Writing At A Distance

At the best of times academic writing can be a challenge, particularly for graduate students who are just learning the ropes. However, our system is one in which many academics and academics-in-training conflate the idea of independent work with being alone. So it’s no surprise that graduate students might feel isolated or anxious when they sit down to begin writing their first draft.

What happens, however, when you throw a pandemic into the mix?

Since we began physical distancing about two months ago, I have found myself listening to the same concerns from students; concerns that they don’t know where to start or that they don’t know what they are doing. Anecdotally, I’ve heard I’m lost, off track, or making too many mistakes more than I think I have ever heard before. I’ve listened as students have questioned their worth, their ability to succeed, and whether or not they should withdraw. Worst of all, I’ve had numerous students worry aloud that they are disappointing me or their advisors.

To be honest, each conversation is heartbreaking because I can sense how much the students are worried (please read Learning During the Pandemic: What We Wish Our Professors and Mentors Knew if you haven’t already). They are incredibly vulnerable, and I’m sure that is scary as hell. Given a disrupted winter semester, coupled with the loss of summer jobs and internships, uncertain future job prospects, and a question mark where the fall semester should be, the anxieties of regular academic life are seemingly worsened.

The result of so much uncertainty coupled with fear and anxiety has been paralyzing. And honestly, I can relate. More than once I have found myself staring at a list of things that I need to accomplish, unable to move forward. Last week I spent two frustratingly long days willing the blinking cursor on my screen to unveil even a few words to support a grant application. My thoughts are clouded. My focus is waning. And as a result, my writing is suffering.

Prior to the pandemic I would have gathered with students for a group writing session, because while our work might be independent we are most definitely not alone. And yes, these sessions were as much for me as it was for them. But what do we do when physical distancing clearly means that getting together to write is off the table?

For our lab, we opted to conduct an online writing session for the first time yesterday using Microsoft Teams. I honestly wasn’t sure how this would work because it just feels extremely weird to use a video conferencing tool to have a virtual writing session. Surprisingly, I found it to be an incredibly productive block of time.

What did our session look like?

  • We began the meeting with hellos and some discussion about weekend activities. We are after all, social beings.
  • I then described some of the challenges I have had and continue to have with writing, and how the pandemic has made things more challenging. I think it is important for the students to see that even their advisors struggle in this area. In the future I will likely use this time to present some of the strategies I use to support my writing, particularly when I find myself staring blankly at a page.
  • Next, each person was asked to state aloud no more than 2 goals. As the moderator, my job was to make sure those goals were specific. If someone suggested they would write part of the introduction, my job was to ask which part? how many paragraphs? and other similar questions. Goals spanning any part of research were allowed, including reading papers, writing code, analyzing data, etc. Free form non-academic writing was also allowed.
  • While we didn’t do this yesterday, I’m going to begin next week by assigning the role of moderator to a different member of the team.
  • Anyone was allowed to ask questions to clarify their own goals, or the goals of other participants. However, this conversation was limited so that we could focus on our tasks.
  • Once goals were identified, I let everyone know that I would check in after an hour. Cameras and microphones were turned off, except during check ins. There were no questions/concerns after the first hour, so we carried on with our work.
  • 15 minutes before the end of the session, we had our final check in. Were goals met? Were there any challenges? If so, how were they overcome?
  • Finally, I left everyone with a homework challenge to write something that is unrelated to their academic work. This week, for example, I asked the students to draft a single paragraph about something new they’ve learned this year that has surprised them. Next week, I might ask them to reflect on something surprising they’ve learned about themselves. The homework is not meant to be time consuming, but it will be used to facilitate a short conversation at our next session.

Given the positive feedback from everyone involved, we have decided that we will make these a regularly scheduled event every Monday from 12pm until 2pm. Next week we are also going to discuss adding one or two more regular sessions to our week.

I have no idea if all of our sessions will be as productive as the first, but we’re encouraged enough to give it a go. If you happen to host a remote online writing session, or if you have other ideas of how to improve the structure of the sessions we are running, please share your thoughts in the comments section.

Happy writing everyone.

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