For my first few posts, I wanted to talk about writing. In particular, I wanted to talk about practices—both individual and communal—related to writing. I am interested in how the act of writing (and the act of avoiding writing, for that matter) is related to other behaviors. I am also interested in how we might better integrate the act of writing into our lives, perhaps to make us more productive, or perhaps simply to make us happier.
Today I want to talk about writing groups—in particular, inter-disciplinary writing groups—but perhaps first I should say something about my take on writing, just to contextualize my own views. I don’t have the immediate pressure to publish that many others in the profession have. There are two reasons for this. First, I currently have a TT position, and so I am not desperately trying to build my CV in an attempt to gain meaningful employment. Second, although I am on the tenure-track, I work at a teaching-focused institution. It is, of course, possible that I will not be granted tenure, but even if I didn’t publish another page from this day forward, I would not be denied tenure for lack of publishing.
I don’t feel overwhelming pressure to put words on a page, but I like writing, and I want to publish.
With that much background, I wanted to move to my topic for this post: inter-disciplinary writing groups. At a previous institution, I was invited to join a writing group. This group was just forming, was invite-only, and was carefully tailored to be diverse on more than one axis. In fact, I was told I was invited because they didn’t have anyone else from my department, I was male, and I had children. Each of these helped balance out various demographics of the group. At my own institution, I have formed a far more haphazard group: we are open to any faculty member who is interested in getting together to talk about writing.
Whether by careful design or not, both groups ended up including people from different disciplines. Because of this, there were certain limitations of these groups. In both cases, members were of little use in giving substantive content-related feedback on works in progress. Are such groups, in the end, useless?
I don’t think so.
From my own experiences as well as those of others, it seems that these sorts of groups are useful for a number of reasons. Today I will focus solely on the ways such groups can benefit one’s writing.
First, with regular meetings of writing groups, it is impossible for writing to ever slip too far off anyone’s radar. Of course, sometimes there is simply no time that could be spared for writing, but in my own experience, writing often takes a backseat when it doesn’t have to. Getting into the habit of thinking about writing might help us in prioritizing writing in our schedules.
Second, talking about writing regularly can help us push past psychological barriers that make it difficult to begin. Much has been written about the powers of the blank page. I have found that it can be even more difficult to return to a project long set aside than to start a new one, but both can be daunting. Talking about writing with others, especially in regular writing groups, seems to remove some of the mystique of writing and seems to make it easier to simply “jump in.”
Third, it is good to talk with others about similar difficulties. Lots of people get papers rejected. Lots of people have trouble with procrastination. Talking with family and friends outside of academia is great, but sometimes being able to talk with others who know what we go through is important too.
Fourth, I have found that it is good to talk about writing and general time-management habits and techniques with others. Not every idea works for everyone, but I have found that there is great value in discussing such things.
Fifth, a sort of accountability can accompany membership in such groups. In the first group I was a part of, we each signed up for certain meeting dates in which we would discuss our work. We would need to email drafts to everyone else in the group before the meeting. Because of this setup, we were accountable to everyone else: on these dates, we would need to have something to share. In my present group, things are much less formal, largely because members of my current group have very different writing goals. In any case, this group, too, has brought with it room for at least two sorts of strengthened accountability. First, at the start of each meeting, members are encouraged to talk about what they have been doing and what they hope to accomplish soon. Although there is no need to set specific goals, some do so. I have done so: on one particular day I publically stated my goal to have a project—the first draft of a book—done by a certain date. In part because of this declaration, I did have it done by that date. Second, even without any public announcements, some members have told me that being a part of the group made it easier for them to hold themselves privately accountable for their writing.
It should be noted that none of the benefits of inter-disciplinary writing groups I listed come from their being interdisciplinary. Perhaps there are such benefits. (I think there are surely non-writing benefits to such groups, but that is a different matter.) Perhaps one such benefit is the increased willingness to discuss writing struggles. I am not sure, but it might be easier for some people to discuss their failures and struggles with those outside of their departments. Another possible benefit (although not one I have yet witnessed myself) is the opportunity to do inter-disciplinary research leading to co-authored papers.
Do any of you have experience with faculty writing groups, whether inter-disciplinary or not? Have you found them to be beneficial? If so, in what way(s)?