By Elisabeth Miller and Stephanie White
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?