Jennifer Luke's cat Patches, who was my "benevolent invigilator" when I was finishing the paper. Cat staring over counter with deadpan expression.
Jennifer Luke’s cat Patches, who was my “benevolent invigilator” when I was finishing the paper | Photo by Jennifer Luke (@aClearOutlook on Twitter).

I had a paper published recently and it was more satisfying and liberating than most.

It was the first paper of mine, sole-authored, in a new field with a new topic. It has taken me years to get it out in the world. I called it the  #AlbatrossPaper because it generated feels that resonated with that saying ‘to have an albatross around your neck‘. It wasn’t that I thought the topic or field was unfortunate or a burden. The albatross in this case was my self-confidence about researching and writing anew, across topics I hadn’t published in before. For years, I have felt like I was starting over as a researcher.

As I wrote back in 2014, when I first took up this job in research education and development: 

The crisis is about who I am, academically, and it’s also about the pressures of being seen as a scholar in a new field. How do I establish myself in a new area, feeling very much like an early career researcher, when expectations are more in line with those of a mid-career academic? What is my sharp intellectual narrative, which is so important for grants, job applications, and promotion documents?

And, overriding all of this, is the stare-at-the-ceiling-in-the-middle-of-the-night idea that I won’t be producing enough, or my work won’t be good enough, to establish myself with any credibility in the new field. It’s a very vulnerable state. (Changing disciplinary horses)

My #AlbatrossPaper became a mini-meme on Twitter, not because lots of other people picked it up (though some did) but because I found myself referring to it over the past year as progress was actually made and it got submitted to journals. While other colleagues may talk about one batch of writing goals to the next and be celebrating their publication successes across the years, I was updating what felt like the non-progress of this paper.

The first instance of my using it on Twitter was in June 2020. The idea for the paper, however, was hatched in late 2017. It sat around as an idea for a long time, as notes and fragments of structure in the back of my everyday work book. Not quite ‘back of the envelope’ but close. 

The bulk of it was forged during the RED Writing Retreat in November 2018. After I finished this drafty first draft, I sent it out to a few critical friends for feedback. They were wonderful and supportive and got their thoughts and suggestions to me in good time. It needed a lot of work, particularly on the flow of the argument and structure. I then allowed myself to be well distracted by…anything really…because it felt too daunting to start revising. These feelings of being fearful of the work to be done are hard to articulate – not because I don’t know what they are, but because we’re just meant to get on with things in academia and ‘manage’ whatever comes along. On this note, today I received the latest post from Andrew Macrae’s Compassionate Productivity project and it pointed to the exact shade of self-sabotage that I have indulged in my whole career: 

Too often, we find ourselves in a hole we make for the work that matters to us the most.

We avoid the things we know we need to do.

We sit in fear and blame and guilt.

. . . . 

All because we don’t want to face the very tasks that speak to the core of our being – the important, positive contribution that we feel called to make to the world.

Andrew suggests a pathway out from these holes of our own making and I’ll definitely be looking into the resources he’s making available. At the heart of procrastinating about the #AlbatrossPaper was self-doubt, my familiar friend. Could I step up to the changes and make it good enough? 

I started the drastic revision during the writing retreat of 2019, and completed it in February 2020. This stage of completing the revision was overseen by an internet cat photo (see the image for this post) – it is Jennifer Luke’s furry companion Patches (you can find Jennifer on Twitter as @aClearOutlook). I had this photo of Patches as my wallpaper across that time. Is there a better “Shouldn’t you be writing?” face than that?

The publication came to pass. It was a paper that I had constant doubts about and, even now, I have vestigial anxiety about whether it is any good and should I have published it, etc. (it gets tedious, in my head). 

Is there a lesson in this post? 

Basically, here’s what you shouldn’t do:

  • Let the fear build up and the Hole of Unproductiveness grow. 
  • Listen to the self-doubts. Getting publications to the finishing line is often an exercise in stubbornness and focus rather than brilliance in ideas. 
  • Put every expectation about establishing your research identity in a new field on one piece of work. (Duh, Tseen)

This post is an exercise in showing that, though I may share a lot of strategies and advise a lot of things in my everyday role as an academic in this space, I struggle as much as (if not more than) everyone else out there with the processes of nurturing ideas  to fruition and getting them out into the world. 

The Albatross Paper by another name is “Creating spaces to develop research culture“, published in the International Journal of Academic Development. If you have trouble accessing the paper, feel free to contact me for a copy via email or Twitter DM.