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Starting a Dissertation Writing Group (In a Writing Center)

 gearsThere is no question that writing can be difficult, but for a doctoral student—for one who has never written a dissertation—writing can suddenly be completely overwhelming. It can remain overwhelming. The process can be so daunting, in fact, that some students never make it out of the candidacy stage. They get stuck at the dissertation because they do not know how to write one.

The very best graduate student—the best writer—may write well, but may not know how to structure a dissertation, how to get started, how to stop writing, or what to do if s/he gets stuck in the process. The very best advisers can offer sound advice about content, but most do not have the time (or the inclination) to offer advice about writing.

The dissertation writer has to be the one to get the work done, and this is where the dissertation writing group can be the most beneficial to the student. The group can support the writer, the process, and the product.

At ProfHacker, we believe in writing groups, how their structure and their accountability can help a writer remain focused in order to complete a writing task. We’ve written before about forming writing online groups and writing groups for new faculty. Today, we are writing about forming writing groups in your university’s writing center for dissertation writers. (*)

Many university graduate schools offer group assistance to graduate students who are writing theses or dissertations, as do some academic departments, or even mental health clinics on campuses. These groups can present important topics: time management, goal setting, adopting the persona of a professional (instead of a student), or working through the emotional and psychological stresses of dissertation writing. Many of them, however, never address the nuts-and-bolts issues of writing. The university’s writing center might be a good place to house such writing groups, as writing centers (and their professional consultants) are all about writing.

The model could be quite simple:

  • The Facilitator: Writing consultants in writing centers are trained professionals, many of whom have written and defended their own dissertations. They know the process. They know writing. Writing consultants make wonderful resources for graduate students. The facilitator is not an adviser and does not evaluate writers or their writing, but is instead a coach, a guide to the writing process. The facilitator can provide “homework” if a writer is stuck in some aspect of writing, conduct mini-lessons/presentations to the group about writing-related issues, and is a collegial presence in a time of high-stress and anxiety for graduate students.
  • The Writing Group: For optimum benefit to the writers, writing groups can range from 4 to 10 participants who are from the either the same discipline or from multiple disciplines. (There are benefits to each model.) Graduate student participants would make a commitment to their writing group—one semester or one year, for example—to meet periodically to discuss their writing progress/process. Some of the logistical details are changeable in writing groups and not all groups must work the same way. For example, how often the group meets, how long they meet, or what each meeting would cover can change depending on the group. Groups can make their own rules.

Conducting a writing group in a writing center sounds easy and it can make logistical sense, but certainly there are concerns about this model. Who would pay for the facilitator’s time? Or, who would enforce the writers’ commitment to the group? These and other questions could be handled on a university-by-university or even group-by-group basis. It does seem, however, that the benefits to students completing their dissertations, to the writing center, and to the entire university outweigh the potential costs that might arise from the implementation of such groups.

How about you? How could a writing group in your university’s writing center benefit your students? What kinds of challenges might you face with this model? If you have implemented such a model at your institution, how did you overcome some of the challenges? Please leave your comments and suggestions below.

(* The Caveat): This post is intentionally general, as we cannot know the structure, the strengths, or the limitations of every university’s writing center in this country (and beyond). Please take some suggestions if they are useful to you, but also, if your situation is unique, provide some suggestions in comments about how this idea can be tweaked for your institutional use. You can privately make specific what is generalized here.

[Image by RalphBijker and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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