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Writing in the Time of COVID-19

Tomorrow's Research

Message Number: 
1790

It’s time to write.  

Folks:

The posting below puts a perspective on our current situation by reminding us of the opportunity it presents to do the writing we want or need to do.  It is by Professor Helen Sword* in the HERDSA CONNECT), the magazine of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

 

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Feedback: The Foundation of Kind Leadership

 

Tomorrow’s Research

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Writing in the Time of COVID-19

 

Remember when we all used to complain about having no time to write?  For all the precious lives and ordinary pleasures that the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of, this global calamity has bestowed on some academic writers a rare and unexpected gift: a calendar uncluttered by meetings, social events, or conference travel.  Yet those of us fortunate enough to have been granted such a windfall may find ourselves frittering away our days on Sudoku puzzles or Netflix movies, then lying awake at night asking ourselves, “Why am I not getting any writing done?”  

Meanwhile, for many of our colleagues and students, the coronavirus crisis has sucked away what little writing time they might otherwise have salvaged from a busy semester. Suddenly and with scant warning, they have had to shift their teaching and learning online while also shouldering an array of other burdens: responding to emails from worried friends, providing pastoral care for anxious students, shopping for elderly relatives, home-schooling restless children, shoring up newly unemployed family members – to say nothing of looking after their own physical and emotional wellbeing. 

What these two groups of academic writers share in common is an underlying sense of guilt that we are not all behaving like high-performance automatons, effortlessly pumping out high-quality research in the midst one of the most significant social and political upheavals of our lifetime.  Having been schooled in the art of self-flagellation, we have lost sight of the key scholarly skill that we need most in the time of COVID-19: self-forgiveness.  

Human beings write for many reasons, most of which have nothing to do with academic audit regimes or publication metrics.  For example, we may write to:

  • Think – and prompt our readers to think – harder, deeper, and longer about things that matter.
  • Engage with each other, with ourselves, and with the world.
  • Anchor ourselves in history; think of Daniel Defoe’s gripping Journal of the Plague Year or that most poignant of historical shelter-in-place narratives, the diary of Anne Frank.  
  • Create new knowledge, new intellectual products, and new verbal artefacts, whether through the publication of academic research or through imaginative outputs such as fiction or poetry.
  • Heal; a wide body of scholarship has documented the therapeutic value of writing directly about our most painful experiences, from emotional trauma to physical injury and illness.  

It’s no coincidence that I’ve lined up these five keywords to spell out the acronym TEACH.  Writing teaches us to make sense of ourselves and the world: to challenge ourselves, to learn, and to grow.  

Whether or not you feel as academically productive as you would like to be in these strange, unsettling times, it is crucial to remember that you are still a writer.  Every time you scribble a few lines of poetry in your personal journal or tap out a WhatsApp message to a friend, you are coaxing language into new forms and salving the open wound of this troublesome moment in our history.  Indeed, by validating and valuing the writing that you are already doing – that is, by listening to what your own words have to teach you – you may discover new ways of carving out more of that writing time you crave: time to think; time to engage with others; time to be anchored in the present; time to create new knowledge; and time to begin the process of healing.  

It’s time to write.  

*Professor Helen Sword is in the School of Humanities, The University of Auckland, Auckland New Zealand.  h.sword@auckland.ac.nz

She is a scholar, poet and prize-winning teacher who has published widely on academic writing and writers.  To help writers find their way back to their writing, she has launched a new “Resources for Writers” website (www.helensword.com) with links to academic writing retreats, professional masterclasses, free YouTube videos, innovative online tools, a curated bookshop, and more.