In the past several months, I’ve read a few books that are loosely connected by a theme of writing, thinking, and productivity. A couple of these books have been focused specifically on academia, a couple are not (I’m including a references list at the end of this post, if you want to take a closer look!). The authors have taken vastly different approaches to discussing these topics, but after a while, I began to see some overarching themes emerge. One in particular stood out to me: the idea of being social in our research. Whether discussing dealing with writer’s block, being productive researchers, or how we develop ideas for new projects, these authors overwhelmingly advocated for being more socially connected with others. The importance of having a strong social network and developing an emotional support system stood out as, arguably, the most consistent recommendation from these different readings.
The authors suggest a variety of different approaches for making our research time more social. Some were more general, such as having a broad network of family and friends who can encourage you during your research process, while some strategies focused on direct collaborations with colleagues. In Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, Helen Sword recommends organizing writing groups or writing retreats, being open to giving and receiving feedback, and strategies for coauthoring on projects. One idea that stood out to me was collaborative writing, in which she discusses literally sitting in a room with a coauthor as you go line by line, testing out how sentences sound with one another. This type of model was pretty new to me—I am not sure I’ve heard of many people who work like this. So much of the time, our writing seems like a very solitary event. However, the idea of having someone to suggest a new way of framing or phrasing a topic that I feel stuck on—as opposed to me sitting alone at my computer, feeling frustrated that the words just aren’t flowing today—feels pretty appealing.
Beyond the nitty-gritty of writing and editing, the authors also talk about how collaboration can offer benefits as we develop the big-picture ideas for our research. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman writes what I’m pretty sure is the most beautiful description of coauthorship that I’ve ever seen. Describing the work he did with his long-time collaborator, Amos Tversky, he states:
“[O]ne of the great joys I found in the collaboration was that Amos frequently saw the point of my vague ideas much more clearly than I did. Amos was the more logical thinker, with an orientation to theory and an unfailing sense of direction. I was more intuitive and rooted in the psychology of perception, from which we borrowed many ideas. We were sufficiently similar to understand each other easily, and sufficiently different to surprise each other. We developed a routine in which we spent much of our working days together, often on long walks. For the next fourteen years our collaboration was the focus of our lives, and the work we did together during those years was the best either of us ever did.” (p. 6)
To me, this passage exemplifies the best of what collaboration in our research can be: the capacity to be more than the sum of our parts, developing a relationship that can help us achieve a depth of research that would not have occurred if working in isolation. But even beyond the quality of the research, it offers something we could argue is just as important: the potential to make our time at work more pleasant. By spending time talking through our ideas with others and encouraging one another—being more social—we can make the research process enjoyable.
Plus, finding these aspects of enjoyment in our work (in addition to all the mental health and personal fulfilment benefits) has positives for our research, as well. In The Slow Professor, Barbara Seeber and Maggie Berg argue for the importance of incorporating elements of fun into our creative process. When we are enjoying our work, this has a positive impact on our capacity to draw connections, develop new directions for a project, and deal effectively with any roadblocks that come up. Overall, it seems that structuring our research time around these positive social interactions offers a host of benefits. Not only can collaboration result in research that might not have been possible if working alone, it can also make our work more fun, which in turn helps our own thinking.
Following these recommendations, I’ve been working on incorporating more social strategies into my research. This past semester, I’ve been meeting up with other graduate students for a weekly writing session. I’ve been encouraged by not just the fact that I’ve found these sessions to be enjoyable, but also by the other participants’ reports that this has been a productive space to work! Also, when recently working on some revisions on a paper, a coauthor and I sat down together while going through the feedback. We made edits by sounding off ideas for rewriting sentences with one another, combining our suggestions in real time. And finally, I recently reached out to some friends who very generously read over some writing with which I was struggling. I am starting to see ways that these strategies have helped increase my confidence and enjoyment with the research/writing process. Research can definitely be an isolating process, and I'm seeing how these opportunities to write with others and receive feedback is helping me make progress with my work.
What are some ways that you try to make your research and writing process more social? Have you met with any challenges in this regard, or had to adjust any of your strategies? Email me (email@example.com) or tweet your thoughts (@ellenmwhitehead).
Here are the references for the books I’ve been reading!
Berg, M., & Seeber, B. (2016). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. University of Toronto Press.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
Rettig, H. (2011). The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block. Infinite Art.
Sword, H. (2017). Air & light & time & space: How successful academics write. Harvard University Press.