Being a scholar | editor, 2014-17

The Huntington Garden of Flowing Fragrance (Liu Fang Yuan 流芳園), August 2017, author’s photo.

As I sit in California, in the studious quiet, warm wood fittings and comfortable indirect lighting of the Huntington Library’s Rothenberg Reading Room, I can feel the space for thought expanding. The last few years have been a time of juggling – work with scholarship, life with other bits of life, contemplation with action – and this is the first time that I have had for a long time to devote myself to pure academic reflection. The years since the end of my PhD have brought a great deal of joy – celebration, travel, marriage, life shared with others – but has also had its absences – largely in comparison to doctoral research, both positive and negative. It is nice to take some time to reflect.

How did I get to where I am now? I am not in an academic role – temporary or permanent – and yet I have done a lot of academic things (workshops, summer schools, conferences). I have not “left” academia, but try (and admittedly often fail) not to lurk on the threshold. And you know what? I like being me.

One point of difference has given me pause for contemplation. Unlike many other ECRs I do not teach/have not taught, not because I do not enjoy teaching (I love it, and have a reasonable amount of experience), but because it did not offer me what I needed, when I needed it. I could claim that this was some kind of principled rebellion against the exploitative nature of casual/adjunct university teaching, its contempt for basic dignities such as reasonable pay and job security, but it was not wholly so. I fell into freelance editing because it was there and my skillset was a fit, but stayed because it offered me the flexibility that I had become accustomed to during my doctorate, coupled with the social bonds of a workplace. The staff where I worked as an in-house editor and online tester were all very friendly, and went out of their way to include freelancers in social events (if you’re reading this, then you know who you are and you are great). I think that I began to feel peace with myself when I recognised that I did not have to conform to anyone’s expectations, just as 21st century portfolio careers do not correspond to a traditional notion of a “career”.

I have worked, largely as a freelance editor, and I have researched and published not as a career professional, but as an enthusiast, as someone who has learned with time that he cannot give up scholarship. I can no more leave scholarship than I can leave my blood vessels, my lungs, my heart behind. I am tangentially (and productively) part of academia – affiliated with a university, and within the world of the university – and also outside of it, doing research because of an impulse, rather than a necessity. This has not always been without its turmoil – it is often frustrating to navigate the boundary between demanding vocation and rewarding pastime, to lack the funding that allows conference travel or the time to devote to research without carving it from weekends or evenings. The balance is sometimes precarious, but I am finding it largely rewarding. The reward came, I think, when I let go of my preconceptions. I recognise that I am a lucky and privileged person, and that I am supremely grateful for what has been given to me.

I am moving on to a new stage in my life, having spent over three years in York. The next stop is Dublin, where I will be continuing my research as a visiting fellow at the Trinity College Dublin Long Room Hub and (probably) working freelance again. I will be academic, but also not currently employed as an academic. I am open to whatever comes my way, but I have found a way to research that works for me, for now. My wife Debs and I have worked hard to carve a path for ourselves where we both found supportive pathways for our careers (she too is an ECR), and I am happy that I have developed a skill-set with the flexibility to accommodate both of us as we move forward. I couldn’t have done this, or anything else, without her!

This post is the first of a new theme for Scrivener & Smith, which is transforming from a wholly professional site to a personal site that incorporates elements of my editing and scholarly activities. I hope that you will come back to read more! The plan is to merge scholarship, creativity, and editing knowledge in one.

Before I go, I would like to speak out to anyone who has found their path post-PhD to be strange and meandering, and who may have felt lost. You are not alone, and there is a place where you will thrive. Time will tell where that place is, but it will come.

Four design quotes applied to editing

Handcrafted marbled endpapers of a book manually bound in France around 1880 (Giacomo Leopardi, Œuvres, vol. 2). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Aristeas.

Greetings to you all,

Today I am going to use four quotes taken from Margaret Kelsey’s excellent and oft-updated list of 72 Quotes about Design and Creativity on the InVision blog to discuss some of the aspects that I consider crucial to good editorial design. This will focus more on the ‘macro’ scale of editing – book design, project management – rather than the line-by-line ‘micro’ dimension. Having said this, I strongly believe that these principles are relevant at any scale, from word to paragraph to chapter to book to entire series (as point one discusses).

Without further ado, here are four of my favourite design quotes from Kelsey’s list applied to editing:

1) “Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences. Creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions.” –Nicholas Negroponte

This is an aspect of editing and project design that is often overlooked. A lot of academic innovation is made through cautious, incremental change, but some of the most interesting, the boldest, books and articles are brought about through the combination of forms that are unexpected. When it comes to the design of an editorial project, rethinking the format can be key.

To give an example, I’ve recently been very impressed by the ‘Contemporary Writers: Critical Essays‘ series released by UK-based press Gylphi. Why? Because they have applied excellent design to the task of editing. They have recognised that writing critical anthologies on still-living 20th and 21st century authors is a difficult process, and requires a new juxtaposition of elements.

2) “Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.” -Brian Reed

This is a particularly important principle for editorial interventions. Everything is edited in some fashion – it is impossible to write without editing. The question you, as the author – and your readership – should and will ask is this: is it edited well? Elegance of design jumps out, and is unmistakable. From the right front matter (the contents of a book such as the table of contents, preface, etc.) to an elegant arrangement of chapter, every publication is dependent on good design. Without it, a publication risks being perceived as ugly, dull, pedestrian, obtuse, or writerly rather than readerly.

A well-designed piece of writing invites the reader in, points out its salient features, provokes surprise, pleasure, and occasionally joy – or maybe that’s just me being a little too keen. Sometimes these features are simple. Sometimes they are profound. Innovative thinking is possible, even in the most formulaic publication.

3) “There is no such thing as a boring project. There are only boring executions.” –Irene Etzkorn

This is a particularly relevant quote for those at the outset of an academic publishing project. There is a common belief among academics with a certain attitude to scholarship or from a certain background that their research is not exciting or charismatic, even if it is extremely relevant, impactful, or important. Although recent years have helped to dispel this myth – the public are interested in many more ideas than academics give them credit for, but presentation is key – it is still very easy to let down a significant project with boring execution.

Is your project new, relevant, and exciting? Do your colleagues love it? Has it won funding from a scholarly organisation or government scheme? Good!

What about your publications? Choice of venue (do you pick the big established press or the small plucky one?), structure (do you follow the prescribed format of your discipline, or try something new?), and method of presentation (is the publication cheap or expensive, Open Access or restricted?) are all key. Even those seeking to reassure their reader by publishing through traditional outlets can still shine when designing their Table of Contents, arrangements of essays, use of editorial commentary, and so on.

Don’t let down an exciting project with a boring publication! Even if the ideas have the potential to excite, a dull presentation will obscure rather than reveal. Published research can always surprise and delight, and yet it takes good execution to do so.

4) “Design is so simple. That’s why it’s so complicated.” –Paul Rand

The point that I take away from this quote in the context of editing is this: a good publication takes a lot of time and effort in the planning and design phase that is rarely blindingly obvious to the reader, except in the elegance of the final product. Good editorial design is not in-your-face: it consists of simple decisions (typesetting, layout, use of images, arrangement, cross-referencing, appendices, and so on) that accumulate to make a well-designed book.

Clean copy makes a good book, but good editing is also about the receptacle that these words find themselves within. Even the best writing struggles to escape from the stifling effect of a boring design, or to appear coherent without the careful cultivation of content.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at an academic book review section in a journal and see how many reviews mention design or editorial decisions. Readers notice, and the more they read the more they notice. It may seem simple, but it takes a lot of painstaking work to design a publication.

Reconciling Creative Identities

Bundles of charcoal sticks, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Stephhzz

Today I would like to talk about academic creativity in the context of multiple creative identities. An increasing number of academic researchers, myself included, do not have an academic identity in the singular. Rather, there is a bundle of identities: researcher, freelancer, tutor, writer, creative, administrator, and so on, that we draw on to live our lives. The list of potential identities is endless. What I would like the suggest today is that identities, like ideas, work better when they are reconciled. Feelings of guilt, underachievement, confusion, or alienation can result when we feel out of balance.

If someone wants to express themselves creatively as a researcher, is it irrelevant that they are also creatively motivated as, say, a fiction writer? An editor? These are more obvious links, but the potential list of identities is endless. Preparation through practice and time to think through identities can yield interesting results: those with a creative writing degree. for example, have bound their identities as author and scholar together. Those in the US who have graduated from MFA (Master of Fine Arts) courses before undertaking a PhD understand that being a poet, or a writer, or a creative of another stripe can be part and parcel of being a researcher. Those who have completed double degrees have struck out in different and yet complementary directions, and their future lives are better for it. Certain topics of research lend themselves to synthesis more readily than others, it is true. And yet, I think it is fair to say that an exercise in reconciliation is good not only for one’s work, but also for one’s overall happiness.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, finding yourself through research improves scholarship, but also cultivates the self. Tightening the bundle that is one’s identities gives them strength, but also consolidates energy, identity, and motivation. In a world of uncertainties—a difficult academic job market, a generation of drifting millennials, an increasingly atomised work life replete with tasks and ad hoc gig economy activities—it has become increasingly crucial to find happiness not in one thing that we do, but in all of them as a whole. Passions need not be partitioned: they can be combined. Sometimes a wonderful job appears that reconciles passions—I know someone who combined over a decade’s experience in editing with a passion for clothes-making to become editor of a sewing magazine—but sometimes it takes a lot of work to identify synergies between identities.

The stakes are high. To neglect the integration of creative identities is to neglect the wholeness of the heart, to put it a little fancifully. Although some find comfort in partitioning themselves, there must also be a core wellspring of motivation that drives life. To be divided between passions is to dissipate energy. Balance is key to a happy life, but the combination of reconciled faculties, creative drives, and abilities brings something more than balance. It brings self-understanding.

What does this mean in practical terms for those seeking to enhance their creativity? This goes beyond writing or research alone, since we live in an era when all of us will be called upon to be many things, and the notion of a traditional career is looking very shaky, if not defunct. The gig economy will likely grow and this new reality, while disruptive to traditional academic notions of career, achievement, behaviour, interpersonal interaction and self-presentation, offers us the chance to shape activities for ourselves that deploy not only a single skill, but multiple skills.

So how can we think about reconciliation of creative drives? Perhaps the most important action to take is this: think about things you love to do, and why. Can they be merged? Do they share a root faculty or ability? Is there an intermediate skill-set that could bridge them? Is there a way that you could undertake an activity (paid or otherwise) that draws on two or more skills? The answers may not be easy or quick to achieve, but thinking through such quandaries can lead to more satisfying work, an enhanced sense of personal worth and ability, something unique to offer the world, and some innovative ideas for research and scholarship.

Find Yourself in Research

Lesser Ury, Man Reading with Magnifying Glass

Hello All,

This week I have been thinking about the role of personal passions and motivations in the pursuit of academic creativity. In the last week, I have read the accounts of several academic friends finding passion and engagement through the exploration of topics close to their personal background and experience of life. It occurred to me that this aspect of scholarly creativity is often neglected. Academics often seek the most objectively “interesting” or “relevant” piece of research, regardless of their personal engagement. It is common to read that PhD students should pick a topic that they are passionate about, but I feel that it is equally important for academics – at all levels of research – to engage in work that is personal, that brings them to a closer knowledge of themselves.

We should not be afraid to be creative by sharing that part of ourselves that inspires research, and fuels our hunger for answers. In the past there has been something of a disdainful attitude to this kind of “personal” work, but I am pleased to see it thriving. I have increasingly come to feel that researchers are nothing without their own story, and that research should enhance what is distinct about individual scholars. The process of moving into academia should not be a process of monastic-style oblation and initiation in which a rigorous process of training makes us into copies of our mentors or copies of each other. We are each of us at our most creative, engaging, and passionate when we share something that is close to us. Local historians and the “amateur” scholars that certain scholars demean understand this well: the power of scholarship, its root, lies in relatability. Nothing is more relevant or profound than something created by someone with a unique story to tell, embedded in a unique context, and articulated in a unique format.

Taking the self out of research, be it humanistic or scientific, is a great waste of creative potential. The marriage of scholarly methodology and personal experience is a potent blend. If all of us can take some time to speak from the heart and create work that is true to our emotions, lives, and hearts, then the world benefits. Running into a realm of impersonality and dry clinical diagnosis is the sign of a world that has ended, and yet lingers. To my mind, we should all fight to see it consigned to history.

Two points occur at this stage. First, for research to be personal, it does not necessarily have to be about a person. Something that a scholar has a passion for because it suits their temperament or skill set is also personal, for it defines and develops that person. It is a passion that is intrinsic to their identity. These things are just as important as issues that directly related to the particulars of a scholar’s life. Secondly, not all research has to be personal. The core need is to allow work that a researcher feels a personal affinity for, but also to branch out into areas beyond the self. Research should not be wholly self-reflexive.

Working with topics which bring us closer to ourselves has a transformative effect on our lives, and those of others. It is also true that issues of relevance to the researcher are likely of relevance to a wider audience, including the public. To be ourselves is to engage, the core mission of twenty-first century academia. If we do not define what is relevant to society, someone else with deep pockets and a more nebulous agenda will do it for us.

My message for today? Get personal! Find a path to creativity that is a path to personal development, and your benefits will be two-fold.

Defending your creativity (or Not)


Hello All,

Today I would like to focus on an aspect of academic creativity that is sometimes overlooked: when should you push back against advice that you consider conservative or restrictive to your creativity, and when should you accept it? Naturally there are extenuating circumstances for any situation, and there may be hidden reasons why it is wise to fight for your writing when you ordinarily might not, and when it is wise to avoid it. Defending your creative expression is a complex task, since arrogantly ignoring criticism or slavishly following advice are extremes of a broad spectrum.

Before I begin, it is wise to discuss the term ‘fighting’. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson remind us that martial metaphors shape our behaviour, and that conceiving argument as war makes it adversarial:

It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war.[1]

If we saw argument as a dance, for example, we might behave in a completely different manner. The same is true of ‘fighting’ for your academic writing. If you choose to ‘push back’ firmly but respectfully, you will have a much more productive experience (editorial or scholarly) than if you go in ready for war. Mutually supportive scholarship should be about being good to each other, as Inger Mewburn of The Thesis Whisperer reminds us in her post on Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness. If researchers and editors stick together and refuse to be in conflict, then pushing back is no problem.

Here are six scenarios when I feel that it is and is not wise to push back against criticism:

Push Back

  1. Defending experimental modes of writing – It is not necessary for your collaborators or editor to fully agree with your chosen style of writing. It is easy to fall into a habit of conformity out of fear that your work will be misunderstood. At some point, however, it is essential to push back if you feel that your ideas will be bawlderised. It is necessary, however, to pay keen attention to critique, and to remodel your work in sympathy with feedback but in a manner that is faithful to your original vision.
  2. Normative modes of publication – This is an increasingly powerful debate. There is no obligation to select outlets for your publication based on their putative prestige if you feel that this will limit the reach of your work. In this day and age, there are a growing number of high quality academic publishing outlets that are open access and maintain a rigorous peer review and editing process. Do not feel pressured to conform, but it is equally important to aim for quality. Fortunately, established scholars are increasingly breaking from old conventions, and provide an opportunity for those newer to their field to draw inspiration.
  3. Conservative peer review – If the peer review advice for a revise and resubmit would make your work unrecognisable and inhibit your original creative vision, do not compromise. I would also potentially classify PhD supervisors in this category. This is a difficult problem, but there is scope to push back, to argue for certain elements of your original work to remain while taking other pieces of advice. If you are truly at an impasse, consider this: in ten years, what do you want to look back on? A piece of writing that is not what you wanted, or one that your laboured to protect? This may involve changing your choice of outlets and, as I said above, there may be reasons why this is not possible, but do not be afraid to defend your experiments. This is a path to growth.

Don’t Push Back

  1. House editors – As a former house editor (the person at the publisher who takes in your copy from the academic editors and turns it into a final product) I may be biased when it comes to this point, and freely admit it. When house editors tell you something cannot be done, they are not trying to trammel your creativity. There is a logistical, stylistic, or business reason why something is being asked. It is wise to question your editors if you are confused or they have changed the meaning of your words, but treat them as colleagues deserving of respect and dialogue rather than adversaries. If a change is possible then they will consider it, but antagonism is poisonous to the author-editor relationship. This is doubly true if you are the editor of a themed journal issue or edited volume.
  2. Non-conservative peer review – There are so many amazing but initially disagreeable pieces of advice that I have received that eventually turned out to be indispensable. I would also definitely classify PhD supervisors in this category. Ask yourself: is this advice pushing my work forward within its own internal logic, or is it making it something that I disagree with? Good advice can radically change your creative vision and even force a complete rethink, but it will always come from a position of understanding. If the peer understands your vision, they will only critique it on its own terms. They will urge you to create the thing you are capable of creating but have not yet imagined. A conservative peer wants you to create something that they can understand, that is what they would have created.
  3. Collaborators – There will be times when you disagree with your colleagues and collaborators in an editorial project and have differing creative visions, but once again, antagonism is poisonous in the extreme. If you cannot reach a compromise that is satisfactory to all parties and fair to the representatives of all disciplines, then it is not a compromise. This is especially true of interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary projects. A recent guide to evaluating interdisciplinary research reveals that true interdisciplinarity requires ‘genuine collaboration’ without tokenism. Working in good faith without jostling or egoism allows a hybrid creativity to emerge that moves beyond personal vision.

I hope that this has equipped you with some tools to make difficult decisions. These six points are based on my experience and personal opinion, and I present them as such.

[1]   George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press) 1980 [2008], p. 4.