The Admitted Perils of Academic Writing


At the two year milestone of my five year Doctor of Education I thought I’d take the time to return to this blog to talk a little about how it’s going and how it has helped and/or hindered my writing. I often look to this very blog as a great influence for becoming a more prolific, and in that sense a better writer. It was the encouragement I got online that drove me forward and which later saw me getting both non-fiction and journalism published, but also my poetry and some stories. It is also part of the reason that I felt that writing would not be such a chore while working towards my doctorate over five years.

It has been a long time thought since I’ve written any journalistic articles or poetry, which I suppose is a bit of a shame. There has also been the minor matter of having to complete a bucket or two full of reading for two large essays, as well as other activities, twice a year for my course. The course, above all, is mentally taxing, and with my kids keeping me extra busy, the joys of sitting down throwing out a thousand words appear to have vanished in the ether.

Writing academically is certainly very different. Even for all the criticisms writing academically may receive, and they are ample, I’m going to give you some feedback based on how I feel and what I understand about writing has changed.

  1. Every word matters

When you have a wordcount to fit a very complex argument into, this goes without saying. Beyond that words go even further to determine how we are understood. Agonising over phrasing is not something that only creative writers shed tears over. Individual words mean specific things and how we say things bears connotations. Shift + F7 really doesn’t find the right answers and even if it is the right word, it’s likely that in review someone will find a more appropriate word. Accuracy seems to be king and striving for perfection seems to make the world, at least when writing academic pieces. What is said and how it is done so seems to carry greater weight than ever, and even then the accuracy may be left wanting.

  1. Your opinion hardly matters

Don’t take this too hard, because I’m listening, really, but it’s just that regardless of what you’re saying I just prefer what that other person is saying. But hey, it’s ok, thanks for trying and maybe next time I’ll pick up something you wrote. Such is the way that I think dialogue surrounds the world of academic writing.

For the hours that people probably spend devoted to the work they are experts in, become respected and become sought after and respected and all those other positive word, it may be the case that there are as many people who discount your findings or hard work because of some fickle reason. The hours spent crafting are a labour of love, but this love does not appear to be reciprocal.

  1. Does being a good writer matter?

It is an answer which I thought would carry me through many of the hurdles this process is presenting to me. I thought that, as a strength, it would single me out advantageously. And perhaps it will do so, but only after much more time working and crafting the way that I write. I was kind of scuppered some months back as I was hauled in as the quality of my writing was put to task. It was not said that how I wrote was bad or good or anything like that. Essentially, I was told that my writing was wrong. I’d never really considered writing as ever being that way.

The rebellious part of me wanted to raise the middle finger and carry on attempting to break the system. This part of me huffed and puffed and spat and cursed, but to what end? It struck me as things were explained to me that the content was what mattered, and not the style, as the primary function of writing in an academic setting. Style, it would appear, is secondary, and a product of the labours of accurate graft.

Don’t get me wrong: it is very important to be able to write well, but well is defined as being concise, clearly, and highly organised, often with the choice of particular words agonised over. Not, as is my wont, a glorious fluent adjective laden cavalcade of English whisking the reader away on a personal narrative of insight and romance. No.

  1. What’s in a comma?

Following on from previous points, the individual functions and purposes of different elements of writing count. They are tied in, not only with style, but also more than I have felt before. The comma, for example, all but a simple short tick downward at the heel of a word can carry the meaning of a sentence, and with that it can carry the meaning of a paragraph, and perhaps it could disjoint the meaning of 1000 words. Placement is as important as non-placement, and perhaps you should really think about why are there so many commas and no full stops. The comma is a vital piece of punctuation that should be considered superior in the crafting of any written piece, but in an academic essay it becomes something far more sophisticated and which has a particularity that not only controls what and how we say, but what do we actually mean when we write words. This is a message which concerns every single utterance from the keyboard, and while the comma is of course a significant example to

  1. There is no such thing as a final draft

I say this with a pinch of salt. Of course everything must be completed and submitted with a sense of finality. It takes a brave writer to say anything they’ve written is complete, regardless of genre, but the more I write the more errors I find, the more I discover passages that needs rewriting. On top of this personal reflection it appears that even the realm of academic writing purposefully seeks out reasons for further drafts to be completed.

Do not get me mistaken with someone who does not appreciate the necessity for new drafts or a significant review. We are all constantly striving to improve our writing to reach the highest standard, but sometimes reaching an agreeable standard may be the most difficult task of all.

Personally, I have found that I have had to change not only the ay in which I write, but also the style of my writing. Gone, I hope from an academic perspective at least, are the long winding and circuitous prose-like sentences of my former self. Now, brevity is king, but a frequently flexible ruler I should emphasise. I am no longer an expert and my opinion now counts for very little, and the quality of my craft once lauded for its finesse has been turned on its head by those who simply know so much more about the game I am trying to play. What I am trying to say here is that I have tried to be myself and found this coming up short and that a new writer needs to be found from somewhere within, if such a thing is possible.

So that is that. Academic writing has been me and it is where I have been. I am, more than ever, learning a new game and it is far from what I thought I was capable of. Probably I look at this as one of the biggest lessons I will learn, as I have been turned inside out a little, and I have had my confidence taken out, turned upside down and given a good shaking. What is left in my pockets is small change and probably a dirty tissue and a few receipts (what’s new?). I have to make do with this and what remains stuck to my bones. If that is possible, then I will do so. Until then, I had better go and catch up with some reading I should be doing. Education waits for no man, or woman.

 

P.S. To spite the system I am slowly being engulfed by I am avoiding a thorough review of this article in the hope that my genius shines through, spelling mistakes or no.

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September 1


There goes the summer. Without a blink or nod of recognition Autumn is upon us. There has been enough talk about the weather already so I shall spare you and I further discomfort. The Irish summer is a subject best discussed from more summery climes. Regardless it does little to explain the speed it passes with.

Maybe it is because today is a day I previously would have returned to work after a long and hot summer break. But I’m not in Korea any longer so it’s of little consequence. What is notable is that in July I went back to work and pretty much worked all through the summer, for better or worse, for the first time in around six years. You grow used to creature comforts like a two and half month summer holiday, which I’m probably only just about to appreciate a little more now.

Second and even more significant was that in May Herself gave birth to our second daughter, who I suppose you can refer to as +2 (not wanting to break from convention or anything). This happening has basically swamped us with greater responsibility and fears, and with me going back to work a little earlier than at first planned the challenges have been compounded. It is because of this a variety of emotional and physical challenges have personified our summer, normally considered a more relaxing time of year, as a hectic and frustration laden season.

One of the biggest challenges has been trying to keep +1 at the forefront of our attentions, while at the same time trying to care for a new and bubbly little baby girl. It’s not that we care any less for either of them, it’s just that all the time in the world we had before has now been split in two. This has been the challenge, but I think with +1 starting Montessori this week things will change a little for the better.

And now you wonder what lies ahead for this autumn and the winter that follows? We will continue on in hope and worry about the next step that needs to be taken.

Probably with the summer over I can worry less about missing the whole of my favourite season due to work commitments. Myself and Herself would love to travel again, and while we will be in London this weekend with her parents, I miss the sense of adventure experienced when visiting a country I’ve never seen before. We check the Ryanair prices all the time, but in the back of our minds is a big planned return to Korea next spring to celebrate +2’s and Herself’s new niece’s birthdays. Aside from the obvious festivity which would surround a trip like this, we are both keen to return and catch up with many of our friends who we miss.

I think at times this past year we have both worried was it the right decision to leave Korea. It has been a long year, as we suffered many ups and downs with my work situation and Herself’s pregnancy was not the rosy cheeked adventure anyone who has never had kids might imagine pregnancy to be. I think we reached breaking point on more than one occasion but despite these tribulations much has been overcome and we look forward to the future optimistically again.

It is always reassuring that despite your doubts when you can turn to someone you love and who you rely on and they can reassure you that the decisions made were the right ones and that there is little to be done about circumstance. Deep breaths, short sleeps, laughterless afternoons, hour after hour passing are trials easily overcome with the support of a loved one, and especially one who is as tired and stressed as you are.

I’m an optimist at the worst of times, and I feel that this will be my undoing in the long run. I am sitting in a café on Dublin’s Harrington Street looking out the big bay window as I type and there is tall and broad, bright green sycamore tree in front of me. Through the tiniest gaps in the leaves is a streak of blue through pale white clouds, and that is where I look to. Not to right where the a dark summer rain heavy cloud lurks in its steady progress to take over my scant blue triangle in the leaves. These small glimpses through the leaves are what motivate me. There is always a chance that something good will come of even the worst summer many Irish living can recall. I wish and I hope, and I encourage myself to see the brightness in the dark, the colour in the monochrome, and find the warm cinders in the long dead ashes of a fire.

September I look forward to you, and to October and November aswell. Sure who knows what will become of you, or us, or the people sitting around in the café where I write this. I can only hope the best for everyone.

 

Thanks for reading, if you liked what you saw here please leave a comment below and share your summer story, or perhaps tell me and your fellow readers what motivates you to get on with life.

 

Beautiful Catastrophe


There is something quite unnerving about revisiting statistics for an event which is long in the past. You could look at it as a way of validating the pedestal a particular event holds in time, which may be important. Or you could see it as a way of glorifying something truly horrific, and is likely never to happen again at least not in many lifetimes to come. It is with these perspectives that I clicked on The Fallen of World War II, a digital montage visualising the war casualties between 1939 and 1945.

…more at fallen.io

First up I should say that this is a slick and impressive display of the true cost to generations after the war ended. For major countries it is hard not to see how this war effected them. Often the dialogue surrounds the victors, and the price they paid for so called freedom (because, you know, the US and Britain were invaded and ruled for a brief period. Oh wait). Perhaps with the use of this video you can get a strong indication of how other countries really suffered. Indeed a quick scroll through the comments on Vimeo will show the level of appreciation of the maker’s visualisation.

Yet, I can’t really applaud this interpretation beyond the actual aesthetic, as there are far too many concerns raised here. This is especially important as this year sees the passing of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and we will be reassessing this past in the coming months.

It is well worth noting, and I do have The Fallen of World War II to thank for this important point, that to have fought in the war, veterans now would be at least in their late eighties, many would be in their early nineties. It is highly unlikely that there are many remaining, regardless of what country they fought for, and soon there will be none remaining. It is with this in mind that we need to take more care about how we interpret acts in history.

It’s very easy to do a statistical analysis of a historical event. With World War 2 it’s is particularly convenient as primarily we are discussing the actions of armies, together with their large bureaucratic arms that detail the specifics of each and every recruit, from all those who survived to all those who died. Knowing all this information, like the average age of new recruits, the amount of people who signed up from a particular town or the amount of Sagittarians that died on a Tuesday in 1942 serves a function which distances us from the ultimate tragedy of the Second World War.

The names of some of the people who lost their lives during World War II (Image courtesy rootsweb.ancestry.com)

I’m kind of a geek when it comes to reading over figures and statistics in history. I’m interested in populations, costs, quantities, and pretty much any other detail which can be extracted. But statistics, whether disputed or not, are merely numbers. To turn the millions of people who died into levels on fancy a bar chart does not settle easily with me.

There is little difference in this elaborate display of colours and stickmen to a chart with the countries listed in alphabetical order and the number of casualties detailed beside them. Creating a graph that shows how many people who died rising epically into some digital stratosphere still holds the same level of shock as when the number 20,000,000 is printed. Short of celebrating one’s own ability to create a quite beautiful display, it doesn’t make the lives that actually make up these statistics any less or more valuable.

British troops arrive on Normandy beaches signifying the beginning of the Battle of Normandy which saw over 400,000 soldiers killed.

What I struggle to accept though, looking at the larger picture, is that for all these people who did die, how do we celebrate their story? Does Ireland, a country that suffered only slightly in the war, deserve to be any less remorseful about the events which took place in Europe and Asia? How does a country like Russia or China, two countries that lost a catastrophic number of people, actually account for these lives? These are places we can find it difficult to imagine life in during those times, but grief like love is a universal factor, we all suffer from it to a comparable level. To me it seems that these people’s histories, and the sheer size of their tragedy, have been forced into statistics before we could ever understand them truly.

We are fortunate that the rich television history of the twentieth century has documented many of the ways in which life was lived both on the battle fields and at home. Recently we have been extra lucky to see more real-to-life interpretations, or as real-to-life as we are willing to be trusted with. Story telling brings us closer to the sadness wrought by the sudden death of a comrade, or the brutality of a shrapnel injury.

It is a story that seems to have been ignored. The countries which suffered the greatest loss of life decided to forget what happened. Can you blame them? Even a country like Poland rarely discusses this. Indeed it is not a surprise that the war is not a topic of conversation on every German’s lips, but I can be sure that those people are more aware than anyone of the history their nation created. I wish the same could be said for Japan.

As for the gaping hole in the generations of Russian and Chinese people who had to have been slaughtered to have perished in the quantities they did, what narrative or remembrance can we learn to truly understand a greater significance of World War II? I would hope we can create one which is not dominated by fancy graphics and data, but by realities wrought in the death and destruction of individuals whose fate was decided by men in offices in search of some class of glory.

 

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P.S. Describing every German soldier who fought and died in the war as a Nazi is an unfair accusation. You wouldn’t say that all the Russians were communists, and all the Americans patriots, or whatever.

About this Referendum


This post is about the Marriage Referendum taking place in Ireland on May 22nd. If you’ve read enough about this already, or you could do with any more views being forced down your throat, I advise you to click away now. For more on the referendum I will diplomatically direct you to the Referendum Commision’s website here.

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Few things get Ireland’s political juices boiling than a good old referendum. The eternal battle persists; on one side we have revelation inspired change and on the other we have dogma sprouting refusal. Yes versus No. In the grand scheme of things, it is Ireland’s forte in the political world.

Ireland is fortunate to have it written into our constitution that to change the constitution you must decide by plebiscite. This makes any changes anything but a small matter. In some cases little to no effort is paid to the procedure, while in other cases it is all that can be discussed. This May’s referendum has garnered so much attention it has even managed to quell the voracious Irish Water conflict, where we now see the likes of People Before Profit taking the same side as the government. But enough about that.

There has been an awful lot said so far about the decision that the country will have to make on May 22nd. Can people of the same sex marry each other? That is the question we are being asked. A simple tick in the box marked Yes or No will be all most people will be asked to make. There is little else that can be done from this point on, regardless of how much shouting for or against the motion one can make, it all comes down to each registered voters decision, which is what is most worrying for both sides.

A lot about this referendum has bothered me. Not the actually amendment, no, I am just concerned with the dialogue surrounding the canvasing, and the suggestions by both Yes and No camps as to the integrity of people’s ability to make their own decisions.

Let me just run through a few thoughts on this whole rigmarole.

  • The referendum is on allowing same sex couples the right to marry. That’s the only stipulation on the voting cards. Whether there are consequences following marriages is something that will have to be dealt with separately (as I believe to be the case already)
  • Ireland’s new found call for equality is an interesting phenomenon. I wonder what the Travelling community, as well as immigrants, those in direct provision, and even single mothers (to name a few categories) feel about this.
  • People do genuinely feel that they are being forced to vote Yes, and that by not voting Yes they are a bad person. I don’t think that this is fair.
  • If Ireland votes Yes it will only change the Ireland that homosexual people live in, and will have no bearing on my life, at least at this moment in time.
  • Civil partnership is not marriage, and married people have stronger protections under the law of this country than those under civil partnership. And even then if civil partnership is conceivably the same as marriage then what’s the problem with not allowing people to marry?
  • There’s been a lot of talk about ‘money from America’. I for one would hope that in the future it might be illegal for outside bodies i.e. non Irish (what was that about equality earlier?) to fund election campaigns, and that all those involved in canvassing should present their receipts, including political parties, private bodies, and *ahem* charities.
  • I good friend told me over a few pints a while back that he didn’t see the point in voting as he had voted No on two previous referendums but the (previous) government turned around and held the referendum again just to get the result they wanted. To be honest, I can see exactly where he’s coming from on this and would imagine that he is not alone in this feeling.

  • More than ever, this is a vote for the future of Ireland’s people. We just can’t tell who in our family in the future might be gay, and if that is the case I would hope that if this person is fortunate enough to find someone they dearly love enough to spend the rest of their life with them, this country would be a safe and secure place to do so. This is my own feeling for my own family, and for everyone’s family.
  • Marriage or getting married has nothing to do with procreation. When you say your vows there is no stipulation that you will or want to have children. It is about two people who love each other so much that they would like to spend the rest of their lives together securely and safely with the full benefits which the law provides for such situations. Also, plenty will tell you that you don’t need to be married to have kids.
  • I don’t go to Mass – the Catholic variety – but I would not like to be a fly on the wall to hear the vitriol coming from the pulpit of a Sunday.
  • There are two stigmas being exploited in this referendum; gay people and their antics regarding sex, and god fearing Catholics and their beliefs about marriage and sex. Apparently to vote in Ireland you have to be an adult…
  • It’s easier to be convinced this will be a Yes victory, but let us not forget that there is a population of people far from the viral reaches of social media who may be less convinced of the necessity of this amendment.
  • While branded by as a battle for Love and Equality, it seems to me to be clash between New and Old Ireland.
  • If Ireland says No, then what?
  • There’s actually a second referendum on the same day which seems to be getting absolutely zero attention.

It struck me as I compiled this list, is Ireland the only country that will allow its people to make this decision, rather than their elected officials?

I would like to say more about the new culture of misinformation which has been stoked in this referendum campaign, but I will admit that I am not in a strong enough position to discuss them here. But it bothers me, to say the least.


Photo © Wally Cassidy 2015 wallycassidy.com

What I see most of all in this debate however is the chance for Ireland to finally stand up and shake itself free from the grip of the Catholic Church’s authority. For a long time there has been no grip, and this grip has been severly loosened further after various heinous revelations about the way people in their responsibility where treated. This vote, if it is a Yes, and I do hope that it is because it is the right thing to do, will finally in a semi-official kind of way show that this country can make its own decisions and that we are ready to take ownership of our future for those of us who follow.

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Be sure to check out the #MarRef hashtag on the twitter for a wide range of opinions, experiences, and hatred – although good luck finding someone tweeting for a No vote…

Dandelion Land


The green that creeps from beneath is a steady process. Warming the eyes along with the flawless blue of the sky with its cotton wool clouds. Blue and green, that is spring for me. It is without saying a relief to welcome the colourisation of the country after the death of everything in winter.

I can’t say that I would like spring as much as I did if I didn’t dislike winter. When I was in Korea it was the dry and arid air, the biting cold winds, and the white bright sunlight pitching rays constantly. Winter in Korea is a time when snow storms were a relief from the constant squinting.

For my first winter in Ireland I expected the long days of wind and rain, a grey and lifeless landscape, and the damp that seems to find everywhere. But it was the darkness which caught me off guard. The sun setting at four o’clock in the afternoon swallowed the evening in absolute night, and leaving myself, Herself, and +1 staring at each other at home, expecting something to happen.

Much like Korea, Ireland’s winter swallows up all the visible life. But for the crows hovering overhead, perfectly silhouetted in any weather but more so in the overcast of December and January, little signs of life persist. Waiting for the world to awaken after winter follows a similar pattern in Ireland and Korea. Snowdrops show first, white exaggerated in the damp mud of flowerbeds. Then the shoots of daffodils break through the earth.

In Korea at this time of year you can’t take a step left or right without seeing a cherry blossom tree blooming. Even in the most sun deprived thoroughfare hectic with traffic, a much desiccated looking tree will be blooming as resplendently as its excessively pruned bows will allow. I’ve always thought it to be a bit over the top.

Yet a few weeks ago I was driving into Dublin’s city centre and at Cabra Cross, just by the McDonalds and Tesco the traffic stopped. This is one of Dublin’s less dynamic traffic spots, and it certainly is not an attractive part of the city – but let’s not be too harsh as there are worse place to be stuck in traffic. I looked out the window, and much like those very deprived looking cherry blossoms, at the base of a tree were some frail and gutter mud splattered daffodils, attempting to be as resplendent as their situation allowed.

 

Now the daffodils are slowly dying off, but the trees have gradually been warming our eyes as first the hedges and now the trees start to green with spring. It’s not long after this that the dandelions come out, yellowing in a peppered splay across any grassy patch. A sure sign the warm weather has returned is dandelion seeds tumbling carelessly in the breeze of a sun splashed afternoon.

We call these piss-in-the-beds because if you pick one you will wet the bed, or so we were told as children. But I wonder would the dandelion be as common if it weren’t for children blowing their seeds at every opportunity.

I wake up early most mornings to the new sound of spring, as thousands of different noises come through to my room. Birds singing, mostly, but the leaves rustling in an April gust comes frequently enough. There’s also the silence of morning, something I can’t remember from Korea. Where no noise from the street permeates the walls, and looking out the window all I can do is really imagine the sound.

More so than before I appreciate my new domain in Ireland. The garden, green, and all the other colours it presents, and the breeze and the birds, it’s a long way from my old position watching for glimpses of life on the twentieth floor in Suwon. They are two different places, and nowhere can either be compared. Ask me if I prefer one, I’d probably prefer to not answer that but I would say that I’m happy where I am for now. All I need now is for someone to cut the grass for me…