Writing papers and grants during the holidays: An informal international conversation

Whether and how academics should write papers and grants during the holidays is a complex issue. Any advice whether they should must be qualified by a huge “It depends.”

shit academicsI will be providing some advice about writing during the holidays in  articles on LinkedIn (Follow me on Linkedin). The articles will carry a warning label that I got from “Steal like an Artist”:

Some advice can be a vice. Feel free to take what you can use, and leave the rest. There are no rules.

To conduct an informal poll about academics writing during holidays, I posted a query in various places, including my own personal Facebook page and that of Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped 

The results were fascinating. I expected there’d be some differences associated whether the end of the year holiday was just a matter of a couple days or the extended 3 to 5 weeks that  some academics get teach in liberal arts departments in the United States. I thought there would be huge cultural differences. I didn’t think enough about gender issues.

blackwoman-techI did not post the query in these public sites with the idea I would simply harvest the quotes and post them. But what I got was great and a bit challenging of me and my preconceived notions.

Here’s a selection of what I got, including some comments that I made.

My post on Facebook pages:

I’m curious about cross-cultural differences in expecting to get writing done over the holidays. Many American academics look forward to the break from classes and grading. But they may have trouble balancing getting writing done with family responsibilities attached the holidays. My sense is that some other cultures it is considered a sign of mental disorder to write during holidays, when you should be relaxing. Please share your thoughts.

From an American male:

I know at non-R1s [universities and colleges in place a premium on quality of teaching, not publications],where teaching loads are heavier, scholars may feel they have to use holidays and summer to do most of their writing. Me, I’ve got a couple little things I may have to work on a bit, but I’m definitely going to prioritize family, relaxation and hobbies. Definitely not doing full-time days of writing!

From a UK female:

female-scholar-writing-mathematics-fomula-7607816Yes, of course. These are expectations (often expressed directly, explicitly by ‘managers’ who say that being an academic means working during weekends) in some institutions in the UK. But what can be more important than family time during Christmas? Definitely not writing another insignificant (however important we think our fields are) research paper about an aspect of social sciences that has probably been over-researched. My sanity was saved by reading ‘Return to meaning’.

From a male

In our culture it would indeed be considered a sign of a disorder for a normal person to sit at a computer and work during holidays. But as I said, NORMAL person – so this may not apply to academics.

A couple of other males

I think what’s being got at there is that unlike our students, we don’t have a 3 week break at Christmas, and another at Easter, and 3 months in the summer. The original question is conflating those two things though, although probably has more to do with the actual holiday time of however many days you nominally take off for Christmas/New Year but spend working instead.

And

Who wants time to write during which we anyway procrastinate. Do the smart thing, wish for 4 amazing, fully written manuscripts that will be lauded by reviewers 1 through 5, get an expedited review and publication process, will be read my many, discussed and cited by even more and win a few awards. It’s Santa Claus we’re talking about, dear colleagues, let’s make our wishes count!

Which got these responses from females:

As a woman with a small child my daycare is closed for two weeks so really I have little choice, and really we need to not call it a break if we plan to work,

I work in France. The bschool is closed for 2 weeks in August and 1 over xmas. Absolutely nobody expects you to work during this time..

Rather typical is writing during free time in Poland. Many students and my colleagues academics are writing during holidays too.

My experience of UK universities is that many people work. It’s not required, but often it’s the only time you get enough uninterrupted time to write – and promotions are linked to outputs such as grants and publications – so often, we write at Christmas. I will be writing my book – but in a relaxed way, with breaks as well.

Same in France. No obligation, but if you don’t do it, you perish.

 You may be interested in my line of research. I looked at the effects of vacations on employee well-being. And I also investigated the influence of work-related activities and lack of mental detachment from work during holidays. This article gives an overview of my findings: . Hint: the Dutch may be right. Have a happy holiday

Really interesting article! Sweden was also a place where I realized that not everyone was as workaholic as the US. The summer houses! Wish I could have stayed after my post-doc

An American male in the UK

young-man-studying-with-laptop-computer-on-white-desk_1139-980I was able to keep my lab open during the month of August, when everything else was pretty much shut down. However, not so for Christmas. They practically turned the electricity off in the building over Christmas break. However it has been several years since then, and I suspect that the many business-oriented administrators who’ve been hired to boss UK academics around since then have determined that the lights are on and the fire burning under the butts of the lowly academics.

A female posted

Come all ye scientists, busy and exhausted. O come ye, O come ye, out of the lab

I’ll be writing pretty much non stop over break. I might take off Christmas Day. I am at a R1 in US, and I don’t have tenure yet. I could never take the whole break off.

A male

Anyone who writes during the holidays takes work too seriously. Unless it’s a grant. Always write the grant.

A female

Yes! First, in other places, Christmas is a multi-day holiday. In Germany, for example, the 24th, 25th, and 26th are public holidays. They’re so family-centered that you’re not even calling other people on the 25th. On the 26th, maybe. And in general there is no expectation that anything gets done “between the holidays” (between Christmas and New Year’s) either. Everyone needs some down time.

Me

When I was an academic teaching at UC Berkeley, the winter holiday break was three weeks and so there was more of a dilemma of taking a complete break from writing. In US med schools I had a choice of how to distribute any of 5 weeks/yr in addition to the enforced shutdown of 5 days Christmas-New Years.

And

I am curious how some European academics make a firm distinction between writing as work vs other things as fun. For some Americans, writing is fun.The cannot understand depriving themselves of at least some writing during extended holidays.

 Which got this response from a female in Europe

Writing is the most fun part of my job. But that still means not spending time with family and friends. There is a life out there, you know

I responded:

I think it was BF Skinner who first observed that keeping writing fun depends on protecting other fun activities from being threatened by it. I don’t think it’s an either or situation. I know that some American academics say much briefer time for writing during the holidays and ensure that it doesn’t intrude on responsibilities to their families….This something to be said for writing at least a small amount every day and thinking about what you’re writing. That can be integrated with a healthy commitment to the family.

To which a female from Europe responded

But who cooks the meals?

The male whose quote began this thread

I will say, I have come to (without planning) adopt the mentality of doing a little bit of work each day (literally including Christmas, T-day, my birthday, etc.) Although we may be only talking an hour or two (so it’s not oppressive) there are parts of me that wish I hadn’t developed this mindset…it would be nice to be able to have some days where I did 0 work-related things without feeling some internal pressure.

European females

May I add gender here? Sitting down and writing seems a lot kore straightforward for folks who have no holiday prep, cooking, baking, shopping, visiting people etc obligations. From the 22nd on I’m busy just with family stuff.

And

Personally, I write a lot better after a weekend without work. Or after holidays. To each their own.

Me

I would hope that women academics who have spouses are able to negotiate the spouses doing some of the holiday/family tasks.

Some European females

Hope springs eternal. And I hope that male academics are doing at least half of the unpaid housework and care work. If not, all this talk about writing is just an insidious expression of gender privilege.

And

Exactly. And they should be doing those tasks without ‘negotiating’.

And

My wonderful hubby does all the housework – no negotiation, it’s just how things work in our house. We’ve previously split 50/50 and done things in different ways. We just work out what works best in the current circs and get on with looking after each other!

Me (in hindsight, rather naively)

Wow! I would like to think that it is possible to start a conversation about writing during holidays without being accused of expressing gender privilege. I coach grant writing and teach scientific writing and increasingly most of my students are women…

A European females

It’s not about “expressing” gender privilege. These privileges (of class, gender, family status) are simply there. When we talk about writing and productivity and balancing things in abstract, we tacitly ignore that some of us have a lot more things to…See More

A male

Well work-life balance is one issue where changing current norms would be a win-win. It will help everyone whether they acknowledge gender privilege or not.

A female

It’s best not to get defensive about privilege. Women are telling you something important and I suggest trying to connect with other realities. Some of us are single parents or in other arrangements where the mere mention of writing over the holidays is something that is a bit sad because we lack choice. Thanks for listening.

A male

I think there is US privilege going on here too.

A female

I don’t think it is that, the fact is there is gender privilege and as a man one benefits from it regardless of how one thinks about it, and it is impossible to discuss this topic without gender issues coming up as the holidays are when children are home from school and at the same time academics are expected to write write write, an expectation from the days of the white male academic either single or with a housewife, that has continued despite changing realities…(and not everyone has a spouse or an academic spouse, my husband has a real job where breaks do not exist so the burden is placed on me to do daycare drop off, pick up, and care over the holidays)

Another  female

I am highly prolific with taking weekends off. Everyone what s/he thinks works best but I am very concerned about your advice to junior staff.

Me

Some people find writing a satisfying activity which they freely choose over other activities. They become academics because it gives them protected time and resources. The routine of writing small amount every day is recommended to establish a momentum. It is not just the time spent in front of the computer, but what spontaneously occurs when one is away from the screen and absorbed in another activity. ..Some of us have found it is much more satisfying and efficient to write small amounts every day and then get into other activities than to chew up one’s life with unproductive and unpleasant binge writing.

A female

Seconding what James said. I do take some time off to be with family during the holidays. But eventually I start itching to get back to writing. I write not because I have to, but because I *want* to. It fulfills me and sustains me. I go crazy if I don’t find time to write.

Who then elaborated

“Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of the small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet you or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die… My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird.

Me

Anne Lamott is a fun writer and a strong advocate of writing everyday and strugglng to get the zero draft just right but to let it flow.

She replied

Exactly! Butt in chair. Write, write, write. The best texts aren’t written but *re*-written.

Another female

Having grown up in Sweden and working in the US, I definitely see cross-cultural differences, with Swedes being much more pro vacation. My US colleagues often bemoan the fact that they have to work on grants and manuscripts on their “time off”, but they also know that it’s necessary for advancement. I think those differences at least partly due to differences in expectations from their universities. Personally, I’m somewhere in between and work on way too many holidays, but as a single mom, I decided early on that ignoring my family was neither feasible, nor would I want to miss time with my kids. So I tried to carve out time for both. #SleepWhatSleep

A female

There is a great deal of confounding of creative (Lamott, Hemingway, Wolff) and academic writing in this thread. I am an N of 1, but I write both and they are very, very different. The impulse to write fiction every day is a creative, alive one about gaining entry into fictive worlds and characters. Academic writing is formulaic and insisting on doing it “every” day (including holidays) seems like workaholism. I agree with academic writing every work day. But should every day be a work day for academics?

A male

Damn your US authoritarianism why assumes yours is the only correct way when in fact US models of intellectual life are aberrant, ethically wrong, and lacking in rigor.

A female

I suspect family and loved ones might often disagree about taking half an hour a day away from them. There are times when they want to know they have your attention 100%. It’s not just the time spent away from them, but the working out how to fit it around holiday activities. It takes your attention away from them…That’s my two pennyworth..

And

I can remember ordering four pennyworth or chips from the fish and chip shop when I was a child after Brownies. We had to have four pennies in our uniform pocket along with a piece of string and a safety pin in case of emergencies. The old public phone boxes used to cost four pence to use. We didn’t care about emergencies too much. We wanted chips!

An American male

I strongly support your statement. I start by having students write a paragraph per day with an underlined topic sentence. Once they get that down, I get them to go to 200 per day and to always read every text aloud. If they are writing articles, I tell them, 300 words or if overwriting to start at a different location every day to avoid the perfect beginning and poorly edited body/tail. If writing a book, I tell them 500 per day but say that that is impossible if they have not been writing 200 per day before then.

A female

I write in the morning and stop by noon. My measure is by the hour not by how many words. By noon I have enough time to spend with family and what I call recreational reading ( including Facebook). It works out well for me.

A female

I go by minimum number of words. At times, my extended family tried to stop me from working, out of some fear it was not good for me. They don’t realize how much I cherish writing. So, I would just get it done before everyone got up, or late at night!

The last male commentator again

Writing every day is as necessary as playing etudes is to a pianist. It keeps your vocabulary limber and teaches the subtleties of phrasing.

A female

I used to waste my holidays on work until I realized how abusive this is. Now, I make it an unquestionable rule to rest and do whatever I want. No matter what wisdom and skill you may think you gain if you work during holidays I will argue you are kidding yourself as in fact, the only thing you actually do is to punish yourself.

Me

What if you wanted to write because you found it fun?? But what if you found writing relaxing? I am retired from academia and write for fun and activism. A brief period of writing is like my wife playing the piano is for her.

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