Selfish Writing

After what seems like ages of running into walls I have recently gotten good news about several of my writing projects, including about an article that had been stalled for more than a year after being summarily rejected and then falling victim to the malaise I felt when it looked like my academic career might be over. Now, this bits of positivity has not prompted an outpouring of words on these projects, but they have boosted my confidence, which, in turn, has made sitting down to write a little less taxing.

Time is the biggest impediment for me right now. Simply put, I just have a lot of demands on my time and my first semester teaching in a new institution has eaten up the vast majority of my time on campus. I have done a bit better protecting my writing time this week, but I accomplished this in part by spending an evening in front of my computer and with headphones on—to say nothing of coming at the expense of grading time.

This evening I attended a virtual lecture given by UCSB professor John Lee about his forthcoming book about John Wesley Gilbert, the first African American to attend the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (also the subject of next year’s Fordyce Mitchel Lectures at the University of Missouri). Toward the end of the talk someone asked him what he is working on next. Lee laughed and said that next up he was going work on being a good husband and father.

By that point in the talk the audience had already been treated to a child ready to play with dad, but the answer also reminded me of something that Bill Caraher has written several times while documenting his journey toward completing his academic monograph: writing is a selfish exercise.

Books require time and attention to cultivate from the germ of an idea to the final product. Where other types of writing might require a few days or weeks of attention before they see the light of day, an academic book often take years of sifting through research, thinking about issues, and stitching together ideas before even getting to the revision stage.

I happen to think in book length chunks and like this process well enough that I want to continue doing this regardless of where my career takes me. (Seriously: I lay awake consumed with anxiety last week because I only had three history books and one novel that I want to write after I finish the one I am working on right now.) And, yet, I cannot disagree that book-writing can be a deeply selfish pursuit.

It would be one thing if book-writing, specifically, was my job either because it meant securing tenure or because it constituted a significant amount to may paycheck. Right now, though, neither of those things is true and coming to grips with the possibility of changing career paths over the last several years dispelled the last vestiges of the hope that another publication would tip the scales in landing me a tenure-track position. My department supports me as a scholar, but I am employed as a teacher so writing remains something that I do on top of my contract. The difference is largely semantic in practice, but this semester has also made me keenly aware of those evenings when I tell my partner that I have to—i.e. want to—write. In effect this is me telling her that what I want to do with my evening after spending all day at work is to put on music and play with my thoughts rather than spend time with her. There are of course compromises. I almost never write in the evening if I can write earlier in the day, for instance, and I rarely write on the weekends, but these only go so far. The fact remains that I am writing my book(s) because I want to write the book(s).

75 Luftballons

Every couple of weeks it seems something sets academic Twitter buzzing. Yesterday it was a well-established professor with a light (2–1) teaching load who shared three secrets to having put out 75 publications since 2005 and invited her readers to respond with which of her strategies were the hardest for them. I quote:

  1. I sleep 8 hours a night.
  2. I write for 1–2 hours every weekday
  3. I don’t get in my own way.

I don’t think that the author meant anything malicious by her tweet, but the self-congratulatory framing seemed tone-deaf at a time when a lot of people are struggling. Many academics I follow on Twitter pushed back, challenging her the privilege of such a small teaching load and secure employment, debating whether we ought to measure our academic worth by simple volume of publications—to say nothing of how disciplines count different publications—and still others cast side-eye at what exactly “not getting in one’s own way” means.

When I saw the tweet I mostly just felt tired.

I’m not going to rehash my CV here — I keep a public version on this site that I update every few months if anyone cares. Suffice it to say that since graduating four years ago I have published more than some people, but less than others, while also teaching a whole bunch of courses on part-time contracts at multiple schools.

I exercise daily, make sure to read outside of work (because it is something I enjoy), and try to sleep 8-hours a night. I’ve even had more success with the sleeping since the start fo the pandemic and have started actually taking one day entirely off each weekend!

(Okay, fine. Most weekends.)

I also write for about an hour almost every weekday. The exact time changes, but I try to carve out an hour or two, usually in the morning, where I turn off email and social media in order to just wrestle with words.

It wasn’t always like this. When I started tracking the time I spend writing a few years ago I was in a very different position than I am now. Fresh off my dissertation and only teaching one course a semester, I had time to write and wanted a way to keep myself accountable. As my teaching load snowballed, I found it harder to find time to write and the amount of time I gave my writing plummeted. About the same time, I discovered that I missed that time I spent writing in much the same way that I miss physical exercise when I go more than a couple of days without doing anything. My recent writing sessions have been motivated in part by the terror of several deadlines that just passed for projects I committed to delivering, but I also find peace in the daily practice separate from those commitments.

I want to do good research and to have it taken seriously, but I also can’t define my academic existence by my publication record. My post-PhD life has been defined by teaching positions, often without support for research or publication. I have continued to do both, but approaching them as a second job demands finding other measures of academic success. I can block off time for writing, but the fact that my teaching contracts demand a lot of the time I would otherwise dedicate to focused reading means that I haven’t had the brain space recently to fan the spark of an idea into fully-realized papers. At the moment this isn’t much of a problem given that I am in the final stages of completing projects, but it does mean that my research pipeline will (temporarily) run dry.

But guess what? I’m okay with this! I have jotted down notes for a couple of articles that I would like to dig into, to say nothing of ideas for three more book. None of these things are actually in a research pipeline right now so much as sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Inevitably some of these will never amount to anything, whether because I get distracted by other shiny objects (projects) or because I will take them down to find that the idea half-formed years ago just doesn’t work, but others will eventually enter into the pipe and emerge sometime down the line.

The reason I felt tired when I saw the original post is because I momentarily felt the pressure that comes with using the raw numbers of publications as a metric of academic success. I’m tired enough as it is, I don’t need any more pressure.

As I wrote above, I don’t think the author meant anything malicious by her comment — and may have believed she was trying to help contribute to some sort of self-help productivity discourse that operates in some sort of abstract space where the real world doesn’t apply. This discourse operates in a space of extreme privilege, but it also both responds to and reinforces an academic culture of publication where the goalposts are forever just out of reach. Whatever you demonstrate to be your pace becomes an expectation and however fast you publish you could have put out one more. After all, should we not always strive for maximum efficiency and ever greater production?

Of course we shouldn’t. Fast scholarship isn’t the same as good scholarship.

Now fast scholarship is not actually what the original tweeter called for, but by setting the volume of her publications as a the metric of success she has nevertheless implied that we ought to bow to the pressure to produce more and more quickly. I might be be able to reach 75 academic publications (including reviews), but I also may not ever publish 75 academic pieces in my career. Not only would either of these outcomes be fine with me, but it is also critical to resist the simple quantification of academic production.

Working in higher education has enough challenges already. Rather than focusing on someone’s prodigious output and trying to replicate their method, every discussion of academic productivity needs to start with sustainability, support, and the academic communities we want to create.

AcWriMo 2020

I had a rough go of things last fall, taking on so much work that I was forced to give up my regular writing practice. And yet, reading about my struggles to stay on top of my teaching and job applications all while thinking that it might be my last year in higher education strikes me now as blissfully unaware of what was lurking just around the corner in 2020.

These past nine months have been an emotional rollercoaster that has tested my mental and physical endurance like never before. #AcWriMo also bridges the end of a fifteen week sprint of a semester that has stretched both me and my students to the breaking point.

And yet, I’m still writing. Not as much as I’d like, but more than I have any right to complain about under these conditions.

The reasons I’m writing more are varied, but rather simple. I’ve had some movement on a few projects such that I now have concrete deadlines. I objectively have less teaching this semester (and a smaller paycheck to prove it). The teaching I have is concentrated in the afternoons four days a week, which often leaves me time to write in the morning even when prep bleeds into that time. I’ve been better about jealously guarding my time such that I consciously schedule more breaks and thus have more energy to write. I also find writing meditative such that turning off anything with updates (email, news, social media) for the time I’m writing gives a nice reprieve from the fever pitch of, well, everything.

In this vein, I am setting for myself some AcWriMo goals that both reaffirm and expand on my annual writing goals, if not following the formula of setting specific and measurable projects to produce.

  1. One hour per work-day dedicated to academic writing projects, with workday defined as Monday through Friday. I hope to use this time to write, particularly once the semester ends, but this time can also be used for reading or researching, as Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega suggested today on Twitter. My writing and research processes are already deeply intertwined, particularly at later stages where I’ll pause the writing to build up a note or clarify a paragraph.
  2. Four posts of substance (TM) for this site, one per week in November. In part this stems from a larger goal of writing here with more regularity, but also just to stretch my writing. I don’t exactly know yet what this goal will result in, but the first two topics I have in mind both develop a point or comment I made on Twitter and are related in some form or another to my various academic interests.

That’s it. Writing is a habit that begets more writing, so I’m keeping my goals modest in the hope that I can blow past the targets.

Summer Academic Plans

About this time last year I wrote a post setting some summer reading goals that, ultimately, proved too ambitious. One of my resolutions for 2019 was to take better care of my physical and mental health, and I need to continue that through this summer while also making some headway on various projects.

Projects

I have three article-length projects at various stages of completion, and a fourth shorter piece.

I spent most of the spring semester working on a chapter for an edited collection on the use of history in the Attic Orators. This chapter offers a new interpretation of the Athenian conquest of Samos in 366 through the lens of cultural memory. When I started writing I thought one thing before writing myself into the weeds with the realization that the traditional narrative for this conquest is itself a historical memory and thus that I had to weave the two together. I’m not going to hit my initial target of June 1 for a complete draft of my contribution because there are too many knots left to unravel.

The second article-length manuscript I hope to finish this summer is a revision and expansion of a conference paper I gave reconciling Arrian’s account of Alexander the Great’s reception at Ephesus with the longer trajectory of 4th century Ephesian history. I have been ruminating on this paper for about a year now and need to decide whether it is stronger to frame this as a historiographical contribution about Arrian or a revision of 4th-century Ephesian history.

If all goes well with the first two writing projects or I need to put one of them down for the time being, I also have a third article-length project simmering on the back burner. This project is a revisionary analysis of the Athenian imposition of empire on fifth-century Ionia. I submitted a version of the manuscript, receiving reader reports that suggested that my definition of Ionia was too narrow for the argument and that the inquiry needed to be expanded to look at the entirety of the Ionian-Carian district. I started on this last November, but didn’t have the energy to finish the new research.

The final shorter project is a public-facing article based on a suggestion made by one of my fellow panelists at the CAMWS annual meeting. I have been meaning to pitch a piece of this sort for a few years, but draw a blank when I try to decide what I to write. With this one I am about 75% of the way there and just need to develop this skill.

Of course the elephant in this drafting room are the book projects, present and future. The advice from senior scholars that this is the most important thing for securing a permanent job in the field is particularly comforting in that this is at least somewhat out of my hands.

Progress on my dissertation book manuscript (a new history of Classical and Early Hellenistic Ionia) slowed significantly after I submitted my book proposal. The sense of direction slowly, and then quickly, evaporated while waiting for feedback, and through several stressful and exhausting semesters that included teaching, applying for jobs, and managing a few interconnected health issues I allowed my focus to lapse. That is not to say that work entirely stopped, but I need to redouble my attention this summer even while I wait for feedback.

At the same time, I intend to spend time working on a book proposal for the second book project (a history of the city of Ephesus), because the press accepts and evaluates proposals for the series I have in mind without any completed chapters. The challenge on this one is that I still have a fair amount of reading to do in order to write the proposal.

These are ambitious summer writing plans, but I am not expecting to finish them all. Instead, I would like to finish a few of these projects while laying the groundwork for some of my future research.

Reading Plans

Last summer I set an ambitious reading goal, intending to branch out from a narrow focus on the Greek world. I read a handful of very good articles, but predictably fell short. I hope to return to some of these articles this summer, but mostly I want to get to the stack of recent scholarship on Greece and Rome that have piled up up from various conference purchases. My target for this is one per week, set low in hopes of exceeding the mark rather than falling short.

I started on this yesterday with Matt Simonton’s Classical Greek Oligarchy (Princeton 2017). Other books on this list include Emily Mackil’s Creating a Common Polity (University of California Press 2016), Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome (Princeton 2017), and Evanglelos Venetis’ The Persian Alexander (I.B. Tauris 2017). There are also a handful of books not on my shelves, most notably Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men (Harvard 2018), that I would like to finally crack open.

Teaching

This is the category that is most in flux. The summer class I was scheduled to teach fell through, which gives more time for research and prep for future classes, but in my precariously-employed situation things could change.

And yet I also hope to hone my craft this summer, particularly by continuing to read up on best practices. My summer reading list for this includes John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice and Norman Eng’s Teaching College.

As of writing this post, I am looking to prepare three classes for the fall semester. One is a World History (pre-1500) survey that I need to update and adapt from a three-week summer course where I want to think through the course design from the top down. The other two are topics courses for first-year honors students. I am doing two different topics here, one titled “Monsters, Humans, and Monstrous Humans” and the other “The Afterlives of Alexander the Great.” These courses are reading-intensive, and the latter requires some selection of what readings we will focus on from the disparate Alexander traditions, but I am looking forward to diving into the preparation for both.

ΔΔΔ

I may check in on these points from time to time throughout the summer, but, other than writing about the pedagogy books, I have no particular plans to do so until the start of the new semester. In the meantime, expect business as usual around here––mostly posts about books I read for fun and a smattering of other topics as I feel moved to write.

What my academic writing is about

I have never formally participated in #AcWriMo, an academic equivalent for #NaNoWriMo, but some of its tenets about accountability and tracking have shaped how I write. This year, Margy Thomas, the founder of Scholarshape proposed something a little different: an #AcWriMo with prompts for people to reflect on their writing process. The proposed format was short 2–3 minute videos, but she encouraged people to participate through whatever medium they want. I like the idea for a month of reflective writing, but, as my Twitter bio grumpily proclaims, I am eagerly awaiting the pivot past video, so I thought I’d pop in with a few thoughts here when I have a spare moment and the prompt fits.

The theme for day five is “about,” in the sense that periodically asking yourself what your project is about is a way to clarify its purpose, scope, and importance.

I describe my current research project as:

A substantial revision to the scholarly interpretation of Ionia, a network of twelve Greek cities on and near the coast of Asia Minor, at the intersection of ancient imperial systems in the Classical and early Hellenistic Aegean. My work confronts the scholarly consensus that the region was unimportant during this period along three threads: political and diplomatic history, cultural memory, and historiography. My 2018 article in Ancient History Bulletin weaves these elements together in a reevaluation of the traditions surrounding sanctuary of Didyma at Miletus that credit Alexander the Great with restoring the oracle after 334 BCE. I show instead how the citizens of Miletus and Hellenistic kings used Alexander’s memory as a means to legitimize the new oracle and thereby sell its rebirth. The first phase of this research project will conclude with a monograph, Accustomed to Obedience?: Ionia and Ionians 494–294 BCE, but I plan to continue it through a second book project, a history of Ephesus examining the city’s changing, but ever-present dual identities.

This paragraph is a slightly emended version of the recent project description in my job application letters. Brevity is critical in those documents and I am trying to show a publishing trajectory within an overall research agenda. I add to this elsewhere in the document where some of the significances of this project come in, including that I am interested in issues of imperialism, marginalization, and issues of how we remember the past, both through historiography and cultural memory.

But the framing of projects like this doesn’t come easily for me, and, to borrow from the #NaNoWriMo side, I tend to be more of an exploratory writer than a planner. This definition of what my project is “about” is at least the fourth iteration of trying to encapsulate what this project actually is, and to even envision this as part of a larger research project instead of “just” a dissertation or “just” a book.

Something similar happened in trying to describe the first book project. From the proposal:

This book, the first dedicated study of Classical Ionia, challenges the current scholarly opinion by reevaluating Ionia’s role in the Aegean world rather than seeing it as simply a marginal area located between Greece and Persia. Although most of the cities in Ionia were politically subordinate to Lydia since probably the seventh century, the advent of Persia in 545 BCE is nevertheless treated as a dividing line marking the end of their freedom. The conclusion to the Persian Wars is thus couched in terms of liberating Ionia and yet, in histories of the Classical period, the cities of Ionia are usually presented as prizes for the winner of imperial competitions between larger powers in the Aegean world. This situation became more extreme in the early Hellenistic period with an evolution in political posturing over Ionia and other Greek cities. Kings such as Antigonus and Ptolemy made dramatic gestures of granting Greek autonomy, but by a radically rewritten definition. By the early second century, the Ionians were not even afforded that nicety.

The central thesis of my book is that the Ionians were anything but obedient. Ionia did indeed become a game board for imperial competition in the Classical period and the Ionian cities pieces for the players to capture. In the fifth century, this competition was primarily between Athens and Persia, but then Sparta joined first against Athens, then Persia. In the fourth century, Thebes, the Hecatomnid dynasts, Persian satraps in revolt, and finally Macedonia joined the game. Alexander’s invasion of Persia swept clean the board, but the game began anew upon his death.

But what happens to the game when the pieces are not only conscious, but also capable of influencing player decisions? There were times, such as in the negotiations surrounding the King’s Peace of 386, when the Ionians were excluded from the decision making process and therefore forced into a passive acceptance of imperial politics, but these were the exceptions. Far more frequently, the Ionians were actively involved in negotiating their position not only between competing imperial powers in the eastern Aegean, but also with respect to their regional peer polities.

The story begins and ends with liberation from Persia. In both cases, the promises of autonomy proved hollow and the Ionians would suffer the consequences of the changing political landscape, but neither was their history determined by imperial fiat. Instead, I show the fundamental importance of both domestic political agency and regional competition, while adding to the body of scholarship that demonstrates the interconnectedness of the ancient world.

This book fills a clear gap in the scholarly literature, but its focus on the region at the intersection of imperial politics has wider significance for understanding Classical Greece. Classical Ionia is usually positioned on the margins because Athens staked claim to being the cultural center of the Greek world. The result is that the picture of Ionia is always focalized from the point of view of the West. But what happens if we center the history of the Classical Greek world from the vantage of Ionia? The rise and fall of imperial systems still took place, with Athens, Persia, and eventually Macedonia continuing to loom large in terms of cultural and economic impact, but we gain a renewed appreciation for the decentralization of Classical Greece and thus Greek history as the product of the relationships between Greek poleis and Greeks and non-Greeks.

The easy part was identifying an under-served field of research from Greek history; the hard part was determining why anyone should care beyond that nobody had done it. Despite the enormity of this topic, it was even larger—significantly, unmanageably larger—when I started it six years ago. I scrapped the first “chapter” chapter I ever wrote, and while there is a part of me that loves thinking in big terms and harbors ambitions of writing a throwback magnum opus in the manner of Rostovtzeff, my work right now is better when I keep it focused. Narrowing took time, and between the evolving emphasis of a research agenda and always being on the lookout for new ways to pitch a topic in order to communicate its relevance, this process is never complete. Even now rereading some of those paragraphs I would consider tweaking some of how I describe the project. What I like about the way the project is currently framed is that it gives room for flexibility within the umbrella to craft research talks and articles that focus in on one small story that has broader ramifications.

ΔΔΔ

Writing that on Monday morning, it took more time than I had hoped, but less than I feared. I fully support reflective writing practice, though, and time permitting will be checking in a few more times this month, perhaps even with fewer block quotes.

How I Write

My most recent on-again, off-again book (i.e. things I read out of a desire for professional development, but wouldn’t label as “fun” and don’t always have time for in the course of “work”) is Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: how successful academics write (2017). The overriding theme of the book is that there is that there is no one right way to write. Instead, she creates a formula called B.A.S.E. from behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional habits that serves as equal parts analytical took for talking about writing and self-assessment rubric. The details of your writing experience, Sword says, are less important than the shape and size of your BASE–with each category rated on a scale from 1 to 10–which forms the foundation for your “House of Writing.”

Inspired by the types of questions Sword asked her interview subjects and the BASE formula, I figured it could be useful to run diagnostics on how I write. This is a long post, so anyone not interested in writing process would be forgiven for skipping the rest.

Continue reading How I Write