Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 1
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Development of a Collaborative Writing Group
Rachel Noll, Northern Kentucky University
Helene Arbouet Harte, Northern Kentucky University
Suzanne Wegener Soled, Northern Kentucky University
Noll, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Teacher Education; Harte, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of Early Childhood Education, and Soled, Ph.D., is a professor and Associate Dean. All authors are members of the College of Education and Human Services.
This paper describes the development of a writing circle over the course of a semester. These experiences underscore the benefits of community as emphasized in the research literature. The writing group created a source of accountability for productivity as well as a safe space for participants. The authors address strengths, challenges and suggestions for prospective writing groups.
For many faculty, increased pressure and expectations for scholarship result in worry and apprehension. Writing circles provide not only opportunities for peer review, but also community, collegiality and support (Lee & Boud, 2003; Maher, Seaton, McMullen, Fitzgerald,, Otsuji & Lee, 2008; O’Malley & Lucey, 2008). Participants in writing groups develop a routine of writing, fostering the process, as well as facilitating the development of products (Friend & Gonzalez, 2009; Gillespie, Dolsak, Kochis, Krabill, Lerum, Peterson & Thomas, 2005; Maher et al., 2008; O’Malley & Lucey, 2008). Feedback from writing groups may help junior faculty to perceive themselves as scholars and enhance enjoyment of the process (Friend & Gonzalez, 2009). The support that writing groups provide can lead to increased job satisfaction and retention of high quality faculty. As McNamara (1999) points out, job satisfaction encompasses “. . . one’s feelings or state of mind regarding the nature of their work. Job satisfaction can be influenced by a variety of factors, e.g. the quality of one’s relationship with their supervisor, the quality of the physical environment in which they work, degree of the fulfillment of their work, etc.” (par. 1).
The process of research and writing should not be isolated from daily practice. Faculty submit writing to peers for conferences and journals, so peer critique is a familiar part of the process; research writing groups allow for peer review early on and facilitate academic development. Providing an accommodating space for dialogue, collaboration and peer review, writing groups take writing out of isolation and into a shared experience setting (Lee & Boud, 2003; Maher et al., 2008).
One literal way of taking writing out of isolation is to provide a physical space for writing groups. Elbow and Sorcinelli (2006) describe “Professors as Writers” as a group that provides a quiet, comfortable working space. The group evolved from providing seminars to providing a room and time to write. Participants avoid the distractions that can happen when writing in the office or at home, and benefit from the motivation of working in a common space as well as moving out of isolation (Elbow & Sorcinelli, 2006).
Writing circle participation can promote productivity in scholarship as well as enhance teaching. For Fassinger, Gilliland and Johnson (1992), participation in a writing group inspired faculty members to implement student peer review of papers as part of class. Review of peer writing helped students to see that others have similar struggles, increasing both confidence and competence. For the faculty members, participation in a writing group enhanced the ability to consider challenges with completion of work, the importance of strength-based constructive feedback and awareness of discipline-specific expectations. These considerations resulted in professors incorporating the students’ perspectives in course planning and evaluations of assignments. Approaches towards student learning evolved as the faculty members were better able to reach students at various levels.
As faculty grow and change, so may a writing group. As individuals develop skills, their confidence increases (Maher et al., 2008; O’Malley & Lucey, 2008), which may influence the dynamics of the group. Writing groups can transition over time and must balance individual interests with those of the whole (O’Malley & Lucey, 2008). The identity of individuals, as well as the identity of the group, changes over the course of participation in a writing group.
In this paper, we will discuss the development of a collaborative faculty writing group over the course of two years. We document the evolution of the group through the selection process based on the criteria of interests and needs of each faculty member. In the process of working together, a “safe space” for inquiry and critique was created that allowed members to receive critical feedback and support necessary to advance their scholarly agendas and tackle other professional and personal issues that faculty members face. Over the two year process, members of the group fashioned a sense of caring and community, what Nel Noddings refers to as an “ethics of care,” which extended outside of the group’s original intent and promoted collegiality as well as job satisfaction.
Our institution has already established ways to support faculty. At the institutional level, for example, there is a day-long orientation for new faculty and ongoing professional development for all faculty in areas such as technology and pedagogy. In our college, each untenured faculty member is provided with a tenured faculty mentor to help successfully integrate into the culture. Through guidance and support from their mentor, untenured faculty receive the help they need to establish their career priorities and succeed in attained promotion and tenure. At the department level, the New Faculty Collaborative (NFC) provides a more structured supportive environment for helping new faculty become acculturated to institution particulars with regard to teaching and scholarship (Soled, Jones, Doerger, Gilbert, & Eisenhardt, 2009). Out of discussions and collaborations through the New Faculty Collaborative which evolved over four years, faculty who were untenured and beyond their first year, as well as tenured faculty, looked for a community that would provide a supportive environment to help them accomplish their writing agendas. Thus, the idea for writing circles became an extension of the New Faculty Collaborative. The New Faculty Collaborative began in the 2007-2008 academic year. Writing Circles developed in the Fall of the 2009-2010 academic year.
How Writing Circles Developed
Several faculty members, both tenured and untenured, believed that writing circles could be a way of enhancing faculty collegiality and research. We set out to bring together small groups of faculty, composed of three to four individuals, who would meet on a regular basis to support each other in their scholarship—providing feedback on ideas, or writing, or however this group would choose to interact. These circles would facilitate faculty writing and foster the development of an interdisciplinary community, nurturing creativity and risk taking in writing (Gillespie, et. al. 2005).
An email invitation to the faculty of the entire college was sent by one of the three department chairs gauging interest in participating in such a group, which was viewed as a type of professional support and was totally voluntary. A dozen faculty members who expressed interest in attending an initial meeting came together to decide whether or not to participate in a group and how they would like the group to function. The participants included faculty who were from the ranks of lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor and professor; some untenured, some tenured; with higher education experience ranging from one to twenty-five years.
Each person expressed expectations for what he/she hoped to gain from participating in a writing circle. Faculty self-selected into groups based on interests and needs. Our group developed from a shared need for accountability and motivation to write. We began by exchanging writing and offering constructive critique. After the fall semester of 2009, we realized a need to set aside time to write and moved from bi-weekly feedback sessions to weekly sessions where we set aside time to write in two hour blocks.
Creation of a Safe Space
Participation in the writing group allowed for a safe space for inquiry and critique. As the group developed, we had created quite literally a safe space, a physical space where we could escape from the rest of our professional life to write. Meeting in a conference room at a designated time and place afforded limited distractions, colleagues to provide feedback while writing and permission to focus on writing. In the efforts to meet expectations for reappointment, promotion and tenure, we faced a challenge in our work/life balance. Successfully setting aside time for writing facilitated time management overall in our lives. The realization of success in one area led to small strides in other areas. During the second semester, we began to block off time for other pursuits as well, such as exercise and relationships with friends and family.
Our writing circle, like the NFC, was a safe place to take risks; we tried out ideas, brainstormed, tested various word choices and read and critiqued each others’ manuscripts. Each member provided support to the others in our group, reducing isolation around our writing agendas and generating camaraderie among the writing circle members. For some of us, it was accountability—simply knowing that we would be sharing with our other writing circle members on a designated day spurred us on to write. For others it was knowledge—thinking where we might publish or present our work or advising on some aspect of mechanism, usage or grammar. For all of us it was support—giving encouragement, playfully nudging or challenging our thinking critically and invaluably. Our group talked together and it resulted in clarifying our own writing agendas, helped us to think of new outlets for publishing our writing, provided feedback on our writing and inspired new ways of thinking about our work. The dialogue was inclusive; all members were contributors and it continued the new collaborative college culture whose beginnings were in the NFC but now extending the culture in new ways.
The pressures and expectations of scholarship can be both daunting and isolating, not only for junior faculty but experienced faculty as well. One practice that can help minimize worry and apprehension surrounding scholarship is the creation of writing circles. Not every writing group functions in the same manner and for the same purpose; nor should it. Members’ needs vary and should be taken into consideration when creating each writing group.
Writing groups form their own sense of identity and purpose, creating their own rules and guidelines for members to follow. Our original focus centered on accountability and motivation to write but, as time went on, we found other issues such as time management, work/life balance, and physical space affecting our writing. We modified the informal rules and guidelines of the group midstream to accommodate our needs and create a space where members felt they could ask questions, accept criticism and take risks in developing and pursuing a research agenda. This response to needed change of our purpose created a feeling of community and caring that went further than the original intention of the group.
This sense of caring and community fostered what Nel Noddings (1992) referred to as “ethics of care,” a caring relation as a connection or encounter between two human beings, a carer (care giver) and a cared-for, in which both parties contribute to the relationship in characteristic ways (p. 15). The relationships created in the circle allowed two junior faculty members to see themselves as emerging scholars and trusted colleagues, while allowing an experienced faculty member to serve as a mentor, as well as rejuvenate her own scholarly agenda. The shared experience of struggles balancing personal and professional obligations led us to engage in an ethics of care that extended outside of the time set aside for the writing group.
The “ethics of care” concept produced an unintended, but very beneficial, aspect of the writing circle-an increased sense of job satisfaction, which we identified through our group discussions. Weiss and Cropanzano (1996, as cited in Thoms, Dose, and Scott, 2002), contend that “job satisfaction represents a person’s evaluation of his or her job and work context.” The accountability, knowledge, and support shared within the group can be seen as implicit acknowledgement of each individual’s satisfaction with his or her job and the work that faculty member was accomplishing. The impact of the writing group had come full circle.
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