bourdieu and blogs (yes, really)

Today I’ve been wondering about a field analysis, a la Bourdieu, of academic publishing. I dare say someone’s done this and it’s just one of the very many, many things that I haven’t caught up with.

I’ve been thinking about academic writing as a field. That’s because blogging is generally seen as a pretty low’ form of academic writing/publishing, certainly when compared to the ‘high’ status peer reviewed journal article and scholarly monograph. While both journals and books have different exchange value in different disciplines and policy contexts, they patently have much more status than blogs.

Some minority activities do of course have status in their fields – like the avant garde in art for instance. Well, I mean what used to be avant garde before we all became unshockable and it all became big business. But the vast majority of academic blogs are not avant-garde, certainly not in the way that some other scholarly digital publications are – collaborative platforms, non linear publications and so on, as produced by the digital just-add-name-of-discipline folk.

Blogging seems to have taken over from writing for newspapers as a suspect scholarly writing activity. Once upon a time, and certainly in my living memory, academics who wrote for the popular press were seen as somewhat egotistical. They were often assumed to be tainted by a need to expose themselves in public. It was all a bit unseemly, excessive and untoward, unnecessary hubris. These days, writing for newspapers, certainly in the UK, has less of the cheap and tawdry about it. It’s public engagement. It’s impact. It’s talking to the research user community. Writing for the press has come in from the margins of scholarly activity and is much more mainstream.

The outcast position on the nether regions of academic writing has transferred from writing for the media to writing the blog. The academic blog seems to have about the same kind of cultural cache as your average airport novel. It’s a low status time wasting activity. Of course, some blogs are more respectable than others. Any Bourdieusian analysis would have to do a bit of work on which kind of academic blogs were most on the nose and why. There are hierarchies even at the edges.

But if blogging is a ‘low’ scholarly practice, it’s also one where many of those/us who are involved have a bit of an attitude. We like blogging, we can see a point and we’re a bit tired of the assumption that it’s a kind of self indulgent distraction from the Real Work. At the same time there’s perhaps a certain pleasure in being part of a minority who are out there on the boundaries of respectable academic activity, dabbling in something that just may, in its turn, become mainstream at some point in the future. In fields, many things on the borders of respectability do eventually have their day.

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book blogging – it’s done but not dusted

We’ve played The Hallelujah Chorus. We’ve bounced around to Bowie’s Let’s dance. We’ve shouted Ole and Hooray several times.

Yes, we’ve finished a first draft.

We have 80,000 words or so – 60,000 of which were written in the last twelve days. We are indeed, with apologies to Sophie Tucker, the red-hot writing Mamas.

We still can’t quite believe what we’ve done. In trying to work out exactly how we’ve managed to get this book into its crappy first draft form, the only metaphor that comes to mind is that of an island.

We’ve been in self-imposed exile on Writing Island. We sailed off somewhere between 8 and 9 each morning and left after a full eight hour day’s work around 4pm.

We weren’t entirely cut off from the world of course – there were strategic trips off-shore for the odd bit of essential shopping.  But the reality is that the writing continued even in apparent down-time. We talked about what we were doing over lunch and thought about it when we were making cups ot tea. We did go out a few times at night, but at the end of an eight-hour stint on the island all we really just needed to do was sit, mute, with a glass of wine and some mindless television.

We ended our triumphant day today organising how to work on the text once I go back to the UK. There isn’t going to be any more face-to-face co-writing, no more eight hour days, no more waking up with a new thought about how to organise a chunk of material. We’ve left our Writing Island for good.

We now have to manage revisions – remotely.

So we’ve constructed a formidable diary of reading and skyping. We’ll start by reading the whole text looking for omissions, misplaced sections, and the way we’ve used metaphors and examples throughout the text. We ‘ll then go through the text, chapter by chapter – one chapter per week. A third run-through involves working with bundles of chapters. By the final once-through in mid May (that’s the fourth), we expect to have turned our crappy first draft into the final fabulous version ready to submit to the publisher.

There’ll be no more Writing Island. That’s a relief, but also somewhat sad. I don’t think I can twist Barbara’s arm to write yet another book. However, getting this text revised and finessed will be a constant feature of our lives for another six months.

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book blogging – managing tiredness

We’ve now recognised a pattern in this two-days per chapter fast-writing business. The first day is harder than the second. That’s because on the first day we have to work out how to rhetorically frame the chapter and the order that things will go in, as well as decide on the strategies and exemplar texts that we’ll use. This means that we have to produce more words on the second day – but we make less decisions.  Inevitably, the first day is more frustrating than the second; the writing feels harder and is generally much less enjoyable than we’d ideally like.

We can now add to this two-day pattern the fact that we are getting tired. We’ve never actually written together for as long as this. We did a pretty decent slab of time in Singapore, but not the two and half weeks that we’re doing now.

We’d liked to have stopped  yesterday. But we couldn’t. We have more to do and still have a few days together. Although we can see our next Monday evening end-point looming, we have quite a bit of text to churn out before then.

So how are we managing this intensity and creeping exhaustion? Well, this morning was a bit sweary. Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I do have a tendency to sweariness, and this gets worse when I get tired. My will is centred on keeping going rather than keeping my tongue in check. Barbara’s computer is playing up and, as she was doing a lot of the typing this morning, she had the odd uncouth word to say too. So a slightly sweary morning.

But by this afternoon we had to do something drastic. We really, really wanted to stop. So we resorted to music clips on youtube to summon up a bit of energy.

We started with Working in a coal mine, by Devo. “ Whew, about to slip down, Lord I’m so-o-o-o-o tired. How long can this go on”… followed by Kraftwerk on the endless Autobahn. “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn”. etc etc… We didn’t quite manage the 22 minute version. Finally, and not too far off hysteria by this point, we opted for Talking Heads Burning down the house. “Hold tight, wait till the party’s over, Hold tight, we’re in for nasty weather, There has got to be a way, Burning down the house…”

Hands waving in the air, singing loudly, we pumped ourselves up enough to make the last run at the chapter for the day. Both of us are now comatose and semi-coherent. We will have a very quiet and anti-social evening to ensure we can get back to it again tomorrow.

Today we managed 4,500 words and amassed most of the bits and pieces we need for the rest of Chapter 8.

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book blogging – making room for two

Ta dah. Loud fanfare. We have now written seven chapters, five of them in this sitting. That’s two days per chapter. Whew.

We’ve had to be pretty organised to achieve this level of productivity. We’ve not only done a lot of pre-preparation and made a good and flexible plan, but we have our working space organised too.

As some patter readers will already know, Barbara and I use the sit-and-write-together approach. We talk and talk and take turns typing. We compose the text together – sometimes speaking at once, sometimes talking over each other and sometimes speaking in turn. Our joint method of writing produces ‘one voice’ – this is neither Barbara nor I, but is the ‘voice’ of our books and workshops.

This is not the same as other forms of co-writing and is something that cannot be achieved with everyone. Most people who write together either write separate sections of the whole text, or one person writes a full draft with the other(s) doing the next version. We can’t do this. Our first draft is always written side by side, written together.

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Barbara’s office is set up for our joint writing. Two chairs are positioned so that we can both see the big screen of the desktop computer. One of us sits on the side chair – this is so they can turn around and use the notebook to search out files in our shared Drop Box, or google something we’ve suddenly decided we need. If one of us in the side chair gets impatient they are close enough to reach over and take over the mouse and keyboard temporarily. There’s usually an ipad floating around too because that’s a bit quicker to use than the notebook.

We have the books we use most on the table so that we can refer to them, and we have some files printed out ready for examination. However, most of our pre-prepared work is not paper-based but online.

There’s lots of pens and paper for making notes of things we don’t want to forget to do.  And there’s various kinds of paper. Barbara favours yellow legal pads. I prefer post-its. We have plenty of both. And we have hand lotion. Well, you do notice your hands a lot when you’re working all day on a keyboard!

We’ve worked our little fingers quite a lot already, but there is still a way to go. We have four days left to write and we are getting more than a bit worn out, but there are two more chapters to go… Stay tuned.

 

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book blogging – a day to remember

No matter how good the plan you started with, chances are that at some point in the book writing you’ll change some of it. Sometimes this is because, as you write, you realise that things need to be in a slightly different order or they need to be grouped differently. Another reason for plan-changing might be that you remembered something that you ought to have put in in the first place.

That’s what happened to us. We finished off the chapter we’d been working on by mid morning. We didn’t think that was what we were going to do yesterday, we thought it would take the whole day to complete. But that wasn’t the case.

It’s not that we wrote extra fast. No. It was more the case that we had finished without realising it. After we’d completed what we had planned as the penultimate chapter section, we realised that it really was enough. It wasn’t penultimate at all. It was The End.

In reality we’d written a chapter’s worth already – about seven and a half thousand words. This meant that what we had originally planned as the last section of the chapter was really far too big to end on. In fact, it was so big it was about another half a chapter’s worth of words. We actually had a chapter and a half in our plan.

It was back to reshuffling content again. We had to make a whole new chapter. What to put in it without destroying the integrity of the other final chapters? Did we have to come up with something new at this late stage? AARGH.

And then, we remembered. How could we have forgotten? We know that we have to address this question. It obviously goes in this brand new chapter… where was it in the plan? Nowhere. We heaved a big sigh of relief because we knew it would all be OK. We had something else to say. We knew what we were doing again.

So what was it we’d forgotten? Well, I’m almost too ashamed to say. But you won’t tell will you …  It was the perennial question about writing the researcher into the thesis. We needed to provide answers to the questions that we get asked all the time. Should I use “I”? What’s the difference between an ordinary first person plural and a scholarly “I”? How can I talk about myself in the thesis without sounding really egocentric? Do I have to write anything about myself and if so why and how? How much do I have to write about myself?

We can’t really believe that we forgot this, but we did. However, our trusty collective subconscious saved us from the ignominy of a doctoral writing book that doesn’t deal with one of the most common dilemmas faced by many doctoral researchers. But we remembered.

Today, we love our book writing process – and that part of the brain that keeps on checking that we’ve included everything we need to. And it does this magic remembering even if we don’t explicitly tell it to. As Poirot would put it, “It is the brain, the little grey cells on which one must rely. One must seek the truth within–not without.” Or in our case, rather than the truth, one must seek the blindingly obvious within … 

We sought, and we found, Hercule. We found. Bless our little grey cells.

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book blogging – wallowing in mud

Sometimes this book writing business is very hard work. Mostly it’s not. Barbara and I chatter, laugh and write fast. It’s perhaps because it’s generally good fun and productive that the reverse experience comes as a bit of a shock.

Today was grim. Even though at the end of the day we have some 3,500 words, a clear place to start tomorrow and a revised plan, it’s been pretty tough going.

Today has been wading through mud. Gloopy, sticky, thick, hard to get clear of mud.

We struggled to get going again after our break. We couldn’t find out how to start off the next, new chapter. We had several goes at ordering the contents. We made many false starts. There was a lot of cutting and pasting, moving about, rewriting and patching up as we went along.

It wasn’t until the very end of the day, in fact just before Barbara went off for Nana duties with the grandchildren, that we felt that we actually had something that was OK.

Part of today’s problem was getting stuff out of my head – this is a chapter which, in part, builds on some of the supervision pedagogies that I use. I took so much of it for granted that it was difficult for Barbara to see where I was going with it. But the wallowing in mud feeling was also because a substantial part of the chapter is what we’ve written before. We needed to say some things that we both know really well and believe in passionately – but say them in different ways. Usually that’s fairly easy. Today it wasn’t.

We were stuck in our usual rhetoric and our history of explanations. Even new examples didn’t get us unstuck.

We behaved pretty well considering the frustrating time we were having. Neither of us lost our temper. Neither of us walked out. Neither of us stopped trying. Even though there were several cups of tea along the way, we didn’t take an unusually long lunch, even though that was a pretty tempting proposition. We just kept going.

In the end we got up and out of the mud simply through a stubborn refusal to give up – or perhaps I should rephrase that positively and say we got through the difficult period because of our self-discipline. We are able to force ourselves to keep writing till we have done a reasonable amount, reasonably well. And just as well.

It was a relief to stop. And we are certainly hoping for clear ground tomorrow.

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book blogging – and on the seventh day they rested

Barbara and I have built a little break into the middle of our writing time. We know that we can’t work really intensively for two and a bit weeks. That’s too much altogether. We had to anticipate that we’d run out of puff and organise our schedule to take time out.

We started this longish period of writing with the introduction and a couple of chapters in hand. We’ve now completed another three chapters and we have three more to go. We made good progress last week. We wrote fast. We invented some new things. We’re pretty happy with what we have on a first run through. But now…

We are certainly in a small dip in energy and focus. It’s pretty tiring writing so much so quickly. And so this weekend we’ve had Saturday off. Today, Monday will also be a day off as I am off out of the house giving a seminar about some of my other work. This weekend, we’ve seen friends, been to a film and had a meal out. Barbara has worked with her poetry group. We’ve done some of these things separately so we’re out of each others’ hair. We’ve tried to take our minds away from book writing.

But we did do some preparatory work on Sunday, accumulating some of the material we will start with on Tuesday. However, when we looked at our plan we had a few inklings that the next, last steps may not be quite what we need. So we know already that when we get back to it on Tuesday that we will be starting with a definite chunk of material, but we may need to play around a little with what goes where in the final three chapters. We need a good firm plan, and can’t write fast without one.

That’s OK. We have allowed enough time for talking and moving things around, as well as for writing as fast as we possibly can. We’re back to it tomorrow.

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