Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Sense of Purpose

Academic writers often lose their sense of purpose.
Many of us start an academic program with a real sense of purpose--not just to get a degree, not just to become a professor, but because we believe in something, and we believe that understanding things better, and sharing that understanding will help us effect change in the world. We may believe that the increase in knowledge is itself valuable.

Yes, there are those in professional programs who are only writing because they want the degree. I work with a lot of people who want to practice as clinical psychotherapists, and I understand that these people are not hoping to be researchers, but simply want the right to work with individuals. And there are others writing academic works in similar roles. This little essay is not for them, though I think that even such folks would benefit from being able to find a sense of purpose in what they write.

But for those who are interested in being researchers, for those who had a sense of purpose when they started, to lose that sense of purpose is a great shame. It happens often enough. The limits of academic practice make it difficult to achieve grand visions. And then we struggle with the demands of those involved in the process that we need to satisfy (our professors, especially). And not only is it a great shame to lose that sense of purpose, it is a great hindrance to our attempts to move forward.

A sense of purpose is crucial in finding motivation. If you have come to the point where you feel that you're writing only to satisfy your professors and only to get a degree, that is an emotionally draining situation. Work in that environment is a burden and only a burden; there is little sense of worth in pursuing the work.

A sense of purpose also helps in finding direction and coherence for your work. If you have a sense of purpose for your work, that helps keep all the pieces together. Instead of merely going through the motions of academic work and trying to piece together a set of paragraphs or pages or chapters that create a complete work, with a sense of purpose one writes towards a goal: the pieces are not just different discussions stuck together to create some formalism--an appropriate number of chapters, for example--instead they hold together in pursuit of the purpose. Each piece is motivated by something greater than simply the formalism. Each piece is motivated by the sense of purpose. This creates coherence. It also makes it easier to see what to write: you're not just writing to write, you're writing to create a whole that accomplishes something.

If you had a sense of purpose once, and you've lost it, this little essay is a call to put aside the cynicism, to rediscover that sense of purpose and to put it to work for you.

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