Anyone who has experienced being a graduate student assigned to a dreary basement “office,” filled with cast-off furniture and other graduate students, knows that the condition of your workspace has an impact on how you feel about your work. Environmental alignment—or modifying what you can about your environment to support your productivity—is something we talk about regularly at The Academic Writers’ Space (TAWS). In fact, it’s built into our weekly reset planning sessions.
A study published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education delves further into how and why spaces impact doctoral writers. Multidisciplinary scholar Emma Waight from Coventry University wanted to know how doctoral students experience writing in space and time, not just in their heads. She designed her study based on “new materialist” theory, which posits that things in the environment have agency. This agency interacts with the human agency of the writer to create the writer’s affective state, which can either support the writing process or thwart it.
Waight recruited 11 doctoral students from two different universities in the UK to help with her exploration. While Waight knew she’d be interviewing the students, she wanted to avoid interviews that prioritized people and neglected things, so she used a technique called photovoice: Waight had the students take pictures of things in their workspaces, which they then spoke about during the interview.
The students talked about where they usually wrote and how that changed because of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. When campuses were open, a lot of writing took place in university offices, but writing also happened at home, in other people’s homes, in libraries, on public transport, and in cafes. Because writers find a need to move from space to space to keep writing, Waight suggests that the affective state created by an environment can change over time. So writing is not bound to one space but really can move with the writer from space to space as needed.
One student described how while sitting in front of her laptop, she could not write a word, but when she moved outside that space, her ideas started flowing. She described writing on her phone and moving around her house from the bed to the sofa to the floor. This student also talked about how her dining room felt like a social space to her, and if she needed to feel social to write she could go there—even if there was no one else in the room, the space still felt social and helped her get into an affective state that helped her write.
In addition to describing how spaces impacted their writing, the students talked about how the stuff in those spaces worked together to create an affective state that supported their writing. For example, students talked about how they personalized their desks with both things to enable writing (like a laptop) and things that held inspirational and emotional meaning, like cards from loved ones, photographs, and children’s drawings.
Waight stresses the space and stuff also must be understood within time. A bookshelf, with carefully chosen books and objects, provided inspiration and a link to a student’s past, present, and future. Another workspace object that connected to a student’s sense of time passing was a tomato plant. As Waight explained
The ‘race against the tomato’, whilst playful, suggests a kind of tension as the passing days are outside of the participant’s control; indeed, nature is outside of the participant’s control. The belief that writing takes longer than expected was a common one. (p. 11)
So, if you are in disbelief about how long your project is taking, you are not alone. Additionally, when the students spoke about time, they described a stark contrast between the experience of getting into the flow or zone for writing and other times when they were frustrated by the struggle to get going
What do we take away from these findings? Waight suggests that first and foremost, students (and their supervisors) should let go of the mistaken idea that writing is “purely process driven and formulaic” (p. 11). Students need to navigate the writing process in their own unique ways, with the support of others, and in their own time. Students should be supported in figuring out what combination of space-time-matter helps them get into the flow state.
According to Waight, the idea that space, time, and matter can interact to both help and hinder the writing process means that doctoral writers should feel free to mix up their ways of working to help them get in the zone: you can move from one space to another, you can put different things in your workspace, and you can work at different times. Of course, every writer has constraints on how much any of these factors can be changed. But this research invites us to think creatively about what we might be able to change at those inevitable moments when we feel stuck in the writing process. It also reminds us to plan to be flexible about where, when, and with what stuff we work since academic writing projects, especially dissertations, are long-haul endeavors. What works today might not work two months—or two years—from now.
So, what’s in your writing space? We’d love to see your photos of workspace objects and hear about what they mean to you. Your inspirational objects are helping you even more than you think!
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