writing groups as collaborative communities

I’m Katherine K. Chen. To kick off the 2017 spring semester’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program (FFPP) blog series, I briefly reflect on CUNY, the academic profession, and how writing communities can support and enhance scholarship.

First, a little about myself: I am one of the newest FFPP mentors, and I am also a FFPP alum-turned-mentor (colleague Stephen Steinberg was my mentor!).  Using ethnographic and other qualitative methods, I study how organizations develop.  I joined The City College of New York in 2008, so I am now approaching almost a decade at CUNY.

As some of you know, CUNY is a higher education institution with an unusual structure, consisting of the Graduate Center, where most of its PhD granting programs are concentrated, senior colleges that offer bachelors and masters, and community colleges that offer associate degrees.  Moreover, CUNY has a long legacy of propelling first-time, minority college-goers into the middle class and beyond.  Despite a crushing burden of working low-wage, dead-end jobs, caring for sick relatives, and intermittent homelessness in a high cost of living city, CUNY undergraduate students persevere in their belief that education matters. Working at the frontlines with CUNY students are CUNY instructors who are vibrant and accomplished. Besides publishing in the expected peer-reviewed venues, some also produce artwork, novels, and opinion pieces in widely read venues.

It’s difficult not to be inspired by the intellectual ferment of CUNY and the surrounding New York City. Nonetheless, universities and academic professions in general face increasing uncertainties as state support for higher education declines.   Meanwhile, neoliberal pressures are increasing, with demands that faculty demonstrate their market worthiness in numbers of students taught and graduated and funding awarded.  These pressures can make the university and academic profession feel alienating, particularly when the rewards structure is skewed.  Often, only one type of the work – publishing in peer-reviewed publications – is recognized in tenure and promotion while much of daily work – teaching students and undertaking service to maintain academic institutions and the profession – is uncounted and unrewarded.

It is easy to get lost when journeying in this milieu.  In particular, navigating the writing and publishing can involve taking a hike into the unknown. While maps exist, the details are often unmarked, requiring local knowledge and constant experimentation. Sometimes a more experienced guide may lead, or companions may join, making the journey lighter (or heavier).  While writing coaches and guides to publishing offer some assistance (my favorites of the latter include Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks and William Germano’s Getting It Published), people can more fully realize their potential when immersed in an active, supportive community.

Writing groups such as FFPP, where members meet regularly to give feedback on circulated work, offer an oasis of support, collegiality, and generativity.  For me, participating in FFPP and other writing groups has been crucial to advancing my scholarly development.  Such groups have facilitated difficult decisions to, for example, reframe manuscripts and cut out excess material; these gatherings have helped interpret cryptic reviewer comments and modeled potential responses to reviewers’ suggestions.  Moreover, reading other scholars’ works in progress helps us understand common writing and conceptual issues – it is much easier to identify problems and potential solutions in other people’s manuscripts!   Finally, it’s heady to be on the cutting edge of manuscripts that are on the verge of reaching a wider audience, especially given how long it takes for manuscripts to wend their way through the publication process.

With these thoughts in mind, I look forward to facilitating fellow FFPPers’ journey and learning from everyone’s work in the months ahead.  Welcome to spring 2o17!