Supporting Faculty Writing

We tend to think of writing as a solitary activity.  We have this vision of the angsty poet, the shy novelist, or the anarchist academic sitting alone in a tiny dormered apartment or alone in the English country side struggling through their latest opus – utterly alone.  We prof_walter_stibbs_younghave this silly notion that writing happens in a vacuum.

Every good writer I know uses workshops, asks for feedback, forwards drafts to peers, or at the very least talks through ideas with colleagues. While the first step of writing might happen alone, a lot of good writing happens in community. Creative writing courses are almost exclusively set up at workshops where students share writing and provide regular feedback to their peers.

Any graduate student who had good friends and a good director can tell you how awesome it was to write with support. And yet, once we finish our dissertations and get that job (we hope), we’re often left utterly alone.  The network of friends are gone.  The mentor has moved on to other needy graduate students. For young faculty, asking their new peers for help is akin to admitting they don’t have the chops for this job. Ironically, it’s at these early stages that we expect faculty to produce the most writing – we rip away the supports and ask people to stand alone.

Note, that I’m not addressing all of the added stresses  – increased teaching load, family obligations, making new friends, committee work, and mentoring students.Not to mention a perceived need to make an impact in a new place. The Professor Is In suggests being selfish!

So, what are we to do?  I’m going to start a faculty writing group like those found at Macalester College or the Duke University Faculty Writing Group. Study after study has shown that faculty writing groups work. They help faculty protect their time for writing, especially women. They develop a sense of scholarly community, which filters down to students. They increase publication rates. In other words, the recreate that community writers need to succeed.

How to Collaborate

Or, as my tattoo artist says, “How to not be a dick.”

After discussing tatoos as medium, I asked my tattooist if tattoos are collaborative.  I wondered because in many ways, my skin just seems like his canvas. So, I was surprised when he unequivocally said, “Hell yeah it’s a collaboration.” As we talked, he used a ship metaphor to describe the process; the client has the impulse that puts the ship in the water and the tattoo artist has the talent and wherewithal to pilot it.  He said that a bad tattoo experience occurs when one side of the equation is over-balanced.  If the client is too controlling or the artist is too obsessed with their vision – the collaboration doesn’t go well. And, most importantly, the work may suffer.

Wilma and Betty get work done!

I bring this up because I’ve been having a similar conversation with my friend Wilma, who I’ve collaborated with in the past. She described another colleague who reached out to collaborate on a project for which Wilma and I already drafted an abstract. The colleague sent Wilma an abstract and asked her to “look for ways to make it more digital rhetoric friendly.” In other words, rather than coming to Wilma with a potential project and discussing how they could work together, the colleague just wanted Wilma to add to her pre-existing project. Wilma was an add-on, an accessory – not a true collaborator.

Wilma brought this up because she and I were already writing an abstract for the same edited collection. Ironically, I also had a project that partially fit call for papers (CFP).  However, our interaction went more like this:

Me: Hey Wilma, I have this paper sitting around about Jane Addams.  I was thinking about responding to this  CFP with it, but I’m not sure where it would go from there.

Wilma: Ohhhh, what’s your paper about. Maybe I have something that will complement it.

And so on…. Our project came together because I asked Wilma to draw on her own expertise to to build on my project – not sign off on it.  I used my own strengths and Wilma used hers. This is why we work well together.

In other words, collaboration is a lot like a dance. You may occasionally have times in which you walk solo into the spotlight, but most of the dance is about working with your partner(s) to make something amazing.  When I think about how this relates to writing, it becomes clear that collaborative writing must find that balance between working alone and working together.

My friend Wilma and I want to be the next Ede and Lunsford or Hawisher and Selfe. We work well together because we recognize that one of us may be busy and the other needs to step it up for a while.  Or, that changes to one another’s prose isn’t personal – it’s about the product. Our process of collaboration serves the product.

On a Bus. On a Phone.

Last time I took a Greyhound bus, I was 21 years old. Suffice it to say, it’s been a while. I am composing the post on a bus between Milwaukee and Chicago listening to The Clash. I’m typing with my thumbs on my Smart Phone (See Arroyo’s “thumb writing”).

I remember my last trip on the bus because it was my senior year at Alma cupCollege. I was traveling to visit friends in Chicago despite the fact that I was writing an Honor’s thesis. On that trip, my backpack (a green Jansport and tres 90s chic) was full of printed JStor articles that I read furiously for hours. I scribbled in margins and took hasty notes.

My research process remains largely unchanged. I still prefer to print articles.  I don’t start with JStor anymore, but I still search there. The biggests change is the ubiquity of Wifi. I can start my search anywhere.

For people who matriculated before the 1990s, their research processes may have changed drastically. The library has evolved from a physical warehouse to a multi-access-hub for information.  But more than that, the sheer quantities of information available are staggering.  How do we weed through all of this? Or, more importantly, how do we teach students how to weed through all of this data? As a writing teacher, I think I need to start paying more attention to information literacies. I usually cover Boolean search logic, but I’m not sure this is enough.

Then again, maybe I need to reflect on my own process. I often cast a wide net and refine. Is that always the best process? Does it make sense for the kinds of writing I ask my students to do?

Perhaps grounding the discussion of research in rhetoric would help. We need to move beyond ethos/pathos/logos and authority.  Or, we shouldn’t stop there. Instead, we should look at how databases and websites categorize themselves.  What do tags and search terms say about the author’s perception of audience and use.

This reminds me of DeVoss and Rodolfo’s rhetorical velocity. When we use databases, we access data created expressly for reuse. That’s kinda the whole point of research! What if we asked students to interrogate an article’s success at categorizing itself?