Featured Post


I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"you'd already be doing it"

A facebook friend of mine, Robert Archambeau, a very productive scholar, noted recently that advice on how to be productive is useless. What he said was "if you wanted to do it, you’d already be doing it, and if you don’t want to do it, you probably shouldn’t.” You have to kind of want to do it, because the external motivators are not that strong. There is no real fame in our profession, very little money or social prestige. The only external motivation is to get tenure, but that's just a way of keeping one's job, a job which requires us to keep publishing.

Outside of academia, the social standing of a professor is the same for a deadwood non-publisher as for a publishing star. It's even worse to be a productive scholar, in some cases. Every few years, I may or may not get some serious sign of how great I am, winning something major, etc... but I could go five or six years without anything like that as well. 15 or 20 colleagues at other universities might understand and appreciate my work. Some of those might think I'm ok but not really understand it too well. Others might think I have a name in the field but without having ever read me. That's really enough, though.

Once I got my first taste of being published I needed that from then on.


If you wanted to do it, you'd already be doing it. So if you're not, you have admit that either: you don't really want to, or: you do, in theory, but that it is low on your list. You can only write if you have watered all your plants, if everything else has been done.


Thomas said...

Full disclosure: I'm an academic productivity coach. So I know that my livelihood depends on it, but I really do think your friend is wrong about this. There are many scholars who are not as productive as they would like to be because they don't know how. In some cases it's worse. It's because they have been given some very bad "advice", some of which isn't advice at all but just the influence of terrible role modeling.

That said, the best advice is to get people to focus on the intrinsic rewards. Some people are not productive precisely because they've let something or someone shift their focus on the (virtually non-existent) extrinsic rewards. So they think they're supposed to work in pursuit of something they never (or too rarely) attain. Once they realize that it's the daily act of writing that is supposed to be satisfying, things change.

Jonathan said...

I believe you can lose your way for a time. I believe you can be less productive or more at certain points in one's career. There are natural variations in the life cycle of a scholar.

When you say scholars are not as productive as they might be, it could be because they are about as productive as they should be, given their own metabolism. Not everyone is wired like I am.

Your job would be to resolve the cognitive dissonance of someone who is wired like a productive scholar but somehow doesn't produce. There is something there that doesn't make sense, some distortion in thinking, perhaps a lack of motivation based on a misconception about what the intrinsic motivation needs to be.

Anonymous said...

I disagree for a couple of reasons. The first echoes Thomas' comment. Many scholars are unproductive because they do not control their agenda. Others confound inputs and outputs: "I worked eight years on this book!" When we counsel younger scholars on preparation for tenure and promotion, we nearly always flog them with the "only-outputs-matter" argument. And we try to be helpful by insisting they give up activities that lead to uncountable outcomes. (Yes, usually to the putative benefit of research productivity.) Having done this counseling for more than 25 years, I suspect that 85% of young scholars are not organized for productivity.

The other 15% may be in your category of "already doing it", Jonathon. But even those may respond to coaching, realignment of goals, and other productivity-enhancing tactics.

Anonymous said...

I'd also argue for continued productivity as a senior scholar. There are payoffs. (I don't really care if the owner of the delicatessen recognizes me as an accomplished scholar. We agree on the lack of payoffs from disinterested parties.) But I care if I am recognized by my professional audience and I care if that recognition results from continuous investment on my part, rather than living off of earlier investment. I get invitations to cool places and have conversations with admirable people ( I was able to visit CPH as a result of recent productivity and share beers with Thomas!). And I get money to maintain a productive atmosphere around me: grants to hire great graduate students and engage interesting collaborators and buy very expensive Apple computer toys.

Thomas said...

I think what I'm reacting to is the idea that advice is useless. That's not just because I think my advice is useful, but because the idea that even good advice is useless leads naturally to the idea that bad advice is at least harmless. I think that's wrong and dangerous.

Productive scholars have a responsibility to understand their own productivity and then to pass that very real wisdom on to their less productive peers. We are not just responsible for conserving knowledge; we are also responsible for the craft that constitutes the conditions of the possibility of knowing anything at all.

Hermagoras said...

I read that Facebook post, as the scholar in question is both a FB friend and a friend in real life. I have a complex relationship to that post, because (a) he is a much more productive scholar than I am, (b) he has generously acknowledged my influence in inspiring the framework for one of his books, and therefore (c) I feel complimented by his own productivity, not jealous. Well, maybe a bit jealous. I tend to think that advice is simplistic, as it basically ignores all the complicating factors of a life and psyche. And yet, I also think there's a kind of truth to it, in that I'd be a much more productive scholar if I lived as though that were true -- even if it isn't.

Jonathan said...

The simplistic nature of this statement is what is attractive. Put it in terms like this: why aren't you already doing it?

Thomas said...

Hermagoras' comment reminds me of David Foster Wallace's "wise" words.

I agree with the zen-like nature of that question, as long as we recognize that it is isn't always rhetorical.

Archambeau said...


I'm the guy who wrote the FB post. I suppose it is predicated on three very debatable premises about scholarship in the humanities (scientific work is so different, and so outside my experience, that I don't feel qualified to have an opinion about it). These premises are:

--If you do find scholarly work intrinsically rewarding, you are unlikely to have allowed anything to stop you from doing it for long, and if you have, you're probably itching to get back to it as soon as possible, regardless of Hell or high water.

--If you do not find the activity intrinsically rewarding, it is unlikely that you will be talked into finding it intrinsically rewarding. You lust after what you lust after, and people who want to reorient you urges are likely trying to fight the tide.

--If you do not find it intrinsically rewarding, you'd probably be happier working on something else. This doesn't mean ditching academe: the majority of institutions favor teaching over research, sometimes to the exclusion of research.

This last bit is important, I think: what I was talking about wasn't just "can you significantly boost your productivity over a long period of time?" but "are you doing what you want to do with your life?"

I understand that there's a kind of "work is alienation" ethos out there, and that we live in a society that often sees extrinsic rewards (money, say, or fame) as of great importance, so my sense of thee things may well be a minority opinion. I'm okay with that.

I also understand that there will be those who, disinterestedly or otherwise, disagree with some or all of the premises. I'm okay with that too.

Anonymous said...

Already doing what? What I dislike is lower division/gen ed teaching, but it has always been the greater part of the teaching I had to do. I am slow at it because I don't like it. I am also slowed down in life generally by unhappiness living in the rural suburbs, in a university without a library and a town without a bookstore.

Literary research is something I am willing to do. Not my first choice in life, not something I am passionate about, but something I am totally willing to do as a job. I love to write. Without the obstacles above, I am a lot better at these that I am with them.

The way we are treated at work gives me reactions I wish I did not have: I lose concentration and focus, feel terrible, (recently two of us said we thought we might use a KU program for Spanish teaching, and we were shamed for suggesting our students might be able to do something from KU), berate myself for not being able to rise above circumstances. University went back on promise of minor conference funding, too, and as a result of this I have $200 to last me the next 25 days, no backup except maybe pawning a classical guitar I had as a child but do not play now.

It is just hard to work in such a negative atmosphere and with so many worries. All my good work was done when I did not have so many total things pressing upon me, and when my work atmosphere was not so entirely negative.

It is a fact that many people do not know how to do things, including enjoy life (I say this as one who does ... believe it or not). I am all for good advice but I rail against standard academic advice because it tends to assume one is lazy, one hates to write, one is disorganized ... REALLY basic things. I have often found that when asking for advice I actually need, I get stonewalled. As in: what does a book prospectus look like? gets the snarl, just write! Plan your time and write it!

If you wanted to be doing it, you would: well if I could, there are lots of things I would do, and have tried to find funding to do but failed. I think the idea that you would be doing things you wanted to if you wanted to is either wishful thinking or is something you can say if you are i a privileged situation. Like when we were in graduate school. Then, yes -- you either wanted to do it or you did not, by and large.

There is also being willing to do things, willing and also seeing that to do them is the sensible thing, but having such horrible associations with those activities that the mind clouds over. I have tried to tell myself that this just means I am not interested in what I am doing ... I mean, I have tried hard to convince myself that that is the reason, I am just not interested or I just have no discipline or I am just some other kind of piker, but that just makes everything that more traumatic.

The daily act of writing that is supposed to be satisfying, that is elementary, Thomas. I thought everyone knew this from maybe first or fourth grade on. It is when, after years of that being true, that the daily act of writing brings on uncontrollable shaking, that this kind of preaching, "it is not the extrinsic rewards that matter," really rings hollow.

I also agree with randallwestgren ... only outputs matter is not helpful, and all the exhortation to not do non-countable things is actually bad for research productivity.

Anonymous said...

I think the more interesting question is: what needs do you have, to be able to do this? what needs are not being met? how can they be met?

I, for instance, turn out to need, ideally, a trip to a library every week. That means time, gas, lunch, parking ... it's 110 mi RT to one library and 260 to the other. That means I need to bite the debt bullet, which means I need to commit to not trying to save to move into something else. But it is a freakin' need ... and I do find that actually getting some of these needs met, as opposed to claim we should live on air, is sort of silver bullet-like, really.

My colleague says it would help if we were not treated as we are. We try to ignore it but 40-60 hours on campus where one has one's sense of professional idenity systematically destroyed is hard to recover from.

Archambeau said...

It sounds like you have difficult circumstances and aren't particularly happy with where you are. I'm sorry to hear that.

That said, the argument that you are making -- that you are "not passionate" about literary research, but are willing to do it "as a job" (which I take to mean: for the extrinsic rewards), and that you have trouble doing it due to your circumstances -- does not seem, to me, to refute the argument that being passionate about doing scholarship is the best way to get beyond many obstacles.

Archambeau said...

Oh -- about book proposals and what they look like. This is really quite a good guide to the issue, written by someone who has had to read an evaluate a ton of proposals.


Anonymous said...

P.S. It sounds as though I would like that Facebook post, Archambeau. Because it is non coercive.

I have torn myself up for years trying to become a teaching person and I can only imagine what it must be to not be a research person and try to force yourself.

But j'insiste, you would be doing it come hell or high water if you really cared is still not adequate, for the kinds of reasons I chaotically list above.

I think you have to have certain minimum work conditions ... negative conditions are really disabling. I don't mean one needs opulence, but one does need peace of mind.

So the questions I ask myself now, or the things I say, are not, are you interested in this but: remember to fight on your own side, and remember to notice and not absorb all the undermining that goes on. I might actually go so far as to frame pictures of a few famous dead people who liked my work and put them on the office wall to stare at when I get the demoralizing university message du jour.

Jonathan said...

Logically, I should be the least productive scholar because, while somewhat intelligent I am told, I am lazy and inefficient. So I am productive scholar in spite of my laziness and inefficiency. When those qualities have gotten in my way, I have found a way around them, so that now I am reasonably efficient, though still damned lazy. I also tend toward depression, but I can write my way out of it. Sometimes I think I could have written much more if I weren't so lazy and inefficient and depressive. Maybe so, but I think that I would have, if I had wanted to badly enough.

Anonymous said...

Oh, hi Archambeau! Yes, I now how to write a book proposal now. Karen Kelsky sometimes has useful posts but is very unlike me -- younger and with different priorities, and was miserable in the R1 atmosphere where I thrive.

The extrinsic reward for research in writing, for me, would be to be in a place where research and writing is done, i.e. in a research atmosphere, somewhere lively. If I do not get this then I am not happy, correct.

But I think you fall somewhat into the fallacy that a true professional would work for free. Do doctors, lawyers, etc.?

Also I do not think even the most dedicated can survive abuse. One could, for instance, turn everything I say on its head: I love words and can be a great lower division teacher, and the problem for me with it is that I am not allowed to be that, yet required to remain a tortured one.
It is a question of authority and authorization, and of how safe or how permitted it is to be who you are.

So my answers to the question
what keeps you from doing it? when this question is relevant, keep being the same:

Sometimes, because I have signed on, for practical reasons, to a project I do not really support but need for ostensible work reasons ... I HAVE A PROJECT I DO NOT BELIEVE IN, BUT WILL NOT ALLOW MYSELF TO CONVERT INTO ONE I DO BELIEVE IN ... or, on other occasions, when I am too beaten down by my job ... I DO NOT BELIEVE IN MYSELF AS AUTHOR.

I think part of my particular problem is having been organized for productivity since day 1 and having professors envy it. Being told I did not look bad enough and therefore could clearly be finishing 2 dissertation chapters a month and not just one, etc. There is just so much meanness in academia that it is easy to see why people lose motivation, do not want to be associated with it, etc.

Thomas said...

Maybe we need to invoke the distinction between necessary and sufficient causes. Desire is certainly necessary, but, given the conditions, rarely sufficient.

I guess my hope is that there is, for each scholar working under a particular set of conditions, a piece of advice which might guide the scholar's act of will, such that desire becomes, at least for a time, all that is needed.

Nabokov talks about "the red sun of desire and decision (the two things that create a live world)". I think some good advice can in some cases get scholars out from under their negative conditions and make a live world again.

Anonymous said...

I also find that extrinsic reasons are helpful. Why am I doing this? It is my job. Why finish this paper? So I can give it in that interesting venue and hear other interesting papers.

I do think passion goes a long way. I am passionate about the life's work I actually want, yes. Either a research oriented professorship or one of the research oriented professions I am interested in. But I don't think it is sufficient.

I also think that, at least sometimes, if you are passionate about something you are more, not less vulnerable to harassment, intimidation, undermining. In my law project, I am not vulnerable to it but for language teaching, or the teaching of literature, I really need not to be supervised and evaluated people who hate what I am doing and hate the field. It is just all too demoralizing and I do not overcome it, although I try.

Jonathan's case is that this is the thing he really wants to do.

My motivations are more mixed but I still say love is not all you need.

Anonymous said...

I gave up, friended Archambeau on Facebook, and wrote my own post.


Jonathan said...

Archambeau is really the master of the facebook status update. His are tiny masterpieces.

Archambeau said...

I do not recall saying that true professionals would work for free. Most scholars do, or close to it, though -- I mean, you should see my royalty checks! And at most institutions, post-tenure, the difference between publishing a lot and publishing a little doesn't mean a thing financially. So there's that.

Anonymous said...

Mais oui, I can see that!

Anonymous said...

I mean the rhetoric of love: doing it no matter what the personal cost. Which some do ... but I say, there is a limit.

What I still wonder about all of this is whether people with motivational problems writing don't actually have them for the whole (academic) enterprise ... but just see the results of this show up the most clearly in writing. And I do not know that lack of motivation is just preferring not to, or preferring something else. In my observation a lot of effort is made to demotivate, and the targets are often the most motivated people.

Another random thought: years ago Howard Young (of all people) told me he had learned to write as an assistant professor. I was incredulous as I thought this was something one learned earlier.

Anonymous said...

***But, upon reflection, I have decided this argument is a red herring.***

The question is not "extrinsic reward" but necessary conditions. Do you have conditions necessary to do your job? I mean: what if you had to give up your materials, and then say that the reason you were having difficulty working was lack of interest? Wouldn't that seem a very convoluted argument to have to make, and precisely not one of Zenlike simplicity?

Anonymous said...

...and I do keep picking this apart, because I have precisely kept saying my problem is lack of interest, for many years. I am fascinated that Archambeau says this and says the solution is not productivity advice but do do something more interesting, because almost nobody says that except me.

Yet there are so many aspects of this argument that I disagree with. For instance, lack of extrinsic rewards. In graduate school, mine was that if I kept passing courses and things, I would get to stay in that research atmosphere. That has always been what I wanted afterwards as well -- to get to a good research atmosphere and stay in it.

So, by your standards, I am Very Very Interested, because I am not asking for more than that.

However, I feel that I am not interested because I am not interested if I *cannot* get the extrinsic reward of working at a place with a lively research atmosphere, and I would be totally willing to change fields for the sake of getting to a place with a lively research atmosphere.

I also think the idea that you have to teach graduate students and assistant professors that the daily act of writing is satisfying then you are not talking to the right people ... that is something one learns much earlier on. I think Thomas also is confusing "extrinsic rewards" and *necessary conditions*.

Jonathan said...

If you count as an "extrinsic" reward the possibility to do more research in better conditions, then you are correct. I think that if you were at my university you could be interested in research again in a relatively unproblematic way.

Or maybe not. You have spoken of being in the wrong field, of wanting to go to law school, etc...

Anonymous said...

Yes, I say wrong field as way of saying I must not be interested. And it is a fact that I do not have just one interest.

I think a big difference between most professors and me is that they are interested in only one thing, and want to resolve one research question, and want to teach in that one field, and are willing to do this in any circumstances -- if not at home, in the Arctic, if not in good research circumstances, in bad ones.

Whereas I am just interested in research circumstances, period. If I had 3 PhDs and could apply in 3 fields, for instance, I'd take the job with the best research environment, not in the field I liked best of the 3.

Also, to me, non harassment is important. Some people appear to love what they do enough to be willing to suffer for it more than I am. But I am not the type to do well with harassment, undermining, and all of that. I am willing to switch fields to get away from it, but not everyone is.

Anonymous said...

So yes: I perk right up as soon as I get to a work space in which I am not terrified. I am terrified at my current job and experience this as lack of interest. And I associate Hispanism generally with terror as well.

Longing for other field is in large part longing for a field not contaminated for me by terror. But I do perk right up when I can inhabit a positive space.

The difference between me and the other unmotivateds also seems to be that for them it is writing and research that is hard to get done-- for me it is just anything academic, because I am so traumatized.

Anonymous said...

These comments go beyond the scope of the post. As I say, I like the post and the post it talks about.
But on being passionate as way to get beyond many circumstances, I have not in fact seen this to be true. The passionate people are also having their basic needs met, and are not being harrassed, or they are trying to leave the inadequate or destructive situation. Love helps to surmount obstacles, sure, but if you believe it is all you need, you have never confronted an obstacle.

Part of why I apply to the law schools I do has to do with the specific programs in law they have, and part of it is their connections with PhD programs in Spanish and Portuguese, Latin American Studies, and Comparative Literature. It is nice just to walk on campuses where such programs exist. I also want libraries, and bookstores in town. I think that is a sign of interest in current field, not lack thereof.

About intrinsic rewards – how intrinsic does it have to be to be considered intrinsic? Research and writing are fun, which is how we got into this in the first place. I don't think willingness to sacrifice all quality of life – which for me, means living where there is a certain density of intellectual activity, or if not, being in a position to do activism full time – is the kind of litmus test for interest in field so many academics seem to think it is.

About extrinsic rewards: I think there is something wrong with the way that is formulated here. Maybe.
Let's see: writing is fun. In my case, having it increasingly bound up with extrinsic rewards is one of the reasons I wanted to leave the field. “Say this, because then these people will publish you and you will get tenure here.” “But that is not what I want to say.”

But then again, that is why I like the post. I seriously think the reason people have trouble writing, and so on, and so forth, is that it is so fraught with extrinsics, from earlier and earlier on. This is partly why I am so irritated by all the writing advice that involves ringing alarm clocks at yourself while writing. You are terrified about journal acceptance rates, merit points, and so on, and then you also do this...

This is why I have always favored the Getting Back To Fun approach to these matters. “If you were really interested, you would already be doing it” is a good sentence insofar as it contributes to that. But without modification, it is just another one of those exclusionary, gatekeeping remarks that people who have never really sacrificed anything like to make.

Anonymous said...

P. P. P. S. On obstacles: what if there are TOO MANY obstacles? I notice that women tend to have two obstacles where white men have one, and persons of color have three. If this is not taken into account then one can simply say white men are the most interested. This is in fact what is usually said.

Finally, obstacles are not things like having a broken leg for a while, or a child -- they are things like working in a place where your sense of integrity is constantly undermined.

Also and finally: correctly identifying what is happening takes a huge amount of work. When I first lost the ability to concentrate I took it for loss of interest. That is of course the easy answer. Then I tried other answers. The possibility that I was just shying away from anything associated with these really painful academic workplaces was the last thing I considered.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and more:

For many years, my answer to this question, why aren't you already doing it? was very simple, clear, and also true: because it felt so unsafe.

Doing it meant continuing to associate with really destructive people. The first priority should be research, one knew, but the priority instinct and better judgement came up with was flight. Go anywhere, renounce anything, because getting out of this killing atmosphere is priority #1.

Yet I stayed because theoretically yes we did know, research was #1. What was I doing instead of research? Sitting by books trying to get control of trembling.

So that is why I get mad and rant and rave when people go on about how oh, you just must not be interested in this or oh, you just must not be cut out for this or oh, you just must not know how to do this.

Anonymous said...

So I am endlessly fascinated by this and have a new post on it that I think Thomas will like.