Making Feminist Rhetorical History Five Pages at a Time: A Cross-Institutional Writing Group for Mid-Career Women in the Academy

Making Feminist Rhetorical History Five Pages at a Time: A Cross-Institutional Writing Group for Mid-Career Women in the Academy

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 1 Fall/Winter 2019

Author(s): Lisa Shaver, Elizabeth Tasker Davis, and Jane Greer

Lisa Shaver, Associate Professor and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Baylor University in Waco Texas, teaches courses in professional writing, rhetoric, and women’s studies. She is the author of Reforming Women: The Rhetorical Tactics of the American Female Moral Reform Society, 1834-1854 (2018) and Beyond the Pulpit: Women’s Rhetorical Roles in the Antebellum Religious Press (2012). Her work has also appeared in College English, Rhetoric Review, Composition Studies, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Pedagogy, and edited collections.

Elizabeth Tasker Davis, Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of Graduate Studies at Stephen F. Austin State University, teaches British literature, satire studies, and writing courses. Her scholarship on 18th-century British women writers and actresses, the history of 18th-century rhetoric, and feminist research practices has appeared in Rhetoric Review, Peitho, South Atlantic Review, Re/Framing Identifications, and the Sage Handbook of Rhetorical Studies. Currently, Davis is finalizing a monograph on 18th-century British women’s Enlightenment rhetoric and co-editing an essay collection on 18th-century British women satirists.

Jane Greer, University of Missouri Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor, is the editor of Girls and Literacy in America: Historical Perspectives to the Present (ABC-Clio, 2003) and, with Laurie Grobman, coeditor of Pedagogies of Public Memory: Teaching Writing and Rhetoric at Museums, Archives, and Memorials (Routledge 2015). Her scholarship has appeared in College English, CCC, Peitho, WPA Journal, and numerous edited collections. A member of the English Department and the Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), she teaches composition courses as well as classes on the rhetorical practices of girls and women. 

Abstract: The percentage of female full professors, 32 percent, at degree-granting post-secondary institutions remains significantly below that of male full professors. Numerous factors contribute to this disparity, including service and administrative commitments, lack of mentorship and guidance for women, and family commitments. Drawing on scholarship and the experience of three women who have participated in a cross-institutional writing group, this essay presents the cross-institutional writing group as one approach women can use to help prioritize research, maintain scholarly identities, and map out a plan to promotion.

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Women have a rich history of working together in collaborative groups. From the female-led salons of 17th-century Europe to the 18th-century British Bluestockings, from the Improvement Circles attended by women working in textile mills in 19th-century New England to the Female Literary Society founded in 1831 by black women living in Philadelphia (McHenry 57-58) to the Author’s Club of Louisville, Kentucky whose members published more than 70 volumes by the early decades of the 20th century (Adams 124), women have for centuries provided each other with intellectual and authorial support in writing groups. Indeed, Anne Ruggles Gere estimates that at the turn of the 20th century, over two million women were involved in clubs that supported the expansion of their rhetorical repertoires, including clubs for white women in all U.S. states and territories and clubs comprised of Jewish and Mormon women as well as working-class and black women (5). As historian Mary Kelly notes, such clubs, groups, salons, and circles provided women with opportunities for “[e]ngaging in critical thought and cultural production, polishing reasoning and rhetorical faculties, and…practic[ing] the arts of persuasive self-presentation” (196). The need for such support networks for women as writers, thinkers, and researchers persists in the 21st century.


Feminist writing groups can offer a vital source of inspiration and intellectual community for mid-career women in the academy. Having achieved tenure and/or promotion, mid-career academic women may seem an unlikely group in need of support for their research and writing efforts. But finding supportive readers who are invested in their work can be difficult for mid-career scholars. At the institutional level, associate professors often lack formal and informal support structures that are available to assistant professors seeking tenure. Furthermore, women associate professors take on heavy service duties more often than male colleagues, and they are sometimes impeded by institutional politics, both of which can derail productivity. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate the benefits of cross-institutional writing groups specifically for women associate professors in the field of rhetoric and composition. We believe this is especially pertinent because rhetoric and composition is a female-dominated field, and tenured professors are often tasked as administrators for writing programs, writing centers, writing across the curriculum efforts, and other campus-wide research and writing initiatives.1 These administrative positions, which often carry enormously time-consuming responsibilities, have evolved into a new category of women’s work. We recognize “woman” and “female” as unstable terms and address this piece to all (cis/trans/fluid) individuals that identify with this category. We would like to share our experience that cross-institutional writing groups, consisting of members working in the same or related disciplines, can provide vital support for women as they seek promotion to full professor. 


We make this claim as a trio of women scholars who have worked together in a cross-institutional writing group for the past five years. While the specific subjects of our research differ, our shared interests in studying and writing about the history of women’s rhetoric continues to provide a common foundation and firm intellectual bond for the group. In addition, we contend that the similarities of our jobs as women faculty at three different university English departments offers a secondary benefit of a shared, but also removed, perspective that enables us to serve as objective peer mentors to each other on teaching and career-related topics. However, the primary goal of our group is research and writing support. To open this essay, we begin with three brief narratives of our experiences as mid-career academics at different kinds of post-secondary institutions in the hope that others will relate to our situations. Following our introductory narratives, we review research on the career challenges and gendered glass ceiling female associate professors encounter, as well as scholarly findings about the benefits of writing groups in general. We then offer tactical advice for running a cross-institutional writing group. We close with some of the discoveries that we have made together as researchers, each pursuing diverse projects, and as collaborators in writing histories of feminist rhetoric.


Jane’s Story: A combination of administrative assignments and caring for my mom as she battled a terminal illness meant that I spent far too much time as an associate professor. During the decade or so following my tenure/promotion to associate professor, I served in a series of leadership roles at my university: as director of composition and director of undergraduate studies in the English department, and then as liaison to an urban high school sponsored by my university, and as the university’s director of undergraduate research. I also typically teach two courses a semester. Taking on substantive administrative responsibilities immediately after earning tenure helped ensure several of my junior colleagues did not have to engage in such work in their pre-tenure years, and these leadership roles provided me with new intellectual challenges and engaged me in work I found important and rewarding. The urban research university where I work does not necessarily require faculty to publish a second book to be promoted to full professor in the humanities. Instead, the university stipulates that candidates for promotion “achiev[e]…excellence in…scholarly publication of a substantial body of work.” But after ten years or so of significant administrative work and caring for my mom, I was feeling like that “scholarly publication of a substantial body of work” would always be an elusive goal for me. I was looking to be in a writing group with scholars in my field in hopes of finding new energy as a researcher and writer.


Lisa’s Story: When I received tenure in 2013, there were no female full professors in my English Department even though it is one of the largest departments in the College of Arts and Sciences. Since then, one of my female colleagues has been promoted, but in my department and across the university, we are well below the national average, of 32 percent female full professors,2 which itself is unacceptable. At the same time when I look at the female associate professors in our department, I understand. Some of these women are single mothers with young children and caregivers for aging parents. Some of these women have taken on heavy administrative jobs (chair of our department, undergraduate director, writing program administrator, writing center director). I even accepted the role of director of Women’s and Gender Studies a few years ago. Nonetheless, the message sent by the overwhelmingly male full professors in my department and across my university bothers me. At this private research university where my teaching load is 2/2, promotion will require a second book along with some refereed journal articles. Previously, I had participated in a writing group at my university, but it was interdisciplinary, and I never felt that I gave or received helpful feedback. So, I was hoping to get into a writing group with people who would better understand my work and my discipline and help me as I began my second book and my quest for promotion.


Liz’s StoryI teach at a mid-sized regional state university where I have not always had colleagues who share my scholarly interests in rhetoric. When I was an untenured, assistant professor, I served as Writing Program Administrator (WPA) for four years and carried a 2/2 teaching load. I was tenured in 2013, and I was awarded a research grant that funded a trip to England for archival work followed by a one-semester writing sabbatical to work on my book manuscript. I made tremendous progress during that semester, but when I returned to work, I switched from the teaching/administrative position of the WPA to a full-time 4/4 teaching load, and work on my book project stalled. The heavier teaching responsibilities at my institution mean that requirements for research are considerably lighter than those of R1 universities; however, at minimum, I need to publish either one scholarly book or several refereed articles in my field before seeking promotion to full professor. In the bid for promotion, teaching is weighed more heavily than research or service, but not meeting the publication requirement is a deal breaker. So, while the volume of publishing required is less, research productivity is still a significant part of how I am evaluated. Additionally, as a mother of three, I am constantly on a quest to carve out time for writing. Joining a writing group with colleagues who shared my scholarly interests seemed like an ideal opportunity.


While our stories are, no doubt, idiosyncratic, we expect many readers will recognize familiar patterns that can slow women’s advancement at mid-career—family commitments; administrative assignments and opportunities; a lack of senior female mentors and disciplinary colleagues in one’s home department; and teaching responsibilities. The many roles women assume in their lives, both within and outside of the academy, can all too easily supplant their identities as researchers and writers, and making slow (or no) progress on the scholarly output required for promotion to full professor can have serious financial and emotional costs. Colleges and universities as well as professional organizations also suffer when women fail to advance in their careers. Historically, patriarchal perspectives have erected a glass ceiling above which the ranks of full professors are dominated by men. Moreover, many institutions lack positive female role models at the full professor rank for the next generation of scholars.


For the three of us, being part of a cross-institutional writing group with other mid-career women in our field has proven to be a vital resource as we continue to advance in our careers and pursue our scholarly goals. We came together as a writing group through our participation in the Rhetoric Society of America’s (RSA) Career Retreat for Associate Professors in 2014, and since then we have met monthly via Skype to respond to each other’s works-in-progress. We can point to our writing group as instrumental in our ability to sustain our scholarly output—articles, book chapters, and books—even as we navigate the many challenges of being mid-career professionals. Our experience shows that cross-institutional writing groups can provide critical support to women associate professors working in disciplinary isolation within academic departments wherein they have few (or no) colleagues with shared research interests. We even note how our writing group has enriched our teaching. Ultimately, we hope that our experience might provide a model for mid-career women as they seek structure and encouragement for their scholarly endeavors and pursue promotion to full professor.

The Academy’s Glass Ceiling

Even though women are earning more doctorates, taking more academic jobs, and earning tenure more frequently, they continue to hit a glass ceiling when it comes to promotion to full-professor—the highest rung on the academic ladder (Misra et al. 23). As of 2015, women held 32 percent of the full professor positions at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, and that percentage has increased only marginally during the last few decades (Johnson 5; Misra et al. 23). A 2006 survey of faculty in English and foreign languages conducted by the Modern Language Association (MLA) found that female associate professors were less likely than their male counterparts to be promoted, and on average it takes women one to three and a half years longer than men to attain the rank of full professor (MLA 5-8). The survey also found that the time women spend at the associate professor rank is getting longer (8). Certainly, some women and men choose to remain associate professors for a variety of reasons, and we should not stigmatize that rank. Nonetheless, the slow and narrow progress women have made in achieving the rank of full professor is disconcerting for several reasons.


As the highest academic rank, full professors play key roles in university governance and department leadership; thus, it is important to have adequate female representation weighing in on institutional decisions. Fewer women at the full professor rank also suggests that not enough women are contributing to meaningful academic knowledge—“the stuff that truly matters in the American research university” (Terosky, Phifer and Neumann 53). Furthering knowledge and scholarly directions within their academic discipline is what draws individuals to pursue doctorate degrees within higher education, and the inability to set and maintain active research agendas likely contributes to associate professors’ career dissatisfaction. According to data gathered from 13,510 faculty at 56 colleges and universities, the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University found that associate professors are significantly less satisfied in their jobs than pre-tenured professors or full professors (DeJong). Surprisingly, according to the survey, professors are happier working toward tenure than they are once they have achieved it. Whereas pre-tenured professors are often protected from heavy service demands during their early years on the tenure track, once they are promoted to associate professors, service demands increase—usually with little guidance on how to maintain a productive balance. The often-overwhelming responsibilities placed on associate professors is not unique to women, but studies repeatedly show that women tend to assume more administrative and service duties, making it even more challenging to maintain robust research agendas (Guarino and Borden 673; Misra et al. 25; Terosky, Phifer, Neumann 61, 57).


Finally, one more reason the low percentage of female full professors is a concern is because academic rank has been shown to be the single largest predictor of faculty salaries (Nettles and Perna 7). Men out earn women by $13,874 at public institutions and $18,201 at private institutions, and gendered salary disparities increase over the span of careers (Johnson 9; Broder 116-17). While salaries are heavily influenced by research and publication, studies have shown that research productivity alone does not account for these differences—suggesting that gender bias still exists within work climate and culture and entrenched institutional practices (Misra et al. 23-24; Fox and Colatrella 377). Departments and institutions must continue to root out gender bias in work climate, teaching and service assignments, evaluation processes, and promotion procedures. And increasing the number of female full professors can help lead this charge.


That said, individual women academics must find the ways and means to focus on research and publication, the factor for promotion that is most within their control. Publications remain the key measure in the academy—used to gauge the success of individuals, departments, programs, and institutions. Institutions tend to reward publications over teaching and service (Aitchison and Guerin 3); scholarly publications are also tied to promotions, raises, grants, awards, course releases and general prestige. Yet even though publishing is viewed as a scholarly imperative, research consistently shows that amid other commitments, the activity of writing “continues to be marginalized and squeezed out of the everyday practices of researchers and academics” thereby often relegating writing to a “hobby” (Aitchison and Guerin 4; Murray 80; Geller 7). Women associate professors need to find reliable methods to protect their time and to continue to grow as scholars. Drawing on our own experience, we present a cross-institutional writing group as one approach women can use to help prioritize research, maintain their scholarly identities, and, if desired, map out a plan toward promotion.

Writing Groups

Like other writers, academic researchers can draw on writing groups as a means of support, accountability, and professional development. Claire Aitchison and Cally Guerin broadly define writing groups as “situations where more than two people come together to work on their writing in a sustained way, over repeated gatherings, for doing, discussing or sharing their writing for agreed purposes” (4). “The underlying goals of any writers’ group,” asserts Sarah Haas, “is for writers to provide mutual support to each other. The support is intended to help members increase both quantity and quality of written output, to help ensure work gets done in a timely manner, and to make research a more enjoyable, less lonely experience than it is stereotypically thought to be” (86). Writing groups can also create accountability by establishing deadlines that often do not exist for scholarly projects (Friend and González 33). Immediate response from a peer audience, the opportunity to revise and improve a text prior to submission, and the self-development that comes from discussing research and writing are additional benefits. In fact, the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), which boasts some 180 colleges and universities from across the U.S. as institutional members, structures its writing support for faculty to ensure these types of positive outcomes. The NCFDD promotes daily writing habits and offers opportunities for faculty to form accountability groups to ensure they meet their goals as writers and can share their strategies for success.


Because of these specific benefits, scholarly advice on writing and publishing frequently touts the value of writing groups for doctoral students and pre-tenured faculty members (Aitchison and Guerin 4). In their argument for the value of “horizontal mentoring” for early career academics, Pamela VanHaitsma and Steph Ceraso describe the importance of sharing writing goals, having specific timetables for revisions, and responding to drafts of the manuscripts of book projects as they were working on as they navigated their first years on the tenure-track at different institutions.


Writing groups also appear to be a gendered practice. Scholars have noted that writing groups tend to be comprised overwhelmingly by women (Bosanquet et al. 204; Aitchison and Guerin 13). In the six-person graduate writing group they established, Barry et al. emphasize that gender, particularly creating a community of women, was a key part of their group’s identity and that mentoring each other became an important part of their group practices (Barry et al. 208). Thus, the purposes for writing groups align with the collaborative and mutually supportive goals of feminist rhetorical practice. As Barry and her colleagues note, “Within the culture of the university our [women’s] writing group provided us with a safe haven, a safe place to think, speak, and write. It offered the type of support that both bolstered our self-worth and validated our scholarship” (Barry et al. 211-12). Likewise, Aitchison and Guerin suggest that women writing groups may represent “ways in which at least some women seek to create different kinds of relationships in opposition to more competitive hierarchies…it is encouraging to think that gendered writing groups can contribute to collaborative models of collegiality within universities in a time of increasing pressures and challenges” (Aitchison and Guerin 13).


Like these scholars, we have found our writing group provides us a critical gendered space for creative collaboration, free from any repercussions and ideal for writerly experimentation. Moreover, we would like to argue that writing groups are not simply valuable for graduate students and pre-tenured faculty. Writing groups can also offer critical encouragement and guidance to women associate professors in their pursuit of promotion to full professor. To manage workload pressures and fill the void of career and institutional guidance, mid-career faculty are increasingly setting up their own support networks, which include writing groups (Monaghan; DeJong).

Our Writing Group

Our writing group was established at the 2014 RSA Career Retreat for Associate Professors, a biennial event led by Cheryl Geisler, Professor of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University. The retreat is specifically designed to help associate professors, particularly women and members of underrepresented groups, work towards promotion. Retreat participants are formed into small writing groups based on their research agendas and a questionnaire they complete in advance of the workshop, assigned a successful senior scholar as a mentor,3 and provided with a general set of ground rules for group operation. These include meeting electronically once a month for one hour; circulating five pages of writing a week in advance of the group’s meeting;4 and committing to the group for at least 18 months. Each group then completes its own “contract” among members to fine-tune the ground rules, such as:

  • What will be the consequences for missing a meeting?  
  • Will we just discuss the drafts or also send written feedback to each other?  
  • Do we want to record the calls so group members can listen to the full conversation later? 
  • When should you circulate a writing sample if it is more than 5 pages? 

In establishing generic ground rules and encouraging each group to set more specific guidelines of operation, Geisler and the leaders of the RSA Career Retreat help to ensure that the 11 dimensions Haas identifies in most writing groups have been explicitly addressed—group’s purpose, membership, leadership, method of contact, meeting time, meeting place, meeting frequency, meeting length, group’s duration, in-meeting activities, and between-meeting activities (80-86). 


In our case, we meet via Skype, audio only, for one hour a month and we adhere to the standard model of sending five pages of writing to each other a few days in advance of our scheduled meeting time. Our choice of audio-only has to do with us maintaining our focus on the verbal conversation and the text that we are reviewing. During our call, each writer offers a brief statement of introduction, and then we discuss her pages. We ask questions, share feedback, and then often email each other margin comments once the call concludes. We also take turns coordinating and initiating the calls. We rarely discuss administrative or teaching responsibilities; however, we do discuss the status of and publication plans for our pieces. In this way, we provide an unbiased sounding board for thinking aloud about our careers as researchers and writers. While we were fortunate to be introduced to this model at the RSA Career Retreat, we believe that scholars could replicate it independently by networking at conferences with peers who share similar research interests.


Assessing the value of a writing group and other forms of collaborative mentorship can be a complex enterprise, and often the impact doesn’t become clear until long afterwards (Downs and Goldstein; Davis). As we cast our glance back over the five years that we’ve been working together, numerous benefits are clear. In the remainder of this essay, we’d like to share five primary characteristics of our cross-institutional writing group that have made it an invaluable experience for us as tenured professors as well as general benefits of participating in a writing group.

Expertise

After graduate school and after receiving tenure, it can be difficult to find someone who is knowledgeable in your area and willing to engage with your work in progress. Knowing how busy we are, we are often reluctant to ask others to read our drafts. Yet, a writing group offers a fair exchange. We give feedback, and we get feedback. And over the years we have become committed to the success of each other’s projects.


As three feminist rhetoricians, who work in different areas of women’s rhetorical history, we genuinely believe the work we are doing is important. This shared expertise has also enriched our work. For instance, Lisa remembers one draft where she was making a point about women’s generative use of anger, and she compared antebellum women’s use of anger to second wave feminists’ use of anger in the 20th century. Jane observed that there weren’t many scholarly discussions of anger in the rhetorical performances of 19th-century women, but that many novelists, including Charlotte Brontë and Louisa May Alcott, created female characters who had to learn to control their tempers. Jane wondered if Lisa might want to say more about the views of women’s anger in the 19th century. Lisa says, “That suggestion opened another avenue of inquiry, which made for a far richer discussion about how women’s anger was perceived and how women embraced their anger as a rhetorical tactic.”


Working within this common field but in different time periods and contexts has also been immensely helpful. We all understand what it means to research feminist rhetoric, but our differing specializations offer us the perspective and the distance often needed to see if our projects are relatable to others in our field. For example, Liz studies 18th-century British women while Lisa focuses on 19th-century American women, and Jane’s work on American working women crosses both the 19th– and 20th– centuries. As the one scholar of British rhetoric among us, Liz notes, “I bring curious fresh eyes to their research on the rhetorics of American female blue collar and domestic workers and early reform efforts, and they are curious readers of my work on the rhetorics of British Restoration actresses and female debating societies.”


Our writing group not only provides a real audience for our work, but also a team invested in it. We feel empowered and energized after receiving the groups’ comments and encouragement about our work. For Jane, Lisa and Liz have provided consistent motivation to stick with her book project. They strategized with her about how to navigate her institution’s annual review process, which privileges—perhaps inadvertently—the production of shorter texts, such as articles and chapters in edited collections.  Jane observes,

Being part of a supportive writing group with other tenured professors and feminist rhetoricians has afforded me an opportunity to take a longer view of my research agenda, and with encouragement from Liz and Lisa, I’ve stayed motivated and made steady progress on my study of the rhetorical performances of low-/no-wage women as they seek to manage their economic lives.


Lisa notes how she struggled while working on a book chapter about an institution the American Female Moral Reform Society (AFRMS) opened in 1848. Sharing different sections of the chapter with Liz and Jane as she wrote it helped her hone her discussion of institutional rhetoric and validated that this rhetorical concept offered a beneficial contribution to the field of women’s rhetoric. Within this repeated cycle of writing and responding, our meetings consistently produce milestone moments for us as writers. Sometimes they are tough moments—like when one of us realizes that something is not coherent and we need to reorganize or reconceive—and other times our comments validate what we have done or are trying to do. Either way, the group’s critique helps us move forward with more clarity than we could have achieved working alone.


Initially, we wondered how reading and receiving feedback on just five pages of much longer projects could be helpful. But as we became more familiar with each other’s projects, we found it grew easier to see these shorter pieces of writing as parts of more expansive work. In that sense, our writing group operates as an ongoing conversation surrounding our projects. Occasionally, we exchange entire article, chapter, and even book drafts. These are celebratory pieces as we see our five-page increments come to fruition. Prior to attending national conferences, we all have exchanged longer drafts of works. We then meet during the conference to discuss out texts, and then go to dinner to celebrate.

Accountability

While accountability is one of the primary reasons people form writing groups, this is especially important for associate professors, who having successfully achieved tenure, assume more service and administrative responsibilities. As our departments and institutions hold us accountable for these other, highly visible roles, no one holds us accountable for maintaining research agendas post tenure. Consequently, our monthly call helps keep us writing when we might otherwise let scholarship slip into the background behind other duties. The structure and outside accountability created by our writing group meetings legitimizes and helps us prioritize our research and writing. During the most hectic weeks of a semester, it is often all too easy to set aside one’s writing. Knowing, though, that your fellow group members will be expecting to read five pages can be a powerful spur to generate material for them to read. Moreover, five pages is not an overwhelming or unattainable goal amidst our teaching, service, and administrative responsibilities. In fact, we all agree this early adherence to the model prescribed at the RSA retreat established a solid foundation for our group.


Preparing for each meeting has become a monthly ritual for each of us. Undoubtedly the act of selecting, tweaking, and sending our five-page sample several days before the call provides us a consistent monthly milestone. As Liz notes, 

Sending the sample is cathartic; it always feels like a major accomplishment. Even though I sometimes worry in anticipation of what Jane and Lisa will say about my sample, I look forward to their feedback and to reading what they have written. In fact, I believe the process of exchange—sending the sample and having the conversation—is more important than the actual details of what is said.

Maintaining momentum is the clear benefit of accountability. Lisa adds,

If writing isn’t on my radar, a week, a month, or an entire semester can slip away without making ample progress on a project. The writing group keeps writing at the forefront.

As a result, we’re not dusting off projects during the holiday and summer breaks; our projects remain fresh in our minds.


While the writing group encourages us to move our work forward, we don’t want to create additional pressure or guilt; no one wants to return to pre-tenure stress. During our first year, we adhered fairly strictly to the guidelines outlined at the RSA Career Retreat. Over time, though, our process has become more flexible. For example, in the month leading up to CCCC 2018 in Kansas City, Jane didn’t have five pages of writing to share as she focused on her responsibilities as local arrangements chair. Other times, after we finish a piece that we have been working on for a long time, we may be in more of a contemplation phase where we’re not writing as much that month. Occasionally, one of us will not send a monthly sample, and that is okay. We allow each other these “mulligans” without guilt. Sometimes we now send each other outlines when we are in the early stages of researching and mapping out projects. Some months one of us might send what we call “accountability pages,” rough writing that does not require formal developmental comments but demonstrates that the writer is making progress. We still hold our calls, however, even when we may have less to share.

A Safe and Supportive Space

For most writers, even those who have been writing for many years, there is still vulnerability associated with sharing early drafts, and a writing group comprised of peers provides a safe space to circulate ideas when they are messy and not fully hatched (Bosanquet et al. 212). At first, we all felt uncomfortable submitting something to the group that was not polished. Now, we look forward to sharing early drafts and ideas. Over time, we have become more effective in using the group to think through ideas and maintain momentum on projects.


The group offers a supportive and pressure-free creative venue. For the most part, we operate outside of and around institutional dictates. We schedule calls around our class schedules and we rarely discuss teaching, administrative pressures, or anything about our institutions. That’s not a written rule, but we each seem to view the writing group as a special space and time where our writing and our work as scholars takes precedence. The cross-institutional configuration of our writing group also provides us a separate intellectually-focused sphere where we need not worry that anything we share about personal or professional lives will end up circulating on our own campuses. When we do seek advice or ask our fellow group members to serve as sounding board for issues we’re facing in our classrooms or on our campuses, we can do so without fear of repercussion or consideration of institutional politics. 


At the same time, while our writing group provides this safe distance, our monthly call and the enthusiasm we share about each other’s work, quells feelings of isolation that sometime accompany work on scholarly projects, especially when you are the only one of in your department or university doing this type of work. Moreover, studies show that writing groups provide an important emotional space,5 and that is certainly the case with our group. In the time we have worked together, we’ve all experienced different family crises, and our group has been empathetic and supportive. We encourage each other to keep plugging along even when we are barely making it.

Recognizing that Writing Is a Lifelong Process 

Our status as tenured English professors suggests that we have each achieved some level of competence as an academic writer, but our group is founded on the premise that learning to write is a lifelong process. Indeed, our writing group has been both a safe space where can acknowledge our struggles as writers and a source of invaluable support for our continued growth. We address general writing issues such as effective arrangement, foregrounding, and road-mapping in nearly every one of our monthly meetings. Since, we each specialize in different eras, we hold each other accountable for providing adequate context and explanation to people who may not be familiar with that time period, and we encourage each other to make connections with other scholarship and point out new ways of synthesizing long-standing scholarly conversations. We continually push each other to make the rhetoric explicit as we delve into the histories of women’s lives across centuries and continents. During almost every call, someone asks “how is this rhetorical?” With the interdisciplinary nature of our work and the historical women we study, this question really cannot be asked too much.


While we recognize common patterns in how we continue to grow as writers, we would each point to unique ways in which our writing group has supported our individual development. Jane, for example, feels that the opportunity to get an up-close look at the writing processes of two other talented, generous, and experienced scholars has been especially valuable. She says,

Seeing how Liz and Lisa approach their projects has allowed me to realize that I’m not alone in some of ways I go about things and the writerly challenges I still face at this point in my career. I also have new ideas and insights about how to manage my research, drafting, and revision, even as I juggle leadership responsibilities on my campus.

More particularly, Jane notes that Lisa and Liz have helped her recognize that providing too much historical context can muddle the development of her argument. For example, the dramatic story of the 1931 kidnapping of Kansas City fashion magnate Nell Donnelly is fascinating, but ultimately not germane to Jane’s analysis of the epistolary labor that Donnelly’s employees undertook as they described their work lives when the International Ladies Garment Union sought to organize them. Jane says, “This is a lesson I’ll certainly carry into other writing projects.” Nonetheless, Lisa notes that Jane is a great story teller, “reading her drafts have encouraged me to spend more time crafting my own writing.”


Another example of how the group operates as a collaborative learning space for our ongoing development as writers occurred for Liz in the composition of several introductions. Liz experimented with the use of overarching metaphors to frame her discussions and also with weighing how much background readers would need in order to grasp her arguments for different versions of her texts (both as articles and as chapters within her book manuscript). By getting feedback from Lisa and Jane as invested peers, Liz notes, “I learned that using an overarching metaphor is more difficult in the space of an article than it is in a book-length piece. Also, I learned that even with venue- and genre-based historiography, inevitably, specific examples will privilege particular texts, groups, or historical figures—even when the goal is to illustrate a broader trend.” These lessons are time-consuming, but the early feedback from the writing group helps all of us shape our ideas for a future broader audience.

Enriching and Sustaining Our Work in the Classroom 

Even though we rarely discuss our administrative responsibilities or teaching challenges during our monthly Skype meetings, our writing group experiences have influenced our work as teachers in positive ways. The experience of listening to other group members read and respond to our texts has made us better—more sensitive and more helpful—readers for our students’ work. Jane says, “I sometimes even hear Liz and Lisa’s voices in my head when I’m responding to student texts. I’ll push a student to give me a road map in the early pages of their essay, or I’ll remind a student not to end a paragraph with a long quotation, as Liz is likely to remind me in my own writing. Or I’ll urge a student to ‘drive it home’ as they articulate their thesis, thanks to the encouragement I’ve received from Lisa.” Lisa says, “Liz and Jane are not only encouraging in our conversations, but also in their margin comments. That has reminded me not only of my vulnerability as a writer, but also my students’ vulnerability. So, I know our writing group has helped me be more encouraging in my comments to students.” Liz adds,

One funny effect of the writing group is the frequency of “ah-ha” moments that occur for me right in the middle of a class lecture or student conference, when I realize that the conversation is over the same point about writing that I just talked about with Lisa and Jane. Hence, I often tell my students about my writing group, and how I have to submit my work to them—which perhaps humanizes me a bit as their teacher.


Moreover, we would also note that our involvement in our writing group has made our syllabuses much richer since we share an intellectual commitment to feminist rhetorical history. Students in Jane’s classes on women’s rhetorics are more likely to encounter work by women rhetors from the 18th century and women rhetors working in religious contexts because working with Liz and Lisa has expanded her knowledge in these areas. Likewise, in planning her syllabus for a new course on “Rhetoric, Gender, and Genre,” Liz is considering how she might incorporate historic American women’s workplace rhetorics and ephemeral genres, such as religious pamphlets and tracts, along with British women’s speeches and narratives, in order to provide a variety of case studies that her students can follow in developing their own lines of research for their final projects. As scholars mid-way through our institutional careers, such links between our teaching and our own research and writing is particularly critical. These moments of connection are energizing and have spurred us to continue re-imagining our work in the classroom.

Conclusion

As a writing group, we’ve been meeting for five years, and we can each point to significant career milestones that our group has helped us achieve. Lisa’s book on the American Female Moral Reform Society was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in 2018. Liz is circulating her book manuscript on British women’s Enlightenment rhetoric to publishers, has a forthcoming article, and is curating a co-edited collection of essays on 18th-century British women satirists. Jane was promoted to full professor in 2016, having published several articles and essays in edited collections, and in 2019, she was named a University of Missouri Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor. She’s working to finalize her book manuscript.


Best of all, none us of imagines that our monthly meetings will end any time soon—if ever! Like the women’s groups described by Mary Kelly, we view our cross-institutional writing group as a vital space for us to continue practicing our critical thinking skills and expanding our rhetorical repertoires. As we look back to the past and recognize that we stand within a long tradition of women who have supported each other in pursuit of their writerly goals, we hope that our experiences can aid future generations of women in the academy as they seek to advance their own careers and access the power afforded to full professors in post-secondary education, power that can be used to make our institutions more feminist spaces that support all writers.

Endnotes

  1. We also want to acknowledge that writing administrative positions are increasingly being filled by non-tenure track faculty, who may not be accorded equitable institutional status and resources.
  2. See Johnson, Heather L. “Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership: An Update on the Status of Women in Higher Education.” American Council on Education, 2017.
  3. We are grateful to Prof. Gerald Hauser, who was assigned as our group’s mentor. During quarterly calls with Gerry, he wisely focused less on the specifics of our writing and instead reminded us to keep our eyes on the goal of achieving promotion to full professor. He thus made a number of impactful suggestions, encouraging Liz to submit a chapter of her book manuscript to a journal to help build an audience for her work and provide “proof of concept” to publishers; he reminded Jane that devoting care and attention to the sometimes frustrating production details of a collection of essays she was co-editing was an important component of the promotion process as a well-edited collection would help build her case for having achieved “excellence in the scholarly publication of a substantial body of work”; and even though Lisa was concerned about finishing her book manuscript, he encouraged her to take on the role of director of Women’s Studies if it was something she really wanted to do.
  4. See Friend and Gonzalez for a discussion of how sharing five pages at a time can be beneficial.
  5. Aitchison and Guerin 12.

Works Cited

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