administration · community · grad school · ideas for change · postdocs · writing

How to: support graduate writers without spending any money

The end of the fiscal year is looming, and we’ve just wrapped up budgeting for 2016/17. And as always, the push is to do more for our graduate students and postdocs with less. Some things are just never going to be free–the fee for a really great workshop facilitator, catering for our annual Career Night, paying the professor who teaches our teaching development course, our salaries–but we’re getting creative about finding ideas for new supports and services that don’t cost much in time, labour, or hard cash.

One of the things I did when I was still at York University was start up a Shut Up and Write! group for our grad students and postdocs, and it is may be my favourite example of a meaningful and useful support for early career researchers that doesn’t cost a dime. Your campus might already have a graduate Shut Up and Write! group, often coordinated by students themselves, but if you don’t, here’s the lowdown:

Shut Up and Write! began as meet-up in San Francisco designed to help creative writers build community, alleviate the loneliness of writing, and do some serious churning out of words. It has since expanded into academia, especially for graduate students and postdocs, who often feel isolated when they transition from coursework to working on their theses, dissertations, and publications. In a Shut Up and Write! session you prioritize writing over everything else (e.g. no email, no Instagram, no texting) and ideally use it as an opportunity to establish a writing routine, do some intensive work, and break through blocks in a supportive atmosphere using the Pomodoro Technique. All you need to run a Shut Up and Write Group! is:
  • a room
  • a timer
  • someone willing to facilitate discussion and run the timer (This person can also be doing their writing during the session; I use it as an opportunity to get in some quiet, distraction-free work on my normal day-job stuff)

Each Shut up and Write! session, at least the way I run it, includes:

  • 10 minutes for introductions and chat
  • 2-3 rounds of writing Pomodoros (each Pomodoro includes 25 minutes of intensive writing plus a 5 minute break)
  • Time to discuss writing, trade writing and productivity tips, and get to know each other. On occasion, a more senior researcher or someone from the writing centre will come in to address a specific writing topic, take questions, or provide one-on-one consultation.

Attrition, particularly in the PhD, tends to happen most at the point when students transition from the relative structure of coursework, qualifying exams and (for my students, at least) collecting data to the nebulous and very self-directed period of writing the dissertation. Community and the motivation of progressing alongside others helps stop that from happening. It also helps postdocs feel like members of a community–an important shift for a group that often feels disconnected from their institution because they’re neither students nor faculty, and often are poorly served because they exist in that liminal space.

A weekly Shut Up and Write! group provides opportunity for community building, peer support, building positive relationships with academic administrators, increased productivity, and the comfort of routine–and it costs nothing. (Sometimes it costs me a little bit, but only because I can’t resist an opportunity to bake for more than my little two person family.) I only wish that there were more easy fixes like it.

What about you, dear readers? Any brilliant ideas for low-cost and low-effort ways to create community- and skill-building opportunities for grad students and postdocs you’d like to share?

2 thoughts on “How to: support graduate writers without spending any money

  1. This is great! I was part of something like this, too, and it was VERY helpful. I also suggest reading groups and writing support groups.

    My advisor brought a few of her students together, with similar reading lists, and suggested a pathway for reading theory. She came to the first meeting, to give us some structure, and then left us to meet on our own, dropping by once or twice upon request. It was helpful to have her guidance on the structure: read a certain # of pages per meeting, everyone takes charge of a concept and reports back, try to read the text out loud during meeting, etc. She modelled good reading group practice… and then she removed herself so that we are free to express our ideas to our peers.

    I went through several different reading groups. Many didn't last past the first or second meeting. But one was very successful. We had good chemistry and similar commitment. We read several books together. It's good to know that it's worth it to keep trying, even if a group doesn't work out.

    My writing support group got me through the final days of dissertation writing. We also read each others' writing, so that we became very familiar with each other's work. Again, my advisor modelled good writing group practice and then left us alone. For instance, she told us to specify the kind of feedback we're looking for: overall picture/structure, copyedit, etc. And we really addressed feelings of vulnerability and shame around writing and showing our writing to others. We built so much trust through this process that I still go to these two women for editing and writing support.

    In all of these, the role of the faculty was crucial in providing guidance, but presence was minimal. So it's an easy thing for faculty to do. These meetings happened at coffee shops, mostly. With affordable drinks and snacks! Very important.

    I think another important thing to consider is to be clear on expectations of everyone involved, including a frank discussion about whether it is a support group or get-s***-done group. The two overlap, but I often find that if you're not careful, a get-s***-done group becomes a support group and very little gets done. I found it helpful to have several groups for different purposes, for different needs. I had a separate meet-to-write group (20 min write, 10 min break to check Facebook) from the writing support group (vent about reviewers/writing blocks, edit each other's work, even read each others' CVs/resumes), with different people in the groups. The key is agreeing on expectations and sticking to them.


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