This past summer I took part in the Wabash Teaching and Learning Workshop for Early Career Religion Faculty Teaching Undergraduates and as part of that we were asked to share a teaching and/or writing tactic that we used. I shared about the practice of journaling, which is something that I use both in my teaching and in my research. While I have found it very useful in my teaching, my colleagues in the workshop were more interested in the way I use it for my research. So, I’d like to reflect in this post on my writing and research process to talk about what has helped me be productive in that area. I’d really like with this blog post to open up a conversation about how we all research and write.
I work at a teaching-focused institution which is something that I absolutely love, but given that I am teaching four courses in any given semester—and recently that’s ended up being four different courses—it would be so easy to let my teaching overwhelm everything else that I do. So, one of the things that I do is to try, as much as possible, to protect my writing and research time. Of course I am not perfect at this and when things get busy during the semester I will have to substitute teaching prep or grading or meetings for that time, but I try to set aside forty-five minutes to an hour each workday and at least two hours on Friday mornings—when I don’t teach—to work on my writing projects. Of course, from semester to semester that doesn’t always work: this semester I was only able to devote time on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays for my writing but having that time even if it is not every day is important.
Of course, research itself takes time and that was something that always has bothered me about writing advice (like in Joan Bolkner’s Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day or Wendy Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks). The focus is so often on protecting your time to write and spending time writing each day. To a point, I get that: it’s easy for people to endlessly research as a way to avoid writing. But, in all these books I always asked myself: what good is the writing time if I have nothing to write about? When am I supposed to do the research to support my writing?
Earlier this year a colleague asked on Twitter when people (especially those in teaching-focused institutions) found time for research and in response I offered what I do, which is to aim to read for thirty minutes when I first wake up every weekday morning. This is really the only way I’ve been able to fit in some solid time to read during the academic year. But I recognize also the imperfection of this process. I find it easy to make the time to read, but more difficult to find time to reflect on what I’m reading. Recently in my research process I have found myself going back to notes on readings that I’ve typed into OneNote, making them searchable. But I also have a giant stack of books and various notebooks of handwritten notes that I haven’t yet found the time to type up. So, of course, while what I have been doing has worked for being productive, I clearly haven’t yet worked out all the kinks in the process.
And, of course, it’s not just good enough to type up notes. I find myself also wanting to take the time to process them by writing my own thoughts about them. Another friend Tweeted earlier this year about writing about her reading as she does it, but that’s something I find a little more difficult to do first thing in the morning when I wake up.
This is where my journaling comes in.
I first started this practice after reading Dannelle D. Stevens and Joanne E. Cooper, Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight, and Positive Change (Stylus Publishing, 2009). My first entry in my first journal is dated February 3, 2018 and I basically have been using this process ever since. I’m going to include some images from my first entry at the end of this post because from the very beginning you can see that I outlined some of the same goals that I discuss in this entry. And I should just note that I wrote this blog post first and was pleasantly surprised to find myself having expressed the same thoughts almost four years ago.
I aim to write at least ten to fifteen minutes in my journal each day, though I have to confess that I am not entirely consistent with it. There are basically two benefits that I get from consistent journaling which are backed up by what Stevens and Cooper discuss in their book: first is the process of reflection and second is the consistent practice of writing. I highly recommend looking at this book if you are interested in starting a practice of journaling because it includes both theoretical foundations for the practice of journaling (Part One)—emphasizing the importance of reflection for learning and processing information—and practical tips about how to use journals (Part Two). I’ve borrowed from their discussion in both my use of journals for students in the classroom and in how to journal myself. While some people they discuss in this book use multiple journals for different things (like one for teaching and one for research), I found it easier to use just one journal to keep everything related to my professional life in one place. With this, however, I also found it useful to number my journal pages and after I fill up a journal to create (as they suggest) a table of contents so that I can go back to material as needed. In fact, to write this post I went back to two entries where I had started to reflect on this process in the journal I used before my current one.
I use my journal in three primary ways. First, I reflect to respond to research that I’m doing and help me to think about the significance of it. You can see an example of this in the image below. I wrote that entry as I was going through my notes on Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her to help me reflect on the way I was using her methods as a way to do feminist historical theology, which I have since written about in a blog post.
Second, sometimes I just brainstorm what I need to do in a given day or write down my accomplishments for the day to keep track of what I complete. Third, sometimes I write first drafts of particular writing projects because I find writing my hand gives a different feel to the process. In Journal Keeping, the authors include a chapter written by Rebecca L. Schulte about computer vs. handwriting for the process of journaling and there are benefits and drawbacks to each. I personally like the journal for the initial writing in part because not being on my computer means that I am not potentially distracted by the internet or email. As Schulte says, “The important thing is to put pen to paper, or fingers on keyboard, and play with words and ideas” (p. 164).
Now, each of these types of journaling serves my research process either directly or indirectly. The first and third are in direct support of my research and allow me to free write ideas that I can edit into more formal types of writing later for publication. Almost all of my recent research projects started in my journals either as free writing in response to what I was reading or taking notes on (as in—as I referenced above—adding notes on something I’ve read to OneNote to make them searchable later on) or as a “zero draft” in my journal that I then typed and edited into a more formal type of writing later for publication. I don’t want to brag about my productivity, but this process has really worked for me over the past year. As I noted above, I’ve been teaching four different classes each semester (and one over the summer). Despite this heavy teaching load, I’ve completed the following projects in 2022: (1) a book chapter that was submitted to the publisher in the summer; (2) a conference presentation based on that book chapter while it was in process; (3) an article on Mother Angélique’s managing of diverse views at Port-Royal from which I excerpted (4) a conference presentation prior to submitting it to a journal for review; (5–6) two presentations for this past AAR Annual Meeting on drastically different topics, (7) one of which is not yet complete as an article, but is already in a longer version that I hope to soon finish and submit for review; and—including this one—(8–10) three blog posts for WIT and (11) one for the Wabash Center’s blog. I also started an article drawing on my prior reflections about feminist historical theology that will outline the methodology for doing feminist historical theology, which I hope to submit to a journal by the end of the academic year or by next summer. Given how much of my time is spent on teaching and service, I am proud of what I have accomplished in my research this past calendar year. Every single one of these projects started in my journal (I also completed a translation for an edited volume, but I did not use my journal for that, so I did not include in the above list).
Now, it is important to also note that even my other use of the journal—that is brainstorming what I need to do and/or writing to-do lists—is in service of my research. I often use this on days when I’m feeling overwhelmed and having trouble focusing on what I need to do. This process helps me calm down my thinking, concretize my tasks, and decide on which ones I need to absolutely focus on in any given day. In this way, it helps me to be productive overall, whether I end up doing research that day or not. As Stevens and Cooper write, “The first ancillary benefit of journal keeping is better health through stress reduction” (p. 15). This has absolutely been true for me.
This semester I was teaching Pascal’s Pensées while I was also thinking about the process of journaling and it is interesting that some of the fragments of his text mirror exactly what I do when I am journaling. I, of course, always knew that this text was the notes he wrote as he was preparing to write his apology for Christianity, but until I started thinking more intentionally about my own process, I hadn’t noticed how much it parallels my own. And that is true even of the writing to focus my brain:
Thoughts come at random, and go at random. No device for holding on to them or for having them.fr.542/370 as translated in Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans
A thought has escaped: I was trying to write it down: instead I write that it has escaped me.
So, to summarize my overall research process, I first and foremost protect my writing and research time. I read mostly in the mornings first thing, then during my work days I process the notes from my research by adding them to OneNote so they can be searchable, and throughout this process I rely heavily on journaling as a way to further reflect on and write about what I am discovering. If you are struggling with balancing your research with other responsibilities, I would highly recommend the use of a journal.
But, as I said, I’m hoping that this entry can open up a conversation. What processes for research have you been able to make work for you?
Thank you for sharing your process! I use journaling in a few different ways for dissertation writing. On the recommendation of a few friends, I started using a dissertation journal where I can process how I’m feeling about the dissertation (especially if I’m feeling stuck and frustrated), celebrate small wins, and think about what part to tackle next. And then I have a few notebooks that I use for keeping notes on various parts of the research, brainstorming, free-writing, and so on. You’ve inspired me to make journaling a more regular and consistent part of my process!
What you’re saying about writing to process how you’re feeling about the dissertation is what I’m getting at in the brainstorming/reflecting on to-do lists. It’s often a dump of what is in my brain that is preventing me from getting started on whatever I’m trying to get done for that day. What have you thought about that practice so far? I find it really helpful.
I have found it helpful, too! Journaling about why I feel stuck or overwhelmed often helps me to be more compassionate with myself. And sometimes I’m able to journal my way towards seeing what small piece I should tackle next to help me keep moving forward.
Exactly, Carolyn! I may start with some journaling in this way today, in fact. I did not get enough sleep last night and am feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work that I have to do and the amount of time I have to do it in, so just writing something out to settle my brain will be very helpful in moving me forward.
Thank you for the interesting read. I should journal my research. I did not go to grad school, so I’m not in academia, but I enjoy research nonetheless. I buy so many beautiful journals. I just need to fill them quicker!