collaboration · community · writing

On Community

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?

3 thoughts on “On Community

  1. Melissa – thank you so much for sharing this! I've been feeling frustrated and isolated in my program in efforts to, as you said, “foster a sense of community, a culture of collegiality, and a genuine caring” – this is something that can only be created intentionally with others and in the current climate of “publish or perish” and an increasingly competitive job market this is, I think, harder and harder to do. I'm lucky enough to have a best friend miles away to think with (though electronically) and a writing group with a few students in the program. I struggle, though, that these groups and conversations for me seem to be happening outside of my department and outside of my program and how to bring them inside. Are there departments that value these communities? That help to facilitate them? What does this look like in your department – are faculty members on board with this community, or are students the forerunners?
    I did my undergrad degree with professors and colleagues who were committed to this sort of community and we worked hard at it – it wasn't always easy to have community with people when opinions were so different and ideas clashed, but some of the best learning came from these moments. We were encouraged from the get-go to think critically about the material, to have ideas and to theorize. Moving out of that community has been shocking for me because it was so formative and this community, for me, is such an important piece of learning.
    Do you think this is something we should be trying to foster through doctoral programming? Or am I just blue-skying?

    A friend in my program sent me this blog about 3 months ago when I was in a place of frustration in terms of communities of learning and it has really helped me remember why I think it's so important to try and create.

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  2. We've been lucky to have a series of graduate program directors who have explicitly advocated for community building within the program, and that's a plus. The dissertation proposal writing workshop out of which our current writing group springs is the brain-child of one of those GPDs, and it's definitely been a positive force in developing ongoing collaboration and community building. As has the office allocation system, which sees most of us sharing one big office and spending time together there. So community can, in a way, be programmed.

    That said, I don't think our writing group would exist if we weren't already friends, and that's mostly just due to the culture of our graduate program (on the student level). The people ahead of me were already friends when I entered, and they were really open and welcoming to new students, such that we've now got this big social group that spans about five years, probably more, of incoming classes. Being on strike together for more than three months in my first year was also a foundational moment–picketing in the bitter cold together is a bonding experience. Mostly, I think it comes down to effort. We make the effort to plan events (academic and non), to keep in touch, to spend time together. And it works.

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  3. I have a great community now. My department is very collegial, actually, and many of us are friends as well. We support each other's work, give advice, mentor, and go drinking. Hurrah!

    But I can't resist this: when I was a PhD student, reading some or another whomping theory book with my feet up on the coffee table, another grad student came by and said she liked the colour of my toenail polish. I thanked her for the compliment, which she then followed up with this: “Oh, well, I mean, I WISH I had the TIME to paint my toenails, but what with this article I'm working on and that conference paper I have to finish and the dissertation writing, I just really have too much going on for that sort of thing.”

    BURN!

    Sheesh.

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