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PROJECT SCRIB – A GENESIS

By Charlotte Cloutier

It was on account of a fortuitous conversation that Viviane and I, along with our friend Chahrazad Abdallah, who is currently a professor at UQAM in Montreal, came to the idea of this blog. In October 2010, Chahrazad invited me to dinner at her place. We were discussing myriad things, but mostly about our various interests outside of academia. What came out of that conversation was a realization that both of us had a love of writing, and had entertained dreams (delusions?) going way back (long before either of us had even entertained the idea of undertaking graduate studies) of someday becoming writers.  I confessed that my first career choice had been investigative journalism, but that for various reasons (I seem to recall parental advice about choosing a “real” job) I had never gone down that path.  I went to business school instead (yawn – but lots of career prospects there!) At that point, Chahrazad pulled out a book from her (very full) bookshelf, and said “You’ve got to read this! You’re going to love it.” It was “The New New Journalism:  Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on their Craft” (Vintage) by Robert Boynton. I leafed through it, made a mental note, and our conversation moved to other topics.

Some weeks later, I remembered our conversation, and bought the book. I read it in a day.  I was completely hooked. I thought, “This is amazing!  As qualitative researchers, this is exactly the kind of stuff that we do!  We go through the same processes!” It didn’t take long for me to think, “We should be doing the same thing with academics.” Viviane (all three of us did our PhDs together but are now in different institutions) happened to come by my office and I just gushed about the book: “Have you read this?” “You have to read this!” As it turned out, I was wasting my breath as Viviane had read it too and was just as enthusiastic.  That’s when I shared with her my idea of interviewing academics on how they write, just like Robert Boynton interviewed his writers, and of posting the interviews online on a dedicated blog. Viviane was immediately enthusiastic, and being the most social media savvy of the three of us, proceeded to enumerate all the different kinds of stuff on writing that we could post on such a blog, beyond interviews.  It turns out that Viviane too has had a lifelong dream of becoming a writer, and has collected various tidbits on writing going back years.  Why not share it all?

And such it was. We brainstormed a name (ProjectScrib is short for Scribere Aude – which in latin means “dare to write” – Viviane deserves credit for coming up with the name), and brainstormed more ideas. We assigned tasks, and discussed what the blog should look like. And here you have it.  As we’re early career, tenure track and this type of project doesn’t exactly provide fodder to a tenure file, we’ve had to fit it into the interstices of our crazy academic schedule. So we haven’t been able to build it quite as quickly as we’d like. We’ll be feeding into it as our time allows. We hope you enjoy accompanying us on this journey.

ABOUT – Interviews

In this section we are posting interviews that we have conducted with academics (and others!) on how they write.  We’ve been pretty much keeping to the same interview template for all the interviews, so that readers can compare answers between respondents. What quickly becomes obvious when you read through the transcripts is how similar, and yet how different each is.  Writing is such a deeply personal process it would be ludicrous to assume that there is “one best way” to go about it.  And yet despite this, all writers, even those who publish extensively, deal with writer’s block, get sick of their material and get irritated with reviewers (at least at first!).

We’ll be posting interviews as they are completed. This process can be a bit long, as we give all respondents the opportunity to review their transcripts.  We also have them sign a waiver allowing us to post the material online.  Conducting the interview, transcribing the audio, editing the transcript and getting feedback and approval from respondents can take a few months each time, so although we plan to post new interviews regularly, we may not be able to post as often as we would like.  Our aim is to post a new interview at least once a month, so do come visit us from time to time to see what’s up.

Some of you might be wondering how we choose respondents.  Being professional researchers, we of course could not undertake such a project without some legitimate and scientific protocol to guide our sampling strategy.  Here it is:

  • People we know who have published and who are willing to be interviewed
  • People we know who introduce us to people they know who have published and are willing to be interviewed
  • People who happen to be visiting our respective schools and who we corner into doing an interview
  • People we bump into at conferences who are willing to carve out a bit of time from their busy conference schedule to do an interview (which invariably will take place in hotel lobbies, coffee shops and public parks (bench or grass), depending on available space)

So as you can see, it is all very scientific.  I think the official term for this approach is “convenience sampling” (no. 15 in Michael Quinn Patton’s list of qualitative research sampling strategies (Patton, 2003, p. 241).  If you’re wondering why Karl Weick or Anthony Giddens are not (yet) among those interviewed, you can surmise that it is because 1) none of us knows them personally; 2) nobody we know knows them personally; 3) none of them has yet come to give a talk at one of our universities and 4) none of us has yet had the nerve to walk up to one of them at a conference (for those who actually still go to conferences) and ask them to do an interview.  But we’re working on it.  Jokes aside, our goal is not to be exclusive or elitist.  On the contrary, we have (and will continue) to interview people who are at different stages of their academic career.  People who are well known but also people who are less well known.  Almost always, people I’ve approached have said, “Are you sure you want to interview me?   I really don’t have anything interesting to say.  I have no idea how I write.”  And yet invariably, once we get into the conversation, they have lots to say and it’s always super interesting.  In my view, each interview is a gift, as it provides a little bit of insight into the person behind the writing and the articles, a little bit of the human in what might seem, at least to those us starting out in this business, a somewhat inhuman process.   Enjoy.

Patton, M. Q. (2003). Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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