Materials that linger: writing about geographies of polyester clothes

By Chris Gibson

Writing journal articles can be a real struggle. Ideas take a while to form. The writing doesn’t flow. Draft papers that muddle along in need of restructures and a bloody good edit.

But sometimes, they’re just meant to be. These are my favourite papers to write. And they often come from nowhere, like bolts of lightning. They aren’t typically pre-planned; they disrupt orderly writing plans and publications schedules. But in my experience, it is the serendipitous ones that most often make the best papers. They take little time to actually pull together, and often sail through peer review.

Elyse Stanes and I had just this experience recently. Continue reading

Cyberspace, the ‘Blog’ and Research Writing

Post by Rae Dufty-Jones

Writing and Space Series: Post 3/3

… ‘our writing equipment takes part of the forming of our thoughts’ (Nietzsche, 2005 in Kitchin et al., 2013: 68).

I like the above quote from Nietzche (and I suspect that the reason why Kitchin et al. selected it as quote in their paper) is that it argues that what we write with (pen and paper or word processor) and what we disseminate our writing through (paper or a computer screen) are not passive mediums through which our writing is produced and received but are instead significant actants that play an integral role in influencing how our ideas develop and are understood by our readers. As Isin and Ruppert (2015: 2) succinctly put it ‘we not only do things with words but do words with things’. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of how the Internet and ‘cyberspace’ are changing research writing practices and products. Of particular interest to this series on writing and space is the way the various technologies associated with cyberspace have been variously heralded as a means of overcoming space-time barriers to how ideas/knowledge are disseminated. Continue reading

What makes a good academic book? A response

Guest blogger Tess Lea is an ARC QEII Fellow in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney.

Chris Gibson recently posted a thought-provoking review of my book on Darwin. It was the first review to take up the issue of risk-taking in writing, both from the perspective of writing about a place which is small enough that insults are consequential; and from the perspective of academic metrics. I was awestruck by Gibson’s insights and how he has honed in on my acute sense of vulnerability with this book.

As Gibson notes, Darwin completes a series on the capital cities of Australia by New South Books. I accepted the commission for two reasons. First, I will admit ego/vanity. I couldn’t bear the idea of someone else writing about Darwin, my birthplace. But second, I immediately saw it as an opportunity to address the challenge I have set myself in my current research. To wit: presuming I ever find a way to muddle through my current writing block and the thicket of ethnographic fragments I’ve accumulated about Indigenous housing and infrastructure, schools and health clinics, to address the question ‘can there be good social policy in regional and remote Australia?’ –– the question of communication remains. Continue reading

What makes a good academic book?

I’ve just finished reading Tess Lea‘s new book on Darwin. It’s a wonderful, if unusual book: equal parts local history and postcolonial critique, exposé and confessional. On its back cover, the book is categorised as ‘travel/memoir’. It is those things, but also much more. There are tender touches and moments of quiet reflection, where one can almost feel the sand of Casuarina Beach in one’s feet. And there are moments of sheer horror: Aboriginal massacres; children caught in violent cyclones, their bodies torn apart by flying bits of corrugated iron; gang rapes perpetrated on local teenagers by American soldiers. The book has all the contradictions, fraught memories, traumas and emotions that come with the genre of autobiographical account, and that encapsulate Darwin, the city. The writing is crisp, fleet, sharp and yet also welcoming and warm. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

FCA_DarwinJacket.indd

Beyond the specific content of the book, reading Darwin got me thinking about a bunch of things related to the practices of authoring of books, to academic labour, and to the choices we academics make when we write. Such things have been on my mind lately, having had a book out earlier this year with Andrew Warren that sought to catalyse an audience beyond the academy, and growing out of on-going conversations with colleagues Lesley Head and Noel Castree about possible future book projects.

What constitutes ‘impact’ for books written by academics? The last book in a crossover/popular nonfiction series (in which each Australian capital city is narrated by a qualified ‘insider’ expert), Darwin looks and feels very different to what we might expect academics to write. There’s ‘field work’ in there, evidenced in interview quotes and the like, but Tess never makes a claim in the text that this is a research monograph. The empirical imperative lurks in the wings rather than being thrust in the reader’s face. Neither is Darwin a calculated exercise in ‘thought leadership’ – that growing genre of short-term op-ed writing that publishers seem to favour. Will academics read and cite Darwin as per other kinds of research output? The book is reasonably short too, small in hand, just right for carry-on baggage. This one will be on sale in airport bookstores, for sure. A different and perhaps more incisive form of public impact?

What risks do we make when we write books? Darwin is a gutsy book in many ways. It names names and white-ants many of the cherished myths of Northern Territory life. It presumably will ruffle feathers in what is still a small, one-university town.

It’s also a book that almost delightfully ignores metric-driven imperatives for academics to produce the ‘right’ kind of research outputs. For it blends erudition and personal stories, in transparent and accessible prose, with no footnotes or strings of citations. It combines local oral history with insights from entomology, planning, anthropology. Boxing this book into a Field-of-Research (FoR) code for research assessment purposes would entirely miss the point of what gives this book its quality and distinction. It’s a labour of love, the culmination of years of scholarly reflection and lived experience, the story of a place, well told, in all its complexity.

blue notesReading Darwin got me thinking too about other books by academics, recently read, that stand as exemplars outside the normative frames of the research monograph: Matt Matsuda’s grand and sweeping Pacific WorldsBenjamin Cawthra’s Blue Notes in Black and White, an engrossing excavation of masculinity and race politics in the history of jazz photography, as well as Community: Building Modern Australia, a visual treat of mid-twentieth century neighbourhood architecture brought together by a team including my friends and collaborators Kate Darian-Smith and David Nichols. All of these must have involved some risky choices and negotiations made by the authors – the inclusion or exclusion of provoking opinions or difficult material or quotes from troubling interviews, the workload decisions, the scholarly journal articles that didn’t get written by the authors so that they had time to write these books.

Why, ultimately, should we write books? Writing books takes a huge amount of labour, and precious time, working in a higher education landscape that, as Kate Bowles has been recently arguing, exhibits scant regard for creeping workloads and questions of the human cost of overwork. That same higher education system grants us less and less time in which to read books, too. Why go to all the effort, if things like journal article citations, grant income and ERA research excellence scores drive the means by which our scarce writing labour is valued? What Darwin and the other examples above affirm to me is the value of writing books for deeper underlying reasons: to document complexity in a longer and less formulaic format than the scholarly journal article, to shift the written record, to craft and to capture one’s passions or personal politics in considered form, to aspire to timelessness. To tell a good story.

What standout books written by academics have you read in 2014?

Know yourself and pace yourself – some thoughts on the temporalities of academic writing

This is an edited version of a discussion-starter presentation used at the UWS School of Social Sciences and Psychology writing retreat in November 2013, Kangaroo Valley. Thanks to Rae Dufty-Jones for the invitation. Thanks also to the group for sharing their own experiences and processes, many of which are very different from mine.

Let me first say that in academic life no one ever gives you time to write. Even though it is a core responsibility of the scholarly endeavour, there are always endless details and demands that will crowd in and demand priority. You have to carve out that time, and you have to wrest it somehow in the midst of all those other things that would fill your days. You also have to wrest some from those who have completely legitimate demands on you – your boss, your kids, your students. So if you are making the choice of a scholarly life, you are choosing not to do some other things, and not to do everything.

Here are some thoughts on how I have done it, remembering that everyone is different. (And here are the visual aids I used in the talk.)

Continue reading