by Maria Teresa Renzi Sepe
Research, Writing, and Creative Process in Open and Distance Education. Tales from the Field, edited by Dianne Conrad, a newly published title from OBP, is a collection of reflective essays about the meaning of research and writing – “as the intention of this book is to pass experience and acquired knowledge on to those who may be less experienced”. The seventeen authors are all scholars of ODL (open and distance learning), an interdisciplinary research field based on the commitment to give access to learning to anyone, anywhere, and at any time. A historical perspective on this field is given by one of the authors, Tony Bates, who traces through his personal story the footsteps of open and distance learning from the 1960s until today. Learning platforms have progressed from being technologies that were initially implemented only by broadcasters, to becoming the subject of a fully-fledged area of academic research. Bates’ words are a reminder to readers not to underestimate the accomplishments of ODL. Just to mention one of them: the design of online and blended teaching methods, thanks to which we were prepared to face an education emergency like the one caused by Covid-19 – a tremendous achievement.
More than a technical guide to research and writing, this collection of essays is almost spiritual. The writing style is flowing and personal; some essays are more discursive, and others are nearly mémoires. The authors embed their experiences in their own perspectives, all having started their academic journeys from different backgrounds: literature and fine arts, sociology, business, technology and science, teaching at various levels, and even the world of entertainment. As often happens to “beginners”, all have experienced being isolated, treated as a discordant voice, or hurt by criticism. These are common feelings among scholars and everyone learning and growing professionally. We are all different in how we make our way through the jungle, though: it is fascinating how each author re-elaborates their learning experience a posteriori in their contributions to this book.
The process of writing
Advice is always welcome, and, most of all, we benefit from those opinions which we are often too afraid to ask for, especially when we are young. Dianne Conrad, the editor of the present collection of essays, begins with the most precious advice: if you want to write, “just write”. Just as simple as that, but if it is true that ‘well began is half done’, then what happens next? I am sure all the readers who have experienced the joy and sorrow of writing will know the frustration when we find ourselves incapable of cutting even one word from a paragraph we care so much about, how annoying it is to lose references while writing, or how it feels to be stuck and not to know how to finish a sentence. Not to mention the more “practical” issues: to balance one’s job, teaching, learning, writing, and private life is not an easy task, as well as surviving the emotional roller-coaster of criticism, economic pressures, and the many other things that inevitably strain our motivation.
For every one of the authors, the creative process begins and continues differently. Pamela Ryan, for instance, writes that she is inspired by inventing a catchy title; but then she confesses that, at the end of the day, what drives her to write – other than the haunting deadlines – is perhaps to avoid looking too long at the blank page: procrastination is the best ingredient for slowly fleshing out good ideas.
Do we know where we will be going when we start to write? Most likely not, because the writing process itself shapes our thoughts. Writing is essential, but so is re-writing and re-reading. Almost every author says something about the editing process: from how the task is made easier thanks to the word-processing programmes now available on our laptops for free, to the difficulty of soothing our egos when editors must cut our sentences; there is plenty of agreement that this phase is painful, yet necessary. But for Marguerite Koole, for instance, it is the other way round, as she admits that “starting a first draft is the most overwhelming while editing drafts is the most enjoyable”.
For Jon Dron writing is re-writing, and Aras Bozkurt sums up this principle very well when he quotes George Wald in his 1975 article The Origin of Optical Activity, saying: “We are the products of editing, rather than of authorship”. Editing challenges the idea of singular authorship indeed, because what a reader gets in the end is the fruit of multiple revisions. And if editing can be bittersweet, it is just as pivotal as reading others whilst writing, as it helps us create analogies – the basis of human thinking, as acknowledged by semiotics and cognitive linguistics. This is reflected in the work of Mark Nichols, who playfully writes his essay by intentionally drawing on metaphors on the theme of travelling.
Even assuming we finally manage to put our thoughts into writing and make them legible, it is not over yet. The process of publishing academic articles, chapters, or books can be long and exhausting. In early-career scholars’ eyes, academic journals can look almost inaccessible, and the reviewing systems seem intimidating. David Starr-Glass and Aras Bozkurt offer tiny handbooks for aspiring academic writers in this collection of essays. They tell us how to structure papers and choose the right submission target by looking at the editorial approach, audience, objectives, and styles of the journals, because the quest to be published can be very competitive. Mark Nichols and Jon Dron underline the importance of becoming familiar with the language, the questions, and the issues of the chosen research niche, and they even give practical suggestions to use the best digital tools for writing or referencing.
Extremely important but often ignored is mentoring. Academia is a challenging field, as many authors admit. Hence, networking and asking for suggestions can improve one’s ideas, papers, or career. Sometimes – as Junhong Xiao reminds us – a mentor can even change our life for the better: daily chats or fruitful exchanges of opinions with more experiences scholars are a key element of academic training for those who listen with an open mind and heart.
Last but not least, one of the hottest topics in academic publishing is criticism. Though one should accept critique as a chance to improve and try not to take it personally, we must admit that reviewers can sometimes be bruising in the way they deliver feedback. That is why – Jenny Roberts writes – Imposter Syndrome is so frequent among scholars, given the high level of criticism and negativity they are often exposed to. I believe it is never easy to receive a bad review and then skim through it only for what’s useful. Sometimes it is not even possible, and, at other times, this ability depends on the psychological, social, and cultural conditions in which we currently exist.
This book’s thoughts on writing style and one’s own voice are precious. Academic writing often valorises impersonality and certainty, yet the urge to publish should come from what we truly cherish. Even in “objective” academic writing, the context is relevant: writing is a performative act that defines our identity, and vice versa. This also explains why we sometimes react emotionally when someone criticises our writing. The implications of writing are often overlooked, and, sadly enough, there is still ongoing prejudice in Western academia regarding research and writing by people in developing countries, a phenomenon that is widely covered in the present collection: Jenny Roberts writes about this, but also Catherine Cronin, Marguerite Koole with Michael Cottrell, Janet Mola Okoko, and Kristine Dreaver-Charles.
This book brilliantly gathers valuable stories, opinions, and advice from mature scholars whose careers – although they may have begun some time between the 1960s and the 1980s, a time whose challenges differed from today’s – were multifaceted and successful. It is remarkable to see how each author has a different reason to write, and consequently do so differently. Writing can mean organising ideas. For others, it involves intuition, influences, collaborations, or even the subconscious. At any rate, everyone's writing – academic or not – is driven by the quest to make sense of things. Curiosity, or the search for an explanation, is what makes us human beings and – as Randy Garrison puts it in his essay – is the basis for the love of learning. Hopefully, this book will guide new scholars in approaching, never fearing, overcoming, and finally mastering writing, and taking it for the journey of discovery it truly is.
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