It was a Thursday afternoon; I was perched up in the corner of my favorite local coffee shop with a back-pack full of books that teetered somewhere between impressive and embarrassing. I was in the middle of what I refer to as the “gathering” stage of research for an upcoming writing project. In this tedious stage of the academic process, I aim to collect and organize the pertinent literature concerning my topic at hand. Usually, this stage begins by me scouring far too many electronic databases for all peer-reviewed articles dealing with my topic or corollary topics. Over a few months, I will work through the collection of articles with an eye towards further arguments or sources of which I am ignorant. Of course, this gathering period of my research process typically leads to something of an avalanche of both primary and secondary literature.
That Thursday, in the middle of this particular gathering session, I could feel a growing frustration in my chest; I had an exasperation welling up due to the intersection of two tightly held academic convictions. I am simultaneously convinced of two propositions when it comes to the academic life:
- You should probably not write on a topic until you have something like an expertise. And
- You typically grow into an expertise on a given topic by doing the difficult work of writing on it.
That day, I had the all-to-common feeling for academics: While compiling the ever-growing list of literature I ought to read for this project, at some point I was going to have to simply begin actually writing. Sadly, the coexistence of these two convictions can lead to the ongoing presence of “imposter syndrome” in which you never quite get to the point of feeling competent to write on a subject as there will always be one more article to read. That feeling began to grow and I was caught in that tangled place of feeling like I hadn’t earned the right to put pen to paper just yet while at the same time realizing that it’s impossible to finish the race if you never mount the starting blocks. In my moment of frustration, I did what many young academics do, I tweeted about it.
The post raised a number of interesting responses, and I was relieved that this confluence of paradoxical convictions was far from rare. In fact, it seemed like quite a few of my colleagues in academia shared a similar burden and I had not a few friends continue the conversation offline.
While many of these colleagues found themselves caught between these two convictions, there were others who seemed to push towards one or the other. For some, the academic life is one that ought to be marked by slow and careful thought in which scholars dare not rush the life of the mind. These brothers and sisters insisted that publishing too young or too often was a sign of pre-mature thought that lacked the proper marination. (Or, more detrimental, might even be the sign of an imbalance in a scholar’s personal life) However, on the other hand, those with a more active writing and publishing life were adamant that the development of expertise will remain just out of the scholars reach until he throws abstraction into the furnace of the written word. In fact, some even pointed to publications which seem to insist on this very idea—the idea that you will simply not reach a desired level of familiarity with your topic of interest if you do not put yourself through the grueling process of writing.
Given that a good majority of my life consists of writing projects, I decided it might be a worthwhile exercise—if for myself alone—to sit with this tension a little longer. In doing so, I was able to wrestle with a few lingering thoughts.
Ironically enough, even writing these reflections became an exercise in this very tension. For, I do not have the expertise to be offering writing advice by way of a short article. Nevertheless, in constructing this piece, I was able to work through my own thoughts and learn along-the-way. At any rate, here are four brief reflections about the writing life at the tension of these two convictions:
Four Brief Reflections About Writing and Expertise
First, it is vital to determine what kind of writing is to be done. Not everything you write ought to be published. If you are writing for publication, it will obviously change the standard for levels of expertise needed to truly add to the scholarly conversation in meaningful ways. Yet, not all writing should be for publication. In fact, developing writing habits in which you pursue writing pieces that may never see the light of day could even help you kill the gravitational pull of pragmatism that much of modern publication trends struggle from today. Moreover, even if you do want to write for a publication, you can still contemplate the kind of publication you’re aiming for. This first reflection seems to be a strong argument for why some scholars ought to pursue publication in peer-reviewed articles. Articles, along with conference talks, are a good place to work on developing both expertise and writing.
Second, even if your project will be published in a form longer than an article or conference presentation, there is still some delineating what kind of publishing project it will be. There is a significant difference between the kind of project in which you think, “I have a unique angle on this subject and my goal is to simply move the conversation down the field ten yards” versus thinking something like, “This is a revolutionary idea that will be a paradigm shift in my particular field.” Very few works fall in this latter category and you’re likely setting yourself up for failure if you think all your writing projects will be thought of as such. (Also a good reason not to market them as such as well.) Writing with a goal of realistic impact can also help right-size what level of expertise is needed before, during, and after the publication.
Third, consider the value of a terminal degree. Of course, getting a PhD, in any field, will not give you the expertise to write a dozen monographs. Yet, doctoral work should instill you with the tools needed for expertise development. A good doctoral program should give you an awareness of the history of literature, a familiarity with the needed original languages, and a sense of where particular conversations are and are going in your field. These skills mean that you will not be starting from scratch but applying developed expertise towards a new end.
Fourth, and finally, regardless of where you stand on the relationship between writing and expertise, be sure to avoid two ditches. The two ditches are the fear of man and the applause of man. On the one side, it might be tempting to never actually get to producing work or publishing work because of a crippling fear of man. Letting go of a writing piece and allowing it to move into a public space is an invitation for all sorts of criticism. The thought of potentially being proven wrong, a scathing review, or a host of other issues could be reason enough for competent and capable writers and scholars to never engage in the writing life. On the other side, you ought to avoid over publication—or publishing at all—in hopes to achieve the applause of man. It is no secret that trade or academic publishing can come with an increasing level of attention. However, there have been far too many ill-advised titles published in hopes of applause. This is why so many bookstores are filled with authors and works that are not a product of steadfast and faithful contemplation, but of a few quick turn-of-phrases masking as thoughtfulness. Both issues, the fear of man and the applause of man, ought to be avoided in the strongest possible ways.
There is certainly much else to say about this tension and I’m fairly confident I will be living in it for the rest of my writing life. However, I’ll attempt to offer a conclusion to these reflections with where I landed the conversation in my head:
Maybe it is a vice hardwired into my DNA, but I tend to find myself living in the “middle” of most conversations. This one was not an exception. As the two sides developed online, in my text threads, and even in my own mind, I saw legitimacy in both lanes of thinking. I think there is some truth and wisdom on both sides—those who wish to write and publish slow and insist on expertise development before production, *and* those who argue that expertise development comes by production. I see legitimacy in both thoughts. At the end of the day, I think what might be healthiest is to reframe the question. Instead of “which side do I agree with?” The better question seems to be, “What rhythms in my writing life allows me to produce thoughtful work and maintain my soul, health, and family?” This may seem like a cop-out answer to the disagreement, if so—so be it. May we move forward contemplating our subjects in hopes to develop robust expertise while also learning along-the-way as we force our thoughts onto the page of writing—seen or unseen.