IN THEIR OWN WORDS:
a goal of collective wisdom, support, sharing and
peer mentoring can lead to group and individual success in
a setting that is not always welcoming to women
Cecile Badenhorst, Jackie Hesson, Rhonda Joy, Heather McLeod, Sharon Penney, Sarah Pickett, Xuemei Li, Dorothy Vaandering --Department of Education
By the faculty writing group,* department of education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
Faculty writing groups are notoriously difficult to generate and maintain. The competitive nature of the tenure process cultivates individualism and rivalry.
But a goal of collective wisdom, support, sharing and peer mentoring can lead to group and individual success in a setting that is not always welcoming to women.
We started a writing group in 2009, but faculty membership fluctuated as time and workloads dictated.
In September 2010, some of us proposed a project for the writing group to get a more committed membership. An invitation went to all faculty; eight women, all relatively new and untenured, responded and joined.
Members came from diverse backgrounds within education including counseling psychology, special education, arts, English as a second language and social studies. Many were professionals in their fields before joining the faculty.
We conceptualized a formal project that consisted of the group committing to an individual writing project as well as a group paper over four months. We began by each writing a commitment piece, stating our writing goals, why this process was important to us and what we intended as a writing schedule. During the four months, we each kept a reflective journal as a form of self-study to explore our own practices as writers, researchers and academics. We also committed to attend weekly meetings.
During the week, we worked on our own research projects. At weekly meetings, each member described what she had achieved during the week or what problems she faced. The written journal pieces were collected in a binder at the end of the meeting and all discussions were recorded. The weekly journal reflections and recordings became the data for the group paper.
The entire project was framed by a post-structuralist approach, which set the data collection against a background of flexibility, ambiguity, uncertainty and an unfolding process of qualitative research.
The idea was not for the group to be regulated or to regulate themselves, but rather to set up the architecture for an unfolding and emerging to happen. What unfolded and what emerged, we left open to the process; we set up the structure and then waited.
We allowed ourselves to be open to non-linear, non-traditional forms of representing our “data” and the freedom to develop heuristics as and when we chose in order to understand what we were experiencing. The balance between structure and flexibility gave the group a life of its own. Our process was richly textured and deeply layered.
Weekly reflections showed these to be the key issues:
1. The difficulties of being new faculty: new systems, inability to read faculty politics and resulting lack of confidence;
2. The pressure to obtain tenure, the need to set up research agendas and to publish quickly;
3. The difficulty of balancing teaching, research, service, and multiple demands;
4. The lack of time to write, to think, to conceptualize;
5. The difficulty of switching from a PhD thesis to writing for publication;
6. The challenge of balancing family and career goals, and feeling fragmented and stretched taut with the wants of others and ourselves;
7. The need to overcome the isolation and alienation of an individualistic academic path and the reassurance that the experiences of others in the group were not abnormal.
It is not a coincidence that we are all women.
Not everyone in the group felt the same way about each of these issues; for each there was a continuum of positions and both positive and negative responses. Positions changed based on what was happening in their lives.
Clearly the writing group provided a mechanism of support but it was differential. More aptly, it created a bridge for everyone from their before-contexts and previous identities to this new-context with unfolding new identities. Our points of origin and destination were different but the bridge was a communal place.
On the bridge, we could tell our individual stories and in the telling, the sharing, the reflecting, we noticed our voices merging into a common language that began to cross-fertilize and spill over into our individual projects. Shared thinking and writing, deliberate or not, was a key outcome.
What worked well was the balance between structure and flexibility. A facilitator who had time to devote to the administration of the project led the group. The short commitment of four months set up a doable process. Individuals honored the verbal and written pledge to the group.
The idea of producing two papers (one individual and one group) was a key motivating factor.
Within these structured commitments, the weekly sessions were relaxed and fun. No one was penalized for not producing, but accounting for the week’s writing became a motivation in itself. The written reflections became a stimulus for thinking, reading and writing. It kept our writing projects on the top of our priority lists. We began to socialize and to meld together as a group.
After four months, we decided to produce more than one paper from the data collected. So although the “formal” part has ended, we continue to work together.
We do get impatient with each other occasionally. We’ve had some spirited discussions around authorship. But the groundwork has been laid, and even if we do not reconstitute as a group, we have built a community of support.
What our collective story points to is that collaboration is about vulnerability and the ability to build relationships from that foundation.
In our writing group—our bridge—we forged connections among members, not only explicitly through constructing writing, reflecting and telling stories, but also implicitly through perception, intuition, smiles and a softening of the eyes as we regard each other.
*Cecile Badenhorst, Jackie Hesson, Rhonda Joy, Heather McLeod, Sharon Penney, Sarah Pickett, Xuemei Li, Dorothy Vaandering.
Badenhorst, C., Hesson, J., Joy, R., McLeod, H., Penney, S., Pickett, S., Li, Xuemei, Vaandering, D. (2012, January). IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Faculty Writing Group Helps to Build Bridges in Academia. Women in Higher Education, 21(1), p. 30.
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