Beyond ‘productivity’ in academic writing: or, what I did on my bank holidays

I could write this as a post about drafting three articles in four or five weeks. But actually they take a lot longer than that.

I have, nevertheless, found myself writing up three papers about very different things since the end of April. Late spring and early summer have ended up being my main conference season this year, so there would always have been some deadlines to meet in any case, but then I also agreed to join in a couple of collective efforts where my perspective could be useful, and then the whole thing turns into a game of deadline whack-a-mole, especially with student feedback and assessment on top.

One of the things I enjoy about my research profile as it’s developed is its versatility: when I can switch between different subjects quickly, I feel on top of my game, and it also creates a greater number of interesting modules I can teach than would have been the case if I’d stuck with just one strand of it. Although I work in a history department, I’ve also been part of a social sciences team, and my departmental base for research but not teaching in another institution was in Modern Languages. My regional focus is mainly south-east Europe and foreign interactions with the region, but I’m also finding more things to say about Britain, some of which I’m going to start to test in conference format after using blogging to explore them originally.

Hopefully, all three of these pieces will end up as journal articles, and depending on submission dates and the review process would be published in 2014 or 2015. For a UK academic, that’s good news, since 2014 marks the start of the next ‘REF period’, in which we all need to have four eligible publications of as high a quality as possible ready for the next Research Excellence Framework evaluation in 2020. 2020 is much too far away for me to know whether any of these three articles would be part of my REF submission (and that’s assuming that the REF would materialise in the form we expect it to), but keeping up a steady publication rate – something I’ve been doing since before I knew I was going to be working in higher education on an ongoing basis – removes pressure near the end of the ‘REF cycle’ to write something, anything.

The first piece is a paper on representations of the Balkans in the film adaptation of Coriolanus that Ralph Fiennes filmed in Serbia-Montenegro a few years ago (this link is to a detailed ‘idea map’ about the making of the film by Molli Amoli K Shinhat, which she told me about after I’d posted about the paper on Twitter). The look of the film draws heavily on news images from the Yugoslav wars, and even includes some archive footage from the wars themselves. Even though the director has billed it as a setting that ‘could be anywhere’, I’m arguing that the film depends on prior knowledge of the Balkans (or what viewers think they know about the Balkans) in order for it to make sense.

I wrote this for the International Feminist Journal of Politics conference earlier this month, which turned out to be an excellent place to give it, but I’ve had the idea since talking about the film with a historian friend during a conference in Denmark last year. Teaching on our department’s ‘Representing the Past in Film’ module, which I’ve been doing since October, also moved this paper up my priority list, although I’m not sure I’d use it if I was going to contribute to a film block in the module, except perhaps as part of something larger about place and space. Originally I thought I’d just write up a summary for the IFJP conference, with the intention of going back and expanding it later; as I started filling out the outline, though, I realised it was ready to draft in more or less its full form (apart from some material on Western identification with Rome that still needs to be added). That’s probably a sign it was ready to write in the first place.

The other two have needed a lot more preparatory work because, in one way or another, they were challenging me to engage with concepts I haven’t used before (which is part of the reason I wanted to do them). The second paper follows on from a conference paper I gave last December at an excellent workshop on ‘bringing class back in’ to the study of Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslavia, where I was talking about how far it’s possible to think of the local employees of international organisations in the region (including, but not limited to, interpreters for peacekeeping forces) as a distinctive socio-economic group. As a result of some discussions during and after the workshop, a research cluster asked me to be part of a special issue on their research theme. The struggle here was finding fresh data, and rather than referring primarily to interviews (which would have duplicated something else I was already working on), I ended up using two fictionalised memoirs by former interpreters as ways of opening up the wider issues that I wanted to talk about. I haven’t had the feedback on this paper yet (it’s likely to be coming in a couple of weeks), so still not sure how much more work it needs.

The third paper has put me through the most difficult writing process that I’ve had for several years. It’s supposed to be about various levels of collective identity in the study of post-Yugoslav popular music, and is intended for a music-focused special issue of an area studies journal. I’ve hit a series of obstacles in planning the article, going back to what now seems like a uselessly vague abstract I wrote last December, or even further back to thinking I could base it around a conference paper I gave last January when I already wasn’t fully engaged with the material I was talking about then, as well as my difficulties with a recent theoretical framework that I was supposed to be engaging with over the course of the paper. The breakthrough came partly through reading several unconnected books that seemed to work well with each other, but also through realising why I was having such serious problems understanding that framework (basically, my methodology, and quite possibly my mind, just doesn’t work like that – and then I could begin developing an argument underpinned by the reasons why it didn’t work like that). The paper has ended up being about the relationship between different collective identities than I thought it was going to be about – using data I was reminded of when I started setting up my music and politics web resource – and, as I write this, the issue editor hasn’t yet seen it, but I’m very glad we at least have something to revise…

None of these are large-scale projects, but I wouldn’t want to think of them as tangents either. There’s one on popular music, one on the international-organisation sector, and one on foreign interactions with south-east Europe, which is quite a good representation of my research interests. They also give a fair idea of how I tend to come up with publications. Nearly everything I’ve written as an academic output has started out as a conference paper; my first four articles were all part of special sections or issues based on the conference panel I’ve been part of. Although publishing too much in special issues can have drawbacks, I probably wouldn’t be publishing now if not for them. In particular, I owe a lot of my confidence in publishing my work to Denisa Kostovicova and Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic, who organised a conference on ‘transnationalism in the Balkans’ in 2004 and asked me to contribute my paper on popular music, which extended some of my Masters dissertation, to a special issue of Ethnopolitics based on the conference. (After various revisions, and some adventures in typesetting, the paper became this article in 2006.) Apart from a postgraduate workshop in Dubrovnik, this was the first time I’d presented a paper, and to have a benchmark for what publishable quality actually meant gave me something to aim towards with the 3-4 articles I spun off from my PhD.

(The Dubrovnik workshop is probably why I’m usually not too anxious about verbally presenting papers. Not many things about communicating research can be more nerve-wracking than presenting in a second language you’re still not very fluent in, in front of an eminent historian who also used to be the chief secretary of the Serbian Communist Party.)

These days, as I’m able to attend more conferences and as my networks have grown, the workflow often looks more like: conference where I was doing something else -> idea -> paper -> maybe a conference or two to try it out -> submission and publication -> thinking about something I didn’t quite manage to develop in the paper, which may lead me on to another idea in due course.

There are reasons why I’m able to work at this pace, and not all of them are very comfortable to talk about. Some of them are to do with my research always having been interdisciplinary, so that several academic audiences are equally important to me, and I don’t feel intimidated in adding new ones when I become conscious that I want to address them. This year, in the first year of my new post, I’ve had a reduced teaching load; my assessment load in May has been smaller than it would be otherwise, and the two bank holidays that happen to fall this month have been perfect for pushing on with difficult writing tasks. But also, I wasn’t self-funding a PhD, trying to find time for academic writing while researching part-time, working full-time hours in another job to keep up, or out of work at a time when I should have been building my post-doctoral publication record. I don’t have caring responsibilities or any emotional pressure to be home from work ‘on time’. I started my research trajectory when junior researchers didn’t have to compete for funding in order to pay the author fees for publishing in what their academic judgement told them was the most appropriate journal – and my reservation here isn’t so much ‘What if I wouldn’t have won the funding?’ but ‘How could I have been comfortable publishing what I wanted to publish and knowing that I was doing it at the expense of others who didn’t win?’

Even though I found the months between the end of my full-time contract in 2011 and being offered my current job in 2012 stressful, I still hit a lot of the privilege indicators Melonie Fullick flags up in this post on academic careers. Essentially, I get to play on a much easier difficulty setting.

So it’s my responsibility to turn this productivity into something more than a good publication record and personal benefit – and more so than ever, now that the stress of whether I’m going to find a job, and what kind of job I’m going to find, is gone. I need to keep making sure that the new ideas I work on refresh my teaching. I need to work on making my research accessible to publics outside higher education, not just in terms of ensuring that others can read the publications but also in communicating the ideas in different forms (one of the reasons I blog about Eurovision in May). Now that I’m in a post where I’m able to design projects over a longer space of time, I also need to conceive of research with public engagement built much more closely into it than I’ve done before. None of this is something I should do for my own sake.

And it all takes a lot longer than a week or two.