Conrad, D. (ed.) (2023) Research, Writing and Creative Process in Open and Distance Education: Tales from the Field Cambridge UK: Open Book Publishers
This is a fascinating and extremely valuable book, especially (but not only) for newcomers to the field of open and distance learning. There is a wealth of wisdom here about the writing process and much practical encouragement for those wishing to write about or publish in open and distance learning.
There are 15 contributors, most of them already distinguished authors in open and distance education whose names will be familiar to many of this blog’s readers. Dianne Conrad provides an introduction and welcome and a ‘few words in conclusion,’ and Terry Anderson has written the foreword.
This book is a free, open access book, which adds to its value.
Writing as a deeply human activity
First of all, this is a very human and personal book. Unlike most writing for academic journals or textbooks, the authors here tell personal stories of success and failure in writing, which among other things makes it much easier to read. Terry Anderson compares the collection of authors in this book as being more like a zoo than an ‘academic tribe’, which captures well the differences in approach to writing among the book authors.
In her introduction, Dianne Conrad notes that ‘the technique of writing reflectively has either been taken for granted, not exercised well, or perhaps not taught well.’ That quote from Dianne struck home regarding my own piece in the book. If I was to get a grade for my chapter, Dianne probably would have given me a ‘D’ for not answering the question set. I am not an introspective type, and found it incredibly difficult to reflect on my actual process of writing, and ended up with a fairly straightforward factual description of my career development, so the other chapters were a revelation to me, as the veil was lifted on their approach to writing and research.
The one thing I do have in common with most of the other authors in this book is the need to contribute to the field of knowledge in open and distance education. It is a field of education that I, like many of the other authors, care about immensely. My main motivation for writing is to advance the field, to make it better, more relevant, more effective, more helpful for students and for instructors and administrators, and this came through in much of the other authors’ chapters. But that explains only the why, not the how, of writing. You will need to read the other chapters in this book for that.
What did surprise me is that in some disciplines and for some academics, writing is not apparently considered a high priority. This directly contradicts the ‘publish or perish’ advice often given to young academics. More accurately, time for writing appears to be often limited due to other pressures, such as teaching or administration, and certainly, as an applied discipline, the mere pressure of delivering quality open and distance education can easily consume all one’s time and energy.
Nevertheless, despite other forms of technology, writing is still an essential activity for spreading best practices, challenging orthodoxy, or sharing accumulated experience or new research findings. In particular, academic writing is identifiable, examinable and hence contestable, which differentiates it from generative AI. As many of the book authors also noted, it enables self-learning, a deeper self-understanding of the topic under examination, and thus facilitates self-development for the writer, as well as, hopefully, helping others to learn more. It really does help to know why you are wanting to write, other than personal advancement.
Another very human aspect of writing is the deep attachment to what one has written. Many noted the devastating effect of rejection or harsh criticism by external reviewers (an occupation that appears to attract an inordinate number of masochists). Several authors admitted they suffered from ‘imposter syndrome’ – they had no right to be an academic author – following external reviews. (Again, something I have never personally suffered, although I do get upset by harsh reviews.)
Finding the best path to writing
I really like John Dron’s chapter where he clearly lays out how he writes. It is a great example of the use of metaphor. His process of writing is also the complete opposite of mine, but I needed to read his account to understand better my own process. The one thing we do have in common – as with many other authors – is the need to constantly review and revise what is written before it sees the light of day. I also agree with John about the value of blogs compared to academic papers. Both have their value, but blogs provide a wonderful opportunity for sharing ideas that are often still in the process of development.
I also was fascinated by how several of the authors talked about the sub-conscious and complex development of ideas before and during the writing process, again, a process that I too undergo, but rarely reflect upon. I’m one of those writers who usually knows exactly what I want to write before I start actually putting pen to paper (or attacking the keyboard). This does not mean there are no deviations or corrections later, but procrastination – putting off the start of writing – is not something I usually suffer from because I don’t see it as procrastination but an essential process to go through before writing.
Others seem to start with the act of writing then do the thinking as they go. Of course, experience in writing is a critical factor – it does get easier the more you practice, so I do understand why so many have writer’s block, but it may be a good thing, too – it gives you time to sort out your thoughts and ideas. For all of us, deadlines are really important as a motivator, but they are not always necessary or even helpful for writing, particularly if you are ‘going big’ with your thoughts.
Several authors get down to the nuts and bolts of writing, such as discussing the role of note-taking and the use of notes (something that I realise I don’t usually do), or the value of a good bricks and mortar library (again, something I have stopped using since the Internet arrived). Others talk in some detail about how to approach getting articles published in academic journals. Some set aside a time each day for writing (that doesn’t work for me, either, but it’s still good advice). Others noted the value of a classical or literary education, which does apply to me. I hated Latin at school, but it sets you up for writing. It gives you a good understanding of grammar, sentence composition, and ways to construct (and de-construct) arguments.
And others talked about the importance of reading in the writing process. This is much more tenuous, though. Reading will make sure you know all the relevant research and previous writing on a topic and reading classically good writers inevitably will rub off a little in your own writing style, but most of us in open and distance learning are not striving to be Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway. In a sense grammar and style are just the mechanics, not the design or creation of good academic writing. This has to come from really feeling you have something worthwhile to say and the confidence that you know how to say it. Authors in open and distance education just want to be understood, so clarity in writing is the key, even or especially if the topic is complex and confusing. Clarity is essential for good writing but it has to exist first in your head, not on the page, although re-writing may help.
This book is full not only of good advice about writing in open and distance education, but also of wisdom, placing writing in perspective as a critically important part of being a specialist in open and distance education. Whether you are a seasoned veteran or a novice, this book will have something for you that will make you a better, more effective writer. There is also embedded in the book a lot of good career advice, if you think as I do that open and distance education is a worthwhile profession to pursue.