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 …


Photo by Wayne Gourley on Unsplash







About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, pandemic, progress and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to progress

  1. Lee Harrop says:

    Thank you Pat, this is a timely and reassuring read for me. I’m nearing the end of a visual arts practice led PhD by publication and currently have 2 papers on the go and my thesis introduction chapter draft that weaves it all together. Progress has been excruciatingly slow. Working from home has not helped even though there are less social interactions there are still other disruptions. This week I have decided to try and work on one paper only and shelve the others as I don’t seem to able switch between them as easily as in the past.


  2. roelamoon says:

    Dear Pat
    I am working on my literature review currently and must say, it is all slooooooww. And yes, I agree. Our students (in my case undergraduates and honours) do take priority. Thank you for your post. Exactly what I needed to hear today. Blessings.


  3. Julie Rowlands says:

    Fabulous post thank you Pat – extremely timely. Being under conditions of such uncertainty (and fear) on so many levels is exhausting. No wonder there isn’t as much energy and mental space left to write with as we might like. Be kind to yourselves everyone.


  4. mlko says:

    Hi Pat – thank you so much for this. I had not seen the article until now. While the tone of the article wasn’t egregious, it certainly communicates the idea that his productivity is worth emulating. I wonder about how focusing on our own productivity (or lack there of) blinds us from the much more pressing issue of tending to others and to the world in the time of crisis. Yes, we should be contented with working at our own pace, but we should also question whether our scholarship is in service of our own egos, or if it in service for the betterment of our society. There is much value in slowing down and listening, and I think we will be better humans for it – even if we are less productive.


  5. Maria Ronan says:

    Thank you so much, Pat, for your words, I feel so reassured now. And the next time that someone tries to compete with me about academic progress, I’ll say, “don’t you realise how toxic this competitiveness is?” Bring it on!


  6. Sharing widely with my students – thank you!


  7. Jane S says:

    Dear Pat: While I’m unlikely to read the book you refer to, I suspect such titles are written to hit the market while potential buyers are desperate for information?
    A similar fast-off-the-press response was also much in evidence when the financial crash happened. A book in a month? Maybe it can be done – but whatever the sales figures now, its life as a volume that future researchers may value is not guaranteed. Note the writer hopes it will remain relevant, and it is also acknowledged that it will be updated, etc.
    There will be others who are doing the same thing. I believe the usual term is ‘cashing in.’ but, while we can’t fault writers for utilising the eternity of ‘spare time’ we’re enduring at present, I agree, the report doesn’t make those of us who are struggling with the practical and psychological impacts of the crisis feel better about the contrast with a perceived lack of productivity.
    As Julie pointed out, above, the fears and uncertainties surrounding us at present are exhausting. So much is beyond our personal control. It’s become the sole topic of conversation. Unless we’re careful, Covid’s the first thing we wake up to in the morning, and the last thing we think about at night.
    Besides, who won the Aesop’s famous race between the tortoise and the hare?


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