School’s Out: How to Focus Your Writing With a Summer Writing Group

 

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As many of us know from teaching writing workshops and incorporating peer revision into the classes we teach, writing is a collaborative and community process. Our students’ writing benefits from the feedback and support their peers provide. Yet for many of us, the demands of teaching and instruction make our own scholarly and creative writing an isolating and solitary process. Further, because many of us who read the PALS blog tend to emphasize teaching and pedagogy, our writing might not always be the priority we would like it to be on a day-to-day basis. A summer writing group may help you and your colleagues address concerns about writing in isolation and how to prioritize your own writing.

The faculty at my institution, Austin College in Sherman, Texas, started a writing group in the summer of 2016. The goal of the group was for each of us to make progress on larger writing projects and to provide support and accountability to gauge that progress. Our group met in the college library every Friday morning at 11am during the summer. We were committed to keeping the meetings to just one hour in length, so everyone could get back to summer writing projects.

Our Writing Group Format

When our group first formed, we found that many of us had had negative writing group experiences as graduate students or early career faculty in which writing was exchanged and workshopped. Some of us found this traditional writing group format to lack focus and reciprocity. We decided to not exchange writing with each other, since none of us were experts in each other’s fields (even those of us in the same disciplines) and the blind peer review process would provide us with feedback for revision at later stages. What we needed from each other was support and accountability in order to make our writing a priority over the summer months.

We used Kelly Ann Rockquemore’s (National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity) excellent advice to develop our meeting format. At every meeting, each group member would have 4-5 minutes to share:

  1. What were my writing goals last week?

  2. What did I accomplish?

  3. If I did not accomplish my goals, why not?

  4. What are my writing goals for next week?

Also following the guidelines of Rockquemore, we agreed that the information disclosed at the group meetings would remain confidential. We had to make ourselves vulnerable to each other, especially if we were experiencing writer’s block or discussing personal aspects of our writing process. That said, we also wanted to make sure the check-ins didn’t become weekly therapy sessions (or time to get caught up on campus gossip). We also decided  that although we valued teaching, we would not discuss it at the writing group. We had other venues on campus to discuss pedagogy, no matter how tempting it was to to talk about how teaching concerns sometimes interfered with our writing.

The group had a designated facilitator who sent weekly reminder emails about the writing group meetings, made sure the meetings started on time, and sometimes stepped in to keep the group meetings focused and make sure everyone had time to share their goals. Each member committed to coming to the group every week, even if they didn’t achieve their writing goals that week.

Writing Group Outcomes

The writing group was a success in terms of writing production and faculty satisfaction. The members of the group valued the writing community that we developed with each other. Because we had to report our progress on a weekly basis, everyone got more writing done over the summer than they would have otherwise–even if we didn’t accomplish as much as we had hoped.

Some group members organized “sit and write” sessions in the library before or after the writing  group met. The success of the “sit and write” sessions has grown to more structured faculty writing retreats co-hosted by our Writing Center and Faculty Development Center at the beginning and end of the summer. A few group members who found their research had much in common exchanged work on their own, outside the group.

Everyone in the writing group said it added to their sense of belonging on campus and they loved hearing about their colleagues’ research. Our group consisted of faculty from a wide range of disciplines and career stages. As a teaching-focused institution, Austin College requires scholarly activity but not major publication before tenure, so pre-tenure faculty did not feel intimidated sharing writing updates with senior colleagues. In fact, many junior faculty reported feeling empowered and affirmed by hearing the struggles of seasoned and well-published scholars in the group.

The second summer after our writing group formed, more faculty joined and we had two groups that met every week. We found that 6-8 is the ideal size for a writing group, and that 10 is too many. Fewer than 3-4 may be too small. In terms of output, we have collectively produced two book manuscripts, several articles and book chapters, numerous book reviews, and many conference papers. Some members of the summer writing group continued to meet on Friday afternoons during the school year.

Application and Reflection

Our faculty writing group benefited from the resources and support provided by our Faculty Development Center, which provided organizational support and a budget for lunches and snacks. Your department or campus’s Faculty Development Center may already have such a group for graduate students or pre-tenure faculty. If not, you could ask about starting a writing group. If you are an independent scholar or don’t have institutional support systems (or would like to work outside them), you might consider organizing a group that can meet at a local library or coffee shop.

We found that consistency and a set format made our faculty writing group successful,  productive, and enjoyable for all involved. Happy summer writing!

  1. What types of experiences have you had with writing groups in the past?
  2. Where do you find your writing community and support?
  3. What other strategies from your classroom can you apply to your own writing practice?
  4. What are other ways to make writing a priority on a daily and weekly basis while still remaining committed to teaching, students, and the classroom?

 

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Teaching (Vocation Optional)

When I teach my First Year Seminar on Creativity, I have my students read Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. The novel’s protagonist is a Hasidic Jewish boy living in New York, and he’s obsessed with drawing from a very young age. The only thing he wants throughout his adolescence and early adulthood is to become an artist. He faces familial and religious sacrifices throughout the book, but the one thing he never lets go of is his artistic vocation. It is clear from early on in the novel that Asher has an innate sense of how he wants to spend his working life, and for that, he’s lucky.

I bring this up because the idea of teaching as a vocation has been on my mind. For many of us in academia, we came to teaching through some other pathway: an interest in lab research, reading that kept us up at night, writing we didn’t want to stop doing. And although teaching is for many enjoyable work, it is often not a calling, but a career.

The religious implications of vocation suggest one has been called to do something by a higher power, typically God. It makes sense to me that religious careers are called vocations because their primary service is to God, and by extension, to God’s followers. As such, these duties blend into their personal lives; many religious orders take vows of poverty and shed their personal possessions before their final initiations. I admire those called by God or by some spiritual sense of urgency to be pulled into a profession. In fact, I’m a bit jealous of the clarity of purpose that one’s calling can provide, but I suppose my biggest concern is that I have not been called to teach, and neither have many of my peers who arrived in the classroom in circuitous ways, and yet, here we are with the expectations of many that our positions are filled with godly delight and moral purpose.

Those in vocational careers are not supposed to be in it for the money, or the glory, but for the love of work. But, as Greg Specter mentions in his post, teaching is hard. This is not a complaint about hard labor. As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m drawn to hard work. In fact, I like it. However, the expectation that joy is what motivates me in my daily work and not a salary that pays for my basic life necessities simply isn’t true. If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t adjunct one class a semester just for the joy of it. (And I say this because I know other teachers who absolutely would.) Sure, I would miss those rare, moments in the classroom where discussion aligns into beautiful sparks of discovery and the one-on-one interactions with curious and funny students, but I wouldn’t miss the constant pressures to innovate and entertain, the heaps of endless grading scattered on my living room floor, or the management of ever-changing student expectations. Instead, I would write more and buy a library full of books and read them all in my hammock. These are the activities that led me to teach in the first place — the love of language — but they don’t pay the bills.

My frustration about vocational teaching is that it can frame the difficulties and disappointments of the job as one’s moral shortcomings. Perhaps these are self-instilled pressures, but I regularly receive the message that the work itself is supposed to be inspirational and transformative, and that that is what sustains a teacher throughout her tenure. This is not something I see in many other careers. I don’t expect lawyers or road construction workers to necessarily be uplifted by their daily grinds. And I wouldn’t be heartbroken if I found out that they weren’t called to their work by some higher power. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t good at it, or that they aren’t dedicated. But it means they have good and bad days on the job, just like the rest of us.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that teaching is a job. And some teachers are certainly driven and inspired by the love of the work itself, and that is a wonderful and lucky thing. But some of us teach and we do it well, but we do it because it enables us to also do other things, things we may feel called to do. For some that could be researching in Antarctica, for others, it’s maintaining an academic calendar that aligns with one’s school-aged children. Or if you’re me, it means having the summers to write and read the stack of books sitting next to my hammock.