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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A Lesson in Perseverance


In 2008 I was on the brink of getting married, and I was busy contemplating what to do afterwards. There were plenty of options, easy and less easy, but none painted in any way a clear picture of the future.

At the time I was working in a relatively big language school on the south side of Seoul and I was nearing the end of my third year. I didn’t have any teaching qualifications, but much like today I talked a good fight and fancied my chances regardless of what happened.

Of course marriage was going to change everything. There was the obvious and easier option and then there was the riskier and more exciting option that you don’t hear of many newly-weds taking, at least not in Korea anyway.

As a couple we’d been pretty straight forward. We would travel around the country and take as many breaks as possible, we spent money as liberally as our bank balances would allow in restaurants and shops, and me in bars. We were having fun in that situation and that was what mattered. But I don’t think we took any major risks.

Seoul, 2008

Seoul, 2008

Just before my contract was ending I was applying around for university teaching jobs in Korea, because we had decided that we would work a little, save, and then travel together to study in Ireland or the UK. I was mostly unsuccessful until I got offered a job at a small enough university in Daegu. We were both quite intrigued and curious about the possibilities this new opportunity would deliver.

Now, let me let you in on a few things. I didn’t have anything higher than a BA degree at the time, and I had no formal qualifications as well as fairly limited experience. The job I had been offered presented little in the way of a pay rise, and it would also involve a big move down to an unfamiliar city where neither of us knew anyone.

We bit the bullet.

I applied for a few masters courses in the UK, extended my contract until a month before our wedding day, and sat down to wait. Before long I had received a letter of acceptance (and a couple of rejections too I might add) to the University of Southampton.

Now let’s not be naïve, Southampton on England’s south coast was an even a bigger risk than Daegu; we knew hardly anyone in the UK with the exception of my brother and his girlfriend and a scattering of friends in London, we’d never lived in the UK, and I’d only been there twice before and both times briefly. Despite this, we went for it because it was the payoff that we were aiming for.

So we headed back to Ireland once I finished working, then came back to Korea, via a long weekend in Hong Kong, and got married with my parents and all four of my brothers in attendance, then lumped a pile of bags on them as they flew back to Ireland, and we packed our bags for two weeks in Turkey for our honeymoon. We then moved on to Ireland where my parents threw a huge party in the back garden with a marquee and gallons of booze, and then we went down to Kerry in the south of Ireland and proceeded to travel up the west coast through Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and into Donegal, which took us about two weeks. A second honeymoon if you will.

Bozcaada, Turkey

Bozcaada, Turkey

While this road trip was taking place, I got a phone call and got accepted onto an English language teaching certificate course in Dublin, which I accepted, and cut our road trip short.

After finishing the course, we began to prepare for the move to Southampton. This involved a very demotivating visit to the town where we found that another university in the town had made a mess of their halls allocation, leaving half the students without previously promised accommodation. This left the vast majority of cheap accommodation close to the campus to be already occupied before we even got off the plane. In a whirlwind visit we eventually settled on a small two bedroomed place on the ground floor on the opposite side of town to the university. This wasn’t an issue as I only had a few classes a week; most of the time I would spend would be doing my own reading and research, and I could easily walk into the university as it was a brisk 45 minute walk away.

I won’t lie, but aside from the course the year in Southampton was almost a disaster. Hiccup after hiccup befell us. Herself struggled to find any form of work, and she felt genuinely discriminated against. I couldn’t find any teaching work – I later learned that nearby Bournemouth was a hub for English language schools but was still too awkward to get to regularly – and ended up working in a supermarket on minimum wage. Our apartment turned out to have little to no heat, and the place soon got enveloped in damp and mould. We were lonely and we were broke.

In a cemetery next to Southampton Common.

In a cemetery next to Southampton Common.

I remember one incident in particular when we were walking back from the college where I had classes and Herself directed me towards the supermarket because we needed to pick up some things for dinner. I was terrified the whole time because sooner or later I was going to have to tell her we had only 25 pounds left in the bank. When I did tell her it is her face and reaction that I can remember and will forever.

She paused and faced me, stiff as an old iron rod, her eyes dropping, sucked of life and close to tears, as sad as I’ve ever seen them. Her mouth dropped half open, and her fists clenched tightly in desperation around the little piece of yellow paper with the small list of household basics we needed for dinner.

In the end I placated her, and we went into the supermarket and picked up the absolute necessities on the list. I should add that the supermarket was ASDA, so there was no shortage of cheap things, but still it was the first time, and only time, we’ve felt so vulnerable.

We pulled together and learned to adapt fast. In my supermarket job I had the pick of the food about to expire which was always sold at cut prices. I picked up bread, chickens, bacon, sausages, vegetables, ham, cheese, and every other variety of product and often for less than 50p – about 1000 KRW. This in the end probably saved us. Things began to eventually work themselves out and everything got a lot easier in the end, fortunately.

Howth Harbour, July 2009.

Howth Harbour, July 2009.

After a long year we moved back to Ireland where I finished my dissertation and Jin Won eventually found work in customer service to Korean customers on an international website that was based in Dublin. And in the Autumn, after I’d received my final grade for my masters – a grade I was simply happy to get but I should have been disappointed with considering the work I put in – I returned to the job market in Korea, where I eventually found work. That was in January of 2010, and by March I was back at work in Korea hoping on a semblance of normality.

It’s a long story but it’s worth putting across the trials we put ourselves through. Not only was it hard work, it was an amazing experience learning to grow with Herself, because when all is said and done, after all the difficulties of empty bank accounts, old food, the damp apartment, the lack of work, and all those other things, myself and Herself really just had a great time together. If anyone got us through that period it was both of us.

We persevered for the sake of getting a better deal. We took an unconventional route for newlyweds, and we opened ourselves to the possibility of doing things the other way. We haven’t looked back from the experiences. I think we’ve kind of trained ourselves to be irresponsible, as these days we’re always looking for where we can travel to next, as opposed to saving up money and looking towards the distant future. But while that lesson may be a bad one, we are no longer afraid of making the necessary change to get ahead in life, and that’s more important than anything if you ask me.

Sometimes you have to get out and find what it is that’s looking for you. This sounds like one of those silly overly idealistic quotes you see popping up on your twitter or Facebook feed, but you know it’s true. The problem is taking the bait and being hooked in. Our conscience says that the outcome could be of great benefit but it could all go belly up in the end.

Jumunjin, Gangwon-do, February 2010.

Jumunjin, Gangwon-do, February 2010.

I think though, for me, what made me realise all this and suddenly appreciate it more all of a sudden was a conversation I had in work the other day. I was talking to a Phd student in our department, and American I believe, who worked in the university that I turned down five years ago before I got married.

I learned that I made the right decision, as I now worked in a department with four other foreign faculty members, with little or no interference from management (they have their own classes to worry about) and a minimum amount of paperwork. The job relies on me to honestly and professionally teach my students. What I had avoided was a faculty of over 100 foreign teachers strictly regimented with many aspects of their classes and courses dictated for them (why schools do this I can never understand).

I walked away from that conversation relieved, knowing that while the previous years had been difficult, I had gained from them. I had strengthened my relationship with my wife, found a better understanding of the necessity of knowing what you want to do, learned the importance of enjoying yourself even during tough times, and found out five years later that a decision I made paid off. It is something I should do well to take into account when making decisions in the future.