Blogging your way to better writing

[B]logging is in and of itself academic writing and academic publication. It’s not an add-on. It’s now part and parcel of the academic writing landscape. As such, it is of no less value than any other form of writing. Even though audit regimes do not count blogs – yet – this does not lessen their value. And therefore those of us who engage in bloggery need to stop justifying it as a necessary accompaniment to the Real Work of Serious Academic Writing. Blogs are their own worthwhile thing.

Pat Thomson, “Seven reasons why blogging can make you a better academic writer” Times Higher Education 2 January 2016 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/seven-reasons-why-blogging-can-make-you-better-academic-writer  (Originally posted 7 December 2015 on https://patthomson.net/2015/12/07/blogging-helps-academic-writing/)

Thomson argues that blogging “informs and supports other academic writing” in the following ways. Blogging:

  1. Establishes writing as routine;
  2. Allows you to experiment with your “voice”;
  3. Helps you focus on one point;
  4. Helps you find and write to your audience;
  5. Develops concise writing;
  6. Allows experimentation with different writing forms; and
  7. Develops writing confidence.

Blogging is academic writing

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Reverse Outlining

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Reverse outlining is a new technique to me and I’m planning to give it a go. This post by Ellie Mackin demonstrates how the method works.

 

So, what’s the point of reverse outlining? Breaking things down in a paragraph-by-paragraph way lets you look at the overall structure in a much smaller, and therefore clearer, way.  Sometimes, if I am stuck, I will write out the topic of each paragraph of a post-it note and play around with the way they might fit together (another variation on this is to cut out the actual paragraphs and play with the order).  It means I can do some fairly major restructuring with great(er) ease. It often just seems so obvious that the order of paragraphs (and sections) is wrong.

Ellie Mackin, “Reverse Outlining,” Dr. Ellie Mackinhttp://www.elliemackin.net/blog/reverse-outlining 13 March 2015

 

More on Engagement via Social Media

Classics has been in crisis over its relatability for the entire time that I have been a classicist. But increasingly there are classicists who are interested in speaking to an audience beyond just the one which has typically been granted access to a classical education — and for these scholars, “outreach” is an ethical issue. There are groups of people, underrepresented and/or maligned in the past, which are now becoming more visible than ever. And one of the ways in which these groups have become more visible, is due to the power of representation which social media give them. When scholars engage online – even if their research has nothing to do with social issues – they can be witnesses to the kinds of problems which their students and their colleagues face that don’t necessarily occur to them from just their own experience.

Hannah Čulík-Baird, “Review: Social Media for Academics–Mark Carrigan

If you enjoyed my post “Thoughts on Twitter Outreach,” please take the time to read Hannah Čulík-Baird’s post “Review: ‘Social Media for Academics’–Mark Carrigan” . I am currently reading Carrigan’s book, and it is a great resource on how to think about social media and academics. While specific social media platforms will come and go, social media itself is not going anywhere, and Carrigan provides an excellent argument for how engaging with social media enhances our work as academics.

As scientists, we owe it to the world to do a better job communicating the wonders of science, and the incredible discoveries being made by our field, to everyone around us. And in this moment of history, when addressing scientific issues has never been more urgent and important, we have a special duty to share our knowledge, expertise, and passion with the wider world. It is part of our social compact as scientists.

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Naturally, I am not suggesting that everyone should do everything — run a big lab, teach several courses, and then write a blog, regularly engage with journalists, publish a popular book, get on social media, speak in public forums, produce a podcast, do a TED talk, and so on. There are always limits of time, energy, and skill to consider. But each scientist can at least do something to communicate their science to broader audiences — and find a niche that works for them. Try something. Experiment. Be willing to invest the time needed to master another aspect of your profession. And stick with it.

Jonathan Foley “Science Communication as a Moral Imperative

Shortly after I wrote my post, Hannah brought this to my attention via Twitter. Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) wrote “Science Communication as a Moral Imperative” on The Macroscope.  While it’s written for scientists, it is equally applicable to the humanities.

 

What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

The truth is: YOU ARE WRITING EVERY SINGLE DAY. Even if you are sending emails to a coauthor about how to craft a specific section, THAT COUNTS AS WRITING. Why? Because you are sharing concept notes. You are shaping how your argument is going to be structured. You are discussing the data. Are you reading and taking notes off of each paper you read? You are WRITING.

Are you drawing tables by hand to decide how you’re going to present them in your paper? YOU ARE WRITING. You are, in fact, WRITING.

Source: What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

I highly recommend following Raul Pacheco-Vega on Twitter (@raulpacheco) and his blog. He offers great resources on planning, organizing, and writing. In fact, reading his Tweets has motivated me to make this blog more of priority in 2017. I’m setting modest goals (surely I can manage just one post a month?) in the hopes that maybe I’ll exceed them.

I found this particular post, which he shared recently on Twitter, very encouraging for thinking about my own writing practices. I don’t consider myself a writer, as I don’t write as much as I think I should.

I like the idea that all the various bits of writing I do every day– emails, social media posts, jotting notes–all count as writing. So maybe I do write more than I think and maybe I can produce a blog post (or two or three?) a month for a year.

Source: What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

doodling doodles

Are you a doodler? Did you used to be a doodler? I used to be a doodler, way back in my teenager years. I had a collection of stock characters I liked to doodle. I even developed my “bunny bum” doodle for a first year university art project. But somewhere along the line I forgot about doodling. It drifted into the background, into the past, and I never missed it nor thought about it.

My favourite bunny bums painting
Bunny Bums.
My favourite bunny bums painting. I developed the bunny bum doodle in high school and later turned it into a first year university art multi-piece art project. But that was a very long time ago.

Until yesterday, when I heard Sunni Brown interviewed on CBC’s The Current about the secret power of doodling. She’s inspired me give doodling a shot again. Her book on the doodling revolution is definitely on my must-read list. I’ve started a Pinterest board of doodles–and found that there are already many in existence.

So we’ll see how this goes. I’ll post some results here eventually. Won’t you join me in remembering the joys of doodling?

 

some beginning thoughts on myth & fantasy; or, a classicist’s foray into tolkien

I am a latecomer to the genre of high fantasy. I come to it not as a fan of fictional worlds (although that is a consequence), but primarily as a classicist trained in studying mythological texts. It is only in the past few years that I have become increasingly interested in classical reception; that is, how successive audiences have received, reinterpreted and reused Graeco-Roman mythology. This has led to my growing interest in how classical mythology is adopted and adapted into popular modern art and literature.

My academic training has certainly equipped me with a theoretical framework for approaching mythological texts. As an MA candidate in Classics writing a thesis, I had to not only understand and use theory, but also defend my use of it. I became comfortable using Foucauldian discourse analysis, feminist theory, gender theories, and, of course, Lévi-Strausse’s structuralism to understand classical texts. This, I believe, is one of the enduring legacies of my MA degree: As I read any work of fiction, watch a movie (which, alas, I do all too infrequently) or even a TV show, a part of my brain is always churning away at some point asking questions. What genders are being constructed and how? What kinds of power dynamics are happening, and how does this relate to gender roles? How are women’s roles constructed? What type of thinking is happening here? What is the underlying invariant that this work explores? And, most importantly, WHY is this happening the way it is?

I began my venture into high fantasy accidentally, reading the first four books of Martin’s GoT series during the last spring of my MA. I binged on them between writing drafts of thesis chapters. They were an escape, but they also enthralled me as I began to apply my thinking skills–at first unwittingly, but then more consciously. As my ideas of how I could apply my theoretical toolkit to these texts increased, so did the questions I wanted to investigate, and thus my interest in epic fantasy grew. As a late comer to the epic fantasy party, I have a lot of catching up to do. Thus far I have only read the first five books of GoT (that’s all that’s out) and The Hobbit; I am currently a third of the way through Silmarillion with the rest of the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy lined up next. Forays into Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Pratchett’s Discworld and Riordon’s Percy Jackson series are also planned, as is a re-reading of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I might even be convinced to finally dip a toe into Rowling’s Harry Potter. Plus, of course, reading some academic writing about these works. My goal in all this venture is not to become a know-it-all of fantasy literature; I am not interested in memorizing endless trivia as I have already burned up too many precious brain cells memorizing Greek conjugations, which I no longer use. Rather, I am interested in seeing how these works connect with Graeco-Roman mythology, whether it be openly, as in the Percy Jackson series, or through structuralist analysis.

The problem is, of course, the more I read the more ideas I get and the more questions I come up with to answer. That’s where my blog comes in. I want to use this space to sift out ideas, see what works, piece things together bit by bit. My goal isn’t to determine which work is best, or list characters or facts or argue about movie interpretations (although I plan to address that), but to look at how these works engage mythological ideas. The focus isn’t on facts, but ideas. (I’ve always been a big-picture thinker.) A warning that this will not be a series of neatly-written essays, but a rambling monologue!

Is it right to approach these texts as mythology and to relate them to classical mythology in particular? We are, after all, talking about multi-volume epics written by a single author and, in the case of Tolkien especially, influenced primarily by Norse mythology, not Graeco-Roman.  Graeco-Roman mythology, on the other hand, was a result of oral tradition. There is (and was) no one defined canon of Greek mythology; rather, there were as many variations to a story as there were tellers. The versions of myth with which you as an ancient Greek might be familiar depended on where you lived; when you lived; and whose version you heard, liked, and remembered. Myths were in constant creative reuse, and only a fraction of the art and literature which records them has survived to our day. I find students, when first approaching Greek mythology, want to pin down the “correct” version of a myth and to fit multiple myths into a single timeline (I was guilty of that desire myself, way back in the day), but myth simply doesn’t work this way. Multiple versions co-exist simultaneously and cannot be logically reconciled with one another. It’s a challenge to our linear, western way of thinking, but once we move past that we find a remarkable field of study.

To come back to the question, then, can works written by a single author be compared to works composed anonymously by many poets in many versions be compared? Yes. When we study Greek mythology we use a text that, at some point in time, has been set down by someone. The difference, I think, will be that a work by one author, such as Tolkien, will have a greater degree of internal consistency than a work created over many centuries by multiple authors, such as the Homeric epics. Homer, whoever and how ever many he was, set down the Iliad and Odyssey after centuries of oral composition and thus it contains an odd mixture of both Bronze Age and Dark Age society which leads to what could be considered inconsistencies in description (I am thinking here particularly of the difference between the Phaeacians’ Bronze-Age palace and Odysseus’ hovel with a manure pile out front– both these men are kings (basilei), but one’s palace is from the Bronze Age and the other’s is from the Dark Age.) Tolkien, on the other hand, went back to The Hobbit after writing LOTR to make slight adjustments to the story to ensure consistency. But my point is really this: at some point, we have written texts for Greek mythology and we also have written texts for epic fantasy. We have texts with which we can do a textual comparison.

And we can compare mythologies across culture and time. Structuralism allows for this; indeed, I would say structuralism demands this. A key aspect of structuralism is the search for the invariant; that is, the underlying ‘thing’ that a myth is about once you strip off the decoration. Lévi-Strauss describes it several ways in his English work Myth and Meaning; The image that works best for me is that of a landscape. Structuralism strips away the plants and trees and soils and looks at the underlying features of the landscape/myth and finds similarities here across mythologies. These are the invariants, and include explanations of good and evil, death and life, how to live, how to relate to the gods, and why we can’t see the gods. While mythological invariants are found across genres and forms of art, they are perhaps the most easily seen in myths proper and the fantasy genre.

Structuralism also includes the idea of pre-literate thought. It feels odd to discuss pre-literate thought when we are dealing with a work written by a very literate man in the 1950s, but that is the term we have so let’s use it. Pre-literate thought seeks to provide a total, global explanation for the world. Rather than addressing particular phenomenon and being content in not knowing the rest (which is what Lévi-Struass calls scientific thought), pre-literate thought seeks to provide a comprehensive explanation. I think this might be most easily seen in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which I am reading now, although it is certainly evident in The HobbitThe Silmarillion attempts to provide a global understanding of the world of Middle Earth (and includes all the invariants I listed above– but more on that in another post). Comparable mythological texts for easy comparison would be Hesiod’s Theogony or Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Finally, Greek mythology gives us epic and we are talking about epic fantasy. Now the epic is not unique to Greek mythology (think of the Old English epic Beowulf, which is also on my reading list), but we have the Iliad and Odyssey where we see the idea of the hero developed and the hero on a quest. Heroes on a quest…. sounds a bit like Bilbo, doesn’t it?

To summarize, then: A work does not have to make direct reference to Graeco-Roman mythology to be compared to it. We can use structuralism to compare myths across time and culture by looking at the invariants. Graeco-Roman mythology provides us with texts for comparisons, as well as the heroic epic cycle. Building on this, my ideas for further inquiry include:

  • more consideration of fantasy as myth;
  • construction of gender in The Hobbit;
  • relation between Tolkien’s books and the movies;
  • searching for the invariant in Tolkien;
  • evidence of the heroic epic cycle in The Hobbit and LOTR;
  • depictions of women;
  • depictions of monsters;
  • discussion of the nature of epic; and
  • comparison of origin myths.

But I know this list will grow much longer the more I read. Clearly, you can take the girl out of academics, but you can’t take the academics out of the girl!

I’m your professor, not your therapist!

This is very timely for me! This semester I have had several students in tears repeatedly. For very good reasons, but tears nonetheless. I’m their TA, not their friend, but I do care about my students as people. I want to be supportive and compassionate, but I do not want to take on the emotional burden of strangers’ tears. I want to keep my emotional energy for those I care about– my close friends and family. Lots of good thoughts here, and the comments are definitely worth reading!

Tenure, She Wrote

One of the things that I’ve found I’m completely unprepared for as a new teacher and academic advisor is the level of emotion the students bring with them to talk with me.  I’m just not a public crier, so it always startles me when someone lets the waterworks go during what seems to me to be a relatively benign conversation.  Not that I never empty a box of Kleenex while watching a tearjerker with a group of friends, or think that crying in front of others makes you weak – it’s just not me. This has left me at a loss for what to do when someone breaks down in my office.  Politely ignore?  Offer Kleenex?  Ask details?  I should have paid better attention when friends talked about their experiences being the crier or the cryee! 

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