|University of New England|
We are five academic women with varied disciplinary backgrounds and different personalities who have worked productively in a writing group for over a decade. This paper takes our group as a case study of long-term collaboration over a period of ten years. Our study is set within the context of global pressures in university research environments, which are undergoing similar changes in Australia, New Zealand and Britain to increase research productivity, through targets that are set by external agencies (eg, Sikes 2006).
The aim is to contribute an in-depth study of how and why academic writers work together, from an insider's perspective rather than an outsider's view. Other studies that analyse characteristics of academic writing groups have mostly been written from the facilitator's perspective (Lee & Boud 2003; Morss & Murray 2001). Our case study allows for our experiences to be compared and contrasted with other groups, but also provides for a richer understanding of the complexities of long-term motivation. Our group works from a feminist tradition of reflective practice and values women's experiences as a basis for research. This explicit feminist tradition also provides a contrast to most other work on academic writing groups (but see Grant 2006). While writing is often categorised as falling into three discrete categories - creative, professional and academic - in our group's experience and in the writing we have produced, these distinctions are arbitrary. We consider our work and processes are creative in their movement between these categories (Beck et al 2006).
In this paper we briefly review the nature of writing groups more generally.
We then provide a description of our disciplinary backgrounds to highlight
the variety of experiences from which we draw. We explain the format of
our regular meetings, before we turn to the common themes - collaboration;
a shared feminist consciousness; openness to multidisciplinary work -
we identified as contributing to the longevity of our group and the benefits
we gain from being part of it. In making sense of the success of our writing
group, we reflect on the similarities and differences between our writing
group and other writing groups. We conclude with the observation that,
in responding to the pressures to publish within the university sector,
the evolution of our writing group has been a creative response that has
enabled us to operate 'productively' in terms of conventional research
outcomes, as well as achieving the more qualitative outcomes of confidence
in our writing selves and feeling nourished by the group.
Collaborative writing groups in academia
What is a 'successful' writing group? The conventional view of measuring success has been to draw out both 'hard' (i.e. quantitative, numbers of research publications) and 'soft' (qualitative, changes in practice and knowledge) outcomes (Morss & Murray 2001). Over time, our group has moved from emphasising one to the other. We began our academic writing group in 1996 with a shared goal of writing for publication. At that time, 'success' for us was defined by an increase in conventional research productivity, our publication output in journals, books and other forms. However, over the years this idea of success has been broadened as our lives and careers have changed and we, like many other academic women (Gray 1994), have found there is a certain ambivalence about achieving success in the academy, which has often been labelled a 'chilly climate' for women (Martin 1994; Chilly Collective 1995; Cotterill, Hughes & Letherby 2006). This ambivalence has led us to question to what extent success in research productivity means a complete acceptance of current systems. We see from our experiences within our writers' group that creative responses are possible to this challenge; that we can create a 'warmer' environment in which we can operate.
We are not claiming our collaboration is unique. In fact, collaboration in writing groups has a long history. Collaboration in writing has not been recently invented, but perhaps has gained a new status (Harris 1992; Holt 1993). Gere (1987) demonstrates that writing groups have existed for over two hundred years. There are two main areas where collaboration and writing come together - in the field of education, and in the field of creative writing (for example, Ede & Lundsford 1992; Laird 2000). There is only a small body of work specifically about academic writing groups (see Blaxter et al 1998; Murray 2005 for reviews) and most of it is situated within a pedagogical or staff development framework (eg, Aitchison & Lee 2006; Boice 1997; Boud & Lee 2005). This reflects the 'outsider's' perspective; that is, a view from the group organiser. We prefer instead to use the framework of collaboration to describe our group writing processes, as it fits better with our identity as 'insiders' within the group, and with our ideas about our long-lived success.
The definition of collaboration in writing ranges from the most general ways of working together, to that of only specific co-authoring. Inclusive definitions of collaboration allow for a kind of collective knowledge-making, which takes advantage of postmodern, multi-vocal awareness of knowledge creation. For example, collaborative writing can be co-authoring, workshopping and especially, knowledge-making. This fits well with feminist ideas of collaboration as teamwork rather than as just co-authorship (Laird 2000: 346). This is the 'master narrative of collaboration-as-group-work-of-any-kind' (Yancey & Spooner 1998: 56). This definition of writing collaboration is, however, too general to describe our process, which has a specific template and form.
A middle ground is expressed by Yancey and Spooner's notion of collaboration as the 'expectation of a singular purpose and a seamless integration of the parts, as if the conceptual object were produced by a single good mind' (1998: 56). They play with the idea of a circular or spiral continuum between individuals and collaborators - circular because the final product is a collective individual. Collaboration here is likened to a string quartet (Yancey & Spooner 1998: 56). This definition fits more comfortably with our concept of a collaborative writing group, where we have previously described it as an a capella, with the significant difference that when we leave the group our publications - or performance outcomes - are as divas (Beck et al 2006).
Making sense of our approach
We initially posed the question 'What makes our group successful?' in one of our regular meetings, and we each had to respond in our own words. An analysis of our individual written responses pointed to three key themes: the value of working collaboratively in what can be an otherwise alienating environment and the personal satisfaction we gain from the particular form of collaboration we engage in; the importance of a shared feminist consciousness; and an openness to multidisciplinary paradigms. As the group itself is made up of women with different personalities and disciplinary backgrounds, this shared feminist consciousness and context leads to productive conversations and outcomes. In keeping with how the group works in its regular meetings, parts of this article are written in a way that reflects our interactions, differences and similarities. Rather than presenting an agreed response, we have each retained our individual voice and we use these voices to illustrate a nuanced response to the common themes; much as we would interact in one of our meetings.
Unlike other academic collaborations, which are often drawn from the same disciplinary backgrounds (Mavin & Bryans 2002), our group is disparate. To illustrate, we describe the differences in our disciplinary foundations and how we have each crossed disciplines as we have developed in our careers.
The collaborative group process
As is apparent from the biographies above, we are a disparate group of women and at this point we should explain how we found each other. This may sound like we were gearing up for an introduction agency, and in fact we did respond to an advertisement. In this case, however, it was an ad across the university calling for academic staff interested in attending a five-day writing for publication workshop offered through the academic development unit and run by an external consultant, Robert Brown (Brown 1994/1995). As with all such workshops there is no such thing as a free lunch; rather, you had to turn up with an article that was well underway, and finish with a clear outline of a publishable paper. We were five of the fifteen participants in the workshop.
The structure of the workshop included sessions about expectations of academic writing and the structure of papers; free-writing (brain-dump) sessions; relationships between personality types and writing; analysing academic writing; drafting techniques; and responding to editors and referees. However the sessions that had the most immediate impact for us were the sessions on 'posters'. These posters were a series of eight questions or prompts (eg. What is the question I am asking in this paper?) which had to be answered succinctly in 25-50 words, and which acted as a test of communication of the ideas in the paper, as a start to the formal writing process and as a guide to the structure of the paper as a whole. These questions can be found in Brown (1994/1995) and in Murray (2005: 111). The workshop also illustrated the value of group work in writing. The posters were presented verbally by the authors (in five minutes) and then 15 minutes were given over to comments and questions from the audience, while another member acted as scribe. The audience was instructed to focus on the differences between the written and spoken word and between discrepancies between the questions and the answers. This was a very effective demonstration of the value of other perspectives, as well as good tool for sharpening arguments. It is this format that we maintained in the structure of our group.
Relatively soon after the workshop was finished, we decided to take up Robert Brown's suggestion that organising a writing group would be a productive way to continue. Initially there were two or three other members but they did not continue after the first couple of meetings. And more than ten years on, we continue as the same feminist five.
As part of the workshop we were profiled using the Myers-Briggs Indicator (Myers & Briggs Foundation 2006) to identify our individual strengths and weaknesses in writing. From this process it also became clear to us how different our personalities are. As it turns out we see this as one of the factors contributing to the success of our collaboration. We see and do things differently from one another: in our discussions we benefit from the multiple perspectives derived from out different disciplines.
Over the years, the process we have negotiated within our writing group is that we meet monthly and individuals present their own research for the scrutiny of the group. This scrutiny attends to the structure, clarity and focus of the paper being written rather than the content. Acting as educated lay readers, we bring our disciplinary approaches to bear on what we hear and read. This is not an unwieldy, free for all conversation but follows a discussion template adapted from the workshop and outlined in an earlier paper (Beck et al 2006).
The chilly climate
That the current research climate is not necessarily conducive to female academics has been clearly canvassed in recent research by Dever (Dever 2006; Dever et al 2006). Research policies are predicated on the lone researcher and not on a model of collaborative interplay of ideas and outcomes. Publish or perish has long been a mantra in academic life, and the implementation of research policies such as the Research Quality Framework (RQF) in Australia, and the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the UK has intensified the pressure. Individually authored, ostensibly academic, publications produced by the lone researcher are most highly rewarded in the current research-funding environment. Different, arguably more creative, forms of writing are not recognised in this paradigm. It is a paradigm based on gendered premises reflecting a masculinist perspective. This is consistent with a view of 'the individual' as described in the early modern period and most associated with the work of Rene Descartes whose maxim, 'I think therefore I am' (cogito ergo sum), envisages the individual thinker as a 'self-defining and self sufficient [subject] coded as male fully conscious to himself, in control of his actions, thoughts and meanings' (Cranny-Francis et al 2003: 10). This notion of the lone, male researcher is still targeted in feminist scholarly critiques of received research methods, for example, Frohlick (2002) and Pomponio (1999).
The RQF and RAE are predicated on the (male) researcher who pursues an academic career single-mindedly and without interruption. Women frequently combine a successful career with having primary responsibility for the family, and the resulting juggling act is not easy. Women are also more likely to have a break in their careers. Maternity leave and parental leave to care for young children are perhaps the most common reasons for a break in women's academic careers. They are, however, by no means the only reasons as women are often those called on to care for elderly parents. The operationalisation of the RQF and RAE makes no allowance for interruptions to academic careers. Indeed, women and maternity leave are perceived to pose 'a serious risk for department heads as they try to maximise their departmental scores. Even though the RAE pays lip-service to the researchers who take maternity leave, the accounting doesn't add up' (Birkhead 2007: 33). Moreover, a break in research has consequences that last longer than the period of the interruption because of the long lead-time in research (Birkhead 2007). Dever's study of the impact of research practices and policies on female academics' research careers shows that some have implemented strategies to lessen the impact of breaks in research, by securing funding for projects which will run through the period of maternity leave and continue after it (Dever et al 2006: 23). However, this is not always possible: female academics are often concentrated in areas that find it difficult to attract external funding (Dever 2006: 2).
Although it is imperative that the issue not be constructed so that women are seen as the 'problem' (Probert 2005), we female academics are under considerable pressure to reconcile work life demands while maintaining career momentum in research as well as teaching and administration. Our collaborative practice allows us to perform as required, but also derive support from traditional female gendered work practices. The traditionally female coded domain of the private is strategically employed to come up with products to meet demands of the public domain. What we have been doing is collaborative and multidisciplinary in process but our outcomes are individual. We are thus fulfilling the requirements of the external environment.
What makes the group successful?
In writing this paper, we posed a series of questions to elucidate the factors contributing to the group's success. We wrote our answers and then discussed and edited them into the account that follows. Three key themes emerged from this process, as noted above: the value of working collaboratively; a shared feminist consciousness; and an openness to multidisciplinarity. Our individual responses are noted below.
In effect this reflects the type of collaboration that frequently came
up when we reflected on the group's success.
Another common theme to emerge through our individual reflections on the success of the group is that of the importance of a shared feminist consciousness.
A shared feminist consciousness
Final reflections on the benefits of being part of the group
The group meetings have been very sustaining during periods when we have each had substantial administrative responsibilities. The benefit derived is not only due to the supportive nature of the group's meetings but also to the fact that it is rare in a competitive work environment like academe to know about the experiences of others. It is in fact a privilege to be given an insight into how others work and think, and how they deal with particular issues. Dealing with the meta-aspects of the issues individuals confront (for instance, applying for study leave, grants, promotions and dealing with difficult colleagues), our discussions range over many things during meetings. The experiences of the members in the group help to clarify whether the issues considered are individual or systemic. Together the group also offers creative responses. Analogously, group members have gained much from discussions about reconciling the competing demands of family and career, personal time and work time and many other topics relating to the intersection of work and 'othered' activities.
As such, while our initial measures of success concerned the publications we were each enjoying, we have all become more appreciative of the broader benefits we experience from being part of the group. How the group sustains us all now (a 'soft' measure of success) is probably more valued than the numbers of publications we achieve (a 'hard' measure of success).
Discussion and conclusion
An analysis of our individual responses pointed to a number of key themes: the value of working collaboratively in what can be an otherwise alienating environment and the personal satisfaction we gain from the particular form of collaboration we engage in; the importance of a shared feminist consciousness; and an openness to multidisciplinary paradigms. To what extent are these key themes found in other accounts of academic writing groups?
We have chosen to situate our group in relation to three empirical accounts of academic writing groups, as these comparative examples are similarly focussed on groups of academics (rather than postgraduate students), and on analysing the impact of the groups on the participants. The first is Morss and Murray's (2001) study of a 'Writing for Publication' program at a Scottish university. The study centred on a group of ten academics who participated in a six-month program (somewhat similar to the workshop we participated in), which was structured to include time for free writing, outlining, and feedback on drafts, in part from the group and in part from a 'study buddy' system of paired writers. It was not explicitly focussed on teaching writing 'skills' as such. The impact of the program was monitored carefully by a variety of measures including evaluating completed writing against goals, discussions, monitoring forms, questionnaires and focus groups. All members did achieve successful writing outcomes. The results showed that the most important impact was increased confidence in writing, and that the essential process in building confidence was group and pair discussion (Morss & Murray 2001: 49). The other impacts noted that activities such as goal setting, peer support, a structured approach and regular writing strategies also contributed to confidence building. So this study shows a similar focus on personal satisfaction and collaboration as key motivating factors for the successful writing group. However, the nature of multidisciplinarity or shared worldviews was not explored in this research.
Lee and Boud's (2003) account of two writing groups at an Australian university looks more broadly at some of these issues. The two writing groups were a New Researchers group of ten academics, which lasted for two years, and an Extending Publication group, which regularly met with 15 people over a semester. The actual content of the groups' activities were determined by the groups and not precisely specified in this paper, but both aimed to increase writing for publication outputs through group practice. Perhaps these groups were less structured in format than our group. However, the evaluation process involved questionnaires and analysis of correspondence. Three general principles were drawn out from this research for the general success of writing groups: Mutuality; Normal Business; and Identity and Desire. Mutuality has in common with our key theme of collaboration the idea of a common project that is worked on together, but with differences accommodated and with reciprocity between the members. Normal Business was seen to be how the building up of expertise and know-how in writing became part of the working lives of the group members. This is not one of our key themes but is seen to be an additional benefit of our group work. Identity and Desire as a principle was seen by Lee and Boud as the positive and productive desire for change and to sustain impetus for overcoming fears about writing and research. Again this is not one of our key themes, but perhaps this issue could be explored further. The contributions of multidisciplinarity or shared worldviews were not explicitly addressed in this research.
From an academic womens' perspective comes the paper of Grant (2006). This paper concerns a live-in retreat for academic women writers, which has been held annually in New Zealand since 1997, with about 18 participants for the week-long workshop. Although not strictly analogous to our monthly meeting format, it does provide a point of comparison for our feminist group. The structure of this workshop is that of goal setting, concentrated writing in communal rooms, and a work in progress presentation required of each individual. Optional workshops on aspects of writing are also held each day. Again, this is a less structured approach than the one our group uses. Thirty-one questionnaires were analysed from women who had attended the retreats, with the questions being more about what happened rather than why, which is what we were interested in. The major findings from Grant's work were that the women increased their writing regularity and pleasure; that their sense of themselves as writers was increased; and that their research productivity was enhanced. These themes can also be seen in our writing group outcomes. Grant also brings out the importance of the women-only nature of the retreats as a reason for their success when she notes 'we (academic women) have often claimed that there is a need for culture change in universities away from the traditional individualism. The retreats are an example of such a deeply transgressive change' (2006: 494). As with our group, a shared tradition derived from feminist research is a factor in this writing group's success.
It seems our group shares with other analyses some common themes, such as mutuality and confidence building. However, in our group's experience the most important key impact has been the value of working collaboratively in what can be an otherwise chilly environment. This is what has been sustaining for ten years of practice. We also found unlike some other researchers, that our group identified multidisciplinarity and a feminist worldview as particular themes for our group. There are still unanswered questions however about the processes of writing groups. Our case study and the contrast with other groups suggests that there is not one recipe for success, although it does seem clear that psychological, social and rhetorical processes are all involved (Murray 2005). Indeed the complexities of group interaction and individual motivation are apparent from our study, as well as the factors which might be most important to some groups will not be the same.
In the decade since our group's inception, the group process has not only been supportive but has also enabled us to sustain publication and confidence in our professional writing selves in an alienating research environment. Like many institutions across the world, we are currently undergoing a process of evaluating research outputs and quality. In this environment, collaboration is encouraged but funding flows to individual fields. Our group provides the benefits of collaboration but still allows us to deliver the outcomes in the form required by the institution.
Within this current environment it seems most useful to reflect and document our process as it may well be that others will wish to create similar groups. An additional application of our documenting of this process is the manner in which it might be adapted to quite different writing projects. Just as in our writing group, we have collaborated on processes such as the structuring of our arguments, so too a creative writing group may collaborate on the structuring and perhaps pacing and register of their narratives (Ede & Lundsford 1992; Gere 1987; Laird 2000). Creative writing groups do of course meet in various writing centres and associations, and seek to assist one another and still retain the originality of content in their texts, just as we do. Our articles, ranging across disciplines and discipline specific, are not uniform in content or style, what they have in common is a heightened clarity of purpose, and this could be adapted to other creative writing groups and programs. Rowena Murray's work (Murray 2005) provides a framework for teaching this type of approach.
1. In January 2008, the RQF was jettisoned and a new research quality and evaluation system, the Excellence in Research for Australia Initiative (ERA), is being developed for implementation in 2009. The indicators for discipline clusters are being reviewed, but the essential thrust of the system is not likely to be markedly different. return to text
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Wendy Beck is an associate professor in Archaeology at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia. Her research interests include Australian archaeology and World Heritage places. She does interdisciplinary research in place studies.
Kerry Dunne is a professor and Academic Director for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of New England. Her current research interests are gender questions in German literature and film, and online language learning.
Josie Fisher is a senior lecturer in the School of Business, Economics and Public Policy at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia. Her teaching and research focuses on applied ethics, social responsibility and gender issues.
Jane O'Sullivan is a senior lecturer in the School of Arts at the University of New England, and her research interests include the representation of gender in film, fiction and television drama.
Alison Sheridan is a professor in the School of Business, Economics and Public Policy, University of New England. Her research publications have predominantly been around women's experiences of the workforce.
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Vol 12 No 2 October 2008
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb