Writing for Academe: A Series on Dialogue, Mentoring, and Motivation

Karen Hoelscher and Carmen Werder on finding joy and success in writing for the academy.


September 10, 2010

Given how fraught writing for publication can be, it’s understandable for faculty to perceive the process as dehumanizing. Even soul-crunching, as one of our colleagues lamented.

College and university faculty advance through the academic review process in large part by developing personal habits and skills as writers. This expectation holds true not only at large research universities, but also on campuses like Western Washington University, where we experience the ongoing challenge of writing to meet criteria for department, college, and university reviews.

What the Research Says …

Researchers focusing on the careers of college and university faculty agree on the challenge of developing and maintaining a sustained writing record amid the daily requirements of teaching and service. (Here's one example.)

Sorcinelli & Billings studied cohorts of new faculty members to identify their writing stressors, how they change from first to later years, and how they find support to manage their careers. Their findings? Faculty morale drops significantly as production stress sets in and resource support disappears. And staying successful depends on two things: (1) support from colleagues familiar with their content area and the stressors of writing for publication, and (2) specific strategies and tips for advancing writing during the crucial pre-tenure years.

The WWU Faculty Writing Series and Residency aims to increase participants’ comfort with the demands of academic writing and their production of it as part of a community of writers. In monthly face-to-face meetings and a multiday residency, we provide strategic guidance to (1) reflect on and work toward professional writing goals, (2) encourage dialogue about the challenges of writing for publication, and (3) sustain the motivation to write among critical friends.

Our primary goal is to help pre-tenure faculty develop a systematic approach to meeting the scholarship requirements of their departments amid the challenges of teaching and serving. We’re helping them use writing as a way of finding (or remembering) their shared humanity in the academy, which helps reverse characterizations of the tenure and promotion process as confusing, frightening, and inhumane.

This comprehensive model offers space and time for faculty to avoid the unpleasant experience of being evaluated without feeling both psychological and intellectual support. We work to create an environment where our colleagues feel first and foremost affirmed as human beings, where they can experience a meeting of the mind and heart as a revitalizing aspect of faculty life.

In the next few months, we’ll share some of the strategies and tools we’ve developed to help writers align writing projects with departmental expectations, manage time and minimize distractions, structure and sustain writing momentum, identify appropriate publications and audiences, and pitch a piece of writing. We’ll remind readers of tips for editing and making the revision-resubmit process more positive and clearly responsive to reviewers’ suggestions. We believe that facing rejection or addressing requests for revision can be a valuable experience. Fun, even.

Throughout the series we’ll return to the importance of understanding writing requirements for advancement, and the value of creating a writing plan with departmental and college supervisors to guide annual reviews. Alignment is the important thing – clearly understanding the requirements can help ensure our writing plans jibe with institutional expectations

Aligning Writing Projects With Departmental Expectations

Most new faculty arrive with an active research line in place, either as newly minted credentialed teachers or as seasoned researchers. One of the most important steps you can take after signing a contract is to meet with the department chair. Clarify your roles as a teacher and server, and notice where they overlap with the types of scholarship you’d like to focus on. Once you’ve identified this nexus, develop a writing plan that aligns with what your department expects you to be doing.

As you create your plan, consider including strands from your current line of research, as well as developing research and writing interests that enhance your new teaching and service assignments. Once you have a plan in place, you can be strategic about choosing or politely passing up opportunities that don’t fit into your plan.

Here are a few tips we use with writers in the writing series and residency:

1. Confirm your roles as teacher and server. Review your letter of hire or role statement. What do your supervisors and colleagues expect you to do, day to day? Were you hired to teach specific courses or are you more of a generalist? Will you advise students and develop programming? Are you responsible for participating on committees or for chairing work groups? Get as clear as you can about these expectations. If necessary, explore negotiating to set some boundaries around them.

2. Seek guidance on how your scholarship fits in. Consider the nexus of your teaching, serving, and scholarship interests. For example, your teaching assignments may focus on developing pre-service teachers’ ability to support English language learners. If your service activity involves presenting ELL workshops to classroom teachers and community members, it might be useful to focus your scholarship activity around this topic.

Keep this intersection in mind as you plan your scholarship agenda and discuss it with your department chair. Discuss the departmental expectations and support for scholarly production. Bring your college unit plan for tenure and promotion along with questions you have about the process.

Seek clarification and advice from many sources (peers, recently tenured colleagues, critical friends from other colleges). Get comfortable with the expectations. Make friends with ambiguity. Ask for a mentor and check in quarterly, at least.

3. Plan the work. Make a plan for projecting what you'll produce as a writer. Draft some kind of visual representation that shows the specific steps you'll take (What will you do this year? In the next few years?). We have developed a “Project Arc” (with dates and space for tracking specific writing projects) to help faculty writers set short-term and longer-term publishing goals. Go public about this plan with your department chair and mentor(s). Focus on the requirements and do more: Aim higher to allow for unpredictable down times. If you find it motivating, post your progress arc prominently and check off the steps. Plan rewards: gold stars, chocolate, new music, hikes into the mountains, quiet time with friends, whatever works to honor progress for you.

4. Work the plan. Be strategic about choosing your scholarship trail. Remember your plan: say “yes” to opportunities that fit the nexus, say goodbye (for now) to those that do not. Develop a pipeline approach to production: (1) attend conferences where you're presenting something; (2) only present when you have a publishing outlet in mind; (3) start revising your presentation on your way home and kick it out the door ASAP; (4) expect to revise, edit, and resubmit. Remember: Getting into print can take months and sometimes years, so plan accordingly. Use your annual reviews to start developing your tenure and promotion portfolio. Ask to see the portfolios of recently tenured colleagues before you create your own model.

5. Rely on your strengths and challenge your weaknesses. You may be well-organized, dedicated, and delighted to be a teacher. You may also be exceptionally good at serving your institution. If you find your strengths more in those areas than in writing, celebrate those virtues and use them to provide confidence and energy for the solitary work of writing. If your writing strengths include reading for main ideas, but you find editing a challenge, find a writing partner who is a good proofreader and who would value your ability as a reader.

In sum: you’re expected to be a good teacher and capable server, and your scholarship will be closely scrutinized. To ensure that your tenure and promotion review has joyous results:

  • Co-develop your writing plans with your chair (or at least get enthusiastic buy-in)
  • Check in regularly to get feedback about how you’re doing and what you might adjust that could meet a departmental or college goal, and
  • Bask in the knowledge that you have worked as a team to build a tenure and promotion file that will be favorably reviewed, versus coming to the table bracing for a negative review.

In our next column, we will suggest ways to manage your time and minimize distractions so that you can enact these carefully laid writing plans.


Karen Hoelscher is professor of education at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., 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.

Carmen Werder is director of the Teaching-Learning Academy (a dialogue forum on enhancing learning that includes faculty, staff, and students) and of Writing Instruction Support (a faculty development program) at Western Washington University, where she is also faculty in the Department of Communication.


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