Revising a Writing Group

As the series comes to an end, Karen Hoelscher describes her university's effort to remake its faculty development program, and what other colleges might learn.

January 28, 2011

In Lessons From A Street-Wise Professor, Ramon Ricker advises college students to take charge of their career: set bold goals and develop a clear plan for achieving them. Take advantage of your unique strengths and abilities. Be the best at what you do! Build your brand, keep your work at a high level and don’t give up on yourself. And get some business chops to deal with the basics of becoming a professional (e.g., dealing with people, getting work, getting paid).

Reminds me of the mélange of advice we provide new faculty in higher education at the point of hire -- and then often fail to support with resources for untenured assistant professors to achieve their goals.

This series of faculty development columns has featured strategies and resources we’ve developed at Western Washington University to guide our talented, hard-working pre-tenure colleagues toward finding joy and production as academic writers through reflecting on writing goals, encouraging dialogue about the challenge of writing for publication, and sustaining the motivation to write.

Since 2006, 50 faculty from 17 departments have increased their confidence, skill, and production in a community of writers working toward tenure and promotion. In monthly face-to-face meetings and a multiday off-campus session, we’ve provided strategic guidance to develop and work toward professional writing goals, encouraged dialogue about the challenges of writing for publication, and helped sustain the motivation to write among critical friends.

Recently we’ve launched a more comprehensive faculty development framework aimed at bringing balance to the process of writing for publication, developing a sustainable low-to-no-cost leadership model, and securing support from university administrators. And we’ve revised our name to fit our new framework: the “Faculty Research-Writing Series.”

Change Brings Opportunity

WWU Provost Dr. Catherine Riordan recently characterized the challenge of budget-cutting in higher education as a time of “reshaping and recalibrating the university.” We’re not alone – most universities are making similar decisions about what their schools will look like given diminishing resources.

As universities work to reset budgets across our nation, employees are being asked to take on more and more responsibilities, which further compromises faculty members’ time for research and writing. On our campus, administrators have constantly sought advice from employees to create innovative, sustainable strategies to help us do our jobs.

With support from Provost Riordan and WWU Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Dr. Steve Vanderstaay, we are reshaping and recalibrating our approach to working with pre-tenure faculty. I’m hopeful that the ideas we’re putting in place here can be useful to those of you concerned about faculty development on your own campuses.

Three pillars frame our work with the 2011 WWU Faculty Research-Writing Series: balance, sustainability, and strategic support.

(1) Balance. Given the time-consuming trio of expectations of the academy (teaching, serving, scholarship), we will use the monthly research-writing meetings and an expanded off-campus retreat to focus on writing and provide strategic mentoring for working with supervisors (department chairs, unit heads) to develop a clear research and writing trajectory with relevant goals and checkpoints between the point of hire and the application for tenure and promotion.

One new strategy we’re using to achieving balance involves SMART goal-setting:

  • Be Specific about a desired result (e.g., I will write three days a week for 2 hours each time);
  • State how to Measure progress (e.g., I will block the time in my calendar and record my weekly totals);
  • Make sure every goal is Achievable (e.g., my partner will care for our young children every M/W/F from 7 to 9 a.m.);
  • Align each goal with a Relevant long-term goal or mission (e.g., my department expects two more publications in the next two years prior to tenure and promotion so I must complete the article on sea slugs and then move on to my next project); and
  • Commit to a Timeline (e.g., by February 28 I will send my writing partner my introduction and hypothesis about the correlation between the dispositions of sea slugs and differentiated levels of global warming).

Like most universities, we hire colleagues we expect to promote and tenure. Guiding them toward helpful planning tools can actively support their scholarly progress. (Remember our colleague in the first column who described the tenure and promotion process as soul crunching? It’s that paralyzed feeling we’re trying to mitigate.)

With any luck, we’ll continue our progress toward reversing characterizations of the tenure review process as confusing, frightening and inhumane. After all, who needs more lions, tigers and bears in their lives? No one I know.

The second pillar relates to the diminishing level of funding for our public university and (hey, a positive) the increasing number of faculty who believe in the value of our writing series as a self-sustaining project and, as alumni of the group, want to give something back.

(2) Sustainability. Given current economic conditions and the limited number of recent new faculty hires, we’re seeking ways to support faculty needs. We are developing a sustainable, low- to no-cost faculty development model that builds on the talent and generous spirit of some of the 50 alumni of our faculty writing groups. Many of these colleagues have been recently tenured and promoted, and have experience to share about how they reached this goal.

According to Dr. Vanderstaay, who directs the university’s Center for Instructional Innovation and Assessment (CII-A), there is value in faculty-initiated projects:

“We’ve found that faculty development efforts that begin as faculty-led initiatives are almost guaranteed to succeed because they literally rise out of faculty needs. However, we’ve also found that such initiatives need modest and sustained administrative support -- help with logistics, planning, communication, meeting arrangements and so on.

"In the absence of such support initiatives fade quickly. Consequently, we’ve learned to support these initiatives -- even if it means postponing a faculty development idea of our own. The Faculty Research Writing group seems an obvious faculty development service but it’s no accident that it arose out of faculty conversations and is led by faculty.”

Our alliance with her center will provide a partnership with the administration to work toward a long-term goal: develop a sustainable mentoring model by training faculty writing fellows -- recently tenured colleagues -- to run small writing circles in their WWU units. Sort of a “pay it forward” model.

The third pillar involves motivating someone else to care. Not just anyone. Someone with vision who sees how your specific, measurable goal will be achievable, relevant and timely for the university. It’s similar to pitching a piece of writing to a high-profile online publication that gets unsolicited requests from faculty (like me) who believe their ideas have merit. One key seems to be determining how and when to make your pitch, and to whom.

(3) Strategic Support. Given that university administrators recognize the value of our bottom-up faculty development efforts, the research-writing group is now housed within an existing university program aimed at supporting faculty.

In addition to mining the experience of our writing group alumni to germinate small writing groups across campus, we plan to seek the intellectual capital of more experienced members of the university community.

For example, senior faculty and department chairs are beginning to ask how they can be helpful to our pre-tenure colleagues in the research-writing group.

We plan to take them up on it by inviting guest experts into our meetings from time to time to address special topics (e.g., understanding and navigating your departmental culture; bouncing back from a negative annual review, finding a balance between professional and personal activities as a faculty member, sustaining your writing life over the summer).

In my experience, contributing wisdom in these areas increases a person’s self-worth once they’ve achieved tenure and promotion. Or when they have plateaued at the unfortunately-named terminal appointment of full professor.

As always, these topics are driven by pre-assessment data that prioritizes the interests of the current members of our group and their effects examined both formatively and summatively each year.

How can you translate these ideas into practice at your school?

Finding A Starting Point

Here are some strategies we’re using with our newest group of pretenure colleagues seeking direction and support as they plot their ascent to promotion and tenure. Perhaps one or two ideas will catch your eye, and you’ll experience a new kind of balance, sustainability and support on your campus.


Listen. Respect what your junior colleagues know about themselves. Create simple, meaningful ways to get input from them before, during and after each research-writing session ends. Do this informally while you’re together. And make a point of connecting with each writer between meetings.

Honor. Develop, together, a set of agreements that encourage trust, honesty, mutual mentoring and confidentiality. Your members’ needs will grow and change as they recognize your commitment to supporting their progress.

Change. It’s tempting to trust your instincts and create the same set of agendas once a group gets rolling. Consider developing a flexible menu of topics for monthly meetings. Not just the things you think are important for your group to know, do, or feel. Create your agendas based on the needs of your group members. The literature is saturated with tales of faculty writing groups that run a few years and disappear, attributed to leaders’ inability to respond to the needs of a group.

Respond. Run with the challenges your group identifies. If members have confided in you that they’re incredibly nervous, frustrated or lost about how to get a writing plan in place, work with this information. Never mind that you haven’t developed a tips sheet for this topic. Use their feedback to develop your next tips sheet.

Grow. Commit to bending and flexing to meet the needs of the group.

For example, our first-year goals focused on manuscript production and peer review, with one or two writers being featured at each meeting. In the second, third, and fourth years, the goals expanded to include mentoring related to surviving the tenure and promotion process.

In year five, in addition to supporting members’ progress as writers, our survey data has helped us set our sails more broadly to offer strategies aimed at thriving in a unit or department (e.g., understanding departmental culture, responding to annual reviews, aligning writing projects with departmental expectations, building relationships with department chairs).


Look outside. Risk your own significance. Value the experience and production of people who know different things than you do. Start a tiny ripple and see what happens. Encourage colleagues to do what they can.

Identify partners. Value the intellectual capital of senior faculty who may be seeking interesting and rewarding ways to give back to their junior colleagues. Encourage a prolific scholar who is near retirement to leave a legacy as a senior professor who reached out to a newcomer.


Look around. Consider the mission and core values of your college or university. Seek guidance on how supporting faculty as researchers and writers fits into (no, make that “contributes to”) the strategic plan of your institution. Get familiar with the lingo.

Look up. Locate administrative allies who remember what it was like to be a newly hired faculty member charged with teaching, serving, and writing. Ask them what supports they had -- or wish they’d had as writers. Tell them about your small pilot project. Share concrete results as your project picks up steam. Invite them to come and see what you are doing. Learn who else is doing something that relates to your project, and build alliances. Return to your administrative allies with increasingly impressive results.

Learn. In addition to knowing what you want, it’s helpful to get a sense of what administrators want. Remember the saying: seek first to understand; then seek to be understood.

Once you understand the puzzle someone else is trying to solve, you may have a better idea of where your puzzle piece fits in.


Karen Hoelscher is professor of education at Western Washington University, where she guides teacher education majors into and out of the K-8 certification program in the year-long internship program at Woodring College of Education, and writes about intercultural communication and faculty development.


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