Every Friday at four, we gather around someone’s kitchen table. Coffee gets poured, baking gets passed around, and we settle into our chairs and share stories about our weeks and plans for the weekend ahead. We talk about cooking, and travel, and books, and movies, and gossip. And then, when we’ve caught up, we talk work. Structure. Application of theory. Voice. Organization. Negotiating our committees. Publication. Productivity tools. Grammar. Turning conference papers into articles into chapters. Syntax. Analysis.
Each week, two of us send around a 20-ish page chunk of writing for the others to read, and the rest of the group responds with comments that we then discuss in person. Despite writing on sometimes wildly different topics—law in the Western, English country house novels, Canadian modernist poetry, contemporary anarchist poetry, Canadian underground comics—we’ve come to know each others’ work well over the weeks and months we’ve been working together. We prize that familiarity, that ability to see how the work is changing and developing as it progresses, but we also prize six fresh sets of eyes that can see what our own myopic perspectives cannot. We’re kind, but we’re also critical. We want to help each other get better, and we want to see each other succeed.
I don’t know how common this kind of arrangement is. Narratives of competition, of isolation, of backstabbing and loneliness and alienation, are all too common when we talk about doing a PhD, especially the years we spend writing a dissertation. My writing group and I belong to a larger PhD program—my cohort has nine people in it, and that’s about average for us—but I know others whose isolation is exacerbated by being the sole doctoral student in their year, or one of only two. As a writing group—indeed, as a program—we’ve rejected narratives of conflict, mistrust, and isolation. Instead, we work hard to foster a sense of community, a culture of collegiality, and a genuine caring. We like each other–a lot. And while competition and backstabbing are presumably intended to help one get ahead, research shows that those of us who form writerly communities actually do more, and better, writing. In a profession where success is measured by both the quality and quantity of our writing, fostering community is positively an advantage.
I’m lucky in this. I’m privileged to be able to write about the “we” that is my immediate academic community, one that is invested in my success, as I am in theirs. These folks are very necessary to my health and happiness as an academic and as a person. And I’m very interested in hearing about the communities that you’ve created and entered that have shaped your academic life.
So tell me: what version of academic community do you have in your life? What role does it play? And how can we foster these kinds of supportive and collaborative communities across the academy, particularly in graduate programs?