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Developing the Faculty as a Writing Community

On writing and working together.
By Eric L. Muller

Picture a writer. You are probably envisioning a person alone. This is what writers have always said about their craft. Paul Auster called writing “a solitary business”; Jessamyn West maintained that “family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer.” Some of the celebration of solitude must reflect a generalization of the poet Seamus Heaney’s romantic claim that “the completely solitary self” is where “poetry comes from.”

But for academic writers, some of the urge to isolation also comes from a faintly macho spirit in the traditional scholarly enterprise. About a year ago, contemplating the creation of a writing group program to support scholarly productivity on my campus (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), I asked a number of colleagues in a variety of disciplines whether such groups were common in their fields at their institutions. A senior faculty member in one of the social sciences at a major research university replied as follows: “I suspect that most of my colleagues would say this: If a faculty member at a research university needs a group of colleagues to push him/her to be productive, perhaps that faculty member might best be advised to think about finding different work or at least to seek out a teaching position somewhere other than at a research university.”

I recognized a bit of my former self in this bracing response. I wrote my way to tenure in isolation—just me, my research materials, and my computer. I never found much difficulty in sitting down to write and didn’t understand why it was hard for others. But years of working with colleagues have led me to see my early-career self-discipline as a bit uncommon and my preference for isolation unhelpful. I have also come to see how many other pleasures and labors of life are enhanced by companionship and accountability. Lots of people exercise more in groups, read more books with groups, lose more weight in groups. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that many faculty members might write more in groups, too?

That was a question that the Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) at UNC at Chapel Hill set out to explore in the summer of 2013. The CFE is the university’s pan-campus faculty development center. Together with the Institute for the Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, the CFE piloted the Summer Writing Group program for faculty members across the university. The response was enthusiastic. Sixty-two faculty members joined the program from thirteen departments within the College of Arts and Sciences and nine of the university’s eleven professional schools. Fifty-seven of them—that’s 92 percent—stayed with the program through summer’s end. We surveyed participants before the program began and after it
ended, and while it’s clear that faculty members’ needs varied in both expected and unexpected ways, the program helped a sizable majority of them be more productive. It also helped many of them build meaningful relationships with faculty outside their own disciplines, in some cases for the first time.

Discussions between the CFE and the Institute for the Arts and Humanities about how to organize and market the 2013 Summer Writing Group program began late in 2012. We quickly settled on a preferred group size, believing that groups smaller than about four or larger than about six might find it hard to sustain themselves throughout the summer. Anticipating that the program would attract faculty members who did not already know one another and who would find it awkward and time-consuming to sort themselves into groups, we decided that we should do the sorting. Because we wanted faculty members to participate without worrying about an evaluative gaze from someone in their own university or department, we determined to place faculty members from the same unit in different groups unless they asked to be together.

Certain other organizing principles proved harder to settle in advance. We were not sure how interdisciplinary the groups should be. On the one hand, important values could be served by putting radically diverse groups together—mathematicians with musicians, epidemiologists with linguists. Such groups would have so little topical or methodological common ground that they would have to focus on the writing process alone. They would also be likeliest to bring faculty members into sustained contact with campus communities and cultures that were foreign to them. On the other hand, participants who might want to focus on the substance of their writing would presumably be turned off by such radical diversity. And certainly not every faculty member is interested in getting to know people from other parts of campus.

Relatedly, we were unsure whether to base group placement on the kind of writing project the faculty member was pursuing: should people writing grant proposals be together with people turning dissertations into monographs and people writing journal articles, or should they all be separate? Each of those kinds of writing projects presents distinct challenges. Would segregating them along those project-based lines help group members address common challenges? Or could it instead lead them into myopia about their projects and insulate them from helpful strategies that faculty members were trying out on other kinds of writing tasks?

We wondered whether and how forcefully to recommend specific techniques for sustaining productivity. On the one hand, strategies abound for managing distractions in the writing environment, pushing through periods of writer’s block, and setting and sticking to regular and manageable writing schedules. These range from mild (for example, disabling e-mail and social media for writer-controlled blocks of time) to gross (promising to send a small money contribution to a hated cause for missing a writing goal). There was little question that faculty members—especially those seeking out the support of a group—would benefit from some mix of these. On the other hand, faculty members are notoriously independent-minded people who might be expected to rebel against rules. Some might find such interventions patronizing or inimical to creativity.

We resolved the first two issues by surveying the participants shortly after they signed up for the program. On the first issue (interdisciplinarity), only 29 percent said that they were interested in being in a group designed without any regard to discipline; the rest all expressed a preference for being grouped at least along broad disciplinary lines (for example, “arts and humanities,” “health affairs,” “social sciences”). On the second issue (project type), only 3 percent indicated as a first choice that they would wish to be in a group designed without any regard to the kind of project they were working on. Fifty-three percent said, as a first choice, that they’d like to be grouped with others writing journal articles; 28 percent expressed a first preference for being grouped with other book writers; and 10 percent expressed a first preference for being with others turning dissertations into books. Honoring the expressed preferences of the overwhelming majority of participants, we were able to sort them into thirteen groups before the program’s kickoff meeting. The groups were (a) three completely interdisciplinary groups working on journal articles, (b) two groups of faculty from health disciplines working on journal articles, (c) two groups from the social sciences working on journal articles, (d) one group from the arts and humanities working on journal articles, (e) two groups from the arts and humanities working on books, (f) two completely interdisciplinary groups working on books, and (g) one group from the arts and humanities converting dissertations to books. By sifting the participants into them in advance, we were able to seat them together at the meeting and let them begin getting to know each other and making plans.

On the third issue that puzzled us at the planning stage—how directive to be about group process—we decided on a light touch. We began that kickoff meeting with an overview of the most common impediments to productive scholarly writing and a brief review of techniques and strategies that the literature suggests writing groups have found useful. We also distributed information about software and apps that help writers avoid distraction and support productive writing sessions. We emphasized that whether the groups adopted any of these suggested techniques (or, for that matter, any others) was entirely up to them. We defined our role as supportive: as the summer went along, we would consult with the groups if they wished, help them troubleshoot problems of logistics or substance, and reimburse them for modest expenses (up to $300 per group).

The various groups developed different ways of working. All set regular in-person meetings (weekly or biweekly) of varying durations, and a few experimented with Skype sessions or other virtual meeting solutions. Some of the groups created writing log systems as a way of fostering accountability. Some of the groups experimented with tools for managing distractions. Some groups developed systems for sharing and critiquing drafts; others focused exclusively on the writing process and did not read one another’s work. Some of the groups interspersed sessions simply for writing rather than talking about their writing.

Pre- and post-program surveys leave no doubt that most of the participants found the Summer Writing Group program beneficial. Seventy-two percent of the participants reported that they were more productive than they would have been without the program. The most commonly offered reason was the opportunity the groups afforded to set goals and the sense of mutual accountability that arose. Many participants also attributed their increased productivity to the spirit of collegiality, camaraderie, and supportiveness that developed in their groups. Only 8 percent of participants said that they were less productive than they would have been without the group experience, and most of these ascribed their diminished output to factors in their own lives that had nothing to do with the group experience.

As a group, participants reported themselves less beset by common writing problems at the end of the program than they were before it started. They reported fewer problems with personal and Internet distractions, less procrastination, less perfectionism, less writer’s block, and fewer problems with setting aside time to write and then not using it. Participants were also generally positive about the interdisciplinary nature of the writing groups. Two-thirds disagreed with the statement that “an interdisciplinary writing group did not meet my writing group needs,” while only 13 percent agreed. Ninety-six percent agreed with the statement “I enjoyed getting to know faculty from other disciplines in my writing group”; nobody disagreed with it.

Our experience with the program in its inaugural summer suggested several issues about program design that we will reflect on for future summers and that other universities contemplating such programs might want to consider. A number of participants said they wished the kick-off meeting had provided them with detailed models of how groups can function so that they would not have had to spend so much time figuring this out for themselves. Of course, there is the risk that for every faculty member who wants more guidance, there is another who will find it overly controlling. On balance, it appears that we may have been a bit too open-ended in our organizational suggestions. One specific technique that a number of participants wished they had discovered earlier was the group writing session; in fact, one theme emerging from discussions at a closing luncheon was that some faculty member wished the university would provide a campus venue, a writing lounge of sorts, where faculty members could be together just to write. In future summers we will be sure to let the groups know that past participants found benefit in writing together.

Our experience also brought to the surface several grouping dimensions that we did not foresee. One such possibility was a group for faculty members who wanted their contact to be mostly virtual rather than in-person. While there is reason to doubt the sustainability of such a group, summer travel schedules did prove challenging for some, so a cyberspace group might meet some faculty members’ needs. Another factor that we did not consider was the stage of completion of a faculty member’s writing project. A writer’s challenges are different at the early, middle, and end stages of a publication project, and some faculty members might find it more supportive to be together with others who are at, say, the brainstorming stage, even if some are brainstorming articles and others book chapters or grant proposals. A final possible approach to grouping that some participants suggested was to require faculty members to choose between a group that would focus just on process without sharing drafts and a group that would share and critique drafts without explicit focus on the writing process. This might be risky; faculty members can already presumably find critical readers of their work in their own departments. Also, many faculty members might not know in advance whether they would benefit more from a process or a substance group.

Future summers will surely bring improvements to the UNC Summer Writing Group program. There is little doubt that even in its inaugural season it was a success both at supporting scholarly productivity and building faculty relationships across campus. These words from a faculty member’s end-of-summer evaluation capture the tone: “This has been the best (only) experience to help me get my writing done I’ve had since coming to UNC. I wish it had happened earlier in my career! I never talk about work strategies with people in my department, but the writing group was an open forum for doing so, and made me feel I was not alone in my writing struggles. It exceeded my expectations by a factor of ten. I did extensive revisions and submitted an article, which I did not think was really possible at the start of the summer.”

Far from demonstrating that a professor who needs support from others is in the wrong line of work, the program showed that many faculty members are thirsty for just this kind of support. They want to live as writers in community rather than isolation.

It is not just the faculty members who benefit from such support, but the research mission of the university itself.

Eric L. Muller is the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics at the University of North Carolina School of Law, as well as director of the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence, the pan-university faculty development center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is an award-winning teacher of constitutional law and criminal procedure and the author of numerous books and articles on the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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