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Liz Norell of the University of Mississippi Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning sent me this essay reflecting on how the writing she and other members of the center do seems to be a key to their ability to work well together. Since I've been working on a book that argues writing is more than just the production of text, it resonated with me, and I thought it may resonate with others as well - John Warner

Writing as a Tool for Teamwork and Fellowship
By Liz Norell

At a writing retreat I attended last month, my writing coach Jen Louden said, “The benefit of writing is the growth that comes. Any benefit to others is just a bonus.”

It was an off-handed utterance I’d heard from Jen before. This time, though, it sparked a flash of insight in me: Everyone on my current team is a writer… and it is, by far, the most functional and supportive team I’ve encountered, in or out of academia.

While I take an expansive view of who can rightly call themselves ‘a writer,’ in the case of our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning team at the University of Mississippi, it’s literally true. Josh Eyler, our center’s director, has a popular book out in the world (How Humans Learn) and another on the way (Scarlet Letters); Emily Pitts Donahoe, my fellow associate director of instructional support, has a thoughtful Substack (Unmaking the Grade) about her experiments in alternative assessment that, among other accolades, was the subject of a Chronicle of Higher Education piece; Derek Bruff, our visiting associate director, has a book out in the world (Intentional Tech) and a regular newsletter and podcast (Intentional Teaching); and then there’s me, the newest addition to the team, with a book forthcoming (The Present Professor) and a lifelong love of writing.

We write about our work, but we each also use our writing to clarify our thinking, to reflect on our experiences, and to explore the boundaries of our suspicions. This essay is an example of the latter for me: Is it true that there’s something about working with a team of writers that makes our team uniquely functional? I thought there might be; writing about it convinced me.

Let me be clear that it’s a specific kind of writing that unlocks this potential. I respect the fiction writer’s world building and character development. Journalists do heroic work trying to capture the essential truths of the moment. Historians sort through primary-source documents to bring greater context and understanding to our past. Academics research a question that won’t leave them alone. 

We are a team of reflective writers, though. We use writing to make sense of our inner worlds. We explicitly write about our thinking; we use first-person voice; we puzzle over our stumbles more often than we document our triumphs. Reflective writing is a way of processing, of understanding, of—as Jen Louden said last month—growing. In this way, our writing is a tool of learning, just as a significant body of research has shown it can be a powerful tool for our students’ learning.

For example, Allan and Driscoll (2014) describe a first-year writing course that incorporated reflective writing. The authors identified three benefits: enhancing assessment of the writing program, promoting student learning, and improving teaching. Reflective learning is metacognition in action. As the authors write, “Reflection is one way to bridge the divide between thought and action—an opportunity for students to describe their internal processes, evaluate their challenges, and recognize their triumphs in ways that would otherwise remain unarticulated.”

Or, as John Warner puts it: “writing is thinking.”

That’s all well and good, but my thesis here is that being a reflective writer makes you a better colleague. The mechanism by which that happens, I think, is in the habits of mind that reflective writing fosters. Maybe deeply personal writing-as-thinking insights can come without putting your fingers on a keyboard (or pen to paper)—I’m not willing to state unequivocally that the act of writing is necessary. I’m just not sure we ever give ourselves the quiet time necessary to do that kind of inner wrestling unless we’re puzzling through writing something persuasive on a topic about which we care deeply. There’s something humbling about working out your ideas in depth, about admitting in words that you might not have gotten everything right on the first try. 

In the world of workplace dynamics, the research on what makes for a supportive culture is clear: Psychological safety. A Google research project, for example, found that the difference between high-performing teams and merely average (or worse) teams was psychological safety alone. Talent? Educational pedigree? Years of experience? Personality? None mattered.

Psychological safety is what happens when someone feels confident they can share an idea (no matter how wacky) or make a mistake without being humiliated by their colleagues. The Center for Creative Leadership says, “When psychological safety in the workplace is present, people feel comfortable bringing their full, authentic selves to work.” Colleagues give one another the benefit of the doubt, leading with curiosity before reacting unfavorably to someone else’s ideas or actions.

Academic workplace culture isn’t necessarily known for its willingness to suspend judgment before rendering an opinion. Academia promises its faculty a life of the mind, an opportunity to think deeply about competing ideas. This sharpens our skills at identifying weaknesses in arguments quickly–a skill that served us well in graduate seminars, but one that could compromise our empathy when engaging with colleagues.

With our team of writers, I’ve shared many ideas—some, indeed, rather wacky—and experienced only curiosity in response. This doesn’t mean we greenlight every zany idea; actually, we reject at least as many ideas as not. I see this as a credit to our group: We take risks, we cook up unconventional ideas, and we trust one another to give honest and supportive feedback.

Let’s say my thesis is correct, that engaging in a regular practice of reflective writing makes us better colleagues. That reflective writing nudges us into curiosity instead of reactivity, helping us develop humility and a willingness to reconsider our philosophical commitments. Doesn’t that sound a lot like what we claim to want for our students? And doesn’t it also sound a lot like a better way of relating to students than the quasi-adversarial engagement that too often emerges?

I think it does.

If writing is thinking, particularly when writing involves rethinking our thinking, then doing more reflective writing is going to make us better colleagues, better teachers, and better mentors. Asking our students to write reflectively improves their metacognition—a noble pursuit on its own. So much the better that it can also create more curiosity-driven classrooms and more meaningful student-faculty relationships.

A team of writers is a glorious thing. Just as we can only advise and guide our students, though, we cannot force our colleagues to adopt a practice of reflective writing. We can, however, adopt the practice ourselves and talk about the benefits that flow–with our students and our colleagues.

Liz Norell is associate director of instructional support at the University of Mississippi’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Texas Dallas. She contributes to UM CETL’s blog regularly, and her book, The Present Professor, is under advance contract with the University of Oklahoma Press. You can find her on Bluesky 

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