Progress – getting somewhere. Good progress – doing what is expected and a bit more. Poor progress – the reverse. Remember those ambiguous school reports? “Patricia is making good progress with… , but she could do better in … ” Patricia is not doing as well as might be expected in all the things that are expected. Which of course raises the questions – As well as might be expected When, and Where? And By whom? And Who decides What Is Expected?
The word progress has been playing on my mind recently. I am meant to be making progress on a book manuscript. But it has been slow. Painfully slow. If there is a writing equivalent to Shakespeare’s “shining morning face, creeping unwillingly to school” then I am it. As I am sure are many of you. Well I certainly hope I’m not the only one! Put it this way, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you weren’t in the same boat. Keeping going, one sentence after the other, but not making that much headway. A little bit each day.
I’m book writing. Always book writing. But right now I’ve had to resort to the time-honoured tradition of reading myself into the writing. Not free writing, but reading. I wrote a few lines about each text. I put the lines together. I then sorted the lines into something that looked like the stuff I wanted in the order I thought it needed to be. Then I strung together some words that linked it all together and, yes, it looked like a coherent text.
Using this reading, noting and writing approach, I ground out 6k or so good-enough-for-now words in four weeks. The result is hardly a riveting read. To be truthful, it’s pretty dry and dull. But it is a first draft.
I’m finding it hard right now to meet my own expectations of progress. It is just seriously psychologically tricky – and there are other priorities besides making progress on a book. Keeping in touch with colleagues and PHDers takes priority. Social media connections are important to sustain too. Still, I have this sneaking worry that I ought to be making more progress. I don’t have caring responsibilities, I’m privileged, I ought to be making better progress than I am.
So then to read about the person who wrote and published a book about the economics of coronavirus in 19 days? Less time than I took to write 6k words. Hmmm. Well it wasn’t a big book, it was 40k words. But still. 40K words. Compared to this, my progress is pretty poor.
The quick-off-the-mark economist has gone public about his achievement. He found a publisher in unbelievably fast time. His manuscript was peer reviewed and he corrected it with a week to spare. He describes the process as gruelling – but largely because of the subject matter.
Many of the responses to his blog post were critical. Most commenters registered concern that this quick book epitomised an academic productivity that is unreasonable and unhealthy – excellent progress, outstanding progress yes, but also a norm which was potentially problematic.
I’m torn between thinking, well good luck to you rapid writer. In another life I’ve been able to crank out a chapter every few days, but this isn’t me now. But my second thought is that my writing task is different. I’m not writing a populist book. The current book I’m working on with a colleague requires a lot of literature work, a lot of data analysis, and a lot of thinking about – and I’m pretty sure that I/we couldn’t speedily write anything that was any good.
Progress is always a relative thing – it’s related to the task and the time available. In order to assess my own progress more realistically, I’ve had to think about the particularity of my own situation. And I’ve had to speak to myself very firmly about not falling prey to very unhelpful comparisons. Comparison is of course the name of the competitive academic game and it’s toxic. I’ve had to remind myself that it is OK to do what you can, as you can, in the extraordinary times we are in. Just as it was in the old normal.
But I do fear that some of the powers-that-be will be dazzled by the example of the-book-in-a-month. I want those who audit academic productivity to recognise that I, my colleagues and our PhDers are making progress, but it’s good enough progress, the best possible progress we can make, right now. We might not be writing a book in a month, or even three months, or six, but we are still moving along. Slowly, more like the tortoise than the hare, but moving nevertheless.
And a third thought. Dare I hope that we might expunge the notion of universal progress, a normative progress that applies to all people everywhere at the same time? Couldn’t we arrive at a view of progress that is a bit more nuanced? Is this something that might emerge from the current situation?
And one final thought. Perhaps publishers of university blogs and news might recognise that rather a large number of scholars have had the possibility of making any progress taken away from them. PhDs stalled. Contracts not renewed. Positions furloughed then cancelled. Redundancies. Shrinking job market. Reading about writing book in a month is not what they need. Not at all. So perhaps it wasn’t the best editorial decision ever made to print this one …