UP NEXT: Align Projects with Priorities
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Writers Groups: Composing a Balanced Faculty
Consider this scenario: a college seminar room filled with faculty members from a variety of disciplines and career stages. Some sit at laptops; others write diligently with pen on paper. Over in the corner, two colleagues meet to talk about the assignment they're drafting for the class they're co-teaching. Occasionally, from the seminar table, someone breaks the silence to ask, "Did anybody see that article in the Chronicle," or "What's a better word for . . . ?" Over the past several years, colleges and universities across the country have been implementing writers groups to help busy faculty find time and space to work on writing related to all aspects of what they do: teaching, scholarship, or service. Faculty meet regularly to work together on individual or collaborative writing projects. While many faculty members work well on these projects alone, writers groups can allow for collaboration and provide the kind of schedule and structure that many faculty need to keep their work moving forward. These faculty learning communities (FLCs) can be particularly useful on two-year college campuses, providing faculty there with the kind of balance they need in their professional lives to complete a variety of writing tasks.
The "publish or perish" adage is familiar to all academics, though not every college professor is bound by it in the same way. Some two-year college faculty-particularly those at university branch campuses-must publish moderately to achieve promotion and tenure; other two-year college faculty have no administrative mandate to publish, yet they have a personal professional interest in doing so. Furthermore, even two-year college faculty who do not intend to present papers at conferences or publish their work in scholarly journals have a variety of writing tasks related to teaching and service that they cannot always fit into their busy schedules. An interest in writing does not always lead to a completed grant proposal, a new classroom assignment, or a peer-reviewed publication; in fact, it does not necessarily lead to the actual act of writing.
As so many two-year college faculty know, the demands of heavy teaching loads and committee service leave little time for sustained writing no matter how great the inclination or how forceful the mandate. However, they might also sense that without the creative pursuits writing can offer, they could burn out. The National Faculty Stress Research Project (Gmelch, Lovrich, & Wilke, 1984) found that among the three most common faculty responsibilities-teaching, service, and research-the most stressful role is teaching. In addition, Talbot (2000) and Quick (1987) have found that large universities and small colleges differ primarily in time spent on scholarship versus teaching, with university faculty being far more research-oriented and college faculty more teaching-oriented. Two-year college faculty, then, need to achieve some kind of balance in their roles, if only to ward off stress or burnout.
One way to encourage two-year college professors to find time to engage in writing is to form writing groups, as we did at our two-year branch of a major research university. Writers groups can bring faculty members together for dedicated individual writing time, team brainstorming sessions, reading and discussions of books designed to improve writing productivity, and peer review of works in progress. By creating a supportive interdisciplinary group for idea exchange, writers groups rely on internal expertise, inspire interdisciplinary discussions, and create community (Benson-Brown, 2006). In addition, scheduled writing time that leads to peer review of works in progress creates accountability that helps some faculty finish writing projects that otherwise might have languished.
Since the two-year college mission places an extraordinarily heavy emphasis on teaching and learning, many professors find reasons to dedicate time outside of the classroom to tasks that are linked more clearly to immediate teaching concerns: class preparations, grading, or student conferences. For that reason, writers groups on two-year college campuses will more easily garner the support of administration and attract and keep devoted teaching faculty by exposing clear links between writers group activities and teaching excellence. And these groups do encourage new insights about teaching and new potential for improved teaching practices. Writers groups raise awareness in participants by helping them to see challenges faced by student writers and by offering them an opportunity to reflect on teaching through their writing activities.
[Note: In the chapter, two sections follow the above excerpt, one on Literature Review and one on Impact on Teaching and Learning. I have skipped these sections here but if you would like an electronic copy of them just let me know. Rick Reis, firstname.lastname@example.org]
Implementing a Writers Group on a Two-Year College Campus
Any administrator, faculty developer, or faculty member interested in implementing a writers group on his or her two-year college campus will likely find that these groups need little in terms of resources. However, as Miller, Finley, and Shedd Vancko (2000) warn, "good ideas do not implement themselves; people do. The best designed systems will flounder if implementation is left to chance" (p. 90). With that in mind, anyone initiating and attempting to maintain a writers group over time would be well-advised to consider a few fundamental ideas.
Finding faculty with the desire to join a writers group is probably the easiest part of starting one of these FLCs. Once faculty meet for the first time, however, a variety of individual needs and expectations for the group are likely to arise. Just as individual writing processes vary, so do individual needs from writing-intensive FLCs. Some members will want time to sit with others and write quietly; some will want the group to provide peer review of works in progress; others will look for the FLC to provide accountability to make them responsible to get writing done. Others might (somewhat problematically) view it as a social hour. Any institution considering implementing a writers group should consider what flexibility could attract members to the FLC and make the community long term. Since faculty development programs work best when they are individualized to meet the specific needs of the faculty, it makes good sense to craft a writers group with the faculty and even the college mission in mind (Miller et al., 2000; Murray, 2002).
To support the writing of faculty at our college, the Learning and Teaching Center director initiated a faculty writers group as an ongoing FLC. This group aids its self-selected faculty members through mutual support and accountability to write for teaching, service, research, publication, and presentation. Since its inception, the group has tested a number of ways to support this and has experienced both successes and failures. What has been key to the group's continuance and its growth (and it has grown steadily, both in number of participants and in meeting times and formats) is that it has paid close attention to its trial-and-error search for what works. Rather than set an unchanging structure, the group has remained organic and responsive to what members need by keeping things that work and throwing out things that do not.
One basic success has been use of a facilitator to set meeting schedules, obtain meeting space, and keep group members on task via their commitment to participate at regular times. This job is not overly taxing, but it is essential to the success of the FLC. While the group meetings function well with minimal intervention by a facilitator, someone must do the necessary work of promoting the group to faculty, requesting funding (if any) from administrators, scheduling meetings and retreats, e-mailing members, and providing evidence of participation in the form of letters or certificates to members who may need documentation for promotion or tenure. At colleges where a writers group is faculty driven, the leader is unlikely to be compensated by anything more than a line on his or her curriculum vitae, though perhaps this is not insignificant, given that leadership roles are frequently considered in tenure and promotion. At our college, the Learning and Teaching Center director took on this responsibility for the first years of the writing group, and other faculty members took over the leadership role as the group evolved. A good leader can help faculty members be more productive in the FLC. One member explained that participation in regularly scheduled writing sessions has been useful because it provides deadlines for completion of his work. Without facilitators, deadlines would exist as self-imposed requirements for individual faculty members working alone in isolation. In fact, the use of facilitators has worked so well that the group currently has two to manage growth in size, meeting times, and meeting format.
While there is no question that ongoing faculty development is a necessity at two-year colleges, administrators are frequently concerned about the cost of these opportunities (Miller et al., 2000). Like other FLCs, writers groups can be relatively low-cost endeavors, conducting their work with free or inexpensive resources; this has certainly been one of the successes of our group. Despite the fact that little funding is available, the facilitators have been able to maintain the essential flexibility that stands as a hallmark of our group. Facilitators use college meeting rooms as faculty gathering spaces with a subgroup meeting at local coffee shops for peer review. Using what faculty development money is available, facilitators organize biannual off-campus retreats locally.
At our college, a continuity of meeting times has worked well, with an initial twice-a-quarter schedule as a faculty writers group starts up, moving to a bimonthly schedule as the group developed. Additionally, facilitators currently designate specific monthly meetings on the same days and times for the academic year. This setup technique, accompanied by monthly reminders, has helped busy faculty to build the dates into their calendars. Participants commit to attend only one of the two sessions but are welcome at both. Group participants sign in for their session and note the task on which they plan to work. When signing out, they note whether they were able to complete their task. Facilitators designed this sign-in as a simple technique for maintaining accountability, something that can help some writers maximize productivity. Originally, facilitators introduced the idea of accountability by asking members to keep a running record of writing conducted or completed during sessions. Members seemed to like the freedom to move among their many writing tasks without reporting specifics to colleagues, but for some, keeping the log was one more item on an already lengthy professional to-do list. Facilitators dropped the log in favor of the sign-in sheet, a simpler way to track participation and encourage attendance.
While some faculty in writers groups participate because doing so helps them to schedule time to work on projects, others need something different from the community: a group of peers who can review drafts and offer feedback for editing and revision. Even in interdisciplinary FLCs, the peer-review function can be very useful to members, providing them with commentary from a variety of perspectives. In our writers group, our first attempt at creating a regular peer-review process involved creating a buddy system that paired all participating faculty members for additional peer critique sessions. This system was based on the idea that, ultimately, all participants should be shaping and reviewing their writing products for use in the classroom, presentation, or publication. Yet participation was low, because only a few members wanted regular peer review; some who wanted peer review did not have the time, and some busy faculty wanted time simply to write.
Facilitators dropped this system and moved instead to a small self-selected subset of the entire faculty writers group that meets twice a quarter to peer-review work. Faculty who wanted the opportunity to talk about their writing projects were invited to join this small subgroup, playfully nicknamed Will Write for Coffee, which meets at a local coffee shop to review drafts in progress. One week before the group meets, members send short drafts-around five pages-of current manuscripts. Participants write comments, suggestions, and other feedback on each other's drafts. At the coffee shop, members first discuss their positive reactions to the piece and then move into supportive comments to help the writer revise the manuscript. The group works best when it has between three and seven participants. Fewer participants yield less useful advice, while a larger size does not allow enough time for the manuscripts to be discussed thoroughly. Although membership of this group varies, there are always enough participants from the larger writing group to give constructive feedback.
This shift in format succeeded and meets the needs of its participants and motivates them. Regardless of the format, those who have taken part in peer review as part of the writers group have found it useful. One person valued the interdisciplinary feedback, observing that she benefited most from peer review from people both within and outside her discipline. A colleague agreed, stating, "It is good to hear comments from individuals other than those in my area of expertise so that I can better develop writing skills that can cross disciplines." Another appreciated both the accountability that attends the feedback process and the objectivity of his reviewers. Clearly, peer review of writing has been an important attribute of the faculty writers group.
Successful writers groups may function entirely as on-campus FLCs; however, some groups could find it useful to meet off-campus, at least periodically. Our faculty writers group does. Our off-campus retreats started with annual daylong sessions to provide space and longer time for writing; participants found them so productive that sessions evolved into biannual retreats that now garner about a dozen participants. Using a small college faculty development stipend, the group rents space and purchases lunch at a local retreat center, with no Internet accessibility. Faculty literally retreat to this setting to write for an entire day. One of our group members remarked, "The retreat in particular, reminds me that there's a variety of work going on around me, and that it's valuable work."
By providing a relatively easy-to-stick-to schedule for busy two-year college faculty, writers groups help to provide the kind of balance between the demands of teaching and scholarship or teaching and reflection that is so necessary to the successful academic. Furthermore, like other FLCs, writers groups bring participants together across disciplines and ranks and, in doing so, help alleviate any faculty tendency toward isolation; these connections help those same faculty members make connections with each other that could lead to collaborative or mentoring relationships in other areas of their professional lives.
Writers groups-like other FLCs-may contribute to the institution as well. Faculty, students, and the institution as a whole benefit when faculty engage in writing with an eye toward publication or presentation. A more professional professoriate may be one outcome of active writers group participation. In addition, by reducing faculty propensity for isolation, writers groups could alleviate burnout, thereby reinvigorating members and, perhaps, inspiring them to greater productivity in other areas of their professional lives. Furthermore, students may benefit when faculty participate in writers groups. Instructors who are actively involved in writing and writers groups may develop a keener sense of their own writing processes and a deepened understanding of the writing problems their students face. When these instructors engage with student writers, it stands to reason that they will take to those conversations a better understanding of the challenges, struggles, and benefits that writing presents.
By fostering pursuits that are directly or indirectly related to teaching, then, writers groups help to enhance the mission of most two-year colleges without demanding much from already burdened faculty developers or their budgets. Quite simply, writers groups are a perfect choice for two-year colleges and their faculty.
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