REVIEW: WRITING GROUPS FOR DOCTORAL EDUCATION AND BEYOND
The University of Houston Clear Lake
Aitchison, Claire, and Cally Guerin. Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Practice and Theory. London: Routledge, 2014. Paperback. $52.75
Writing groups are frequently one of the key resources that writing centers use to help graduate writers progress in their projects and develop academic writing habits, but we know surprisingly little about how they work. Thirty years have passed since Anne Ruggles Gere’s landmark Writing Groups: History, Theory, and Implications (1987), but still, conventional wisdom on writing groups is frequently just as anecdotal and haphazard as the conventional wisdom on the writer in the lonely garret. In recent years, there has been even more substantive evidence to improve graduate writing resources; nonetheless, Claire Aitchison (2010) has declared, “writing group practices remain under-studied” (83). If writing groups are becoming part of the writing center landscape, we need a robust research tradition to demonstrate their best practices.
Claire Aitchison and Cally Guerin’s 2014 collection Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond begins to remedy that omission by supplying the needed theoretical frameworks for researchers and practitioners of graduate writing groups. Practice and theory are both well represented in the collection, which opens with a subsection on “Setting the Scene,” then provides scholarly frameworks in “Theory and Reflection,” and ends with “Pedagogy in Practice.” The ways to practice writing groups are dizzyingly diverse and this compilation highlights the many possibilities of practice, but I’d like to focus on the chapters that create a foundation for the study and practice of doctoral writing groups across disciplines and departments as they come together in the writing center.
First, we need a broad, systemic definition of what these different writing groups look like, for scholars and participants alike. In her chapter, Sarah Haas provides a definitional typology for writers’ groups, outlining such characteristics as meeting activities, leadership, and purpose as a way to avoid confusion and create cohesion with new groups (42). Haas reports how she found that “Variety is necessary, as well as enriching, but it is also frustrating and confusing for the uninitiated” (43). Her typology provides novice administrators and group members with a vocabulary to describe the elements of their own writing groups. This vocabulary includes such key elements as what happens during and in-between sessions, who is in charge, and what is the purpose of the writing group. Articulating these elements early in the process can ease anxiety for new writing members and facilitators alike.
The variety of writing groups stems, in part, from the variety of identities that participants claim. Writing Groups in Doctoral Education and Beyond invokes a range of writer identities: Linda Li and Cally Guerin each point out the confidence that writing groups give ELL writers. Other contributors discuss how WAC writing groups include women, migrants, and other “non-traditional” academic writers. And anyone can be hesitant to identify as a writer, as Lucia Thesen’s and Ange Bosanquet et al.’s chapters both illustrate. Through the same sort of structured writing practice that writing centers have long embraced, writing group participants of all sorts can see themselves as independent scholars.
But how independent? However accepting of each other’s identities, writing groups often struggle with identifying group authority. This collection emphasizes, that unlike the hierarchal candidate-advisor/student-teacher relationships that many graduate students navigate every day, authority in the third space of the writing group can be productively dispersed. Writing groups that erase the hierarchies of academia can seem less intimidating for novice writers. Michelle Maher celebrates how “both students and faculty can feel psychologically safe to make transparent their struggles to write” (82). The graduate students in our center's writing groups are constantly being judged: by hiring committees, by dissertation advisors, by instructors. As Anthony Paré asks in his chapter, why shouldn’t we “offer students as many opportunities as possible to work socially, to test ideas out in safe, collaborative settings, to hear others’ comments when the stakes are still low?” (25).
The leveling of authority in writing groups also means that feedback doesn’t come from noblesse oblige. While advisors or writing center consultants give feedback as part of their terms of employment, true peers give good feedback because they expect to receive it later. In her chapter, Claire Aitchison posits that “Writing group feedback … is a deeply social practice that is mutually advantageous, and, at its best, combines the best elements of scholarly peer review and traditional feedback” (62). I have seen a group member give up her own sustained writing time to make comments on another group member’s work, motivated, perhaps, by obligation to her group-mates. Such an occurrence would be rare among our regularly employed staff. Cally Guerin’s chapter reads such sacrifice through gifting theory. Instead of the “gift exchange. . . disinterested and without expectation of reciprocity,” writing group feedback anticipates “later, attentive feedback,” even if no one knows “precisely when their gift giving might be repaid” (130). Far from being a place of relentless generosity, many writing groups operate under quid-pro-quo conditions. No one is the master, but no one is the patron.
In many writing centers, we encourage writing groups as a non-invasive way to encourage regular, supportive, and productive writing and, especially, writing groups may seem like the answer to the problems of isolated graduate writing. But often the impetus for writing group members and administration alike is more Gradgrindian: writing groups lead to successful writing (Moore 2003, MacLeod et al 2012). When a writing center or department implements a writing group, they often aim to improve time-to-degree or publication timetables. In this collection, Doreen Starke-Meyerring questions whether writing groups can instead “serve as critical spaces for re-thinking normalized institutional cultures of research writing where institutional change can be pushed” (79). Ultimately, increased research in graduate writing groups will let us make wise decisions about whether, and how, to incorporate graduate writing groups into our writing centers, recognizing the limits and possibilities of different practices.
Aitchison, Claire. “Learning Together to Publish: Writing Group Pedagogies for Doctoral Publishing.” Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond, edited by Claire Aitchison, Barbara Kamler, and Alison Lee, Routledge, 2010, pp. 83-100 .
Gardner, Susan K. “’What's Too Much and What's Too Little?’: the Process of Becoming an Independent Researcher in Doctoral Education.” The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 79, no. 3, 2008, pp. 326-350.
Gere, Anne Ruggles. Writing Groups: History, Theory, and Implications. SIU Press, 1987.
Goggin, Maureen Daly. “Composing a Discipline: The Role of Scholarly Journals in the Disciplinary Emergence of Rhetoric and Composition Since 1950.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 322-348.
Lovitts, Barbara E. Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study. Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
MacDonald, Susan Peck. “Problem Definition in Academic Writing.” College English, vol. 49, no. 3, 1987, pp. 315-331.
MacLeod, Iain, Laura Steckley and Rowena Murray. “Time is Not Enough: Promoting Strategic Engagement with Writing for Publication.” Studies in Higher Education, vol. 37, no. 6, 2012, 641-654.
Moore, Sarah. “Writers’ Retreats for Academics: Exploring and Increasing the Motivation to Write.” Journal of Further and Higher Education vol. 27, no. 3, 2003, 333-342.