Training for optimal performance: how to increase your academic output in 30 days or less

This was originally written as a talk for a panel, “Get your theories up and running with lively machines” at the 2009 Society for the Social Studies of Science. Three years later, the marathon continues…

I am curious about the endurance of academic writing.  I sought to transpose exertion interviewing, interviews done with athletes as they train, onto academics, specifically graduate students.  I found that athletes would respond differently to questions in the moments of physical exertion than they would at other times.  I wondered, would academics do the same?  And what would the moment of exertion look like?

Turns out the loneliness of the long distance runner is nothing to the loneliness of the academic writing.  Writing seems to be a very solitary activity for most graduate students I spoke with.  They sit at their chosen location and encounter the blinking cursor alone.  Some choose to make their solitary confinement explicit by cloistering themselves away in an office or bedroom.  Others choose cafes, but speak of the necessity to block out the sounds and bodies around them.  Only the Internet connects.  Email, blogs, facebook, and chats connected some writers to other bodies.  However, they often framed these other bodies as distraction rather than helps.

Despite the straining distraction of the Internet, online interaction still seemed the best model for applying exertion interviewing to academics.  Catch them while they’re at their most productive, and intra-rupt!

I asked them questions.  What are you doing right now?  Where are you?  How do you feel?  Are you comfortable/uncomfortable?  Does anything feel particularly good or bad?  Their response time said as much as the pure text of their answers, though I cannot say I understand the meaning exactly. I also interviewed some of these graduate students in person, out of work mode, at local coffee shops, where I work a lot.

It turns out we graduate students often do research and writing in quite painful ways.  Marge Simpson once chastised Bart for making fun of graduate students, saying, “They’re not bad people, they just made a terrible life choice.”  The Ph.D. comic strip makes the pains of graduate student life into its main source of humor.  But is this pain productive?  Is academic work like the old saying goes, “No pain, no gain”?

A little discomfort can be a good thing.  Some graduate students expressed a desire to feel slightly uncomfortable when they wrote.  It made them more present in the moment, and less likely to fall asleep.  David works in his office at a “really big desk” in a wooden chair, ornately carved made especially for UC Ph. D. alumnus in urology Dr. Blake, which David picked up at a garage sale for $20—detritus of a messy divorce.  He describes the chair as “comfortable enough.”  “I am sometimes temped to get a cushion, but kinda like that I get uncomfortable after sitting for awhile.”  His mahogany desktop digs into his elbows after a few hours of work, but he likes this mild pain, as it keeps him present.  He also describes the bodily soreness he gets from evening weightlifting sessions as a sensation that “keeps me present.”  For David, the sensation of embodiment made manifest through slight physical discomfort links him to a particular present, a space and time in which he must be productive.

Another graduate student, Katie, engages in bodily practices that for most would be characterized as sacrifice or self-abuse.  She describes herself as “absurdly organized—it’s a sickness really” and is happy to have found the “one industry that rewards it.”  Like an embodied version of the comic strip, she laughs as she describes the many ways her work habits have “wrecked her body.”  She refuses the sacrifice narrative, though, saying “It’s predicated on this idea that I and my body are distinct things.  You know, the body sacrificed for the sake of the intellectual mind, it’s so stupidly Cartesian, the idea that you have to sacrifice corporal or mental health.  They’re not distinct things and you don’t own them.”  Katie’s rejection of the liberal humanist body is deeply personal and embodied.  But it is also troubled.  Her eighty hour a week work schedule inflicts exhaustion and her body talks back.  Days come when she just cannot do a thing, physically or mentally, due to sheer exhaustion.  She requires her body to say “no” rather than negotiate with discourses and practices of health.  She says, “I love this more than I’ve ever loved anything or anyone.  I would rather die in my office at 35 than stop…”

For others, discomfort and pain was not a motivating factor.  Soreness came from studying, but they did not notice it until they moved.  For these graduate students, writing was often associated with immobility, and a disengagement with the body.  That which drew them back into the body—external distractions, fidgeting, uncomfortable chairs—was avoided.  Often students sought out “comfy chairs” for work.  These students often would not notice mounting soreness in their bodies until they moved.  They also located their pain in specific places, and often to specific behaviors.  Jacob tends to wrap his ankles around the legs of his chair, leading to pain in his legs when he unwraps them.  Dani feels pain in her neck attributed to hunching over the screen, and fears someday developing “the professor’s slouch.” Janet prefers to write reclining in bed, her computer resting on her chest.  This makes her neck hurt, but she enjoys it because sitting at a desk makes it feel “too much like work.”  In this position, she feels much less nervous and enjoys her work more, a sentiment that came through when we chatted as she reclined.

For Janet and others, certain embodied practice of academic work keep them sane.  Without a hint of a smile nor a modicum of exaggeration, David says, “I’m either disciplined or I’m crazy.” Janet acknowledges that she “needs a psychotherapist to change my habits, but I think (what I do now) is the best way.”  Julie and Katie channel compulsive work habits into high productivity and embrace the fact that they are wrecking their bodies.  It is the only way they know to survive.  To a greater or lesser degree, these are all ways we “do research” in the sense that Mol & Law talk about “doing diabetes.”  More than  text is made in this process—so also are bodies, spaces and objects.

So self-help becomes self-torture, and self-torture becomes self-help.  Sensation, even of pain, becomes a site of concentration.  A strain in the back tells you that you are alive.  A pain in the wrists keeps you in the present.  Therapy happens at the writing station, but the therapists are the keyboard, the pen and paper, the space, the lighting, the chair.  Sitting cross-legged makes a nervous student feel more stable.  Resting wrists on a hard surface makes writing more concrete.  Editing with a pen in hand grants more “control” and flexibility over the writing process.  So, too, the problems of writing, and the writing self, come to exist outside the skin.  Doris muses, “I just need to buy better lamps…maybe then I could read more, just pick up a book and read.”  Noisy conversations at the next table over distract.  Daniel is convinced that he cannot write without a cigarette. “I know it’s probably not true, but I’ll tell you, I’ll sit there for three or four hours and the magic won’t happen.  So I’ll run out and get a pack of cigarettes.”  And always, the next book will have the answer.  Jacob says he “checks out books compulsively,” and others spoke of the desire to have more time to read.

The limits of the body are leaky, and we make ourselves through objects and machines.  But it seems some forms of making the self might be “better” than others.  And how are we to know what is best?  We are confused, we are damaged, we are tortured.  Worst of all, we did it to ourselves.  We need help.

In theory and in practice, we have no idea where our bodies begin and end, nor how to heal them when they rupture.  Might writing be part of this process?  It seems the direction of writing to or from our bodies matters: obligation to or motivation from, which Joe will talk about more soon.  Coming to bodies, in the form of assignments, deadlines, and the like, writing can become an obligation for another.  Motivated writing lives more comfortably in the body, and perhaps leads to better embodied practices of writing.  Of course, in either case the relationships between the writing and the body craft physiological responses.  Hormones proliferate, muscles shorten, necks crook, wrists ache, stomachs paunch.  The bodies of graduate students I chat with are as damaged as the bodies of athletes I run with.  We refuse to take the time to care for our bodies.  We forget that the borders of ourselves and our writing are burst and the mess is all over our computer screen.

Perhaps the best self-help might come in minding our relationships better.  We can not only demonstrate care for our companion species, but also let our companion species care for us.  When Dani works, she sits on the floor and types at the coffee table.  While she does this, she also plays fetch, rhythmically throwing a ball for her hyperactive herding dog.  She is forced to leave the house, get away from her work, two to three times a day to walk the same dog, happily and unremittingly demanding her care—care for both dog and person.  David’s five-hour block of work time is dictated by another, his young daughter.  To care for her, he must care for himself through a regimented schedule and a discipline that allows for spontaneity.  Janet spend enormous amounts of time reading forums of what’s happening in her home city and gets nervous if she’s not doing this.  What seems like avoidance of writing might actually be care for connections, caring for others, both human and machine, as care for self.  Perhaps we can best craft our writing body by caring for others—both human and non-human.

I wonder if care for others can also help us to develop a different ethic around pain as well, where pain brings comfort.  When I run hard, a cramping pain seeps into my lower abdomen.  The day I learned to hug the pain, rather than fight it, I felt better and ran faster.  The pain did not dissipate, it simply became a part of me.  Studies of athletes reinforce my experience, indicating that athletes who acknowledge and work with their pain, rather than ignoring it or fighting it, do better and improve their performance.

Now, what would it mean for us, as STSers, to hug our pain?  What sort of communities of meaning-making might we foster to help mitigate the suffering of pain, to make pain more productive?  I admit I’m not quite sure, but I know it has to do with favorite pencils, lined notebook paper, laptops, scissors, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, children, partners, friends, colleagues, hormones, fingers, necks, backs, eyeglasses, word counts, clocks, chairs, coffee, whiskey, tea, beef jerky, popcorn, cheese, Modafanil, brooms, and whatever else makes writing a pleasure-pain, or pain-pleasure.

To read Joe Dumit’s perspective on STS and writing, see his paper on Sitzfleisch.

Please feel free to share your stories of writing pain and pleasure!

One thought on “Training for optimal performance: how to increase your academic output in 30 days or less

  1. Pingback: Sitting, Academic Style | Joseph Dumit

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