No. Don’t Surrender. Leverage.: Creativity in Scholarly Work

I was just talking with a colleague in the throes of dissertation writing. She’s right in the middle of the mess that is trying to thinking new thoughts. And though she was trying her hardest not to show it, she was feeling downtrodden, and at a loss as to what to do about it.
(And then today I serendipitously came across a series of tweets that animated what I saw behind her calm exterior. Press play and enjoy.)

Then she said something that I’ve heard (and said myself) a hundred times:

I just need to trust the process, right?
I need to surrender to it.

It rang so false, so hollow, so hopeless. This was someone deeply invested in a complex effort trying to grab at something secure. 2015/01/img_59031.jpgAnd surrendering to some amorphous process was her only solution? That’s no solution. I wondered: What is this “process” that’s supposed to solve everything? Letting time pass as we continue to “plug away” at the same old tasks? (You know what they say about that.)

Leveraging “the Process”

Rather than surrendering to this amorphous process (which I am now thinking is just code for feeling lost and ready to give up), I think we could do better to leverage it.

But to do that, we have to understand what we’re dealing with. I don’t have all the full answer for this myself, but I do know that the tasks most scholars are given training to do (e.g. analyze, critique, describe) are not sufficient for the tasks this “process” asks us for (e.g. imagine, (re)mediate,  chill). We could do a better job in emphasizing the creative aspects of scholarly work, particularly in fields within which it may not be so obvious. In fact, it’s probably at least partially due to a lack of acknowledgement and training in the creative aspects of researchers’ work that the processes of scholarly work feel out of control and amorphous. Take, for example, the rampant superficial methods sections in published studies that don’t illuminate actual processes, but rather offer fictionalized, sanitized, acceptable versions of them. Read too many of those, and you can quickly feel like you’re doing it all wrong.

Wrong Nest, by Rebecca Siegel
Wrong Nest, by Rebecca Siegel

So, let’s start small. It’s commonly understood that creative processes need incubation. If you’re like me, you hear incubation and you think of chicken eggs in the glow of an incubator in the back of a fourth grade classroom. Good. I think that’s an image we can work with. See, on the surface, incubation may look smooth and still. An analyst, writer, researcher may think, “Oh, I should just walk away and let this sit for a while.” This is probably a good start, but just like an egg, real incubation means there is a whole heck of a lot of creation going on underneath that smooth surface. We should similarly have a whole heck of a lot of creation going on during incubation.

So, what can we do to leverage (rather than just surrender to) the creative strands of these processes? Below are a few things I’ve learned from my friends and colleagues. Please feel free to add your ideas in the comments below!

Go to your nearest big library and look up the call number of a book central to your field of study. Go to the shelf and begin to browse. Work from your book outward. What titles pop? What else have these authors written? Look at the shelfs to the upper left and lower right. What topics are tangential to your field? How do these fields frame and address your questions? Creative aspects of critical work are associative. While we let the manuscript or pile of field notes chill, we can feed our minds with tangential stimulus. For my friend and colleague, Tim, this not only led to a transcription and coding approach for his data, but a renewed energy and excitement for the work, and for further study into what is now an additional methodological expertise.

Caveat: There will always be a line of thinking out of your purview. You are not trying to fill in knowledge gaps. You are looking for energizing fresh takes.

  • Mediate, Remediate, Repeat (h/t Matt Hall)

I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do when I am bogged down in writing is to write (see my Year in Review post). So don’t. Yeah, I said that out loud. Don’t write…But don’t you dare stop making.

In addition to being a professor of education and literacy, my friend and colleague Matt is a pianist. Musical metaphors that come to him from playing music are thick in his work. (Described particularly well in our piece on remediation and research processes due to come out this month.) But he doesn’t stop with using music to “make.” There hasn’t been a conversation about my work that he hasn’t suggested we draw something—a diagram, a continuum, a figure. Rarely have I used formalized versions of these sketches in my final products, but they have always led to insights into what I am trying to mean.

And I am not of the opinion that these “makes” have to be very scientific or scholarly in a traditional sense. Remember, think associative. You want new connections and ideas. Try a Wordle. Make a meme. Dig into the National Writing Project‘s Connected Learning MOOC‘s Make Bank and make a Histro Timeline or a Zeega or a 5-Image Story. And then take the same idea and remediate it into something else. I think the key here is more is more. You’ll be ready to put it into words soon enough.

To describe the findings from a three-year study into how youth live and learn with digital media, Mimi and her team created the acronym HOMAGO for Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out. They used the phrase “hanging out” to refer to the importance that friendships and just being with friends while using digital media spurred their growth. Your writing group isn’t a luxury and isn’t optional. The friendships I established through sharing work with my colleagues sustain me. We used to do something we called “proximity writing,” which meant that we didn’t meet to talk about our writing, we met to write, just write in proximity to each other.These sessions had prescheduled mandatory breaks during which we were not allowed to work. We had to “hang.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 8.35.49 PM
Screen shot of Matt and me doing a bit of “collab” in Virtual Proximity.

When we all moved apart, these hangouts moved online in scheduled VP (virtual proximity) sessions. Someone would open a Google Hangout session and when available, we would join in from across the globe. If we were ever stuck, we could flag each other and request a short “collab” sessions during which we would jump in a GDoc together and simultaneously write in each other out of being stuck.

“Messing around” referred to an attitude as much as a practice. Playful and experimental, messing about with a particular tool created “fortuitous” connections. It’s with this attitude that you do your library window shopping and your making and remediating.

“Geeking out” referred to an “intense commitment or engagement with media or technology, often one particular media property, genre, or a type of technology” (p. 65). This reminds me of the “intense curiosity” that Niobe Way would emphasize in the interview methods course we taught together. She would explain to our grad students that if you are interested enough in your topic, you’ll see and hear it everywhere. Lift the disciplinary blinders and you’ll see your phenomenon and connections to your phenomenon in unexpected places.

The youth I’ve worked with in my research take this “geeking out” even further. They investigated their areas of interest through the use of literary tropes that stretched across contexts, times, genres, assignments, media. And this was an indirect investigation, seeing where the connections and lessons to learn were within all areas of their life. (You can read more about their processes and development here.)

We would do well to remember that dissertating—and any knowledge-creation work, artistic, scholarly, scientific—is as much a creative act as it is a critical or “rigorously” systematic one. With that in mind, it is much easier for me to think of ways to leverage the processes that this work entails. And that’s got to be a whole heck of a lot better than blindly trusting that time will magically dissolve the bulwark standing in the way of completion. So, to my poor friend stuck in the mire I say, “No. Don’t surrender. Leverage.”

As always, I apologize that WordPress has begun to force ads on each post. Please ignore any ad that follows. I have not vetted and do not support whatever is advertised below.

One thought on “No. Don’t Surrender. Leverage.: Creativity in Scholarly Work

  1. Thanks, Anna, for sharing your thoughts on how to leverage — and live — the process. I have been part of a professional writing group for over a decade, and I would not be even close to productive without their constant support, critique, and guidance.

    Also, for one more tidbit, I live by the “start on a downhill slope” mantra. I have heard this attributed to many writers, so I won’t even begin to try and figure out who said it first, but the main idea is that you end your writing for one day at the point where you are feeling confident, knowing that you will pick up in that same spot the next day.

    Not sure if that works for everyone, but it works for me!

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