Writing in public (or at least with a few folks on the web)
Getting over writing hurdles can be a challenge for most academics, and advice often comes in harsh, if not humorous, form. From the injunction "Shut up and write" to the butt to chair method, everyone, it seems, finds a writer in need of some support to be an easy target.
Despite the many sites and services that have popped up to prod writers in academia to greater productivity, when I searched online for a supportive writing group to join during my sabbatical year three years ago, I wanted more than accountability or how-to tips. I longed for readers who would interact with my work. Like many scholars, I had experienced the well-documented benefits of a writing group during my graduate school days, and had hoped to find digital version of my dissertation group. Those women were amazing first readers and remain close friends I see each time I return to Los Angeles.
When I couldn’t find a writing group specifically for academics beyond the dissertation, or for longer than getting over the summer productivity hump, I began “writing in public,” drafting my scholarly essays in Google documents and sharing links via Twitter. The Internet, or rather a small corner of it, became my virtual first readers. In “writing in public,” I hoped to do more than find feedback for early drafts. I saw the process as a means to address imposter syndrome, to show that no one churns out perfect prose the first go around, and that the published work is never the (sole) work of the author, but rather the collaboration of first readers, (anonymous) reviewers, and editors. So far, I have completed three essays while “writing in public,” relying on feedback from people I have never met in person.
Imagine my delight in the spring of 2013, when I received an invitation from Lori Beth De Hertogh, a graduate student in rhetoric and composition at Washington State University, to participate in the online Feminist Scholar Digital Workshop (FSDW) group she founded at HASTAC, the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory. FSDW provided a weeklong “asynchronous, interdisciplinary, participant-driven workshop for scholars and individuals working on feminist-oriented research projects. The goal of the workshop is to create an online space where participants can exchange scholarship and ideas.” FSDW not only seemed precisely the sort of group I had initially sought online, but I also saw it as an entry point for encouraging other scholars to begin sharing their work virtually, but not necessarily as openly, as “writing in public” entails. On 17 May of 2013, I, along with twenty other adventurous academics, began FSDW. Introductions by the participants on HASTAC echoed many of my hopes for FSDW. Linda Leavitt, assistant professor in Communication at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas wrote in her introduction: “Academic writing groups I’ve worked with are more about productivity and motivation than sharing and commenting on each other’s work.”
I posted my introduction, received contact information for group members and we were off! Our group worked quite well. In my group of four, three of us had work to share. Each group determined the precise mechanisms for sharing work. Our group elected to uploaded drafts to Google drive and share only with one another (except for mine which was left open). Time zone differences and schedule variations made it difficult to work synchronously. We reviewed one paper per day via commenting on the drafts. On Thursday, three of us engaged in some real time discussion of the process via Google chat. The papers all relied on feminist theories in some way, but were written by scholars in different disciplines. I found that mixture to be extremely stimulating and exciting. We knew enough to provide good first reads for each other’s work.
FSDW turned out to be everything I’d hoped for: critique provided in a helpful and supportive way, and the success of my group seems more than a fluke. In comments during the wrap up and evaluation period, Alma Maria Rinasz, a U.S. expat scholar living in Mexico, expressed thanks to her group members “for your time and encouragement. … I walked away with the outline of an article, an interview and new materials that I can consult. Not to mention the contact information of four incredibly fabulous people who rock the academic world.”
I enthusiastically tweeted during FSDW13, which no doubt is why this year I was asked to serve as the lead social media correspondent. With my intrepid team of Harlan Kellaway, Linda Levitt, and Abigail Scheg, we publicized the sign up information to great success. Over a hundred international scholars organized into twenty-plus thematic groups are slated to participate in #FSDW14 from June 16-22, 2014. Follow the hashtag #FSDW14 to see how things unfold, and once again, I’ll be writing in public if you want to participate virtually.
Michelle Moravec, a historian at Rosemont College, is currently working on the politics of women's culture, which you can read about at michellemoravec.com. Follow her on Twitter at @professmoravec. http://www.hastac.org/about