P=M*V: Or What Physics Taught Me about Graduate Writing Groups
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Words of Wisdom

Good feedback is kind, thorough and timely. It’s professional and focused. It leaves the writer feeling challenged to do better but great about their strengths. Even if that just means the location they chose was cool. Give your feedback relative to the skill set of the writer. Never lie or obfuscate. Just serve it up gently. An upset writer isn’t going to hear your points anyway. But an encouraged one will. Trust me on this.

— Julie Gray

by Candace Schaefer

One of the most pleasant and meaningful tasks I have at the UWC is to facilitate a thesis and dissertation writing group. Once a week, students share their work with the group, and group members offer comments and suggestions.

We have other writing groups, but the thesis and dissertation writing group is different. Since students may stay in the group for a year or more, they become more vested in the group as a whole, and they have a support system that seems to make the whole stronger than its parts.

Until recently, however, I was secretly worried about the group. The participants shared their work regularly, so it seemed as if they were making progress. And although the masters students moved in and out of the group on schedule, the doctoral students were writing slowly and were having trouble meeting their personal deadlines.  I realize that writing a dissertation is more complex than writing a thesis, but I couldn’t help but think that in a way the group was not helping them move forward. It just gave them a safe place to be stuck.

And then, BAM! During one of the sessions, a student who appeared to all of us to be making headway on the dissertation confessed to the group that she hadn’t been writing at all. She felt as if she would never be able to face her fears and finish. Several group members shared their own personal struggles with feelings of inadequacy that impeded their progress, and the group members discussed ways to calm the inner censors holding them back. Some of the members started meeting outside the group to just write together, and soon some of them started meeting their goals. Eventually, almost everyone was able to at least get enough done to be able to pinpoint their graduation dates and sketch out their defense deadlines.

I couldn’t figure out what had made the difference. Nothing in what I’d read about groups and group dynamics addressed why they weren’t making significant progress before and now were blowing by their deadlines. In addition, they had an energy I hadn’t seen before. After that fateful meeting, the group gained momentum. I just didn’t get it. What had happened? Since momentum is an abstract concept in the social sciences but a concrete, measurable concept in physics, I turned to physics to try to understand what had happened.

In physics, momentum equals mass times velocity:

P = M * V

To understand the momentum of our writing group, then, I thought of the number of students in the group as forming the mass of the group. One of the things I realized about why writing groups work is that they have more mass than an individual writer can ever have. Working in the group, supporting each other, seeing themselves as something that together has more power than anything individual can have created an essential part of momentum: mass. Just think of how long it takes one empty train car to stop versus ten loaded train cars hooked together. We had the mass.

Now to the velocity. I thought of velocity as the rate at which students were actively writing and producing work. Since all progress, even individual progress, constitutes velocity, we had velocity. That train was moving, but it wasn’t going to get to the station on time.

Momentum, then, can be affected by increasing either mass or velocity.  We already had enough mass. We needed to increase the velocity. Since objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and objects in motion tend to stay at the same rate of motion unless they encounter force, we needed a force of some kind to affect momentum.
Force equals mass times acceleration.

F = M * A

But I had tried force. I encouraged them to set deadlines and to write together and to talk to their chairs. Nothing. Then I thought of Newton’s second law of motion. It takes more force to move a large mass the same distance as a small one. Force in our group took the form of that group session where they regrouped, recommitted. They decided in that session that failure was not an option and agreed that they would all make it through together.


To think about it, then, force can be expressed as mass times acceleration, but another way of expressing that idea is that force equals mass times a change in velocity over a change in time.

From that day forward, the momentum of the group has been palpable and exciting to watch. I don’t have to worry, not just because this group of students will continue to make progress, but because I now understand what momentum is and how to balance mass and velocity to ensure that our future writing groups are as successful as this one has been. And the next time I have a problem with writing, I’ll hit the science books to find a solution.

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