Finding the ‘write path’: how writing groups help postgraduate researchers
Pandemic-era higher education conversations have tended to focus more on the issues of undergraduates and taught postgraduates, rather than postgraduate researchers (PGRs) – an issue repeatedly raised on a national stage by Professor Andrew McRae, Dean of Postgraduate Research and the Exeter Doctoral College.
Even before the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, PGR support staff at the University of Exeter were exploring ways to support our PGRs. This is particularly challenging given the significant numbers of the PGR community who live not only off-campus, but also outside the county or even the country. These students are also likely to have greater logistical challenges such as caring duties, stricter funding regulations, and tighter programme deadlines.
Of the many PGR-specific support initiatives implemented by the University, one of the most innovative and successful has been the expansion of the Shut Up and Write (SUAW) initiative. These sessions originated in 2018 when Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager in the Doctoral College, received a three–year grant from the University of Exeter Alumni Annual Fund to develop practice, training and resources to support PGR writing.
“The aim was to train the PGR community to facilitate writing groups, providing a structured space for PGRs to get some writing done with scheduled breaks and activities,” she explained. “Initially this took the form of on–campus writing groups and retreats, alongside a handful of online ‘Shut Up and Write’ sessions.
“During the pandemic these groups moved online and became a fundamental part of the PGR experience. We went from running a few groups a month on campus to two Shut Up and Write sessions a day online. They provided our PGRs with structure, a supportive community, and often sanity.
“The proliferation of online writing groups and peer support for writing during COVID-19 is evidence of the network of PGR facilitators we have developed, and the – frankly humbling – professional generosity and sense of community amongst our PGRs. They have taken an idea I had four years ago, run with it, and had a level of impact I could not have imagined,” she added.
One of the participants and facilitators was Jo Sutherst, a PGR in Art History and Visual Culture.
“Joining the sessions has given participants structure to their days and a real sense of community and belonging, something in short supply during the ongoing pandemic,” she explained. “The seemingly endless days under lockdown conditions can seem daunting when you are stuck at home or in university accommodation; the lack of human contact preys on your mind, and the motivation to conduct research and write becomes non-existent.
“The PhD journey can be an isolating and lonely experience but Shut Up and Write has brought us together. Sharing our goals and planned session outcomes to the group at the start of the session helps us to commit to completing the work by the end of the session; we share in each other’s success and provide encouragement when things don’t quite go to plan.”
The sessions proved just as useful over the Christmas break, with volunteer-run events attracting attendees from all over the world.
“Many PGRs find themselves alone and isolated from their friends and family at this time,” said Jo. “The community created by Shut Up and Write is so important. The feeling of togetherness and support they provide has kept many of us sane and focused; each session is a source of knowledge, inspiration and friendship. Without the virtual arms around each of us, the holiday period would have been an extremely lonely one.”
At the recent Shut Up and Write conference celebrating the events, Dr Caitlin Kight, Senior Academic Developer in the Academic Development Team, used the LEGO® Serious Play® technique to facilitate a reflection on the role of writing in the life of a PGR.
“I noticed how often the workshop participants returned to the act of writing within the context of SUAW, specifically,” she said. “These PGRs were regular attendees at Shut Up and Write sessions, and it was clear from their remarks that ‘writing’ and ‘SUAW event’ had begun to merge. To write was to attend SUAW and use its particular methods and community to put words on paper (or screen), and to engage with SUAW was to make progress on dissertation-related writing. Shut Up and Write had become a fundamental part of many PGRs’ research experience.
“Furthermore, these events were not only about writing; they were also about finding one’s place in the wider academic community and being helped back to the path of productivity if one had accidentally strayed from it for any reason.
“I teach PGRs in other Researcher Development programmes and through the Learning and Teaching in Higher Education programme, and even though I have seen the students relax and enjoy themselves in those settings, the camaraderie on display at the conference was on another level. Researchers from different disciplines, countries, career stages, and walks of life had crafted a scholarly family that was providing encouragement in some of the most challenging times that any of its members had ever seen.
“This is the sort of learning environment that every educator dreams of creating and, to me, it exemplifies the pinnacle of what is possible in higher education,” she added. “The achievement is a testament to the hard work of Kelly, Jo, and other SUAW facilitators; when it comes to PGR support, they’ve clearly got the ‘write stuff.’”
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