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It All Started with the Text: Mentorship in an Interdisciplinary Writing Group
Susan Gardner, Annemarie Hamlin, Suzanne Mallery, Krista Motschiedler, Kendra Haloviak, Leslie Martin, Elissa Kido, and Anthea Hartig

06/06/05

Two years ago I attended a writers' workshop in Taos, NM, where I spent a week talking with twelve strangers about short stories we had written. I came home convinced that 1) I needed to write more regularly, and 2) I needed motivation to write regularly. With my tenure review three years away, I knew I needed to get moving, but motivation was hard to find in my life filled with full-time teaching and full-time parenting. It was always easier to push the writing aside in order to grade a stack of papers or play dress-up with my daughters. So I turned to the two people with whom I already shared much of the writing I did produce and said, "I need a writing group. Let's create one." --Annemarie

     From a rather uncomplicated need to write more, we formed an interdisciplinary writing group of women faculty at our small university that has been functioning on a regular basis for two years now. Most of the women are junior faculty members working toward tenure, and we recognized that publishing and presenting were a must for moving ahead professionally. We purposely focused our writing group on women faculty because, statistically, we have a higher dropout rate from academic professions and much lower tenure rate than our male counterparts. So whatever we could do to help each other out seemed like a healthy thing not only for ourselves but also for our university.

     Universities have benefited from the increased numbers of women faculty since the 1980s. In fact, since 1980 the percentage of women faculty at institutions of higher education has risen from 23 to 37% (Thornton). The gender make-up of professors at universities, however, tends to be bottom heavy with female teachers but thin at the top ranks of tenured, full professors. At research universities in 2001, [women made up] only 15 percent of full professors, 31.2 percent of associate professors, and 41.5 percent of assistant professors (Wilson "Where the Elite").

     Women with families are particularly at risk. Just under five out of ten women in tenured positions are married with children, while seven out of ten tenured men are married with children (Wilson "How Babies"). Professional demands make it difficult to do satisfying parenting, and parenting demands can make professional opportunities nearly non-existent. For our writing group, then, we wanted to provide opportunities during our on-campus hours that would provide a space for professional projects. Thus, we set out, prudently, to establish a network between two groups of women faculty at our school: early-career, untenured faculty, i.e. junior faculty, and faculty fairly new to our institution, with or working on tenure.
Because we are a small institution devoid of large departments and with a total of 120 faculty divided into four schools, we chose to create an interdisciplinary writing group. We represent eight fields in six disciplines-English, history, psychology, chemistry, education, and religion. All of us have interdisciplinary sympathies, and a few even teach interdisciplinary courses together, so our working relationships started out well from the beginning. Besides, these women are all fun, and we simply wanted to work with and spend time together.

     Once we established the group, we organized meeting times, methods of distributing papers, guidelines for responding to each other's work, and deadlines. We set up the schedule for an entire term and let people volunteer when to bring their work to share with the group. Usually, one woman or another had a presentation deadline or a paper proposal she was working on, so everyone who wanted help and response from the group got it.

     In being able to meet on a regular basis over the last two years, we realize this consistency is no small feat. The first year attendance from every member was nearly perfect; the second year, as we added a member or two, we found our schedules more complicated, and sometimes everyone couldn't make a meeting. However, missing members often provided written comments via email or through intracampus mail, and, thus, we all remained part of the conversation.

     We also realize that faculty in any size institution often find it difficult to move out of their own departmental spheres and have meaningful conversations with faculty from other disciplines. We set out to cross disciplinary lines, learn about each other from other areas of the campus, and share the goals of achieving success in an academic atmosphere. This deliberateness was intentional-we were there to produce, to practice, to publish. What we didn't expect-or maybe we did subconsciously-was how such shared goals and time spent working with each other's texts would bond us both personally and professionally.

     Because we come from different disciplines and, hence, ways of looking at the world, we began our conversations carefully. We didn't want to step on people's toes; we didn't want to blurt out inappropriate comments regarding the texts. We had to get to know each other better and become comfortable with our styles of writing and feedback. The mix of personalities, backgrounds, and experience was clear from the beginning, yet we found much common ground beyond being women in academe and relatively disenfranchised by our status as junior faculty or as newcomers in a rather stable institution. We all-no matter the discipline-loved to read, and we often shared spontaneous and brief book talks as meetings began. This love of books assured that we were also linguistically attuned to both the language of fiction and poetry as well as the language of professional discourse. We joked about being wordsmiths, and we certainly were.

     What we were doing in our wordsmithing, however, was expanding our horizons beyond what was familiar and comfortable in our own areas of discourse. The variety of genres we worked through stretched us; we examined abstracts, journal articles, book proposals (scholarly and popular), research grants, literary explications, sermons, conference presentations, Powerpoint supplements, and poetry. These genres came in all stages: hen scratches on napkins, outlines, tables of contents, proposals, drafts, and almost finished pieces. They ranged over many topics and included such titles as "Photolysis of Camphor-Substituted Diazo Compounds," "Plantations in Paradise: The Spatial Caste Systems of Viti- and Citriculture in Southern California, 1890-1930," "Portfolio Assessment as a Bridge from ESL to College Writing Classes," "Practicing Medicine without a License: Doctors and Patients in Willa Cather's Short Fiction," "Preferences for Medical Collaboration: Patient-Physican Congruence and its Associations with Patient Outcomes," "Rhetoric of Resistance: Women, Autobiography, and the Healing Arts," "Nations in Song: Biblical Sources for Reconciliation," "Hold on for the Ride: How Parents Survive Their Teenagers," "Maddening Spirits and Pains in the Neck: Exotic Expressions of Distress Confront Psychiatric Diagnosis," "Forcing Nature: Constructing the Citrus Landscape of Southern California, 1880-1920," "Quiet Sabotage," and "Singing the Lamb's Victory: Reading Revelation with the Great Multitude."

     The richness of the interchanges on the texts themselves gave way to the enriching environment we were putting ourselves in because we carved out a time and space for each other. We served as writing coaches and editors, as idea generators and skeptics, as resources and co-authors. These were the practical productivity areas we functioned in. But as our dialogue developed over textual discourse and differences, other things began to happen.

     First of all, we began to understand each other's world views better-not perfectly, but we were more knowledgeable about the fields of chemistry, religion, psychology, landscape history, American literature, composition theory and practice, and education-and how those interests and fields shaped us intellectually. We also began to understand the linguistic constraints and conventions we were subject to. We learned that it wasn't appropriate to inject an argumentative thesis into every journal article; that some disciplines would never even consider turning their dissertations into a book, even for an academic audience; that the passive voice was not only okay but de rigueur in some fields. Yet even in these differences, we learned to be supportive of the work each of us presented.

     In learning about our disciplinary worlds, we also revised some of our assumptions about pedagogy and the students we teach. We began to see how students' choices of majors were often related to these different disciplinary ways of looking at the world, and, then, when we assigned rhetorical tasks, our eyes were opened about why they wrote or presented as they did. Although we still expected quality work from our students, we became more open about their written and oral productions. We were able to allow variety and encourage our students' independence as writers and speakers. We were also much more aware of our own discipline's jargon and how that dictated how we lectured in class or conversed with students. Through better understanding of each discipline's rhetorical values, jargon, conventions, formats, and genres, we learned to be more flexible in our approaches to teaching and assigning.

     In addition, as we immersed ourselves in all facets of the writing process-from idea generation to production to revision to publication-and learned more about how writing actually works, we could serve as active role models and better mentors for our students. We each would talk about the work we were doing in our writing group in our classes and let students see into our own struggles of accomplishing personal and professional projects. We hoped this transparency would translate into encouragement and mentorship as our students dug into their assignments.

     The writing group offered us more than just motivation, clear deadlines, resources we didn't know were available, suggestions and directions for revision, a place to share teaching concerns, and examples of new ways to write however. Foremost, it provided us a safe, supportive environment where we could confront our own writing flaws and bumps and then move on. It also became a place to celebrate our production or progress toward a writing goal, and we celebrated often-meetings with book editors, conference responses, accepted pieces for publication.

     But we also found in this safe, mentoring environment a chance to make new friends across the campus and have a forum for discussing other related issues. One member asked for advice on how to participate more fully in a nearly all male department. Another asked for help on dealing with a tough colleague. Several needed mentoring on preparing tenure and promotion dossiers, and those who had been through these processes willingly provided models from their own documents. We discovered through this mentoring relationship once again how the intellectual, emotional, and professional support helped us succeed. This sharing of perspectives reminded us that success is not a solo adventure.

     We are also often reminded of how as a group of women, we are rather unique within the context of our university. Our university has a weekly lunch event where faculty and other members of the university community can make presentations about our work or other projects of interest to the campus. Over lunch of soup and salad, we make and listen to short presentations and engage in both formal and casual dialogue afterward. After we had been working together for some months, our writing group volunteered to make a presentation about our work in order to encourage other groups to form similar alliances. We planned carefully and delivered an energetic presentation that could not help but reveal how well we like one another and how smoothly our collaboration works. When we opened up the floor for dialogue, the first questioner noted the fact that we were all women and asked why. We shouldn't have been surprised but were, in fact, unprepared and provided an apparently less-than-satisfactory answer; something about finding common experiences to be the initial bond that prompted us to ask some faculty members and not others. Others continued the same line of questioning, making us feel more and more defensive.

     Retrospectively, it is easy to see that this interchange, which made us feel criticized for being exclusionary rather than supported for being proactive, as one more effect of the patriarchal nature of higher education. Despite the inroads women have made, we are still unique when we are successful in research, publishing, and achieving tenure. Novelties. We see ourselves as professional scholars, albeit ones struggling to balance the requirements of family and work in ways that our male colleagues have rarely had to do. We also see ourselves as colleagues, academics who have decided to help each other succeed rather than to try to make it on our own, or more likely-statistically anyway-to be washed out in the next tenure review.

     Universities, like many patriarchal institutions, have long been resistant to the kinds of changes required when women and men are fully integrated as equals. And it is often networks of women who seek to make those changes. Adrienne Rich's poetry and non-fiction have explored the innumerable ways women have served to support one another in Western society. She examines the meanings and implications of one long-standing and widely recognized mentor relationship among women, that of mothers and daughters, in her 1976 book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. The mother/daughter relationship, she says, is important in the lives of all women, regardless of their own relationship to childbearing. Women, she argues, can release other women from the limitations imposed on them by patriarchal institutions. "For centuries, daughters have been strengthened and energized by non-biological mothers, who have combined a care for the practical values of survival with an incitement toward further horizons, a compassion for vulnerability with an insistence on our buried strengths" (252). Her statement underscores the potentially transforming impact of mentorship for women in a culture that does not always foster their success, and our writing group has begun to experience this impact as we push ahead with projects that could easily fall by the wayside when we are more often called to grade papers, join another committee, or pick up children after school.

     Within the larger institution of higher education, our writing group has served as a resource for finding, nurturing and highlighting our scholarly and non-scholarly work. Sometimes we simply help each other to improve or perfect a work in progress; sometimes we help each other imagine something completely new, something that might push us in new intellectual directions or help us realize a previously unspoken goal. Rich argues that this is perhaps the most important thing women can do for one another in a society characterized by male power and female powerlessness. "The most notable fact that culture imprints on women is the sense of our limits. The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities" (246). In our case, the possibilities are usually scholarly-imagining a book created from ongoing research or pushing the conventional boundaries of genre in a scholarly article-but sometimes they are also personal, such as encouraging someone to write more poetry, even though she is not even in the humanities. As we learned early on in our writing group, the relationships and substantial mentoring we have experienced all started with our own texts.


Works Cited


Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, 10th anniversary edition. WW Norton: NY, 1986.

Thornton, Saranna. "Where -- Not When -- Should You Have a Baby?," Chronicle of Higher Education, October 8, 2004. 11 March 2005 <http://chronicle.com/prm/weekly/v51/i07/07b01201.htm>.

Wilson, Robin. "How Babies Alter Careers for Academics." Chronicle of Higher Education, December 5, 2003. 11 March 2005 <http://chronicle.com/prm/weekly/v50/i15/15a00101.htm>

Wilson, Robin. "Where the Elite Teach, It's Still a Man's World." Chronicle of Higher Education, December 3, 2004. 11 March 2005 <http://chronicle.com/prm/weekly/v51/i15/15a00801.htm>


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