A Peek into Academic Life: Jul & Aug is “The Writing Season”

Today, I woke up and felt like a man with a mission. A mission to write.

Academic life can seem idyllic to many outside the business: professors, especially those with tenure, can largely set their own hours, work from home, and get to interact with energetic and interesting people of all ages. While there is truth to this claim, the other, workaholic side of academia often goes undiscussed.

Academics live in a world of ideas, research, teaching and service. The service part is probably pretty familiar to most. Service in a university is very similar to service in other professions: setting up new programs, sitting on committees (admissions, hiring, student life, etc.), and participating in the governance of the university (budget committee, university planning, etc.).

The teaching component is fairly easy to understand as well. Professors spend time either lecturing (generally first or second year) or leading seminars (third and fourth year) with undergraduates, teaching graduate classes (smaller and more research-oriented) and supervising MA and PhD theses, capstone projects or major research papers. Graduate supervision is very time-consuming, because it is one-on-one, and students often need a lot of guidance, as well as moral support. It also requires that the professor have an active research program.

So what is this “research” thing that academics are always saying they don’t have enough time for? Unfortunately, the answer is not entirely straightforward. I will break it down into three, over-simplified, categories.

For “bench scientists”, research means sitting in your lab, at the bench in front of the table where your various experiments are being conducted. You spend countless hours there, observing, taking notes on paper or on a voice recorder, and working with lab assistants, grad students and post-docs. At the end of the process, you publish short articles (4-20pgs) that have many authors, who represent all of the people who worked on the project in a substantive way.

For social scientists – this includes a massive swath of the university in fields as diverse as business, health studies, kinesiology, psychology, linguistics, communications, history, etc. – doing research means going into the field and doing things such as: interviewing, conducting focus groups, doing a content analysis, participant observation, etc. This work is very labour-intensive as well, although less expensive than bench science, because fewer materials are needed. Most social science research only really requires travel money to get to the phenomenon you are researching, computers and recording equipment. It also means needing to hire a lot of people to help gather the data and then analyze it.

A third type of research might be called “philosophical” or “theoretical.” In this model, an academic works largely on his or her own, thinking through a problem, using expertise, knowledge and wisdom that he or she has accumulated. Much research in pure math is done this way, as well as much research in the humanities. This sort of research is the least costly, because it usually only means that the researcher needs a good laptop, access to a library (although this is largely happening on the Internet now), and a travel budget to visit archives, museums and other universities. Dialogue is very important for this sort of research, so the researcher will spend a lot of time discussing with other researchers and grad students. Often, this sort of research leads to publication of very long articles in journals, monographs or full-length books. Producing these takes a long time and a lot of quiet and inner peace. Often bench scientists or social scientists will conduct this sort of research later in life, when they have published enough empirical work to justify credibly writing a book-length treatise on their subject matter, usually from a philosophical or theoretical perspective.

If you are curious about me: being a communication researcher, I am somewhere between the social science model and the “theoretical” model. Up to now, all of my scholarly work has been published in journal articles or as chapters in books. I have been a co-author on a couple of textbooks, as well, which helped me work through the ideas of my field from various perspectives. I was granted tenure a few years ago in 2006, so now my aim is to take my research to the next, more theoretical level.

So when does all of this research happen? As you can well imagine, it takes a lot of concerted effort and “thinking time” to get it done. It is hard to find that time during the school year, because of the teaching and service commitments I described above. What is most difficult is that research requires large blocks of time and a measure of psychological and emotional quiet.

The only time that academics can really find this is during the summer, or when they go away on research leave. Most of my colleagues – especially the younger ones – have taken very little vacation in the many years I have known them. And during their “vacation” they are constantly thinking about and working on the research that they are obsessed with and haunted by. I have grown to believe that this is why so many young academics that I know are either single, childless or divorced. Academics also know that research is vital because it ensures that they are bringing the most modern and up to date ideas into the lecture hall and seminar room. The whole of an academic life is greater than the sum of its parts.

Modern academics, especially those who were hired for their potential as researchers at a research university, such as McMaster, where I work, live their lives through the lens of their research and writing. So summer becomes the writing season.

For me, this means working on three projects:

  • a new book, Understanding Public Relations in Canada, with two co-authors: Terry Flynn and David Estok.
  • the second issue of the Journal of Professional Communication
  • a single author book on communication theory and practice
This means a busy summer of writing for me, but one that I look forward to!



2 Replies to “A Peek into Academic Life: Jul & Aug is “The Writing Season””

  1. I enjoyed reading this article Alex. I didn’t know that your single book was on comm. theory and practice…it’s going to be great!

  2. Very interesting read. Working in a non-academic area of business related to communicaton studies, I have found that the underpinnings of most business models are theses (and sometimes just a single thesis) in the academic field. Reading this gave me a new view on the intensive resources put into academic (and hence private) innovation. More simply the intensive resources invested into new ways of thinking. Thanks.

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