Academics the world over are under constant pressure to publish. In this post we argue that, as well as promoting writing practices, writing groups can provide the space for growth of identities and agency as scholars. We have personally found our writing group enabled collegial conversation, which supported greater professional connections and understanding of the complexities of work expectations in higher education. Importantly, we also recognised a need to care for each other. Below, we describe the three phases of our writing group and highlight a range of features that we believe contributed to our group’s success.
Try a writing group
The kinds of writing group we advocate are organic and informal. The nature of group sessions to be determined by members only. Our Writing Group, as reported in Conversations for writing – one year on, has its roots in a shared experience. That experience was a writing workshop provided by our institution early one year. The aim was to enflame our ambitions and productivity regarding publication through targeted advice and feedback. You could say that it was feeling this heat that brought us together. During a break, one of four (Kerry, Frances, Jenny, and Jeanette) gathered outside admitted feelings of discomfort. Maybe Jenny just said out loud, “I’m not having fun”. Her exact words don’t matter now. What she gave the rest of us was her honesty and an opening to admit our own feelings. It was not very much later that we four agreed to meet for breakfast one month on to see how things were going. A professor friend and colleague (Margaret) asked to join. That was in 2010 and can be referred to as the establishing phase (see Edwards, 2012). Frances Edwards identified three phases in the life of a group—establishing, converging, and diverging. These three can be compared to the forming, storming, norming and performing stages in a model first proposed by Tuckman in 1965.
After establishing comes converging
Looking back on it now, we can see that during the nine years that followed we were in a converging phase. We learned about each other and more about our writing styles and our strengths and weaknesses. Our confidence in our academic identities grew. We developed a shared understanding of how higher education works, including the operations and politics of our University. Our strengths in writing flourished as did our confidence to share writing with each other for feedback. We progressed manuscripts and developed resilience in responding to reviewers. The four of us who were early-career researchers also began the PhD path, and shared the ups and downs of that journey in the ensuing years.
Monthly breakfasts were the basis of the first few years as a group. We did not actually write together. Time was capped and we all took a turn to speak about what was on our minds. We ate, drank coffee and shared what was happening with a focus on our intentions, habits, progress and successes in writing for publication. That we were a group was established by each member’s commitment to make time and turn up each month. Each one of us is self-motivated and we have never added up annual publication totals competitively or anything like that. We became a supportive group in the face of institutional pressures and we stayed a group for the collegiality of community.
Being asked to speak at internal seminars about our Writing Group provided us with recognised status as a group and we each became a bit more self-conscious about what was happening. The sheer longevity of our Writing Group activity also supported reflections on why it worked for us. We wrote on this in another article—this time a collaborative ethnography: Writing group commitment and caring.
Along with playing a part in our socialisation into academic life (Roberts & Weston, 2014), this writing group helped strengthen our individual and collective academic agency through information sharing during sessions together. We compared situations, responses and practices, increasing our voice in different forums of programme-decision making.
An example of exercising our agency (and the modelling of one of our members) was how once Jeanette had successfully applied for study leave, we, in turn, also completed successful applications for this valuable time for scholarship. Another instance was Jeanette at one breakfast presenting three of us with individually-coloured folders containing an A4 notebook and a copy of the Application for PhD enrolment form. The message was that a writing group PhD boat was sailing and we could be on it. Gaining courage from the nature of this group, we stepped aboard.
The magic of mentoring
Margaret, our mentor, enhanced the sense that meeting and talking about writing progress “mattered” by bringing a notebook to record a summary of each person’s update to our breakfast get-together. The notebook somehow further legitimised taking time over breakfast to chat.
Another way Margaret’s viewpoint was valuable was when we discussed options available for our individual trajectories. Having her level of experience behind the advice and comments often meant less time spent by us wandering around considering what might be the best way forward. Margaret also validated our feelings about what we were doing and what was happening to us. The poems she shared and other thoughtful small gifts she gave us added reminders about creativity and play enhancing our experience of being ‘academics’. In our reciprocal commitment to the group we also became mutual mentors.
Eating food (and drinking coffee) was an element of the nature of the space conducive to our conversation, and conversation was very important. As Orland-Barak identified, our dialogues differed in how these opportunities helped. We explored possible solutions to dilemmas, made connections across differing practices, and used the conversation space to develop our own ideas in a form of dialogue with ourselves, via talking to others. Our meeting space was a space to share stories and express our caring for each other.
It wasn’t necessarily that we felt institutional carelessness (Lynch, 2010) but we recognised increased busy-ness left less and less room for corridor conversations and lunch in the staffroom. In our article we refer to Moore, O’Neill, and McMullin (2005) who wrote of “a particularly strong need for space and time in which to … articulate the many ideas and experiences [we] encounter in the course of [our] professional lives”.
“Our group did not conceive of just how much of ‘everything’ would become involved when we initially committed to meet to talk about our academic writing.”
The organised writing workshop at which we first admitted our struggles with writing did actually prompt us into progressing our writing for publication even if it was not the way our organisation intended. We must also add that we learned a lot about the logics of abstracts as a tiny text at that first workshop, learning we have continued to use.
And paths diverge
In the last three years breakfasts became harder to organise as other priorities competed for attention. Kerry had a new marriage and new commitments. Jeannette was handed her ‘final straw’ and prepared to take up a job in Melbourne. Jenny stepped up and then, with the PhD still to complete, stepped away to pursue, in her words, “to work full time on completing her PhD and engage in professional work that is more fulfilling and satisfying.” Margaret was focused on writing the latest book and Frances recognised she wasn’t a new academic anymore. Frances and Kerry still have offices next door to each other and touch base regularly even if we seldom talk specifically about writing. In the same way as we organically formed, we naturally moved into and observed our diverging phase. The nature of our Writing Group also gave us support to pursue different directions. We found that we were more and more on different paths with different pressing concerns, both personally and professionally. We felt it and came to know that rounding up the Writing Group nature of our gatherings was due and this was acknowledged at our end of year get-together 2019. Now we get together, eat and talk simply because we care about each other.
As we conclude in Writing group commitment and caring:
“[W]riting groups in an academy—when their role is informally constituted, loosely defined, and their structure is a horizontal collaboration—can enable the growth of identities, agency, a community of care and even flourishing of individuals. This flourishing includes the agency to critique, and a collaborative incentive to ‘push back’ against pressures in higher education. (Carr et al., 2020, p. 683).”
Establishing a writing group was for us a serendipitous event largely based on a shared experience. Our converging phase saw us become more attuned to each other and develop our understanding of the environment in which we work. Support from group members meant it was natural to move into the diverging phase when we began to head in different directions. Our Writing Group built on our sense of responsibility and interest in writing for publication. In this way it was a success. Additionally, and more importantly, we consider our Writing Group a success for growing and affirming personal and academic aspirations and agency.
It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no [hu]man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself [or herself].~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Dr Kerry Earl Rinehart is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Waikato and Co-Editor of the Waikato Journal of Education. She is interested in the work of educators and learners at multiple levels and diverse contexts, and the processes of judgement of that work or study whether classroom assessment or formal or informal appraisal. Her research also looks at innovative practices and changes to educators’ work. Prior to coming to the University of Waikato, Kerry qualified as a primary teacher in Christchurch and taught for 15 years mostly in New Zealand primary contexts.
Dr Frances Edwards is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Waikato. Her research interests include teacher development, classroom assessment, assessment capability development, and education in developing countries (especially Pacific nations). Frances teaches courses in educational assessment, teacher education, and professional learning. Prior to joining the University of Waikato, Frances was an educational leader and consultant in New Zealand and the Cook Islands.