Addressing Gendered Practices Through Women's Writing Groups

A strategy for reducing gender disparity in research universities.
By Joyce Alexander, Laura Plummer, and Jane McLeod

Expectations for tenure and promotion at top research universities are very clear: devote time to research, secure grants, and produce published scholarship, particularly peer-reviewed scholarship. However, clear expectations do not necessarily produce equal outcomes for promotion for women and men. In a 2011 Academe article on tenured and tenure-track faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Joya Misra, Jennifer Hickes Lundquist, Elissa Holmes, and Stephanie Agiomavritis found that women are less likely to be promoted than men, and that when they are promoted, the process takes one to three and a half years longer. Their data suggest that one reason for this difference may be that women tend to take on administrative service positions earlier and allocate more of their time to service than do men, leaving them with an average of seven fewer hours for research each week. These findings resonate with our own experiences and those of our colleagues at Indiana University and other institutions.

As Karen Pyke suggested in her 2011 Political Science article on service and gender inequity among faculty, the advice for women often is to “just say no” to additional service commitments. This advice assumes that the gender disparity in promotion results from women’s lack of motivation or focus, and it neglects the role of institutions in structuring the work lives of their faculty. Top research universities typically have fewer women than men on the faculty and, to ensure gender equity in decision-making, women are asked to perform more service than men. Gendered socialization practices also encourage women to feel more obligated to serve the institution and guilty when turning down service.

We wanted to design a systematic support system that would allow women to prioritize their time for scholarship while at the same time freeing them from the negative feelings associated with turning down service opportunities. An equally important goal was to create a sense of purposeful community among the women faculty at Indiana University. As Sylvia Hurtado and Linda DeAngelo suggested in their 2009 Academe article, “Keeping Senior Women at Your College,” women, because of their conflicting responsibilities, tend to be less satisfied than men with their jobs in general and their allocation of time for scholarship opportunities in particular. They suggest that building community is one of the most effective ways institutions can address this dissatisfaction and retain senior women.

Faculty writing groups, often focused on peer review, have been a common strategy among writing programs and writing centers for decades. We hypothesized that the women faculty at Indiana University were not struggling with writing per se, or with finding friendly readers for their work, but with prioritizing writing and protecting their time so that they could consistently write throughout the term. We set out to design a writing program that would help women faculty protect their scholarly time while also building their sense of community and strengthening their connection to the institution.

Our idea for the writing groups evolved after we had attended the Keeping Our Faculty of Color Symposium at the University of Minnesota in 2013. The conference focused on strategies to support and retain faculty who are confronted with heavy service expectations and at risk of marginalization. In fact, the germ of the idea sprang from presentations about writing groups then evolving at several other institutions, including the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan. Two of us were in administrative positions at the time, giving us access to the (minimal) resources required to establish the program. Our third founding member was a well-respected and trusted director of the Campus Writing Program who had run dissertation-writing support groups for years and regularly consulted with individual faculty members on writing issues.

Founding Principles

As we implemented our Women’s Writing Group plan, we were guided by the following six principles.

Institutional support, not monitoring

In early presentations on the groups, we were careful to stress to participants that we, as administrators, were not tracking their productivity. We were also careful to stress that we would not interpret participation in these groups as a sign of weakness or deficient performance. Our campus writing partner was crucial to establishing trust in the program. She had worked with many faculty members on writing issues, led faculty development workshops in her previous position, and ran wildly successful dissertation writing groups. She made sure that the groups were never viewed or discussed as remedial programs or programs developed by administrative fiat. As Joli Jansen pointed out in a 2017 Chronicle of Higher Education article, “a [successful] writing-support program needs to be kept separate from any sort of administratively imposed training, and from any implication of being remedial.”

Commitment

We required that participating faculty commit to attending the writing groups on a regular basis. Their commitment to the group demonstrated buy-in on the faculty member’s part and gave participants a regular, and pressing, reason to say no to other activities (including service requests) that might creep into their scholarship-devoted time. We settled on a three-hour writing block and chose settings outside of department-associated buildings to minimize accidental distractions.

Accountability

We established accountability writing groups rather than more traditional writing groups where individuals read and comment on others’ work. Accountability groups aim to keep writers on task by helping them to share writing goals with their peers, work through any resistance they may feel toward those tasks, and report their progress toward completion. As Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, observed in a 2010 Inside Higher Ed article, accountability groups are often the key to identifying the beliefs and behaviors that hold us back from being productive writers. In addition, the faculty interested in participating in our writing groups came from vastly different disciplines, and it is our belief that true, high-quality feedback requires deep disciplinary knowledge. Each week, participants practiced setting goals for their writing time, getting more accurate and realistic over time about what they would accomplish during the three-hour period. Additionally, we integrated an accountability mechanism by asking each individual to report out at the end of the writing time whether she had met her stated writing goal.

Writing as a recursive and reflective practice

In all our conversations, we drew from a variety of resources that emphasized that writing is a skill, and one that improves with practice. From Ann Lamott’s humorously freeing endorsement of the “shitty first draft” in Bird by Bird to Robert Boice’s sage advice about revising in stages from Professors as Writers, the texts we discussed not only laid out how to break down large projects into manageable, attainable writing goals but also laid bare the writing process itself. We emphasized that reflection about one’s writing and writing processes, habits, and progress helps to build a regular, sustainable practice. We celebrated accomplishments both small and large. Meeting a writing goal, finishing a chapter, getting a paper accepted, or landing a new grant were all occasions to share and celebrate. In taking this broad view, our work echoes that described in Peter Elbow and Mary Deane Sorcinelli’s 2006 Change article on shifting faculty-focused resources from one-off workshops on different topics to sustained support for faculty writers at the various stages of their writing process.

Shared faculty leadership

Our vision for the writing groups required a skilled writing facilitator. Cognizant of Anne Ellen Geller and Michele Eodice’s 2013 book, Working with Faculty Writers, we also knew that effective writing groups are most often run by faculty. Therefore, we sought faculty cofacilitators for the groups, specifically choosing well-prepared associate professor–level women faculty from underrepresented groups. The faculty lent additional credibility to the initiative and benefited from the leadership role. The leadership activities took little coordination time beyond typical participant commitments, and the faculty cofacilitators were also active participants in the writing groups. These leaders helped run weekly discussions, but logistics, planning, and daily work were coordinated by the Campus Writing Program. This structure was crucial to our success.

Community building

Because one of our major goals was to create a sense of community, we devoted the beginning of each writing session to sharing individual contexts for current writing projects: disciplinary conventions, deadlines, reviewers’ comments, and revision strategies. We talked about relations with other writers, with the administration, and with the institution as well as competing duties and interruptions (those we can control and those we cannot). Individuals shared successes and cautionary tales and eventually became comfortable asking for guidance or discussion of particular topics. It took some experimenting to get the timing and the mix of suggested topics right (we ultimately settled on twenty to thirty minutes). We relied heavily on the faculty group leaders to facilitate many of these conversations with respect and openness. This choice turned out to be a cornerstone to building relations and creating a sense of community among the group members.

Evaluation of the Program

Were we successful in reaching our goals? If participation were our only marker, we could easily say yes. Groups grew (and continue to grow) steadily from semester to semester. In the first five semesters of our experiment, participation increased from seventeen to seventy-seven. To keep the writing groups small enough to meet our community goals, as we expanded the groups we added more faculty facilitators and times for the writing groups to meet. Also, during the early years, we focused on midlevel associate professors and new assistant professors in our two administrative units (the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education), but we eventually expanded the program to include women from all levels of the professoriate and other units.

Feedback from anonymous, online midterm and end-of-term surveys also suggests that we were successful at addressing our initial aims. All participants agreed that having protected writing time each week was valuable and that being accountable to other group members motivated them and kept them on task. Overall, the faculty writers found that they were writing more, and writing more regularly, without sacrificing personal time. As one participant noted, “I’ve continued daily writing, but I’ve also moved to a more sane work day.”

At the same time, we were heartened by the writers’ sense that the groups did more than block time out on their calendars, that writers valued “the specific weekly commitment, the gentle accountability, and the sense of community.” One participant wrote, “These writing groups are the best thing that has happened to me since arriving at IU. . . . The protected writing time and the magic writing group focus are fantastic for my productivity, and I have met some friends, finally, after four years of extreme isolation, so my whole life feels better.” Most centrally, the participants felt this community particularly as women writers. A faculty member from the sciences noted that “working within a male-dominated field, it was extremely motivating to come to the women’s writing group and work with so many accomplished women across the university. The feeling that ‘you are not alone’ was very powerful for me.” Other comments echoed these sentiments:

[The Women’s Writing Group] has been instrumental in helping me to maintain my productivity. And has allowed me to network across campus with women faculty colleagues in other departments and units. I loved that it was [a] women-only group. It created a comfortable environment where I could learn from many personal/professional experiences unique to women.

Administrative Considerations

Providing administrative structure was central to this program’s success. When asked if the faculty writers were interested in continuing with a writing group, participants were enthusiastically positive; the steady growth of the groups, and the high percentage of returning participants, provide further evidence. However, when we polled the faculty about their interest in starting independent writing groups—our notion being that once the process had been modeled for them, faculty might prefer to run their own groups—the responses were decidedly noncommittal: “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “possibly” replaced the “yes,” “absolutely,” and “definitely” responses to the first question. The faculty were clear that they valued the support and the structure that the writing groups offered.

Faculty saliently perceived the institution’s commitment to their success. One writer who had participated for five semesters told us that with “support like this, we are much more likely to achieve what is expected for tenure— and importantly, we are much more likely to want to remain at IU where we feel a part of a unique community. Instead of offering suggestions [for improvement in this evaluation], I would like to commend [the university administrators’] support of the program. It’s a meaningful symbol that [they support] us as individuals.”

At the end of our fifth semester, we had consistent data that showed that the program could accomplish all the goals we set. However, we also knew that we were becoming victims of our own success. We immediately faced three challenges:

1. Demand for the groups surged. As word of the success of our program spread, requests to join the groups expanded beyond our initial two colleges. We realized that the size of the perceived need could not be met with our current model.

2. There was not enough space on campus away from common work buildings to continue to add writing groups. We had experimented with size, and we knew that we were unwilling to expand the number of participants in each writing group.

3. The Campus Writing Program had been a wonderful partner in this initiative, but six different three-hour writing groups taxed the resources of its director to continue to support this initiative and the other programs to which the Campus Writing Program was committed. We realized that institutionalizing the initiative was going to be critical to further success.

In spring 2016, after five successful semesters of the Women’s Writing Group initiative, Indiana University committed to creating a new office, the Scholarly Writing Program, with a full-time writing facilitator to support the evolving writing groups. We added mixed-gender groups in addition to those focused on women. Most important, support for the program became embedded in the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs, which has been careful to continue to stress that the groups were designed to provide institutional support, not monitoring. The groups continue to run today, supporting 217 faculty members this past fall as they grow as writers and members of the campus community.

Joyce Alexander is dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University. She was previously executive associate dean for the School of Education at Indiana University. Her email address is joycemalexander@tamu.edu. Laura Plummer directs the Scholarly Writing Program under the auspices of the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs at Indiana University. Her email address is lplummer@indiana.edu. Jane McLeod, currently chair of the Department of Sociology, was previously associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University. Her email address is jmcleod@indiana.edu.

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