CDJ Board member Dave Vanderhoven reflects on his experience of running writing workshops for community development practitioners and academics.
Academic journals often aim to attract more written contributions from practitioners, to balance the predominance of academic articles. The aims are often to broaden the relevance and interest in the journal, and hence, increase it’s potential impact.
Equally common, is the discovery that supporting practitioners and other new writers towards publication is more difficult than one first imagines. The problem, I discovered in trying to lead an initiative on behalf of CDJ, is the way that we consider it as a ‘problem’.
The CDJ Editorial Board set out to explore these issues by doing some Action Research, (AR) to consider how new writers might be supported effectively. As project lead, I set out to write publicity materials that would inspire potential writers and build confidence of those who sometimes think about writing, only to dismiss the idea before pen hits paper. However, as my ‘pen’ hit ‘paper’ I realised that I didn’t know what the issues were that stop people writing – I couldn’t really articulate the substantial barriers to my own writing practices.
After much thought and procrastination, I realised I couldn’t start where I originally thought I would – I couldn’t write the publicity materials that others would use to recruit new writers, without first thinking about what others go through when confronted with the reality of having to write.
After many informal conversations with respected colleagues, considerable refinement of my own ideas and a degree of crossing my fingers, I sent out invitations to the inaugural meeting of the CDJ New Writer’s Network in Sheffield. Invitations went to people who had expressed an interest and who I knew struggled with writing.
I recognised in the number of apologies, either for absence or lateness and non replies, that the idea of writing, not even the writing itself, could be a source of considerable stress. I modified my approach yet again and thought the point of the first meeting should be to get people talking about the kinds of material that they are dealing with, where I had previously thought we should jump straight into their abstracts (which of course hadn’t been written or weren’t being volunteered for review anyway). The learning I took from this is to get people to talk first and progress to writing in due course, perhaps only later edging towards academic writing.
The first meeting included a group of largely unpublished researchers, a couple of activists with connections to universities, and surprisingly a Professor who admitted that she hates academic writing and a fellow CDJ board member, whose presence was a great confidence booster for me. The discussion was at times intense, but lively and reflective. We barely got past the first question I posed, which was what have you been doing in work. At the end of the meeting, people were genuinely keen and one said he was inspired to write, others that they had really enjoyed the conversation and meeting new people.
I came away thinking it was going to be much harder to get people to write than I thought – mostly because I was absolutely clear that I didn’t understand what was getting in people’s way – they (like me) could talk the hind legs off a donkey, but froze when it came to writing, why?
The second meeting included a different group of people; with two Board members and two new writers from the first session, but this time three new members of the group arrived, with a few others yet to attend. We paired up to consider what we would write about in more detail and spent over an hour sharing ideas and making plans for the next session. People left at different times and so the opportunity to develop a co-ordinated summary slipped away.
From my paired discussion I was left thinking that it isn’t writing that is the problem. It isn’t ideas that are the problem. But that the problem, such as it is a problem at all, is a clash of cultures and all that this might imply. Writing per se, for me at least, is a process of discovering what I have to say followed by a struggle to say it in a coherent way; a process that takes time and energy.
Academic writing contains all the same ingredients, and despite supposedly using the same language, often involves writing with an alien set of rules and expectations. The difference, I began to recognise having been in academic roles for several years, was that it was familiar territory for me, more familiar than I realised. Overcoming the nervousness that seems to emerge in most people, even well published professors (I know a few that might say the same), amounts to developing a higher degree of self-confidence and/or using one’s existing sense of entitlement to have a say in debates.
The ‘problem’ of enabling practitioners to write for publication, follows the problems of class, gender, race and other forms of exclusion and discrimination; overcoming one involves some degree of overcoming them all. That ‘others’ do not write for our journals should be evidence enough that something is wrong. It falls to those of us ‘on the inside’ to make something new happen, if we are to justifiably consider ourselves as relevant?
Accepting that we do not know enough about why practitioners do not write for academic publication would is a useful starting point, against which to try a range of different activities. We haven’t solved the problem through our work in Sheffield, but we have made a good start in trying to understand it better.
Academic knowledge is not always better than other forms of knowing, presuming it is can feel like a judgement on those who lack confidence and can present obstacles to others writing for publication. Learning how to effectively break down the barriers between practice and academic publication is open to anyone willing to try, and in particular those on editorial boards of academic journals – solutions are within reach of the willing researcher?