When unexpected events such as the coronavirus pandemic occur — disrupting life as we know it — people adapt by finding new ways to connect.
Re-establishing community was critical for Stony Brook University students and professors, many of whom used to gather at the Faculty Commons administered by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) for dissertation boot camps and writing groups prior to the shutdown of all classes in late March.
Led by Shyam Sharma, associate professor and graduate program director in Writing and Rhetoric, College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), those support groups took on an entirely new look, with the now ubiquitous Zoom online format replacing the in-person meet-ups.
Interestingly, the new format boosted participation.
“Twice as many students applied for the second spring session of the dissertation ‘boot camp’,” Sharma said, “perhaps indicating an increased need for community to counter the physical isolation, as well as a need for weekly milestones against scheduling chaos.” He also responded to students’ request for a summer session, which recently wrapped up after seven weeks, having added peer groups and workshops into online format.
The “writing group” offers an environment for mutual support and accountability, based on work participants have completed during the week and bring to the Friday meeting. The boot camp, on the other hand, requires students to come prepared to write during the entire four-hour block every Friday. Students report in at 1 pm to share productivity plans in small groups, then log off and write, returning in the same groups to report on what they did.
The “writing workshop” series for graduate students, which Sharma has been facilitating for the Center for Multilingual and Intercultural Communication during regular semesters, was integrated within the four-hour block of time on Fridays during summer. Its purpose is to “engage graduate students who wish to hone their writing skills” before they join the boot camp.
So why did the writing support initiatives double in size?
Sharma theorized that the numbers rose partly because of the isolation created by the pandemic.
“As one student put it, every day has become a ‘blursday’ now for dissertation writers,” Sharma said. “Some miss regular meetings with mentors, while others are grappling with the need to change their dissertation agenda when they couldn’t continue their lab work, and yet others are overwhelmed by the increase in work and stress relative to their time management skills.”
In addition to running the three different tracks of writing support for graduate students — a boot camp, writing group and writing workshops — Sharma also facilitates a writing support community for faculty members.
Sharma’s colleagues, scholars of all stripes, also feel the need for community to keep writing.
“In the writing group program, I put writers in pairs using Zoom’s breakout room, providing them a rubric from which to pick questions for asking readers for feedback,” Sharma said. “Giving writers control changes the dynamics of feedback, unlike reader-driven critique. The pairs spend one hour exchanging feedback on a few pages of the writing they have brought.”
The faculty writing group was created in collaboration between the CELT and the graduate writing program, which Sharma directs. Its new collaborator, CAS Dean’s Office, also promotes it among faculty. Troy Priest, CELT senior instructional designer, and Amy Cook, CAS associate dean for research and innovation, are co-facilitators and active promoters of the program, which is advertised through newsletters, websites, Twitter and email.
The faculty writing group, too, has mushroomed since the virus outbreak.
Starting in Spring 2020 with 24 applicants, the writing group increased to 42 applicants right after the March disruption, according to Sharma.
“Faculty groups have greater than 50 percent overall attendance, compared to slightly below 50 with graduate students, showing that we, too, need and benefit from shared space and connection, community and motivation, feedback and accountability — even online, in spite of the glut of online meetings and the pitfalls of the mode,” he said. “We are planning to further promote the fall offering, perhaps with two sessions, better serving the needs of colleagues from both campuses.”
The testimonies of students and faculty alike attest to the popularity of the online adaptations during the pandemic outbreak.
“Writing is a big part of the doctorate journey, and writing together with other students has made it more productive and easier for me,” said Elena Hambardjieva, a student in the pharmacological sciences graduate program.
For chemistry student Alwin James, the writing group is invaluable.
“I can’t find big enough chunks of time to write; I am always distracted,” he said, adding that he often suffers from writer’s block. “I can’t overcome my tendency for procrastination.” Attending the boot camps helped him tackle those challenges.
“Being in the faculty writing group reminded me that I am a writer as well as a teacher,” said Natasha Vitek, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution. “As we transitioned to remote teaching, all my time has been absorbed by learning new technology, being available to students, and Zoom meetings. I need the group more than ever to get me back on track and writing again.”
In spite of the acknowledged plusses to virtual learning writing classes, organizers, teachers and students would agree that there is no substitute for meeting in person over a steaming cup of java.
Sharma delivers keynote for a virtual conference on online teaching.
“When there’s no feeling of physical co-presence in a conducive space, with the ‘room’ being a hodgepodge of all the spaces from which we join, we are quick to mute ourselves,” said Sharma, acknowledging the weaknesses of virtual meeting. “Hosts for larger groups may need to set the default as ‘mute everyone,’ and however practically necessary, that’s terrible. We’re looking in the mirror, rather than at each other — or looking at everyone at the same time — and these are poor ways to communicate.”
That situation requires that students be patient.
Still, “they focus on the opportunity to see and hear each other, to work in groups, to report in and report out, so I use the affordances of the technology, such as breakout rooms and chat function, to mitigate the challenges,” Sharma said.
— Glenn Jochum