Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers November 2007
vol. 3, no. 10
Many graduate students rarely share their writing with anyone other than a few faculty. That’s because most graduate programs don’t facilitate students sharing their writing with other students. This leads, I think, to several endemic problems.
In several recent conversations with students who don’t share their writing with other students, it struck me that they were more prey to thinking of themselves as bad or unproductive writers. Maybe they are particularly bad writers, but I suspect they are not. The problem with not sharing your writing is that you continue thinking that your writing is toxic when it just needs to be improved in particular ways. Your keen awareness of all the weak points in your argument and all the problems you have not solved can easily lead to your believing that a text is so bad as to be largely unsalvageable or irrelevant.
The great benefit of sharing your writing with your peers is that their feedback often narrows the text’s sins in your mind. You thought your readers would attack you on fifty different points when what they actually do is point out three problems you never thought of, agree with you on another three you did, and be oblivious to the other forty-seven problems you thought they were going to lambaste. The good result is that, when you sit down to write afterward, you find yourself focusing on the six identified problems and not the legion you previously were obsessing about. In other words, exposing yourself to others’ criticism is a way of defusing your hypercritical inner editor. So, if you aren’t sharing your writing with your peers, try it out!
An interesting subgenre of the joke is those that depend on literary knowledge to work. A student passed along a joke that, he reported, is popular among the “post-colonial crowd” and is relevant to Flourish readers concerned about productivity: The only person who ever got everything done by Friday was Robinson Crusoe.
An interesting study was published this year about how many articles you have to publish to get tenure in the field of psychology. James P. Bryne studied the “Publishing Trends of Psychology Faculty during Their Pretenure Years” and found that in this social science field publishing one to two articles per year in peer-reviewed journals correlated most with receiving tenure at highly ranked universities. At the same time, a quarter of junior pyschology faculty at such universities received tenure even though they had not published more than one journal article a year, had not published more chapters than their peers, and had not published in better journals. I thought this was a well-designed study because it clarifies that there is a strong norm (one to two articles a year) and yet some exceptions to that norm (one in four psychology faculty get tenure at research universities without attaining the norm). Such information is useful if you are in a tenure-track job because it reminds you to strive for the norm and yet gives you comfort when an article is rejected or research is delayed. It provides both the carrot and the stick.
News from the Editor
Last month I promised to report back on how my experience as a first-time playwright went. It’s great! The women who put together this evening of eight short plays (for a total of ninety minutes) did an amazing job and some of the actors are terrific. It was very interesting for me to see my words—just symbols on a page—take on flesh and life. If anyone ever doubts the power that ephemeral language has to shape the physical world, a script is proof. One types “Sally slices and eats apple” and then every Saturday evening at 8:10 pm a human being one has never met gets out an apple and eats it. And for the two months that the play is performed, it lives in the actors’ heads in the way it lived in mine. No wonder human beings invented magic. It’s the only language we have to describe the eeriness of art.