annual evaluation), I am always struck by how institutions can both claim that research enhances teaching and also write contracts that imply the two are in such serious conflict that I am discouraged from producing research (since it may be interpreted as “taking away from my teaching” in the way that my “effort” numbers must add up to 100%). And yet, I have a career that might benefit from continued research–if I ever hope to get away from the non-tenure non-track. An institution that actively or passively discourages research ultimatley encourages career immobility. That’s one way to improve faculty retention!

    Funny story: when I last applied for an NEH Fellowship, I asked my boss if I could accept one and still keep my job. He had to check with the dean, but it turned out I could.


  5. Thanks for the clip on writing, H’ann! I enjoyed it… but I’m having trouble figuring out which one I am. I think I might be closest to McWhorter when I’m really writing actively. I get up, read blogs and such; then sit down and force myself to stay at the desk until something comes out. Sometimes I sit staring at the screen for hours, but I won’t let myself leave because then I’ll just start having fun and never come back. Eventually, I realize that I can either sit there and force myself to be productive, then leave when I meet my page length deadline (which I set low at first, then raise as I get more momentum over time); or sit there and be bored forever. It works.

    Right now, however, I am at that moment where I’m trying to make myself believe that I’ve read enough and can actually start writing. That’s a hard one, too, as I tend to obsess over getting that last bit of inspiration and information from the huge pile of books I never seem to conquer, since new ones always are added.


  6. Thanks for the shout-out, H. 🙂 I think your advice is good about sabbatical applications (I was going to write the same thing). About keeping the research going… well, the way I do it is that I tell people what I’m working on. Shame is a HUGE motivator for me, so if I blab all about what I’m working on, that forces me to actually get the work done. That and conference presentations….


  7. Hey Historiann and co.,

    Thanks for that advice about following the instructions and checking the boxes with enthusiasm. Can Do!

    Re: what kind of writer are you? I want to be like Nell Painter, but I am much more like PJ O’Rourke. If I don’t get out of bed, have coffee, and write three morning pages before walking the dog, I can’t get any writing done the rest of the day. If I stop to read a blog or the paper, writing is onerous and it takes all day to write those three pages.

    But if I get those three pages (of anything) written first thing, the rest of the day goes easy. I can get the administrivia taken care of, my classes are a joy… the little blue bird of happiness appears, etc. Sometimes I can even stomach revising and editing.

    I wish my writing was more leisurely, or in the Romantic mode, but really, I just have to pound it out in the first couple hours of the morning. Its really mechanical, unfortunately.


  8. Matt, if it makes you feel better, I don’t think that my writing is more inspired or romantic in that I don’t write first thing – I think it’s just that my brain needs like 4 hours to wake up in order to produce anything worth reading. I can tell you (as I take a small break from writing right now) that the writing I’ve been doing this week? Feels very mechanical.


  9. I’m also a morning writer. Afternoons I do my analysis and reading, and then I wake up with thoughts synthesized.

    Of course, it also takes me awhile to get to the point, so by producing everyday I can go back and delete lots and lots of stuff.


  10. I am a McWhorter- I get up around 9 (unless I have to be up for something else) need to read by blogs, the news, drink some tea, then get into the ‘process’- so reading what I’ve done, futzing about, and then start writing about 11ish. Then, once I go, I am good to go for hours and have to drag myself away in the evening like Nell, when I stop being productive. An important part of my process though is getting up to do things when I need to think- I am not very good at sitting thinking. So, I have built in having a shower, making food, doing laundry, cleaning the house, into small segments that I do during ‘writing breaks’, which really is thinking breaks as I work out my next paragraph or idea.


  11. I agree with Dr. Crazy, telling people you are doing something forces you, ultimately, to do it. And I say I’ll give a paper on it. That MAKES me do something.


  12. I just take it to be uncontestable–and neither demonstrable nor in need of demonstration–that research is requisite to teaching. Anyone who things otherwise can look at my mother’s 1939 colleage American History textbook, with which no amount of presentation skills, clickers, learning style-based student engagement strategies, assessment tools, or whatever, will be of any pedagogical use or moment. And I don’t really think about teaching when I’m doing research, any more than (I hope) squirrels think about eating nuts when they ought to be out there *gathering* nuts. I just know it will be in there when the teachable moment comes around.

    I’m a morning person but not a morning *working* person. That’s my time for getting organized–in an organic sense of the word. Writing happens in the afternoon, and research often at night, if what you can do on the internets can be called research. Otherwise, you’ve just just got to mind those posted archival and bibliotechtonic “opening hours,” a term I’ve always loved since my first trip to England.


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