The Happy Dissertator: Sustaining Graduate Writing Groups

Uncategorized / Monday, February 23rd, 2015

By Sarah Greenfield

Sarah Greenfield

Sarah Greenfield is the Interim Associate Director of the UW-Madison Writing Center, a role she took on after working as an instructor at the Writing Center for four years. This year, she has enjoyed supporting graduate tutors, organizing and running workshops, meeting with student writers, and developing new programs such as the Graduate Writing Groups. She completed her PhD in English at UW-Madison this past summer.

Last week I received an email from Katie Zaman, a dissertator in the Sociology department, in which she told a delightful story:

“Today I was in Helen C White, organizing for the TAA, and I met a happy dissertator in the hallway. She was heading to get coffee because she had already met her writing goal for the day and it had only been half an hour in the dissertation writing session. She was smiling and relaxed and I asked her about the group – she told me I could find out how to join it by emailing you. I want to be happy like her and have writing goals and meet them! Is there an application process?”

Katie was referring to the Graduate Writing Groups that have been meeting this year at the Writing Center. These groups are made up of about twenty students who gather together once a week for three hours. During that time, graduate writers set goals, write, and then check back in at the end to share successes and keep each other accountable. As the organizer of the groups this year, I felt that Katie’s email encapsulated why these groups are so important. Writing can be a very lonely activity for graduate students. To combat that feeling of isolation, these groups are a way to see writing as something shared and collaborative – something that is more fun, less overwhelming, and more manageable when it’s done with others in the room. Through goal setting, brief conversations about writing, and – first and foremost – dedicated time for writing, the groups help graduate students get more words on the page in a supportive setting. Needless to say, I was more than happy to have Katie join a group.

The Legacy of Writing Groups

These groups are in many ways an offshoot of two other kinds of writing groups that the Writing Center has used to support graduate students in past years. Our Writers’ Retreats (which are for both graduates and undergraduates) take place about four times a semester, with different students attending each retreat. As one-time events, these retreats allow students to set aside four consecutive hours for writing any kind of assignment or project. The Graduate Writing Groups also share similarities with the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps, now in their fifth year, which are weeklong (sometimes longer) all-day camps for dissertators.

This semester's Monday writing group meets to discuss their goals for the day.
This semester’s Monday writing group meets to discuss their goals for the day.

While these two programs were and are helpful for students who want to dedicate extended periods of time to writing, we felt that there was still something missing – support to help students write consistently over the course of an entire semester. The Graduate Writing Groups were designed with this in mind, inspired in part by a dissertation group run by our colleagues at Indiana University. The groups were born this past summer as six-week long, once-a-week, sessions for both graduates and undergraduates. I was lucky enough to lead one of those groups. Over those six weeks, I was excited to see how the emphasis of these groups was on working writing into one’s everyday routine – coming back to write week after week and making writing a sustainable habit. Yet still, many of these graduate writers were nervous about what would happen in the fall. Would weekly writing still be possible once the busyness of the school year began? My goal with the Graduate Writing Groups has been to provide a space for this writing to happen in the midst of all the many pressures and demands that are an inescapable reality for graduate students.

Participants of the groups come from departments and programs all over campus, including Sociology, Geography, Spanish and Portuguese, Theater and Drama, Zoology, Biochemistry, English, Forest and Wildlife Ecology, Curriculum and Instruction, Horticulture, Marketing, Kinesiology, French and Italian, Communication Arts, the Nelson Institute, Management and Human Ecology, Art History, Anthropology, Economics, and many more. Some are students completing papers for their coursework; others are working on their Master’s thesis; some are putting together their dissertation proposals; some are working on chapters or articles; and many are in the last stages of their dissertation writing process. Last fall, about 40 students participated in the groups. This spring, 76 students expressed interest in the groups with 65 eventually joining one. Having students from so many different departments in so many different stages of their graduate careers allows for rich conversations about the many challenges and successes with writing that graduate students experience.

Voices of Participants

For this blog post, I asked group participants to share with me some of what they gained and learned while in the group that I led Monday mornings from 9:00-12:00 last fall. I asked each of them to tell me what they feel they’ve gained from the groups and what they’ve learned about themselves as writers.

Writing Group participants Anne Wheeler and Kim Moreland get to work.

Saili Kulkarni, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, is working on finishing her dissertation, which focuses on the intersections of race, culture, and ability; special education teacher education; and special education teacher beliefs. Saili enjoyed the groups so much that she’s a part of one this spring as well. When I asked her what she feels like she’s gained, Saili said, “The Graduate Writing Group provided me with organizational skills to take back my week (Monday mornings at 9 meant I started my week off getting words on the page)!  It also created an overall structure for the week.  I left knowing what tasks remained for the rest of the week and it set up a great system for me.” While some of the groups take place in the morning and others in the evening, I agree with Saili that there seems to be something especially rewarding about dedicating Monday mornings to writing and taking control of the week.

Many participants focused on the benefits of accountability. Saili told me, “Getting goals written down and sharing them every week also supported me in being accountable for my dissertation.” Another participant, Anand Nageswaran Bharath, emphasized accountability as well. Anand is a doctoral candidate in Mechanical Engineering affiliated with the University of Wisconsin Engine Research Center. His dissertation focuses on optimizing the air handling systems of automobile engines running on low temperature combustion strategies to improve their performance and mitigate emissions, through the use of computer simulations. Anand found even just the presence of other writers to be motivating: “Knowing that I am surrounded by other graduate students who are studiously working on writing assignments reminded me of the writing tasks ahead of me and forced me to do them so that I could finish off my writing requirements for the day.”

Writers share a table and enjoy a sense of camaraderie.
Writers share a table and enjoy a sense of camaraderie.

Sanja Badanjak agrees. Sanja is a doctoral candidate in Political Science, working on a dissertation project concerning the impact of European integration on politics of party systems and party competition in the EU member states. She talked about the “personal and psychological” benefit of being in a writing group: “I think we all had several moments of insight concerning the way the process of writing a dissertation works, and how similar our experiences are, particularly in terms of moments of doubt and confusion about the proper way to proceed when one faces a writer’s block. We also had an outlet for a common problem of dissertation writing, the sometimes very acute feeling of loneliness as one is completing the project.”

Setting Goals, Managing Expectations

Every week, I ask the group participants to spend the first few minutes of the session writing down three different kinds of goals: the minimum amount of work they want to accomplish, what they plan to do after that, and the most they think they could get done in their wildest dreams. Types of goals range from “write 500 words” to “outline a new section” to “made edits based on my advisor’s comments.” My hope is that this form of goal setting helps writers understand their own writing process better so that they can set more realistic and achievable goals for themselves. Some seem to overestimate what they can do, but, as Sanja told me, this can help one become more aware of one’s capabilities: “I have learned to be realistic in my assessment of writing success. I now know in advance that a particular type of writing (or editing) may be easier or more difficult, and if the latter is the case, I know to adjust my expectations concerning the speed with which I can complete particular tasks.”

Every week, groups check back in at the end of the session to keep each other accountable.
Every week, groups check back in at the end of the session to keep each other accountable.

And yet, the opposite can prove to be the case as well. Saili told me, “I am actually someone who sometimes UNDERestimates how much writing I could get done, so when I started, my goals used to be very small.  As I started achieving writing goals, however, I learned to push myself to do more.” Setting goals also kept participants from feeling overwhelmed, a point that Anand made by saying, “Because I know that I have set aside a certain time in my week for writing, I was able to commit myself completely to the writing tasks at hand rather than postpone them every week just because I was overwhelmed with research projects which in my mind were more important. It forced me to rethink how I prioritized my tasks in my schedules.”

One thing that I was also pleased to hear from Saili, Anand, and Sanja is that they have been able to track noticeable changes in their ability to produce written work. Saili told me, “When I started the writing group, I was averaging about 1-3 pages a week, sometimes less.  Currently, after being in the group for a little more than a semester, I average about 10 pages a week (especially at the end stages of my last 2 chapters). I am able to set more challenging goals and meet them and spend additional time making edits.” Sanja also talked about the immediacy and the life-long applicability of the skills she learned while being a part of the group. She also mentioned how the groups were more useful to her than an informational workshop might have been: “The main benefit of the Writing Group is in the way it combines workshops and insights with a sharing of experiences, and a practice of writing. A workshop may teach one about using tools, tips and tricks on how to be an effective and efficient writing, but they are often not useful when one is alone in a library, an office, or one’s kitchen table. By providing us with a shared space and time for bringing up concerns about the writing process as they appeared, we were able to have almost immediate assistance and support. For me, this meant that advice became more than a set of words, but was rather turning into a skill that I would be able to use once I leave the Writing Group.”

Reflecting on Writing as a Process

An important part of maintaining progress is reflecting purposefully about the writing process.
An important part of maintaining progress is reflecting purposefully about the writing process.

It was also important to me that the members of the group not see our time together as a magic wand that would suddenly make writing easy. Anand put it best: “I learned that no matter how good a writer I was, or however confident I was in my writing abilities, writing requires extensive planning and effort, because the first draft will never be good enough. As a result, a writer should set aside large blocks of time to re-read, revise and get feedback, and repeat this cycle numerous times to get the draft he/she wants.” Members of the group agreed that setting aside time for writing each week was vital for staying on schedule. At the same time, they saw that writing is and will always be hard work, and more words aren’t necessarily the only goal. One week, a group member told us that she had started the morning with more words than she had ended with – but that she now had better, more concise, and more clear words down on the page. She was just as happy as those writers who had written many new words that day.

For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of leading these groups is that because all of the group participants come from different departments, the focus is not so much on what is being written, but rather on how that writing gets done. The common factor between everyone present is that they want to write and to think consciously about the writing process itself. Sonja talked about this particular aspect of the groups as something that has changed her overall perspective on writing: “This consciousness of the process has made me a more realistic planner, and with it a more content and calm dissertator.” She also emphasized the uniqueness of this focus on writing in her experience as a graduate student: “Even as I was approaching the very end of graduate school, and was beginning to focus on my dissertation, I was surprised to find how little I knew about writing itself. I knew much about the literature, about methodologies, and about academic writing in terms of style and structures, but the writing process was quite neglected as a topic of discussion and instruction. . . . the Writing Group provided an insight into the way my colleagues are dealing with the problems that stem from the nature of the dissertation project.”

Graduate students commit to coming to the group every week for the majority of the semester.

These are the things that I have found lead to a happy dissertator (or any graduate writer): the knowledge that one is not alone, the opportunity to set goals and know that others will hold you accountable to those goals, a sturdy table, and time to write. I’ve also found that rewarding writers with star stickers to put on their nametags at the end of each session results in some smiles. These things may seem simple, but they are difficult to find as a graduate student and even more difficult to sustain week after week. My hope is that group members not only learn more about their writing process, but that they develop habits and skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. And I hope that each continues to seek out opportunities to write alongside others, turning writing into a social practice and a happy experience.

7 Replies to “The Happy Dissertator: Sustaining Graduate Writing Groups”

  1. Signing up for this group is one of the best things that I did for myself this semester! As someone committed to chasing the mythical creature that is the work/life balance, I really appreciate the way that my Monday morning writing group not only gets my week of to a productive start, it also gives me permission to stop working at the end of the week.

    Sarah, even though I am already sold on the group, I really reflections on previous participants’ responses to writing groups. It’s clearly that there is something really powerful about having time/space/community to focus on the writing process as opposed to the process. I love how the framing questions focus on meeting concrete goals and not evaluating the efficacy of one’s work. Although the latter clearly necessary, it’s nice to get a break from it.

    Thanks so, so much for organizing this!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful and insightful post, Sarah! As an alum of a summer 2014 Mellon-WI Dissertation Writing Camp, and as a participant in one of this spring’s writing groups, I found much that resonated with my own experiences in the quotations from the other graduate students. I would particularly like to echo Sanja’s comment about the value of a shared practice of writing, a value that extends beyond the tips and tricks one can learn in a single workshop. I knew a lot *in theory* about what made writers productive before coming to the camp and the writing group — I knew that setting manageable goals and returning to one’s project on a daily basis were important, for example — but it’s a very different thing to experience the transformative effects of these practices in one’s own writing life. Incorporating new work habits takes repetition over time, and it can be easy to give up on new productivity methods and return to old ways when sitting alone at a computer. The weekly groups are a sustained opportunity to develop healthy habits and even fresh attitudes towards one’s work — even happiness and satisfaction instead of the dread and frustration that can sometimes accompany a long writing project. I truly do find myself more content with my dissertation when I have a regular and social writing practice, and I’m grateful that the Writing Center offers these programs.

  3. The knowledge that one is not alone is a great motivator. Some students in the group that I lead have mentioned that they thrive when there are other writer’s around. But in addition to having writers around and having accountability, it’s also super helpful to have conversations about writing, which we do at the beginning and end of each session. Sometimes, just hearing other people talk about writing can be a great motivator, whether it’s about useful writing strategies, psychological approaches to being productive, or helpful resources. And, as you suggested, it shifts the focus from what you are writing, to how you are writing. But I think the main benefit of the writing group is the consistency. Writing according to a fixed schedule is highly productive. A dissertator in our group used this analogy: consistent writing is like parking on a downward slope. When you return to your project, it’s a lot easier to get going again when you haven’t been away from it for too long.

  4. I just want to echo the thanks for this blog post — and for making these groups available, Sarah! Joining the Wednesday morning group this semester has been a key step in purposefully refining my writing habits. I love what Mattie mentions in the comment above about “repetition over time,” and I’m off for another productive session of the writing group in a moment!

  5. I’m so glad, Sarah, to hear that the groups we started over the summer are flourishing! Congratulations on the pay-off for all of your hard work coordinating these. I just wanted to write a note to say that while the format you describe seems to work particularly well for graduate students working on long projects, there are elements I’ve been testing out with groups of high school students this year – it turns out that goal-setting and group accountability also resonate with writers at many different levels and with varying work requirements.

    Looking forward to seeing how these groups continue to develop!

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