Senior-Thesis Writing Groups: Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat

By Elisabeth Miller and Stephanie White

Sunday evenings at Starbucks... (photo by Bryce Richter)

Sunday evenings at Starbucks... (photo by Bryce Richter)

On a Sunday morning in February, five students brave the icy winds howling off Lake Mendota, knock the snow and slush off their boots, and straggle into the student union toward a table near the windows looking over a snowy Memorial Union Terrace. That night, another five students wrap up their weekends by braving the same wind and snow to gather in a Starbucks near campus. And throughout the week, two other groups meet on campus, taking time from the busy schedules to gather with groups of their peers to work together on their writing. The students talk about their weeks and laugh about Facebook status updates before getting down to business, and throughout their meetings, the students’ warmth towards each other is as palpable as the snow outside. Indeed, these are no one-off study groups cramming for an impending midterm. These are groups of undergraduate honors senior-thesis writers meeting to encourage, support, productively challenge, and reinforce each other’s work as they work on projects that include discussing the idea of modernity in sculpture, analyzing data from a sleep lab dealing with parasomnia, studying rock formations in New Zealand, examining the archives of Asian-American publications on our campus, and much more.

As TA Writing Center coordinators for these groups, we, Stephanie and Elisabeth, have had the great privilege of working with these talented, motivated, kind, thoughtful students as they have shaped and sustained their self-governed, dynamic writing groups over this academic year. Each group of two to six students meets weekly for one to two hours to share pre-writing, updates on progress, research questions, outlines, descriptions of their work, drafts of writing, and much more.

The Impetus for the Groups

When this group's members dwindled, these writers decided they wanted to continue to meet together anyway.

When this group's members dwindled, these writers decided they wanted to continue to meet together anyway.

For anyone who has written a similar undergraduate thesis, a masters thesis, or a dissertation, these capstone projects are formidable tasks! Ranging upwards of 40 pages, employing rigorous primary and secondary research, requiring careful data collection and incisive analysis, and demanding careful attention to disciplinary conventions, these senior theses are challenging capstone projects. That’s why, while our Writing Center has always provided one-to-one help for senior-thesis writers, our director, Brad Hughes, identified a need for additional support. He proceeded to offer a Writing Center workshop to support writers through this challenging process. Still, there was much more to be gained from getting these smart, motivated undergraduates in one place. As so much Writing Center scholarship tells us, collaboration through talk and writing is tremendously powerful, and, as our center’s success with writers’ retreats and dissertation boot camps reveals, writers’ groups are an especially rich source for writers. So we set about establishing further opportunities for these peers to motivate and support each other in their writing by putting our “Senior-Thesis Writing Groups” into motion.

Getting Started

This semester, with one member living away from campus, Skype has kept the group together.

This semester, with one member living away from campus, Skype has kept the group together.

With a vision for peer-led groups of four to six undergraduates writing senior theses in roughly related fields, we spread the word through our website, academic advisors, the honors program, student groups across campus, and word of mouth. Once writers had registered on our website, we organized informational meetings to get these students-in disciplines from anthropology to zoology, art history to neuroscience-in one place for an informational meeting. We discussed logistics and then engaged writers in a discussion about what kind of feedback they value. We then gathered writers’ scheduling preferences and worked to piece together the puzzle of these students’ available times between classes, lab work, internships, jobs, and volunteering-not a simple task!

Once the scheduling puzzle was complete, we each took on a coordinating role for two of the four groups. We scheduled the groups’ first small-group meetings, assigning reading from Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, both engaging pieces on giving and receiving feedback and about participating in writing groups. During their first time meeting as a group, we led the students in a discussion of the readings, as well as in a group dynamics activity.

Also drawing on the readings, groups determined a structure for their meetings. And each group’s format looked markedly different: some chose to have monitors or leaders for group meetings, some established a weekly check-in for each writer, some initiated a Google doc to record comments on each other’s writing, some asked for written feedback and some opted for verbal responses.

Anne Lamott provides a healthy dose of reality when preparing to get feedback on your writing.

Anne Lamott provides a healthy dose of reality when preparing to get feedback on your writing.

From there, writers have continued to meet on their own. We’ve asked them to jot down notes to us every week, letting us, as coordinators, know how their meetings are going and whether we can provide them with additional resources. But, for the most part, these students continue to meet autonomously, working on projects that range from considering the value of “non-cognitive” skills in schools, to analyzing rock formations in New Zealand, to conducting studies that explore the linguistic and neurologic patterns of language acquisition in young children, to considering the role of queenship in Shakespeare’s history plays, to many, many other topics.

Along the Way

As expected with new programming, we’ve encountered some challenges and questions as these groups have developed. We continue to grapple with how much involvement we, as coordinators and writing center instructors, should have in these primarily student-run groups. We want to maintain groups’ autonomy while being sure to help mitigate problems. For example, should we intervene to respond to group dynamics or concerns with scheduling? Or, when two new members decided not to stay in a group this spring after all, was it because we had worried too much about stepping on our writers’ toes and failed to integrate these new group members fully? And, considering limited resources, how much should we grow at this point? How many writers and coordinators are sustainable as we pilot this program?

Writers, too, expressed logistical concerns: some wanted to get started earlier in the semester than we were able to as we worked to get the groups up and running. Other writers reflected on the challenges of dealing with each other’s busy schedules and trying to ensure consistent, reliable attendance and feedback.

By establishing a solid base in the fall, this group was able to accomodate their unusual long-distance logistics for the spring.

By establishing a solid base in the fall, this group was able to accomodate their unusual long-distance logistics for the spring.

Yet, while we persistently seek to improve the groups, we also see a great deal to celebrate. First and foremost, as teachers, we’re tremendously fortunate to work with such intelligent, driven, warm, and thoughtful students! Serving in coordinator roles, we’ve also been learning about and practicing new forms of teaching through the Writing Center, and we’ve had wonderful opportunities to talk and learn about writing in multiple disciplines and genres. As teaching assistants interested in writing program administration, we’ve also gained invaluable experience developing programming: addressing the real needs of writers on campus by designing and delivering a valuable program for students.

Most gratifying, however, are the writers’ responses to the groups. When we surveyed students this fall about their experiences in the groups, we not only received thanks for our coordination (Our favorite: “You guys are awesome!”), but also overwhelmingly and encouragingly positive responses to the groups themselves. To the question “What was most valuable to you about being in a senior-thesis writing group?,” students repeatedly cited support, accountability, and deepened critical thinking as positive features and results of the groups. One writer explained, “Definitely having a type of structure where I felt obligated to get work done every week before our meeting. Also, I felt that all of my group members really cared about my research, which was reflected in the in-depth and supportive feedback they gave me every week.” Another student expressed appreciation for the audience provided by the group, noting the value of “being able to explain my work to others, to practice answering questions about my work, and gaining a better sense of clarity in my written and verbal work.”

Students get serious feedback on their writing (Photo by Bryce Richter)

Students get serious feedback on their writing (Photo by Bryce Richter)

These students’ words demonstrate their stakes in these groups-their engagement, commitment, and leadership. As we fend off a temptation to list all of their responses in order to make their articulate vision for truly valuable writing groups heard here, we look forward to hearing your voices and comments. So tell us: how have you experimented with writing groups? With putting students in the driver’s seat?

13 thoughts on “Senior-Thesis Writing Groups: Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat

  1. I love writing groups and I love the work you are both doing! I was introduced to my first writing group during my junior year of college, and at first I was skeptical. How am I going to trust these people? Will I value their comments? Will it be meaningful? At first, I did not feel confident enough in my writing to share it with strangers. This insecurity in writing leads me to my first question: What steps did you take as mediators to form that foundation or trust?

    I eventually did become very close to my writing group (one writing peer actually remains one of my best friends today), and all the comments you both mentioned about the writers’ feedback—having an audience, feeling accountable, shaping a critical response—are all things that I felt, as well. Writing groups revolutionized my writing because I was prepared with questions and comments about my own writing to address to my peers. BUT, I do feel that a part of the success came from the teacher that mediated periodically throughout our groups. I find your use of Elbow and Lamott as models for response creative and vital to the success of responding. And, from time to time, I think as a young writer, I needed the input of an advanced expert (teacher) to curtail or shift the conversation when as writers, we were stuck or moving in an unproductive direction. With that said, I think the idea of putting students in the driver’s seat is a formidable one. Writing groups make writing meaningful, not only for the writer but for the responder. They place value in the writer’s thoughts and words. They build confidence. As a last question, when you do receive weekly feedback, do your writers ask for your advice with specific moments in the writing? I don’t want to suggest that a writing group be controlled by a teacher or expert, but is there a way to intervene if necessary that is non-threatening or does not discredit the advice of peers? Is periodic intervention necessary?

  2. As someone who’s really interested in writing groups, I love the idea of creating this structure for undergrads engaged in long research projects. I’ve spent so much of my own life (both in college and now as a grad student) working on papers by myself and feeling frustrated – and it’s amazing what a difference just explaining your ideas to another person can make! So I love the idea of building that habit in students starting with a senior thesis.

    This structure reminds me a bit of the groups Katrin Girgensohn described at one of the colloquia last year – she set up writing groups and then students worked independently. It sounded really amazing.

  3. Thanks, Elisabeth and Stephanie, for your post on undergraduate writing groups: some great ideas here that would fit well into liberal arts and certainly support undergraduate research …

  4. Elizabeth and Stephanie, thanks for this wonderful glimpse into your senior writing thesis groups! I especially love the interdisciplinary aspect to these groups and one question I have is did you do anything to assist or encourage the writers to engage with the writing in their peers’ disciplines which may have been unfamiliar? (I suppose it’s one of those “how much autonomy” questions!)

  5. Thanks for sharing this description of the new program with your insights, reports from feedback, and your questions. I find this an exciting initiative to build concrete supports for writers in community. It seems to me that this model, at least theoretically, serves as a kind of extension and further development of more common short-form versions of writing groups that some teachers incorporate into their classroom in the form of peer review groups, book club groups, and so on (though clearly experiences with writing in the classroom would vary widely among participants). I’m wondering if the WC might take a role in establishing writing groups for graduate student dissertators. Perhaps there could be drop-in sessions between the undergrad and grad groups that are discipline specific? Or perhaps coordinators could attend, say, the first three sessions of the group to help establish rapport and agenda, and then let the group take on more of its own autonomy. In any case, these are just two ideas to contribute to the already rich set of questions, ideas, and goals already established.

  6. A lovely and thoughtful piece Elisabeth and Stephanie! Thanks for aiming the spotlight at the importance of writing with others and in an established group, I love that you were able to help support the process of these writers and I am sure it was really beneficial for them. I definitely think doing co-authoring has made me a more sensitive and thoughtful writer and this is definitely something I will gravitate for as I move toward longer projects.

  7. @Nancy: Yes! Katrin’s work was a big inspiration for us when she was a visiting scholar at our Writing Center here last year. Thanks for mentioning it. Her long-term, high-commitment groups are a great example of writing groups at her university in Germany.

  8. Thanks for this post. I just finished reading Anne Ruggles Gere’s Writing Groups: History, Theory, and Implications. This blog post should serve as an addendum to that text. I am struck by the really smart planning that you did. Beyond the logistical details of administering this kind of endeavor, I love that you brought provided them with readings to foster a productive attitude about writing and revising. It seems to me that by constructing a strong infrastructure, you really created an environment that is allowing semi-autonomous groups to thrive.

    Now, when is the graduate student group starting up?

  9. As a new assistant professor, I’ve been participating in an faculty development seminar that promotes, among other things, writing groups for new and not-so-new faculty. Since I don’t have a writing center to go to anymore (at least, not for help with my writing), it’s been great to have a group of colleagues to do exactly what these seniors are doing.

    Thanks for reminding us how important writing groups are–for all writers!

  10. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Stephanie! I know it can be scary to sit back and just let students do what they’ll do, but it sounds like the experience was really valuable for them. I think, for instance, of writing a grad school or job application with this experience to draw upon. A great self-starting leadership opportunity for all of them.

    I have to echo Rebecca and Anne in saying this might be valuable for graduate writers as well. I think of the accountability function these workshops addressed, and so many graduate students use ongoing appointments with us as a way to get that accountability. As we struggle to manage the number of people who need ongoings, perhaps starting a few dissertation groups (maybe gauging interest at the workshops for dissertators) would help us serve more students. Or, in this case, help them serve themselves.

  11. Hello Stephanie and Elisabeth, I loved to read about your experiences with the writing groups and I really like that the groups work autonomously. This gives the members not only valuable experiences with writing but also with group dynamics.
    Our thesis writing groups at the European University Viadrina will start this week again (our semester just started). The thesis writing groups work autonomously, but ususally meet in the writing center, all at the same time. Therefore, a peer tutor is always available in the background. However, some groups decided to meet at other times and at other places, like our creative and completly autonomous writing groups do. After six years of working with thesis writing groups we still cannot predict which groups will work and which not. It’s always an adventure and we can only try to provide good conditions. The idea of reading Elbow and Lamott in advance is very good, I will pass this to Anja, our writing group coordinator. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  12. Pingback: Chasing the Sun: What’s New in the UW-Madison Writing Center | Another Word

  13. Pingback: Writing Center Senior Thesis Writing Groups | North Hall Blog

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