Anatomy of a thriving faculty academic writing program
What does it take to spark faculty imagination and engender faculty commitment to academic writing? Over the last three years, through the use of research-based strategies, the Jumpstart Academic Writing Program at Portland State University (PSU) has had remarkable success.
The key features include attention to both the text as well as the context of academic writing. The text, of course, is what is ultimately written and submitted for publication. The context, on the other hand, includes opportunities to practice organizational, social, and even creative strategies that foster insight into current practice and boost motivation to change.
The purpose of the program is certainly to increase productivity as well as to help faculty build a solid foundation of new writing practices that lead to a more satisfying and sustainable writing experience in the long run.
PSU’s Jumpstart Program focuses on five broad strategies:
- Know yourself as a writer. Try to uproot those hidden messages about your writing from the past.
- Use a journal to be more organized and to reflect on your writing.
- Practice intentional strategies to change your productivity like counting words or writing down specific goals.
- Be a student of academic writing. Most faculty agree no one taught them to write in the academic writing genre. Therefore, it is important to keep increasing knowledge of academic writing and supportive strategies. We suggest that faculty participate in webinars and read articles about academic writing like those offered by TAA. In addition, establish a small library on academic writing as a resource.
- Join a writing group to increase accountability and track writing progress.
The Jumpstart Program has three key features: Monthly large group meetings, weekly small group meetings and mid-monthly “booster shots” to help maintain momentum and encourage participation.
Monthly large group meetings: Each month we have a large group meeting for one hour. The content is presented on Monday at noon and repeated on Thursday at noon, with the topics announced ahead of time. Participation is voluntary. However, we do suggest that if the faculty member cannot attend, that (s)he send a colleague or other writing group member to collect materials. Our topics for the next several months include:
- November: Setting doable goals and managing your time (task analysis)
- December: Knowing more about yourself as a writer: Boice questionnaire
- January: Doing a Text Structure Analysis (TSA) to fine tune your journal submission
- February: Understanding the reason journal articles are rejected: no argument
- March: Handling the great news of a revise and resubmit
Weekly small writing group meetings. A key component of the program is the formation of small writing groups that meet weekly for an hour. Faculty members are assigned randomly to a two to four person cross-disciplinary writing group. The size of the group is kept intentionally small because it makes scheduling easier. The writing group’s main purpose is to meet weekly to check in on whether they accomplished their writing goals for the week. Some groups use the time to share their insights about writing, while others simply check in and then “Write-on-site”, spending the rest of the hour writing.
Mid-monthly “Booster Shots” via email. In the middle of each month, I send out a “booster shot” email about academic writing. It could be an annotated list of books on academic writing, links to websites where others are writing about academic writing, or a suggested webinar that TAA is sponsoring.
Bonus Summer week-long writing retreats. The Office of Academic Innovation, under the direction of Janelle Voegele, hosts a very popular weeklong summer writing retreat. Breakfast and lunch are provided and tables are clustered in groups for three to four faculty. A silent retreat atmosphere is expected in the writing room. Faculty members are assigned buddies who meet every day for a few minutes and talk about their goals for the next day. In addition, I hold hour-long writing strategy sessions for those who want some new ideas. I also offer half-hour consultation sessions in the morning.
The basic assumptions about academic writing that also inform our program are: Writing is thinking. Writing is social. A strategic approach boosts productivity, commitment and confidence.
Writing is thinking. Writing is not something that is done after you have it all figured out in your head. The notion that you have to wait to be inspired to write stifles many academic writers. Research shows that writing is thinking and by just beginning to write, you clarify your thinking. Peter Elbow says “make a mess” at first and then, do your editing. William Stafford, a poet and author, says, “If you are having trouble writing, just lower your standards.” All of this is about getting words on the page and using the written word to understand what you know and don’t know. How do I help faculty understand this idea? I strongly encourage faculty to schedule one half hour a day for academic writing and just write, even if they feel they are not ready. In addition, I do reflective writing activities during the Jumpstart meetings that often contain some insights that can be very helpful.
Writing is social. Academic writing is social because it is a “conversation” between the current author and the ideas and research from those who have written about the topic before. The contribution of the ideas and work of other researchers is found in the literature review or the background section of a journal article. Academic writing is social in another way as well. When faculty form a community around academic writing like they do in weekly writing groups, in the monthly meetings, and in the summer week-long retreats, they join a community where writing is the glue that brings them together. This helps keep faculty authors from feeling alone and isolated. Research has shown that productivity dramatically increases with participation in writing groups as well as with making writing goals public and having accountability partners.
A strategic approach boosts confidence and productivity. Think about learning to drive a car or play golf. Those initial early learning stages of a new skill are fraught with frustration and awkwardness. The learner has to move in new directions and become aware of resistances. Similarly, in Jumpstart faculty learn many new strategies to approach academic writing. I encourage them to try out these strategies to see which ones work for them, even though some strategies may seem strange or unusual. All of these strategies are about changing the context in which they produce the text. Strategies such as counting and charting words, writing daily, weekly and monthly goals, analyzing and matching the structure of journal articles for submission, all give faculty a sense of control over their writing. In addition, the strategy documents their commitment to change and faculty can give themselves credit for accomplishing their goals and finding strategies that work for them.
A major reason for the success of Jumpstart lies in the fact that it is housed in the Office of Academic Innovation at Portland State and strongly supported by the Director, Janelle Voegele. The center supports faculty teaching and learning and assists Jumpstart by announcing meetings, providing meeting rooms and cheering the faculty efforts in the new writing community. Administrative support is an essential element in sustaining a faculty writing program.
Dr. Dannelle D. Stevens is a professor of curriculum and instruction at Portland State University. In her role as Faculty-in-Residence in the Office of Academic Innovation, she has created the Jumpstart Academic Writing Program involving over 60 faculty practicing and publishing academic writing. She is the co-author of three books, all framed around different ways to assist faculty in their complex roles as scholars, authors, teachers, and community members.