By Rebecca Steffy
Rebecca Couch Steffy is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at UW-Madison, where she also serves as a TA Coordinator for The Writing Center and Co-Director of the English 100 Tutorial Program. Her research focuses on the relationships between community formations and aesthetics in contemporary poetry and performance.
This year, I have the privilege of coordinating the UW-Madison Writing Center’s Senior Thesis Writing Groups, small peer-led writing groups that meet weekly or bi-weekly throughout the daunting semester- or year-long process of writing a senior thesis. I help spread the word that senior thesis writing groups are forming at the beginning of each term, lead orientation meetings to better inform interested students about how the groups work, and facilitate the first meeting of each group to guide them in establishing a set of shared expectations for working together. Then I keep in touch throughout the semester by email or a shared check-in document, and by dropping by another meeting later in the semester. Our model aims at maximizing the rich benefits of writing groups for senior thesis writers with a minimum of direct instructional hours from our staff.
Readers of this blog may remember this 2013 post about the senior thesis writing group’s inaugural year, written by my colleagues Stephanie White and Elisabeth Miller and recently revised and published in The Writing Lab Newsletter. They use the memorable phrase “Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat” to capture the idea that the Writing Center’s role is to be a catalyst, to make these groups possible and then allow the writers themselves to coach and support one another through the thesis process. And for good reason: as White and Miller emphasize, the theoretical foundations for writing groups within composition studies suggest that peer-led groups offer “generative opportunities for collaboration” and “[develop] students’ autonomy and ownership over the writing” (1). Empowering these students—next year’s newest cohort of working professionals—gives them an opportunity to further develop their intellectual and social skills in engaging deeply and fruitfully with others about work in progress.
My goal in this post is to follow White and Miller’s metaphor to a new question: now that students are in the driver’s seat of their writing group, where do they go? In other words, to what different uses do students put their writing group and why? Are these uses that we have anticipated when we promise “encouragement, feedback, and support from your peers” in our publicity? Or are they redefining and inventing other uses that perhaps we didn’t expect? And what might these uses, both for the thesis and beyond the thesis, imply for how we continue to facilitate and critically evaluate these groups in the future?
By the Numbers
First, a few numbers. This year, 26 senior thesis writers expressed interest in a writing group, either by completing an online survey to RSVP for an orientation meeting or by contacting me directly by email. Of those, 17 students participated regularly for one or two semesters. Five students began working with a group but did not continue, three students decided around the time of the orientation meeting not to pursue participation after all, and one student was unable to join a group because they expressed interest too late in the process.
I, along with my spring co-coordinator Stephanie Larson, took care to organize participating students into groups that took their timeline to graduation and their division within the university into account. In the end, four different writing groups worked together for at least one semester this year.
For the Thesis: Accountability, Peer Support, and Strong, Effective Writing
So how do students want to use their writing group for their thesis? In the survey students complete to RSVP for an orientation meeting, we ask, “What are you particularly hoping this group can help with?” This year, students responded with a wide range of desires for the groups, from “how to write it” to “smiles and laughs.” The single-most repeated hope had to do with accountability and motivation; phrases like “I hope this group can help me stay on track” and “timely progress” reflect a consistent theme. But students also expressed hopes that specifically had to do with writing—with developing their knowledge of the structure and genre conventions of a thesis (or effective writing within their field more generally), improving clarity for non-specialist readers, evaluating significance, and practicing revision. Taken together, these writing-centered hopes outnumbered those having to do with accountability and peer support two to one.
Based on my conversations with participating students and my observations of group meetings, I believe these are expectations that the senior thesis writing groups can meet and even exceed. As White and Miller show, peer-led senior thesis groups produce empathy, lead to deep learning, and generate accountability (3). This year, two groups have maintained a Google doc shared among members and with me; they use it to record plans for each meeting, next steps for drafting or revision, or their most important take-aways from discussion. After a recent meeting, Calla Buttke, a triple major in German, Chinese, and East Asian Studies, wrote, “[Everyone] gave me useful feedback, especially in terms of organization. I am going to move a few paragraphs [of my introduction] around as well as embellish on why this project is important. Also, I’m going to work on ‘showing instead of telling’ as my groupmates always say!”
Benefiting from Interdisciplinary Readers
Another significant pay-off for participants in these groups is learning from interdisciplinary perspectives. Elizabeth Bigelow, an Art History major who graduated in December 2015, valued this aspect of her writing group experience in particular: “One thing I loved about my group was that we (pretty much) came from different disciplines. In the end, we had a Chemistry major, a Psychology/Human Development and Family Studies major, and two Art History majors. For me particularly, I benefited from this diverse range of opinions because everyone was reading my work from a completely different perspective. Even within our Art History department, the two of us wrote in such different styles and had vastly different ideas that we were able to contribute valued opinions to one another.” Her fellow group member, Diane Hsieh (the Psychology/Human Development and Family Studies major), reinforced the benefits of an interdisciplinary group as well: “Knowing that people outside of my major will be reading my writing also makes me re-think about the flow and diction of my writing.”
Of course, feedback from readers with discipline-specific knowledge can be really useful, too. This year, we had enough interest from students in Psychology and closely allied disciplines on track to graduate in May that we organized them into one group. When I dropped by one of their group meetings last November, I noticed how seamlessly their conversation moved between their research projects, issues of methodology, and discussion of shared coursework.
Beyond the Thesis
Last semester, I also began to notice ways that participants were using their writing groups to address other exigencies beyond the thesis, most notably to get feedback on other writing projects or thesis-related presentations. While still collecting data or reading literature, some students solicited feedback on personal statements that they were writing for graduate school applications. Students have given mock talks to their groups to practice for the oral presentation of their thesis to faculty in their department. And one group has made an open invitation to its members to submit symposia materials for feedback. Expanding the kinds of writing being shared and examined helps to further build trust and rapport among group members, and it keeps the writing group relevant during the long research process, when students may not feel ready to dig into drafting.
Writing groups also afford an opportunity to gain institutional knowledge, like information about departmental advising norms and university resources. At a pizza party that I hosted in January for returning writing group participants, students talked, for example, about how they manage relationships with advisors. Frequency of meetings and the initiative required by students vary widely in these relationships. Some students meet weekly or bi-weekly with their advisors. For others, it’s more common to meet with a graduate student mentor in their lab than with faculty. Students also shared information about presenting opportunities, such as the Undergraduate Research Symposium and the Senior Honors Thesis Symposium coming up later this spring. In other words, while students share knowledge and ideas about writing with one another in these groups, they also have the opportunity to exchange information about related resources that can help students connect their projects to a broader audience and navigate the process they are all going through.
Senior Thesis Writing Groups and the World After College
In this final section, I want to share with you some of the research findings by my colleague Mike Passint, an English and History double major and an undergraduate Writing Fellow here at UW-Madison. Last semester, Mike completed an independent research project that he called “Cap or Bridge: The Senior Thesis and The Senior Year Experience.” To guide his research, he asked two central questions: “What is the connection between senior thesis writing and the transition to the world after college? How can students who are writing senior thesis papers, or students who are considering writing a senior thesis, understand the larger role that a thesis plays in the senior year experience?”
Sensitive to the many pressures that attend the threshold of college graduation—not least the economic burden of student debt, competitive job markets, and general anxiety about next steps and the value of their college degree— Mike felt “compelled to study the transition from college to whatever is after it.” Given this interest, it made a lot of sense to turn to the senior thesis as a window into that transition. It’s uniquely positioned, as Mike writes, “right in the middle of the change from being a student to a professional – or in other words, it is in the center of what some scholars call the ‘senior year experience.’ This is the experience of living in a transition out of college and having to figure out what your education actually means for you.”
I found out about Mike’s project because I helped connect him to folks he could interview for his research—participants in the senior thesis writing groups. And here’s what Mike found based on his interviews. First, the role of the senior thesis varies from person to person: for some it worked more like a cap, offering students a sense of closure and like they had “something to show for the degree”; for others, it worked more like a bridge, helping to prepare them for their next steps and build graduate school applications. Mike adapted his names for these two approaches to the senior thesis, the “cap-emphasis” and “bridge-emphasis,” from the two main streams of thought regarding the role of capstone courses. Second, Mike discovered that no matter the role of the senior thesis in the student’s transition away from college, the student is really in control of their thesis process: “They decide their topic, how they want to write it, what it’s for. Whether a student wants a sense of accomplishment from their degree, or a leg up on their grad school application, they can use their thesis in a way that lets them pursue their own ends.”
It’s this second finding that I want to pause on because – as Mike has pointed out to me – it has important implications for how we structure our senior thesis writing groups model. With these writing groups, we have an opportunity to foster discussion that would help students reflect on and become more conscious about why they are pursuing a senior thesis and how they want to put it to use. As Mike notes, “Once students are aware of what their thesis is doing for them in the short and long term, then anxiety about graduation will decrease.”
Oh The Places Senior Thesis Writing Groups Will Go!
On the whole, I like our current working model for senior thesis writing groups and the balance it strikes between writing group autonomy and support from the Writing Center. It’s not perfect—we could do more to reach out to potential participants, for one thing—but I think it works well, for the students who commit and for the coordinators. Lest we rest on our laurels, however, I’m going to hazard two tentative suggestions for ways that we could further augment this structure.
1) At least two students originally hoped their writing group would provide time and space to write, perhaps akin to what the Writing Center offers in the graduate student writing groups and our Writer’s Retreats. Would it be possible to add a monthly “Senior Thesis Writing Jam” to our calendar, inviting all senior thesis writing group participants to come as a core group of attendees and further opening it up to any other interested thesis writers? This way, the writing sessions don’t replace a discussion session in which writers can give one another feedback and updates on their projects, but participants also get to benefit from the structure and energy of a focused group of writers working alongside one another.
2) How can we foster thoughtful reflection on students’ short and long term goals for what they would like to get out of doing a senior thesis? Here, I lean again on Mike’s recommendations. In one reflection session, perhaps we could use a short series of prompts for writing and discussion, alongside a brief introduction to the cap and bridge theories of the senior year experience. Prompts could address purpose, connections to personal values, and connections to career aspirations. In a follow-up professionalization workshop, we could discuss with students how they can represent their thesis accomplishments to others. Or perhaps, the coordinator could work with each group to dedicate one of their meetings to addressing both of these concerns, and this could be the second meeting that the coordinator attends as they stay in touch with the groups throughout the semester.
I’d love to hear from readers of this blog other ideas, comments, or questions you have about ways to use senior thesis writing groups to maximum effect—for the thesis and beyond the thesis.
Thanks so much for reading, and props to all our senior thesis writers! You’re doing super smart and fascinating work and we’re lucky to have you as part of our university community!
Bigelow, Elizabeth. “Re: Seeking your follow-up thoughts on senior thesis writing group.” Message to the author. 4 March 2016. Email.
Buttke, Calla. “Senior Thesis Writing Group.” Shared Google Doc Entry. 31 January 2016.
Hsieh, Diane. “Re: Seeking your follow-up thoughts on senior thesis writing group.” Message to the author. 1 March 2016. Email.
Passint, Mike. “Re: Cancelling our meeting this afternoon.” Message to the author. 2 March 2016. Email.