Coaching Corner: Reflections & Tips on Academic Writing pt.1


Just to be clear, I'm not the coach in this blog post. I'm the one being coached. Like a previous blog post in which I received some career coaching from senior NT scholar Gary Burge, I want to share some coaching I've received by Helen Sword in her wonderful new book Air & Light & Time & Space. I'll share some thoughts and takeaways from the book in my next blog post, but in this one I want to offer some reflections on what is driving me to read a book like this in the first place.

A number of weeks ago the excellent OnScript podcast interviewed Jonathan Pennington about his Sermon on the Mount book. In addition to the excellent interview, Pennington casually mentioned that he frequently taught the research and writing components of the PhD program where he teaches. I took that occasion to email Jonathan in the hopes that he might share some of the book recommendations he makes for his students – both for myself and as recommendations for my own students. He was kind enough to share that information. Two weeks later, I ran into Jonathan at the SBL meeting in Boston at the Baker booth, and during that enjoyable conversation, Jonathan recommended most glowingly Helen Sword's book, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Since I had some Amazon credit, the first thing I did when I returned home was order a copy. Before I get to some of my takeaways from the book, one more story from Boston.

One of the delights of almost every person that goes to SBL is walking through the book display. I spend a lot of time wandering around those displays and drooling over books. But I noticed something a little different about myself this time around. I was, of course, interested in the latest books in NT scholarship and those that may help me in preparing new courses. But my eyes were drawn especially to books on writing, on thinking, on argumentation — perhaps I can categorize them on "coaching the scholarly life" type of books.

Here is the raw truth of it. As a junior scholar, I still feel way in over my head. I walk into most of my classes wondering how I'm going to fill the time, wondering if what I have planned to share will be of any interest, and wondering if I've really truly earned that doctorate of mine. After reading Burge's book, I'm at least happy to know that I'm not alone.

The other reality is that just because I completed a dissertation does not mean I feel like an academic writer, nor have I learned to find the correct rhythm between teaching, administration, and research. Most young scholars are prone to a bit of hero worship. I have my favourite NT scholars, and had Craig Evans as a mentor – someone incredibly productive in publication and who challenged me and trained me with collaborative projects. But I increasingly realize that I'm not any of those people. My interests are sometimes different. My upbringing and background are different, and the communities that want to hear from me are different too. So now, even after published articles, dictionary entries, edited books, and published books — I still feel like I am wading in water seeking a firm footing. I am still trying to find my voice.

My authentic voice as a creator (academic writing, blogging, video making, etc) will be a cocktail mixed with many things. It starts with who I am as a person and all those people and events that shaped me from youth and up to the present, splashes in the best of what I've learned through school, adds a shot of flavour from the mentorship I've received both near and far, and intersects with my present circumstances and interests. The resulting creations will be a word first to me and then to those who choose to listen. I fully recognize that finding my voice is a long process, perhaps a lifetime for someone with my personality, but I take some comfort and encouragement from the fact that I have now at least recognized the process. Like Oscar Wilde said, "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken." Or like my colleague Anna Robbins said to me when I succeeded Craig Evans and moved into the position of Professor of New Testament Studies at Acadia Divinity College, "you're not Craig Evans, and we don't want you to be. We want to hear from you." Now I just need to keep working to figure out who I am.

All of this is essential pre-amble to my next post, which will highlight some takeaways from Sword's book. Stay tuned.

Posted by Danny Zacharias.