Since 2013, I’ve been teaching a two-week interdisciplinary dissertation workshop in early summer at the University of Cincinnati. Under normal conditions, the students and I meet for five hours each weekday to write together, serve as a community of writers for one another, create accountability check-ins, set achievable goals, share strategies for staying motivated and prioritizing writing, and talk about research management tools and working with advisers and committees.
When I realized that I’d be teaching the workshop remotely this summer, I had no idea how to do it or if anyone would take it. In my 20-year career, I’ve never taught fully online. Without much reflection, I’ve generally thought of online teaching as a poor substitute for the “real” thing.
That thinking certainly applied to how I approached this writing course. I’ve always considered the write-on-site concept to be the most distinctive and valuable aspect of the course. Students would often comment in their evaluations that being accountable to other people in the room, all working on their dissertations, too, was motivating. Without physical presence, could the course work? Could we be immersed in writing together from our respective kitchen tables, couches, patios and basements?
These questions rolled around in my head as students signed up for the course. Instead of the typical 15 to 18 students, 30 enrolled -- the max enrollment. They came from 18 different fields, among them sociology, molecular genetics, aerospace engineering, classics, pathobiology, chemistry, political science and epidemiology. Some were just beginning their dissertations, others had drafted or finished multiple chapters, and still others were at the refining and polishing stage. The group included students of color, international students, teachers, parents, returning students, actively publishing scholars and those with nonacademic full-time jobs. Approximately 25 percent of students were in their fourth year, while about 60 percent were in their fifth year or later.
When asked in the final evaluation if they thought the workshop should be offered remotely in future, even when face-to-face is possible, 67 percent of students said “yes,” 33 percent answered “not sure” and none said “no.” In their comments, several noted that they would appreciate an in-person version of the class, too; others highlighted the value of no commute and the opportunity to address barriers to writing at home (where they might be spending more long days in fall 2020). In other words, to my surprise, a majority of students seemed to prefer the online version of the course.
After spending two weeks with this group, I became convinced of the benefits of a remote writing workshop for advanced students who need community, structure and time management more than conventional writing instruction. The workshop was hosted on Canvas, large group video meetings convened on WebEx, and private small group check-ins took place through Microsoft Teams -- all tools that my university provided. After pausing for lunch in our respective locations, we shared photos of our break environments and posted observations about our writing processes to a discussion board. Those observations ranged from procedural descriptions (“Started outline of next chapter”) to reflective notes (“I’m realizing that I work better at night and so will rearrange my writing time after this class ends”).
Near the end of the day, students led and/or attended an optional resource-sharing session during which they demonstrated how they use Google Scholar, Sage publication alerts, Mendeley, Microsoft Access and Rayyan, among other research and writing tools. We closed the day with video check-ins on teams consisting of small groups that I had assembled on the basis of common research interests or methods. In those groups, students discussed goals achieved or still in progress, shared small bits of writing, and offered intellectual and emotional support to one another. Normal stuff for a writing class.
Except these were not normal times. Students were conducting research and writing dissertations in the midst of a global pandemic. They needed each other more than ever. They indicated as much when I asked them to identify challenges they were facing while working on their dissertations generally -- and specifically during the pandemic.
Several students reported that they valued discussing their writing processes in a “guilt-free zone” where they could express frustration, disappointment and other negative emotions. The emotional and practical were often linked, as when a student remarked in his final course reflection that setting an alarm, making coffee, getting dressed and coming to class helped him retain some sense of normalcy and productivity. Constructing a sustainable writing environment, routine, set of deadlines and system of accountability resonated for many students. “I was already working from home before the virus,” noted a sociology student, “but the added level of isolation has given me a renewed sense of the importance of both community and of setting apart time to work on specific tasks.”
Balancing personal life with research, another student described her efforts to incorporate her young son into her writing schedule. Noting that while “the temptation would be to just write at night while he sleeps,” she opts to write during the day so that he sees her writing and learns to value his mother’s intellectual work. A doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition realized she needed firm deadlines and emotional understanding, particularly because she is balancing a family of biological and foster children and recently lost her teaching position when the small college she worked for -- and the site of her qualitative study -- permanently closed.
A doctoral candidate in political science noted that social distancing has created distinct challenges for her and her fellow international students. For example, many do not drive or own a car, making it difficult to accomplish daily tasks like purchasing groceries. Such mundane activities are on a continuum with systemic stressors. International students have a limited visa period and, as the doctoral student observed, extending the visa can “require [some students to] travel back to the home country, which further adds to the stress and anxiety students are already facing.” She also remarked that many international students “come from a culture of communal living” and so have been struggling with the isolation created by social distancing mandates: “Going to the university, attending classes, extracurricular activities, the library, and the student community are what keeps them at ease and motivated.” Domestic and international students alike linked participation in a virtual community to emotional well-being, a salve for anxiety and depression.
A Longer-Term Vision
Alongside issues of physical and virtual community are questions regarding what one student called “impractical stuff” crucial to advanced study in any field: creative inquiry and critical world-building. “What I have come to realize over the course of this pandemic,” he told me, “is my need for some kind of longer-term, transformative vision of what academia can do/be in this new era. All the advice feels so oriented to what’s practical; aren’t we supposed to imagine impractical stuff, too!”
Echoing this idea, other students admitted that they struggle now more than ever with the larger purpose of their doctoral work, as epitomized in one student’s question to herself: “Why am I doing this?” In the midst of COVID-19 and the growing unrest in response to systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd -- all-consuming catastrophes with no clear end in sight -- how do students stay focused on their research? How can faculty members and administrators help graduate students right now, when many of us are also navigating radical changes to our teaching and scholarship as well as job and life uncertainties?
There are no easy answers, but my recent experience teaches me that some of the following might help:
Communication. Check in with students more than you might normally. Ask how they’re doing, ask what they need and listen without feeling like you need to solve all problems -- you can’t. Acknowledge that sometimes you’ll be at a loss for words.
Resourcefulness. Does your college or university offer online counseling services to students? Does it offer emergency funds to graduate students, as do the University of Kansas, the University of Georgia and the University of Cincinnati, among other institutions? Do professional organizations in your discipline provide emergency funds, as does the MLA to part-time instructors (many of whom are also graduate students)? Does your institution offer technology resources that can support students’ research or teaching? Create a list of resources for students in your program and share prominently.
Collaboration. Consider hosting virtual drop-in times for students to engage with faculty members and administrators. Facilitate peer-to-peer student communities virtually or face-to-face in a socially distanced manner; students need time with one another to regain their sense of purpose and motivation. Are such communities already being organized at your institution through the graduate school or other office? Faculty don’t need to be part of every student gathering, although we can be effective facilitators.
Flexibility. As advisers, we can’t work the way we always have. Several students in the workshop discussed their use of Trello, OmniFocus or similar project-management programs to visualize their workflow and share it with faculty. In lieu of meeting in person and in acknowledgment of videoconference and phone fatigue, faculty members and students might have to think creatively about how we work together, a rethinking that might end up benefiting us beyond the current moment.
Writing is required to succeed in and eventually leave graduate school. Yet this mostly invisible private work is not often adequately supported. We can and should do better. I’ve learned from students over the past seven years that writing with other dissertators in the room is affirming and motivating, but this year I became particularly convinced that writing community, in whatever form, should not be a perk or distinct feature of graduate programs.
Community, even when mediated through a screen, is central to intellectual work and emotional health. Further, it provides fertile ground for imagining impractical stuff -- creative inquiry, experimental research, critical world-building -- so important for crafting a future in which we all want to live.