Group Work

December 4, 2009

At first, sharing our writing graphs was a solemn affair. We would hold up our graphs and explain when we had been able to write that week and what we accomplished. My graph was always boring -- I simply scribbled in each box with whatever pencil or pen I had handy. Many of my students had colored coded graphs. By the middle of the seminar, sharing our writing graphs often resulted in bouts of laughing initiated by self-effacing humor and mutual teasing. I will always remember the multi-colored-computer-generated graph presented by one of my very first writing students. He graphed his reading in blue; writing in green; meetings in purple; and note-taking and outlining in either red or yellow, I can’t remember. Every time he proudly held up his graph, we all teased him about the real reason he had such colorful and entertaining graphs: Procrastination?? Perfectionism?? He would never admit to either.

I start each weekly session of my dissertation writing seminar by having the students share their graphs with the group. I hold myself to the same requirements that I hold my students. So, like everyone else, I graph my writing times for a designated writing project (I always chose a project that doesn’t have an externally imposed deadline, so my grant applications and reports don’t count) and I hold up my graph each time we meet. One memorable semester that I would like to forget, I held up blank graphs for three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, I topped out at the eighth week. I wish I could have blamed it on the latest Harry Potter book being released, but I couldn’t (I usually finished reading them within 24 hours from point of contact to final page). And, you can bet that at various times during those eight weeks, I was tempted to pencil in a block or two rather than having to explain again why I didn’t get to write on my project. But I didn’t, we had developed a trust within the seminar and I knew that if I did cheat, I would get caught.

Each week, I held up my blank graph, cringed, made some type of feeble excuse for not writing and hoped the student to my right would pick up his or her graph and share it without further delay. What I learned from that seminar was that I was the only one cringing when I shared my blank writing graph. In fact, from one week to the next, my students weren’t ruminating on my blank graph; often they forgot I was in a writing funk. This example illustrated to me that we don’t share our graphs so that others hold us accountable; we share our graphs so that we hold ourselves accountable.

During that same time, my students’ graphs went from isolated spires to a flattened block of filled-in boxes. They were leveling out their writing sessions and developing and sustaining regular writing routines. They came into class less often with dark circles under their eyes from pulling all-nighters. I would love to be able to say that my brilliant teaching transformed their writing. Or the writing techniques that I taught catapulted them forward. Sure, the information and techniques helped. But what may be more powerful is that we helped each other. By sharing our graphs, our triumphs, and yes, our struggles, we all improved our writing habits and by improving our writing habits, we improved our writing output.

For these reasons, I am a strong proponent of doctoral programs offering dissertation writing or proposal writing seminars. They offer courses on areas of specialization, theories, text analysis, methodologies, and statistics. Why not also offer a seminar focused on providing information and support around what is meant to be the most challenging assignment in a doctoral program: the dissertation? In my humble opinion, completion rates for doctoral programs are way too low; latest estimates put them at just over 50 percent. While students opt out of doctoral programs for many different reasons, the task of writing a dissertation without formal support can be daunting enough that it keeps many highly intelligent and motivated students from completing their dissertations and earning their doctoral degrees.

While I can’t point to any studies examining the completion rates of programs that offer writing seminars with those that don’t, I know from my experience that I had quite a few students who were at high risk of remaining ABD (all-but-dissertation) without the structure and social support provided by my seminar. I also know that many other students took at least half a year to a year off of their time-to-completions. Along with my own observations, I have spoken with many faculty members who teach these seminars and the directors of their doctoral programs and they say the same thing: by offering writing seminars, they help their students graduate sooner -- and more of them graduate.

Yet, too often either these skills are taken for granted or programs don’t know how to organize such a seminar; many current faculty members never had the chance to take a dissertation writing seminar, as these seminars were rarely offered in the past. For these reasons, I wrote my book so that it presented an instructive step-by-step process for writing the dissertation. I also wrote my book with the hope that it would facilitate more doctoral programs offering dissertation writing seminars or facilitate students running their own writing groups. The book can be used as a guide for a seminar or group and the 10 chapters can be worked through in a way that takes the students through the processes of choosing a topic, of efficient reading and note-taking, and of writing useful outlines that facilitate developing a regular writing routine, through to effectively revising a dissertation-length manuscript. One of the chapters addresses some of the most popular forms of writer’s block with interventions customized for each form. Throughout the book, I provide concrete suggestions for working well with dissertation advisers and committee members. Students may not realize the heavy workloads of their advisers. Their advisers are juggling other advisees, their own scholarship or research, teaching, and perhaps some form of administration and service at the local, national and international levels. Many of the same efficiency techniques that can help students with their own writing can also help them use their advisers’ time wisely and therefore get the useful and timely feedback that they need. The result? A win-win for students and faculty members.

So, as I previewed and promised in my previous column, I am delighted, along with my publisher, to offer the readers of Demystifying the Dissertation a 20 percent discount on my new book: Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text. Go here and use this code (DDWEM9). Or, if you are a faculty member, you can review my book with the eye to offering a dissertation writing seminar or to encouraging your students to form their own writing groups. If you are already offering a research seminar for your students, you can consider adding a book on dissertation writing to your syllabus. If you are already offering a dissertation writing seminar for your students -- thank you! Please keep it up and, of course, feel free to order an exam copy to supplement your current required reading. You can order an exam copy by going to the same web page and click on Request Exam Copy in the upper right-hand corner.

I honestly struggled with writing this piece. At first I thought I was going to write an overview of my book, but as I was writing, I realized that I really wanted to emphasize the importance of writing a dissertation while attending a dissertation writing seminar or while meeting with a bunch of classmates for a writing group. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of working with others while completing what can be a daunting task. Far too often, I have heard students describe the dissertation phase as “jumping off a cliff.” The natural supports and study groups that occurred while taking coursework are no longer there. But the dissertation phase should not, need not feel like “jumping off a cliff.” Rather, it could be a time to hone your writing and research skills within a supportive group and it could be a time, as it was for me, where you make like-long friendships.

I am still in contact with classmates who were in the first writing seminar I attended. Throughout my career, I have organized writing groups when I needed them. And while I am not in a group that meets face-to-face right now, I regularly have breakfast with, meet for lunch, or e-mail my many writing partners, former members of writing groups, and writing mentors. I have friends and colleagues who read early drafts of my book, review near final versions of these columns, and provide opinions on book covers. I have read colleagues’ drafts of books, tenure dossiers, and grant applications. I’ve provided feedback on book prospectuses, book titles, and choice of publishers. While I am not in a face-to-face writing group right now, I am in a well-connected group of writers and we encourage, support, and love one another. And at those times when I thought I would never write again, one of them reminded me of the joy I can find in writing and encouraged me to get back on the bandwagon.

Through the process of struggling to write this article, I found out that I wanted to wrap up the fourth part of this series on developing a regular writing routine by making a plug for dissertation writing seminars and writing groups. If you are in one of these already -- great! If not, I encourage you to find one to join. If you do not have access to a face-to-face group, you may want to look into some of the very good options online for joining writing groups. Or, if you would prefer a face-to-face group, then you can start your own, as I have done many times. You have gotten this far in your doctoral program and you can complete it. Not only can you complete it, you can enjoy the process from the very first seminar to crossing the stage to be hooded by your adviser. Attending a writing seminar or group can help to make all the difference in the world not only in terms of completion but also in terms of enjoyment.

While this article wraps up my four-part series on developing a regular writing routine, the truth is that each and every article I write addresses developing a regular writing routine. Whether I am writing about writer’s block (as I will be soon) or the various stages of prewriting (I will be writing a series on prewriting next year), the goal is for you to sit down at your computer and to efficiently to get your ideas up on the screen (or down on the page). The goal is for you to transform yourself from a consumer of knowledge to a creator of knowledge; so that we can all learn from you as you have learned from those writers and researchers who have gone before you.

Phew! Before I start a new series on writer’s block, I’m going to do something a little different. I had the chance to conduct an e-mail interview with the authors of What They Didn’t Teach You in Graduate School: 199 Helpful Hints for Success in your Academic Career. I completely enjoyed conducting this interview because even with the limitations of e-mail, Paul Gray and David E. Drew had me in stitches. They are two very funny and very accomplished faculty members who share their very serious wisdom served up with a healthy dose of humor. I had fun interviewing them; I think you’ll enjoy reading the outcome. As always, if you have questions or comments on this articles or suggestions for future articles, please contact me.

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