…And not like a girl who is unsure of herself and her ideas, as Julia so clearly put it recently.

As I am wont to do, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the academy, the growth from graduate student to scholar proper, and the act of gradually coming to claim one’s authority, especially if one is a woman.

Let me back up for a second. I’m somewhere in the murky middle of my dissertation, making progress slowly and steadily. Still, I often find myself caught in the throes of writing blocks and stagnation for periods of time. This probably happens for a variety of reasons, but, if I had to sum it up, I would say that, whether I explicitly admit it to myself at the time or not, I feel overwhelmed. The project is good, and my commitment to it hasn’t changed, but there’s such a heftiness to it that can feel suffocating at times. The careful work that is always required, along with the increased sense of accountability to the broader theological academy (rather than just to a professor at the end of a semester), can be a burden to bear that takes some getting used to. Sometimes this feeling of being overwhelmed manifests in a fixation on doing chores (avoidance) or outlining my ideas repeatedly and with ever-more detail (a more subtle form of avoidance). And because I have a lot of unstructured time with distant deadlines, I can often “spin out,” so to speak, longer than I would if I were forced into a structure, such as with coursework. Having talked to a lot of my colleagues about this, I don’t think I’m alone.

So recently, when I hinted around about some of these (I suspect common) writing issues to my friend Jenny at Notre Dame (who has successfully completed her doctorate and is now professing full time) she recommended a book to me: Robert Boice, Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. Stillwater, OH: New Forums Press, 1990.

I have been going over this book for a few days now and I think it could really help. Even though the book is dated, it alerted me to certain common realities of the academy of which I had been unaware. For example, apparently the vast majority of academics would describe themselves as having trouble writing in a satisfactory or consistent way (Boice 1-4; 7-8). A minority of academics are doing the majority of the writing. Whaaa??

Even more, the reasons that academics struggle to write successfully varies notably, which surprises me since I thought that academic writing was just obviously “unpleasant” most of the time, except those rare times when it’s awesome, inexplicably. But apparently it breaks down even further than that.

For example, though all of these issues are related and can overlap in any given person, Boice distinguishes a few distinct causes: censors (your harsh, internal editor throughout the writing process); fears of failure (when your internal critique aggressively gravitates toward just telling you that you suck and are going to fail); perfectionism (when the self-critique keeps you from rendering the verdict of “good enough” on a finished piece); procrastination (which is probably fueled by some combination of anxiety and poor work habits); a terrible early experience learning how to write (where you were never really taught how to see the joy and fun that can characterize the writing process); diagnosable mental health issues (it’s the academy, so, you know, there are some notable correlations between academia and mood disorders, for whatever reason, and it’s not difficult to understand how a mood disorder would greatly diminish one’s ability to write); having a certain personality type (where very social, gregarious people tend not to be as productive at writing, for example); and poor work habits and attitudes (where one binge-writes sporadically and without discipline or consistency) [Boice 8-14]. At other points, importantly for our purposes, Boice also talks about the problem of lacking confidence (23-24), which I am certain underwrites and informs many of the other types.

I find this breakdown really intriguing and helpful; for one, it helped me realize that it will benefit me in the long run to change my work habits. Specifically, because I tend to be excruciatingly thorough-bordering-on-impractical when it comes to crafting my arguments, I put off the writing as long as possible, until I feel “ready” to write. And that has usually led to binge-writing, usually under Threat Of Imminent Deadline. You know, that point at which the anxiety of getting so close to the wire such that you are faced with the very real prospect of not turning anything in actually FORCES you to overcome the anxiety that comes with trying to produce quality work. The deadline forces one anxiety to cancel out the other, and that’s where papers come from.

…It is not good to work this way (for me, anyway). One major thing I have noticed about transitioning into being an advanced graduate student/scholar, as opposed to an earlier graduate student, is that the important deadlines are usually not imminent. (And when they happen to be, I still meet them very well, which is telling.) But much of my professional life is no longer like that; for example, I plan to get a chapter in to my advisor in the next couple months, or I have an article to work on that is due to the editor in three months. So am I going to do what I would have done in coursework and write ALL of these pieces in the 24 hours leading up to their deadlines? Are you kidding me, self?

Living life deadline by deadline is no longer optimal, and what has to replace it is a willingness to become more comfortable with writing on a daily basis, or at least very consistently. Some of my colleagues have gone this way earlier and more easily, and they have told me I need to move away from spurts of binge-writing after periods of intense, heady preparation sans words on paper. To be honest, I have always thought in the past that writing so calmly on a daily basis sounded very boring, mechanical, and domesticated — writing isn’t a science! But Boice claims that academics who write a little consistently on a daily basis write noticeably more (of quality, no less) than their binge-writing colleagues. So I guess I was wrong. Boice has very concrete suggestions for becoming more fluid and comfortable with writing, and perhaps I will provide updates if those prove to be illuminating.

This transition is, in some ways, very quotidian: old habits have to die to make room for new ones, ones that I will be enacting on a daily basis. So at some level it’s about developing new techniques and cultivating an openness to change. It’s as simple as that.

And yet, at the same time, more is going on. And now I am done backing up. I’ve returned to where I started, thinking about professionally growing in the academy and claiming one’s authority qua Woman.

At various points in his diagnosis of the problematic, Boice suggests that women noticeably struggle more with certain facets of academic writing then men do. Men tend to mass-produce writing more than women do, and women tend to be seen as more professionally “silent” in their personalities and perfectionistic in their writing (12-13). Women tend to have more difficulty putting negative reviews of their work behind them than men do, they struggle more with feeling conflicting commitments that compromise their writing time, and they perceive themselves as being treated more harshly in their work than men are (14). In making these points in the year 1990, Boice also eludes to the changing landscape of the academy, and he thereby suggests that conditions will gradually even out as more women enter the academy. To some extent, perhaps certain things have improved in the past 23 years. I would like to think so.

At the same time, however, Boice’s gendered distinctions felt all too true to me, still. This isn’t to say that men don’t have writing struggles, but, at least based on my own empirical observations, many women (myself included) in the theological academy do seem particularly stressed out about making contributions and claiming their own theological voices and authority. We seem to have gotten listening down pretty well, but it’s speaking that still seems troubled. This circles back around to the problem of self-confidence that Boice identified and the way that I think that issue in particular affects women. In the classes that I took as a graduate student, I often noticed that the women were quieter than the men, and that, as Julia pointed out in her blog post about this, they tended to qualify their statements with delimiting modifiers so that they didn’t appear as though they were “presumptuously” claiming more knowledge than they had. This seemed to be not as serious a problem with my male colleagues (including my husband, with whom I had many a class). The performance of epistemic mastery seemed to come much easier to the males, even if they actually didn’t know what they were talking about (which they often didn’t). And I imagine that this dynamic probably has a stranglehold on our ability to publish (i.e., WRITE), no? We may get older as we go through the program, but do we get wiser and more conscientized?

I know for myself that I do not have most of the writing problems that Boice identified, but I do have one of those problems in spades: I lack confidence in my writing, my voice. It’s professional but it feels very personal at the same time. And it’s not really logical: I’m verbal, I’m in a good program, I’m ambitious, I’m a feminist and I should know better. And yet, especially as I have moved into the realm of publishing (as opposed to doing coursework papers), my lack of confidence has been exacerbated. The fear of being exposed as an idiot feels primal and weirdly gendered. But as I say it, as I objectify it, it feels slightly more manageable and a little easier to identify as ridiculous. I hope my doing so makes it easier for other women also struggling with these issues.

Aside from naming and defanging this problem, I want to add one thing to this discussion. When we women talk about this problem, we tend to identify the ways that women sell themselves short verbally and intellectually and get stuck deferring to the illusion of male authority. We then encourage each other to change habits and claim authority. We know that this advice in itself won’t fix everything, but it’s an important piece of moving forward. That is how we bid each other courage.

I’m obviously 100% on board with this advice and have peddled it myself throughout this blog post, but I think we need to be honest about the ramifications of moving from intellectual and emotional girlhood to intellectual and emotional womanhood in how we carry ourselves professionally: people (men) may not like it. In fact, many of them probably won’t. They don’t.

If you are a woman in the (theological) academy and you have struggled with professional self-assertion in the classroom and/or in print, and then you decide to resist girlish habits in favor of womanly ones and to begin to assert yourself, it is likely that nobody is going to bow down to you in absolute awe of your intellect. People (men) will still argue with you. They may then often try to “explain” to you the points that you “missed” that are making you “not understand.” They will “nicely” and “charitably” try to “help” you. And you may feel yourself getting a little bit smaller when that happens.

Don’t get me wrong: we all need improvement in our arguments, and there can be something really exciting and productive about good disagreement, including those between men and women. And we need to be prepared for and open to this kind of healthy, mutually respectful disagreement, since getting respect doesn’t mean getting to be right all the time. But that’s not what I am talking about here.

Making the transition from proverbial girlhood to womanhood doesn’t necessarily fix anything in terms of these problematic gender dynamics. It’s only the beginning, the beginning of a promise to yourself, to other women (and men), and to your work that you will show up as a ready and willing and capable interlocutor. You don’t get a quick fix through a one-time decision to strengthen your speech patterns to be less self-effacing. People aren’t going to applaud you the moment you decide that you may not be totally full of shit. They won’t suddenly defer to you or stop being sexist (some of them might, but is that the usual way of the world?) You still have to fight. Once you stop talking like a girl, you have to keep speaking like a woman. And you have to decide to speak like a woman every day. This is the part that we can do. It’s never done.

Now back to work.

8 thoughts

  1. I like this. I think of the dynamic you are describing as something like an extinction burst. I learned about this in dog training: when you stop rewarding an undesired behavior, the behavior usually gets worse in the short run before it goes away. I.e. your dog barks incessantly, you want her to stop barking, so you realize that you’ve been unconsciously rewarding the barking by letting her outside when she barks. You stop doing this. The dog goes nuts for a while: if barking once doesn’t work, clearly she needs to bark MORE. But eventually she learns that barking doesn’t work any more, and it’s time to try something else.

    People are going to be threatened when you assert yourself. You’re changing the dynamics of your relationship on the fly, and for too many people, there can only be one adult in the room at a time, so if you claim that role, they can’t have it. They’re going to escalate their use of all the techniques that used to keep you and people they’ve encountered like you (or like the child you used to be) in line. They’re going to keep treating you like a child, in the hope that you’ll go back to acting like one. I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose, most of the time. This is just how minds work. If you back down, you teach them that escalation works. So don’t back down. They’ll have to learn, eventually, that barking doesn’t get them let outside any more; they’ll have to learn to try something else.

    I’m realizing that the operant conditioning/dog training approach to combating sexism (which I’m making up as I type) might be problematic, but I’m throwing it out there anyway.

    1. Hm. Reading back over this, it occurs to me that my comment might be seen as unnecessarily hostile: am I comparing men to dogs?! I want to clarify that I’m really not. The same approach is used to raise children, or to establish boundaries with controlling or abusive parents. I just thought it was clearer and less potentially triggering to describe training a dog than breaking up with an abusive boyfriend.

      1. Hey Mary,

        I personally liked your analogy, not at all because I have a low opinion of men (I do not), but because I have such a high opinion of dogs (which probably makes me sound weird). In any case, I think the dynamics of dog training are actually illuminative of what I’m trying to talk about here: you start altering the power dynamic, and there is going to be some hell to pay.

  2. Elizabeth, Thanks for this helpful reflection. I, too, am mid-dissertation and often feel perplexed by why it is that I feel unsure of myself and do not commit myself to regular writing, especially given that I have a great committee who is encouraging me to propose my own, original work in my dissertation, which is distinct from the experience of many dissertators who are charged with learning everything possible about one area of another person’s work.

    Your finding of the description of binge-writing is right on in my experience, and I often attribute that to poor habits developed during my undergraduate years.

    Thank you for voicing this experience.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Christine. It seems as though we have similar work situations. Good luck on your project. Slow and steady! (And other cliches!)

  3. Hi, I thought this was excellent.
    I really notice the difference in how male and female postgraduate and even fully tenured academics engage with each other in theology, and it most certainly splits down gender lines.
    I think this is in large part because theology has historically been so very male-dominated as an intellectual discipline. Women have of course always existed in theology, but their role was one of the listener and rather than the writer, as you say.
    We MUST learn to speak as women, not as girls. It’s the only way for things to change and for our theologies to be heard. We need loud voices, metaphorically as well as often, literally! And I couldn’t agree more re. the need to speak up as a woman in all areas of life, not just the academy.
    Thanks for this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s