By Dorothy Mayne, and featuring Gabrielle Isabel Kelenyi
Writing groups have many benefits and purposes, but the community they bring to the culture of writing on campus is one of their most praised features. In fact, it’s the first purpose that we mention explicitly on our writing group website:
At the Writing Center, we believe that community and accountability, along with setting achievable goals, play a significant role in completing major writing projects.
Meeting regularly with the same people to set goals, discuss weekly themes related to wellness, writing strategies, and more allows us to develop camaraderie with others across campus.
Last fall, our center was all-virtual, and in my first semester as a Faculty Associate in the UW-Madison Writing Center, I led an online evening writing group. I wasn’t sure how the benefits of writing groups would transfer to this modality. For me, one of the benefits of meeting in person is the accountability of others being able to see my screen so that I don’t drift to my usual distraction tabs. In the virtual group, I would be at home in my room, and there would be no witnesses to my Twitter scrolling and an endless supply of potential distractions. I strongly believed, though, that the benefit of the community of the writing group was possible to build and maintain virtually.
More than six months into the pandemic, I was not alone in needing that sense of community more than ever. My virtual writing groups in the 2020-21 academic year provided me with a great sense of community with students from across campus and at all points of their degree programs, and students expressed the same sentiment.
For this fall, we made decisions about modality to emphasize choice, flexibility, and accessibility amid concern about the ongoing pandemic. While we wanted to continue offering virtual programs, we recognized that many of our students are teaching and working in person on campus and might prefer in-person writing groups, workshops, and one-on-one tutorials. So we tried to build in as many options as possible to provide community to our students in the ways that work for them during this transitional semester.
Our Current Writing Groups
Our Fall 2021 writing groups include a variety of offerings. This semester, we have ten weekly writing groups, including some new ones. We have groups in all modalities (i.e., in-person, virtual, and hybrid). In addition to holding groups for undergraduates and groups for graduate students, we have been offering a drop-in writing group for multilingual writers, a writing group for Advanced Opportunity Fellows, and a new writing group for first-generation students. Our groups are led by a mix of career staff and experienced Writing Center instructors. To read more about our current offerings, check out our UW-Madison writing groups page.
Community Building with and by Our Writing Group Leaders
There are many benefits of writing groups, but community-building is one of the most commonly cited motivations for both our students and writing group facilitators. Group leaders not only build community with their groups but are also part of that community.
Gabbi Kelenyi, the TA Coordinator of Multicultural & Social Justice Initiatives at the Writing Center, leads our Advanced Opportunity Fellows (AOF) writing group. I asked her to consider how her role as a writing center instructor informs her work as a writing group facilitator and vice versa. She explains the role of community in her writing groups and how she brings that to other aspects of her writing center work:
As the facilitator of the AOF writing group, I do my best to provide ways for members of the group to share their writing struggles and successes with one another in order to help build solidarity and make it clear that we all struggle and succeed to various degrees during the iterative process of writing. We also work to help one another overcome obstacles and make progress on our projects. We reflect on what’s working for us and what’s holding us back in our writing; we share big and small accomplishments and celebrate them together; we encourage each other to keep going by showing up and engaging in writing together. In our group, there are opportunities to talk with me and/or other members about a project to get unstuck, get another perspective, or simply take a break. After all, our group norms are to provide “support, not competition,” and “be gentle with yourself and with others.” While writing many times can feel like an isolating and lonely activity, the AOF Writing Group—and all writing groups—can help us find company and comfort in our writing endeavors and learn new ways into writing along the way.
My experience in writing groups helps me recognize all the ways writing is a collaborative endeavor. Writing groups, both facilitating and participating in them, make the importance of writing in community, being in solidarity with other writers, crystal clear. Writing with others regularly helps me understand that my struggles with writing are not unique to me—I am not a bad writer because I have writer’s block or because I can’t get started or because I procrastinate or because my drafts can’t ever seem to be perfect. I am a writer because of all these things, and so are my peers in my writing group. I take these lessons into my work as a Writing Center instructor by coming to each consultation with a focus on the value of talking about writing, asking questions, and articulating multiple choices available to the writers with whom I work. Writing groups have helped me understand that different writing tools and strategies are appropriate for different writers and writing tasks at different times, and it’s my responsibility to help writers determine more ways to achieve their goals for the piece at hand and take new strategies and tools with them into future writing tasks.
Our instructors can build and participate in the community of writing groups and then bring what they learn from groups into other aspects of their writing center work.
Building Community in Different Modalities
This semester, I’m leading two hybrid writing groups that students can attend either online or in person. I wanted to lead hybrid groups because I believe that the flexible choice of how to participate lets students get the best of whatever modality they need that week.
I predicted that we’d have a lot of in-person attendance at the beginning of the semester. After several semesters of mostly virtual everything, I felt like people were craving the energy they get from being in the room with others and that people would be eager to get out and about while the summer weather was still with us. Also, our in-person option has a beautiful lake view, but for our evening group, that draw would fade as soon the sun started to set before the evening group commenced. I also felt like people would start to shift to online participation after they started remembering the inconveniences of in-person activities (e.g., forgetting to bring your laptop charger, miscalculating how much food to bring for a full day on campus and not wanting to buy an overpriced sandwich, etc.). So, for a variety of reasons, I expected more in-person participation at the beginning that would transition to more online participation later in the semester.
My expectations were wrong. Not only did an overwhelming majority of people participate online, in all ten weeks so far, no one has changed their modality. The few people who attended in person at the beginning are still participating in person. No one who started off online has changed to meeting with us in person.
Regardless of modality, we have built community through our group. Although just a few of us are in a physical room together, everyone meets together on Zoom. Common sense might tell us that in-person participants might benefit more from the community of being in the room together, but there’s some nuance to that. I asked group members to share their perspectives on the modality of the group, and they shared their appreciation of online groups. I did not ask them anything about community specifically, but the idea of community was a big part of their responses.
I will say that it’s been nice to gather with a devoted group week after week. It doesn’t feel like I’ve had to compromise on community by participating in a group that’s been a mix of virtual and online…with everyone in masks face-to-face it’s actually been kind of nice to see friendly faces in the Zoom room. I didn’t realize I was missing seeing people’s smiles!
And another wrote:
I have really enjoyed creating community from the comfort of home. It has helped me be accountable to my writing! I also appreciate a space to share about how hard writing is and to celebrate when it goes well! I agree… seeing faces every week has been a great gift!
So our students, many of whom spend all day engaging with people on campus with masks on, appreciate the virtual community’s affordance of seeing each other’s faces.
In my writing groups, I use a shared Google Doc where participants respond to prompts about their goals and weekly themes. About this, a student wrote:
I really enjoy seeing the document become populated as people share what they’re working on. In the absence of everyone being together, it’s animating to see my goals percolate alongside those of others.
Personally, as a leader of writing groups, I also love Google Docs for this purpose. Even if I see Google Docs as a tool to help deal with all-virtual work, I will continue to use this form of collaborative goal-setting even if I’m leading a group where everyone is in person. It provides a great way for people to engage beyond speaking out loud or communicating in the Zoom chat. Of course students always have the choice of writing down their responses for themselves privately, but this online space for sharing is extremely beneficial.
In reflecting on writing groups’ capacity for community building and the role of modality in that process, my appreciation for online writing groups only continues to grow. Building community through online writing groups is ideal for so many students: students who are living away from campus, students who want the low-stakes participation of engaging just with a Google Doc, students who are balancing childcare and working on their writing projects, students with chronic illness, and so many more.
Community-building is possible in any modality, and we look forward to continuing to provide community through in person, online, and hybrid writing groups in future semesters.
Dorothy Mayne is a Faculty Associate in the Writing Center at UW–Madison, where she teaches workshops, works with students on their writing, and more. She is interested in global education, language acquisition, and promoting education policies that support students at the individual and institutional levels.
Gabrielle Isabel Kelenyi is the TA Coordinator of Multicultural & Social Justice Initiatives at the Writing Center. Gabbi is a PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Composition & Rhetoric program where she studies what helps people feel like writers. She is interested in culturally-sustaining literacy pedagogy, writing development across the lifespan, participant-centered and community-engaged qualitative methods, and multicultural and social justice writing program administration. Gabbi previously taught 9th Grade Composition in her hometown of Chicago, where she concurrently earned her MA in Teaching from Relay Graduate School of Education.