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Reclaiming your research & writing (pandemic ed.)

2 people, one holding a surfboard, looking out at the ocean at sunset

This is part 2 of 2. Check out part 1: Finding the way forward.

Usually at this time of year academics are marinating in an unsettling cocktail of burnout from the school year, hope/ambition for the summer, and trepidation that we won’t be able to meet those hopes and ambitions. But THIS year …



Seriously, there’s nothing we could say about this year that you don’t already know.

We’re not experts on current events, but we are experts at helping scholars get to work on their research and get to the finish line once they’ve started. And if there’s research you needed to be doing before 2020 really started picking up steam, it’s probably still there hanging over your head now. And it’s our job to advocate for you and your scholarship, so we’re going to do what we can to at least ease the weight of getting back to it.

In preparation for Academic Writers Studio’s summer program, we’ve done a lot of thinking, talking, and researching about how best to provide support for scholars in times of crisis. In the end, our suggestions are more quantitatively than qualitatively different than what we’d usually say. We’ll be learning along with everyone else all summer, but here’s what we’ve got so far.

Be serious, but be light.

Now is not the time to beat yourself up about anything.

It seems like we should elaborate on that idea, but really, we shouldn’t. We should just say it again for emphasis.

Now is not the time to beat yourself up about anything.

Practice “soft re-entry.”

We really love this approach in general and have seen it work over and over again.

Without even thinking about it, many of us tend to treat getting back to scholarship as if it’s a New Year’s resolution or a big health and fitness kick. You feel like you have to launch your habit in order to get it to achieve orbit.

That feeling of achieving orbit can feel great on Day 1. It can also feel terrible if you don’t live up to your own expectations. And if it does feel great on Day 1, it can set a too-high standard on Days 2 and beyond.

Soft re-entry means you’re giving yourself time to warm up, or setting a low bar that you can absolutely exceed. This can be especially hard to do if you already feel behind—which is a permanent state for many academics, only worsened by our current stresses.

It’s going to be okay. You don’t have to start by writing your thing. You can start by reading it. Or by clearing off your desk. Or sitting at your desk trying to get into character to write.

Show up.

All this stuff is a practice. We used to talk in yoga about how what you have to do to check the “I did yoga today” box is just getting your feet to the top of your mat.

Many experts on writing productivity say that it’s important to write every day. That may work for you, and that’s great if you can do it. However, it doesn’t work for everyone, and plenty of people get a lot of work done in fewer, longer sessions as opposed to more shorter sessions. (Also, remember that things are crazy out there, and it’s also okay to work in fewer, shorter sessions if that’s what it takes!) If you’ve read other parts of our blog or social media posts, you also may know that we’re big fans of making a daily practice of basically thinking fondly of your research on days when you can’t get to it.

Whatever you do, do it with intention, and do your best to be kind to yourself.

Recognize that this is going to be a cycle.

Many of us are familiar with the idea of the 5 stages of grief—and many of us don’t know, or forget, that these stages don’t happen in the same neat progression for everyone. On the contrary, people go through different sequences, and just because they have experienced one stage doesn’t mean they won’t come back to it, or they might skip a stage altogether.

I’m making this observation for two reasons. First, it’s helpful to remember this about actual grief, which many people are experiencing because of having lost loved ones or because of other things that have been lost.

Second, even more than usual, getting to your research, and moving forward in it when you do, will probably end up happening in ways that feel haphazard. Expect to find your flow for brief periods, then lose it again, and then have it show up when you least expect it.

Getting to your writing is less like launching to liftoff and more analogous to something like surfing. You paddle out there, try to pick the best wave, and do your best to ride it in ways that do it justice. And then the wave ends, and you paddle back out to meet the next one.

Find solidarity and support.

Zoom fatigue, sheltering in place with family, and other recent phenomena have made it abundantly clear over the past few months that somehow social distancing can be awfully socially exhausting. And still, having a community or even just a writing buddy to touch base with can make an enormous difference in your relationship to your work.

We all know that our usual routines have been upended and that we have every reason to be stressed these days, but it’s weirdly easy to forget how that can manifest. For example, it’s totally obvious that if we have the constant buzz of stress in our heads and children in our house, that will cost some productivity. But at the end of a given day or week, we might, powerfully or subtly, experience that missing “output” or sense of accomplishment as a painful surprise and a personal failure. As we have all probably seen in other contexts, it becomes easier not to get around to research at all than to confront that frustration.

Community with other researchers is a critical way to counter these kinds of dynamics. So we encourage you to ritualize some kind of check-in with someone who can observe in action what you already know in theory: that you’re actually doing your best, and probably doing it really well, too.

We spend a lot of our time checking in on scholars in a wide range of situations—from grad students to full professors and upper-level administrators, from small liberal arts colleges to large state universities—and virtually everyone’s research has been t-boned by the ramifications of the coronavirus. In general, the only people who have held onto any momentum are those whose personal and professional contexts allow them to do so; who have a serious deadline, like for a book manuscript (and they aren’t necessarily hitting their deadline); and who are able to view research and writing as an opportunity for mental escape from current events.

This is to say that if you’re feeling adrift, you have lots and lots of company. Virtually everyone is somewhere in the process of reclaiming their research and writing. As with many things these days, it’s going to take a while to bring it back around. And that’s okay. Be patient with yourself and it will happen.

Need more backup? Check out our Studio Scholars summer session or our Facebook group, or just get in touch.