by Candace Schaefer
When I was asked to take over the graduate writing groups at the University Writing Center, I had specific notions of what kind of group would have helped me with my own writing as a grad student. I put together a team of UWC staffers to help me think through and implement those notions. Although we constantly analyze and strategize to make the groups better, here are two precepts we discovered this year:
Writing groups aren’t all about writing.
In a way, the notion of solitude characterizes the life of the writer—writing by candlelight, jotting notes on the subway, surrounded by people but still alone.
This portrayal of the solitary writer translates to the world of the academic writer as well, at least for graduate students who have finished their coursework and who are now packed off to write their theses or dissertations. For some students, this transition seems natural and may actually be a break from the grind of the lab, but for many, the solitude does not act as a catalyst; rather, they feel abandoned and alone. Many of my days are spent meeting and talking with students who feel lost, overwhelmed, and isolated. Most breezed through coursework, performing admirably under structured deadlines. However, when they find themselves without deadlines, without classmates, without professors to guide them, they are overtaken by the sinking feeling that undirected solitude can impose. They need the company of other students and crave interaction to battle the inertia caused by their isolation.
Creating community is a deliberate act.
When we first started the graduate writing groups, we naively thought that students just wanted help with their writing. What they were seeking, however, was a writing community.
What they needed was a safe
place to share their writing. They needed a place to share frustrations, breakthroughs, and setbacks with a community they could trust to provide unconditional support.
However, putting a group of like-minded people in the same room at the same time does not necessarily mean that they will become a writing community. Graduate students have many demands on their time, and they have to feel that the experience they have is worth the time they invest in it. One of the things we did from the outset was to set guidelines on how to give and receive feedback. The student presenting the work tells us what to focus on, and most feedback is phrased in question format to help writers think about their writing choices. In this way, all members of the group feel comfortable making suggestions and offering assistance without overstepping boundaries surrounding authorship and ownership.
Students sign up to present on dates that best help them meet their individual and committee deadlines. The only thing we insist on is that students bring in their work or ideas on a flash drive so we can project their work via projector. The student then reads the work aloud, stopping every so often for comments and suggestions from the group. At first, students look to the facilitators for comments, but after a couple of weeks, the students themselves become acclimated to being thoughtful readers and listeners. In this way, students may learn just as much from a session they don’t present in as they do when they present. The students construct knowledge as a group. Ultimately, the trust and respect group members have for each other create the sense of community that differentiates a group of writers from a writing group.
So how many Aggies does it take to write a dissertation?
If they are in one of our University Writing Center graduate writing groups, it takes one Aggie to write the dissertation and eight other Aggies to provide feedback, support, and encouragement along the way. For more information, contact us