Recently, I submitted a book chapter most of which was written within less than a week. It hasn’t been a good writing process. Pushing repeatedly beyond the point of exhaustion in order to meet a tight deadline is not good for body and soul (nor for family members). Neither is it good for the written product. In this case, authors had originally been given two and a half months to write their chapters. Thus, my one-week marathon was, in a way, my own fault. The first six weeks had been filled with other work obligations and in the final month, when writing should have happened, life kicked in and changed my plans. So it was this one week – or never.
I don’t think a longer writing process, let’s say six months, would have changed the main point of our chapter. We argue that instrumentalising indigenous methodologies for the UN’s sustainable development agenda doesn’t work. I stand by the argument and will happily discuss it with anyone suggesting otherwise. But: The chapter is going to be published in a book that aspires to be a valuable resource for those researching Indigenous contexts and Sustainable Development. Thus, the book isn’t a space to quickly write up the results of your latest empirical study (as if that was a quick thing to do). I am very grateful for the fast pace that research can have. For example, when it gets to adjusting a vaccine to protect against yet another letter of the Greek alphabet. The forthcoming book, however, belongs to a different genre. It calls for chapters with critical reflections on, amongst others, research methodology, ethics and sustainability.
Producing this kind of academic content requires time (I’m strictly speaking for myself here, of course). Time to reflect, time to read, re-read, get confused, develop thoughts, discard thoughts, move ideas around, read more, write, delete and rewrite. In short, such work needs time to grow. There is beauty and fulfilment in long and uninterrupted writing sessions. When you reach this wonderful state of flow where you forget about time and space and just follow your own pace. But that’s flow and night shifts at your own pace, rather than external pace made by some fast-lived knowledge economy. My first ever academic article existed in three or four drafts before I submitted it. This kind of slow writing process might be a luxury reserved for the unexperienced PhD student. But the resulting product was a well reflected piece that that truly represented my state of understanding and being at the time it was published. Therefore, it is a piece that can last. Even if I would change a thing or two if I were to write the same article today, I am still comfortable with the article to live in the world wide web or as a PDF on people’s desktops.
Will the forthcoming chapter be a publication that lasts? Or does it support the fast-food literature that meets the interest of today’s academic fashion and is replaced by another publication tomorrow? Who benefits from such rushed writing processes? The answer is, my publication record does. My publication record that needs to grow fast, because the number of my publications counts more than their durability.
I am not suggesting that academic life was better in the olden days. Those days in which you hid in your chamber for ten years to emerge with a master piece that would occupy the academic world for generations. Most likely, I wouldn’t have been an academic in the olden days, but a housewife who made sure that her husband could nurture his genius in peace. Nowadays we are supporting each other on pretty equal terms, so no, not longing back.
We have the slow food movement and the slow fashion movement – I am calling for slow writing processes. With some actual time to think and let a piece grow over time. I don’t necessarily mean that everything should be slow, but rather – as explained here – to have the time it takes to produce texts that can last (however much time that is). I know that the current academic focus on quantity is not going to change anytime soon. But it’s Christmas, so I allow myself some wishful thinking.
By the way, I know that slow scholarship is already a thing. And a quick google search tells me that the analogy between slow food and slow scholarship has been made already – and with much more elegance. But that’s ok.
Wishing you all a Happy New Year with plenty of time for thinking and writing and being productive (and unproductive) at your own pace!
P.S. 1: I want to acknowledge that chapter was a co-authored publication with two wonderful, experienced and knowledgeable colleagues. While they share my sentiments about the writing process, I make explicit that this text is strictly about my own struggles.
P.S. 2: I realise that the above isn’t necessarily the smartest PR move for our forthcoming book chapter. This is unfair on my co-authors and it is unfair on the chapter, too. A chapter, that was written as a critique of the book in which it is going to be published. The editors were kind enough to still attest our chapter to be of “high quality” and to “enrich the overarching contribution of the edited book”, so please do read it. Thanks to the fast pace process, it will be published shortly.