Exploring new terrain: Mentoring academic authors across the pond

Erin McTigue is exploring new terrain, recently embarking on a unique adventure in her academic career. After resigning her post as an Associate Professor at Texas A&M University and Associate Director of Texas A&M’s POWER writing services program, this fall Erin stepped into the position of Associate Professor II at the National Reading Education and Research Center of Norway, within the University of Stavanger. A full-time, flexible position, Erin will split her time between working remotely from her home in Texas and traveling to Norway for a few weeks each quarter.

In addition to conducting her own research and academic writing projects, Erin will present writing workshops, facilitate writing retreats, and work one-on-one with graduate students and junior faculty to help them create their optimal writing practices.

Here Erin shares her thoughts on forging a new career path, mentoring on another level, and the insights she has gained thus far in working with Norwegian faculty and students.

TAA: This new position offers quite a unique career opportunity. How did the position come about? Was it a difficult decision to resign from your tenured Texas A&M position?

Erin McTigue (EM): “My ten years at TAMU were a time of learning and opportunity. I expected to learn about the well-advertised aspects of academia (research, teaching and service), but I found myself learning about some less discussed aspects, such as navigating hierarchies as well as working at the relentless pace often expected in contemporary academic life. Those less-discussed issues of academia were challenging but fascinating to me. Working to get a handle on such issues, led me to become involved in multiple support structures and services for academics at TAMU, namely as a POWER writing consultant, a certified faculty mediator, and as both a mentor and mentee within various organizations.  When I found that I was receiving more inspiration and joy from my service work as compared to my actual job (i.e., writing grants, research publications) I decided to make a change. Some colleagues feel that I am crazy to leave a tenured position, but I need to follow my calling.

This opportunity caught me by surprise but in a happily serendipitous way. Initially, I considered moving to Norway for a traditional faculty position, but for family reasons that didn’t work out. Afterwards, when explaining to my colleagues in Norway about my plans to leave TAMU and start my own business, they came up with the idea of my working with them, but from a distance. I couldn’t believe my good luck! Now I can be a writer and a writing mentor, but more on my own terms.”

TAA: How does your position breakdown in terms of tasks and what technology tools do you use in working remotely?

EM: “I have a 6 hour time difference between here (Texas) and Norway, and one project has a Finnish collaborator, which adds another hour time difference. Because of this, we minimize synchronized meeting times, which means that I work almost entirely online.

The Google Suite has been a lifesaver for the in-process work. Many people, of course, share documents on Google Drive, but I’ve more recently found that Google Sheets is an excellent tool for creating a literature matrix (i.e., Matrix Method, Garrard 2014), prior to writing a grant or introduction. Each team member can read and extract data onto a shared spread sheet. We can easily sort our combined findings by the columns on the sheet (e.g., grade level; country of origin).

To keep myself organized, I have been using the Kanban Flow. Originated in Japan, the Kanban concept uses paper signage to visualize work flow and spot bottlenecks. I first used this concept on my office wall with 3 paper sheets (titled: To do, In process, & Done) and tasks written on sticky notes. However, the online program has some advantages over the paper system. You can easily color code your different activities and plan and mark your time frames.  Due to a built in timer, you can integrate the Pomodoro technique. Additionally, when you start a task, you click on that task and the program records your time spent working. Working at a distance, this is especially useful to me because I want to be specific to my colleagues as to how I’m spending my time. At the moment, I’m doing an “audit” on myself to make sure that I’m prioritizing my projects and time logically.”

TAA: What key writing strategies will you be sharing in your workshops and retreats?

EM: “I have focused on building an overall writing habit and implementing a stress-free (or at least less stressful) writing practice. Therefore, we consider both the emotional and behavioral aspects of creating a writing habit. By emotional, I mean putting a value on writing, which can be as fundamental as labeling yourself as professional writer—as part of your core identity—even if it is not in your job title. Behaviorally, we focus on practices such as prioritizing writing when planning out your week and day.

Regarding productivity, I introduce a number of practices which build on the concept of fast writing and slow revision. I’m trying to get participants comfortable with creating really messy drafts, as a way to invoke creativity, and then introduce strategies to efficiently tame those drafts into a desired structure. So far, the strategies of Key Sentences and Reverse Outlining have been very well received.”

TAA: What observations can you share in terms of comparing the support provided for and approach to faculty and graduate student writing practices in the U.S. university system versus in Scandinavia?

EM: “My colleagues in Norway tend to be more thoughtful and judicious with how they approach work. They seem to fully recognize that quality work, especially arriving at new understandings, takes time. By recognizing this truth they appear to be, therefore, less frustrated with time. I, and my U.S. colleagues, seem to try to fight that truth – and of course, never win.  Similarly, my Norwegian colleagues are less prone to equate busyness with productivity, but understand that sometimes slower working is also productive. In fact, I recently ended up in a discussion about the meaning of the word “productive” with Norwegian colleagues, who were convinced that Americans must just have a different definition.

When I recently read Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Berg and Seeber, I felt like they were describing my two worlds, my former job at TAMU and my new job at University of Stavanger, and advocating for the latter. Of course Norway is the only country with a Slow TV phenomenon (e.g., you can watch hours of real time train journeys or knitting), so it only makes sense that they should be leaders in a hopefully emerging phenomenon of Slow Professor-ing. They are also rated as one of the world’s happiest countries. And although I am culturally American and understand the language and customs in the U.S. much better than in Norway, in most aspects, I feel happier and more comfortable working in that system.

Unfortunately, in both places, there is movement towards making universities more corporate and quantitatively accountable (which makes having a stress-free writing practice all the more essential), but the U.S. is significantly further along in that direction. For example, at TAMU, my doctoral students were expected to work 20 hours (on a research project, or TA-ing) in addition to taking courses and doing their own dissertation research. With this schedule, the department head expected students to finish in 3 years (at which point funding ended), but actually it took most students 4-6 years to finish their programs. On the other hand, right now in Norway I am working with a student who has 3 years of (very livable) funding to take only courses and do her research. She can become fully immersed in her research and writing without being pulled in so many directions. I am confident that she will actually finish in 3 years and do very thoughtful work.”

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About Maureen Foerster

Director of Institutional Memberships & Meetings / Newsletter Editor
Text and Academic Authors Association