By Monica Chapman
It's 5 p.m. on a Wednesday. Amid the eclectic frequents at the Donkey coffee shop, four professors can be found scrutinizing tone, voice and supporting arguments as they pore over a colleague's latest writing draft. The group has been meeting here twice a month for nearly two years. And it's more than caffeine that keeps them coming back. It's the opportunity to have their writing critically analyzed by a diverse, intellectual readership -- albeit a small one.
The premise behind faculty writing groups is simple: Two minds, or in this case four, are better than one. Members typically review one another's writing in a rotating fashion. Perspectives are shared. Suggestions are given. Professional networks are established. Friendships bloom. And along the way, drafts evolve into articles for publication.
Common interests don't bind this group; their passions are as diverse as their academic concentrations.
Pete Mather, an assistant professor of counseling and higher education, focuses his research on humanitarian work among college students. Family structure in ancient Rome is a topic that drives Neil Bernstein, assistant professor of classics and world religions. Dara Bryant and Michael Sisson, assistant professors in the Department of Modern Languages, round out the group. Bryant specializes in contemporary German culture, with a focus on gender and sexuality studies, while Sisson's recent writings center on Colombian poetry translations as well as Celtic music in Spain.
But the cross-curricular nature of the group only enhances the dialogue.
"Peter's work with the Carter Center -- I would never have come across that otherwise. And Dara's work on sexuality in East Germany -- again, not something that's going to come across my desk usually," Bernstein said. "Not only are their projects fascinating in their own right, but the kinds of questions that they brought me to ask in my own discipline are very, very helpful."
Sherrie Gradin, director of Ohio University's Center for Writing Excellence, can attest to the benefits of writing groups.
"As a specialist in writing studies, I have long been aware that response and feedback to writing has very positive impact. Writing groups are one way of doing that," she said. "You can gain some really valuable insight about your writing and about your project by the kinds of questions that someone outside of your discipline will ask."
Gradin has launched four faculty writing groups at Ohio University since 2006 through the Center for Writing Excellence. Some of the groups have fizzled; others have flourished – depending on the group dynamics and the various commitments of its members.
Gradin said she is merely a catalyst. Her job is to recruit, train and rally the troops before sending them on their way.
"They don't really need me," she said. "What they need is for me to say, 'This can work. Here are some things you want to think about.'"
The key to a successful writing group is commitment -- a commitment to meet and, above all, a commitment to write.
"The writing groups won't work unless you do bring writing -- even if it's only half of what you thought you'd have done, even if you are not sure about the quality of it, even if you're not sure you are even going to stay with this direction that you're headed in," Gradin said. "It's a commitment to bring writing when it's your turn every single time."
Typically, groups of three to five faculty members respond to one piece of writing per meeting. Gradin encourages participants to submit their drafts at least 48 hours in advance of the scheduled meeting to allow group members time to process and ponder over the text.
According to Mather, this deadline pressure is the greatest benefit of the group because it keeps his articles on track.
"It just gives me something to shoot for. I know I have to have something new written by this time," Mather said. "It's kind of like having a workout buddy. You just know that you need to be accountable to some other people."
As a visiting professor, Bryant said her heavy teaching load necessitates writing support.
"If you're not tenure track, you teach more classes, and you have to find a way to get the research in. So, this accountability to the group is really quite important," she said. "If I didn't have deadlines, (my writing) always falls on the back burner. But it's something that is still critical for my career."
Gradin believes writing groups can be beneficial in a variety of fields and venues. But here at Ohio University, she said, the advantages extend beyond more polished writing. They enable group members to transcend what Gradin refers as the "disciplinary silos" of academia.
"It's a big campus, and a lot of times people don't get outside of their department and meet other people. It kind of turns into not just a writing group, but also a mentoring group. Friendships arise out of it. And they meet people they wouldn't otherwise meet," she said.
Sisson agrees. "We've become friends outside of the group as well," he said. "And that's been a real bonus. We really look forward to getting together -- not only talking about our writing, but talking about our professional lives."
Added Mather: "I haven't had any other avenue to make these kinds of relationships with other faculty outside of my program."
The many perks serve members well, but the ultimate goal is publication. And publish, they have.
In fact, all four colleagues have published one or more of their peer-reviewed articles since joining the faculty writing group in 2006. The Translation Review published Sisson's article, "Endangered Places," in its January 2008 edition. Bryant's work, "Queering the Antifascist State," recently appeared in the Edinburgh German Review. Mather earned recognition in the Journal of College Student Development with his article, "Interns at an International Humanitarian Organization." Bernstein's "Mourning the puer delicates" appeared in the American Journal for Philology, among other publications.
And academic journals are just the tip of the iceberg. The group also has contributed to drafts of book chapters, conference papers and public presentations.
In the fall, Gradin hopes to extend faculty writing groups to interested regional campus faculty through the use of interactive Web technologies. Those interested in joining a writing group may contact Gradin at firstname.lastname@example.org.