Five ways support for faculty writers can help students (opinion)

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For the past 10 years, I’ve led my university’s faculty writing initiative, Faculty Write. The goal: to advance faculty writing through writing retreats and workshops, writing groups and peer mentoring, and consultations and coaching.

Since it began in 2012, more than 400 hundred faculty from 15 different institutions have participated in the program’s signature Summer Scholarly Writing Retreat and Workshop as well as academic-year writing retreats and faculty writing groups. With the support of the program, participating faculty members have published books and book chapters, academic articles, edited collections, blog posts, and op-eds; earned grants, teaching awards and fellowships; delivered sermons; presented conference papers and invited lectures; and started writing groups within their own departments and programs. And perhaps more important, they have been part of a growing community of writers, staying connected to their writing and to each other after the summer writing retreat ends.

Yet many of the faculty with whom I work struggle with a tension between their writing lives and their teaching lives. That makes sense: as faculty members, we know our teaching and scholarship are assessed in distinct buckets for professional review. Moreover, institutions often distinguish between teaching and writing when providing support for faculty development programs. On the one hand, we can attend workshops about teaching topics such as evidence-based pedagogies, digital tools and assessment techniques. On the other, we can attend faculty writing retreats, join faculty writing groups and attend productivity workshops.

However, colleges and universities can better leverage the faculty development resources they have and advance a much-needed institutional shift from an instructional paradigm to a learning paradigm if they integrate support for us across our roles and responsibilities.

When faculty are supported as writers, we can also grow as teachers. In a longitudinal study of faculty participants in an annual summer writing retreat, my colleague Monique Dufour, an associate collegiate professor of history at Virginia Tech, and I noticed what we call a “turn to teaching.” We found that as those faculty overcame challenges, learned new skills and achieved their goals, they could also apply those insights and accomplishments to the student writers that they worked with.

In fact, support for faculty writers can be leveraged in five key ways to make a big difference for students.

We learn that challenges can and do arise in the writing process, even for the most experienced and accomplished scholars. Challenges are a part of writing, and learning to accept and overcome them is a key to making progress. What a good lesson to extend to our students, too. When we get stuck in our own work, we can have compassion for students when they get stuck in theirs. When we participate in writing retreats and learn how to set realistic expectations for what we can accomplish during dedicated writing time, we can teach students to acknowledge and work within the time that they have. When we realize that relentless demands make it hard to find time to write, we can consider how students are coping with the demands on them. When we feel the strain of a culture of speed, we can recognize that students are, as well.

We learn that writing is a lifelong skill and we will continue to develop as writers throughout our careers. How we wrote as graduate students is probably not the same as how we are writing now. We are writing for scholarly publication, and we are writing promotion dossiers, letters of recommendation, grant proposals, committee reports and teaching statements. We need different kinds of support if we are pretenure or midcareer faculty returning to our scholarship after serving as department chairs, or if we are in a pandemic and trying to be fully present with our students but struggling ourselves.

So, too, for our students. What they need as first-year students is not the same as when they are seniors writing a thesis. When we need support developing our own writing skills as our writing contexts change, we remember students also require help in developing skills over time as they gain more expertise in their disciplines. We must help them expand their repertoire to be more adept and responsive to different writing contexts. We must help them build on what they learn as first-year writers as they develop their writing, thinking and disciplinary practices—just as we do in our own careers. Writing proficiency is not just a class to complete or a badge to earn—it’s a challenge to meet for the work at hand.

We remember when we are learning something new or figuring something out, it can be hard to write well. Sometimes our writing gets worse before it gets better! As we think about how to make sense of our data, analyze artifacts, read over long interviews or inspect documents, we may not yet know how to write clearly for ourselves—never mind communicate our ideas to our audience. Often, we need space for messy thinking on the page, and we need readers who understand that good ideas take time to develop, articulate and revise for publication. We need time to find clarity.

And when we remember what our writing looks like when we are unsure what we are arguing or where to find more evidence or how to respond to a critic, we can then think about how to design our classes so they allow students that same space to be curious, to get a little lost and have a chance to figure things out. (It’s usually not in one paper due at the end of the semester.)

We learn the importance of meaningful, supportive feedback. As writers, we sometimes focus too much on the negative critiques of our work. We remember the sting when an article gets rejected. Or we recall our confusion when a reviewer’s comments are mean-spirited, vague or unhelpful and are unsure how we should respond. We remember what it feels like to be pulled in different directions by our research, not knowing what to choose.

In retreats and writing groups, we learn that it’s important to have readers who can help us when we’re stuck in the muck—who encourage us, offer specific suggestions and remind us we know things. We learn how to ask for the feedback we need and reject the feedback we don’t. We learn how to be a good reader! We remember that writing is complex and a practice that takes ongoing attention and feedback to keep momentum going.

When we make the turn to teaching, we consider how to build meaningful instructor and peer feedback practices into our teaching and mentoring, to notice when students are stuck in the muck, and to identify what they may need to move forward (which is not necessarily what we might need in our own writing).

We remember that a supportive writing community can make a profound difference. It’s not just about the products (although those are important to us in our jobs). It’s not just about the grades (although those are important to our students, even if we don’t want them to be). When we write with other faculty members and talk about our ideas, we remember what got us excited about our fields to begin with and that writing is thinking, too—not just an output or line on a CV.

When faculty participate in writing retreats and writing groups that are designed to promote nonjudgmental, nonhierarchical and noncompetitive spaces that foster curiosity about how writing happens and what it feels like to be in a space that’s not performative around scholarship, it can help us remember that the experience of writing matters, too. We learn how much more meaningful it is to be asked, “What excites you about your project?” or “What are you trying to think about or understand with your project?” rather than “What are you working on?”

So then when we teach, we consider how our classroom practices and course designs might contribute to competitiveness within a course, might privilege summative (grades) over formative (in process) assessment or might miss the opportunity to position students as peer leaders in the class. We can apply what we learn from our experience with a supportive community around our own writing to create opportunities for students to learn and to contribute to a collective learning enterprise that is inclusive of all writers.

I’ve argued elsewhere that what faculty writers need are spaces that legitimize community and value experience as much as products. What I want to argue in this essay is that what students need are faculty members who themselves are supported—who feel a sense of belonging and can make meaningful connections between their own writing experiences and their students’.

Supporting faculty as writers supports our students. We don’t have to choose between support for our writing and support for our teaching. If we want students to feel a sense of belonging and to have meaningful connections across the curriculum, we must make spaces for faculty to feel encouraged and assisted in their various roles and help them connect meaningfully with others across the curriculum, as well.

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