Why Writing is Really Hard: The Self-Suppression of Identity & Voice in Scholarship

This semester has been one of incredible growth and learning–hopefully for my students, but definitely for myself.  As another semester of teaching winds down and I begin to approach my computer (and my data) for a summer with a reduced teaching load and a focus on writing, I find myself in a familiar place of reluctance, irritation, and anxiety.  I’m reluctant to begin writing; irritated at my own reluctance, and anxious that I’ll face yet another rejection in the academic world, one that reminds me to “know my place” as in the classroom exclusively and not in the scholarly arena.

I wrote a blog a few months ago on “Why Writing is Hard” and as I reread that piece, I realized part of the problem. I used to approach writing with love.  It’s a similar love to that which I have for teaching and for students.  It’s also similar to the love that I have for literacy, identity and language as fields of study.  When I love something, I don’t do so half-heartedly.  I love with joy and passion. Hours pass like minutes as I immerse myself in my teaching, my interaction with students, or my own learning about the areas that I find so compelling.  That used to be how I approached writing–with a spirit of inquiry, exploring my own thoughts, the thoughts of others, storytelling, in a way that was unique to me.  There wasn’t a pressure to be good enough for anyone else because frankly, I was writing from a place of love and joy, writing to contribute, and writing with a sense of my own beliefs and identity.  But, in rereading my blog post from just a few months ago, I realized that while my heart still wishes to write to make a difference (for students, teachers, and teacher educators), somewhere along the line, my own identity and voice have been silenced in service of “doing it right” and seeking others’ approval.

I asked my husband a few weeks ago why he thinks that when I speak, people listen, they engage and they respond, but why my academic submissions keep getting turned away.  He replied simply, “You don’t write like you speak.  When you write, it’s good, but it doesn’t have YOU in it. It sounds so formal.” This is similar to the feedback that my dissertation chair gave to me three years ago, that I was absent from my dissertation and that the writing sounded “overly academic,” a concept that was beyond me at the time.  These thoughts were in my mind when I had the privilege to read a colleague’s draft of a piece on her research on intersectional identity in relation to Muslim-American college students; I noticed myself seeking her voice, seeking her acknowledgment of the critical contribution of her writing, particularly in light of recent socio-political contexts, all of which seemed sterilized or hidden behind the academic justification of the piece.

After reading my colleague’s draft, I returned to my own writing and reread the introduction where, for the first time, I really felt the impact of my own silence.  Here I was, writing about teacher professional identity, which to me, is critical to understanding how teachers approach their classrooms, students and pedagogy, and I began with the most vanilla opening of: “Professional identity has gained increasing attention in education over the past several years;” as if, professional identity had no value before the increasing attention to it over the last several years. I continued, in my introduction, to mention the connection between the interest in professional identity as a counter-narrative to teacher quality as defined by high stakes accountability measures, but I did so in a way which tied the importance of identity to the narrative of accountability, again as if justifying my research gave it validity, and in so doing, gave me validity. I was horrified; and I was saddened as I realized that I couldn’t recognize my voice in that introduction if I tried.

My horror and sadness is not to say that I should not acknowledge the importance of professional identity in relation to scholarly and socio-political contexts; rather, it was a wake up call to me to bring myself as a scholar to the table.  By minimizing my own voice, my own passion for my research, and my own identity, I am silently killing my love for scholarly writing.  The writing isn’t made hard, as I previously supposed, by writing pieces that represent me or pieces that are “bigger than me,” the writing is made hard by seeking the approval of others at the cost of my own identity and knowing my own value as a scholar.

These feelings aren’t individual.  I know that the internalized self-doubt has context in my own identity, as a woman of color, as a young academic, as a practitioner turned practitioner-scholar in an R2 university. I am thankful for the support and mentoring I’ve received in my department, college and university which have helped me to embrace who I am as a scholar; thankful for works like Presumed Incompetent which have reminded me of the context of my struggle; and most of all, thankful for my students, who through their own writing this semester, have modeled for me the importance of bringing experience and passion to academic writing and the power of voice.  I hope that, as I enter the revision and writing process this summer, I can honor those that have struggled before me, those that struggle with me, and those that believe in me.

I’ve learned a lot this semester.  Most importantly, I’ve come to embrace myself as a teacher, a scholar and a writer.  While I still hope that my colleagues in academia will also come to embrace my scholarship, I know now that my self-worth is not on the table with every submission. And, as an academic, that is a beautiful thing.

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