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Dissertation Writing Groups Are Not Committees

There are many great things about dissertation writing groups. I started making a list when I sat down to draft this post—here’s a sampling:

Dissertation writing groups are

  • an excuse to eat really good french-fries (yes, I thought of french-fries first…)
  • an escape from your dissertation bunker
  • the promise of a little affirmation
  • a place to practice talking about your work and to fail just miserably (or maybe not) without consequences
  • a way to meet friends

But, can I admit that probably what I liked most about our dissertation writing group was the chance to practice what it might be like for us to operate as professionals in our fields? For a couple hours a week, we got the chance to play ourselves as a German comics scholar, a medievalist, a botanist, and an Arabic language educator. We were almost part of a fin-de-siècle intellectual salon. And though I wouldn’t walk into our workshop and announce, “Hey physicists! This English and Education graduate is here to help you write! You’re welcome!” we did engage in some cross-disciplinary banter, and sometimes that sort of small-scale intellectual playfulness is delightful. And most importantly, it is also instructive. It provides a way to practice our skills in academic conversation.

I wouldn’t fancy myself any sort of expert in the dissertation writing game (or in the dissertation writing group game, for that matter), but I would say that, in my experience, writing a dissertation sometimes feels like an extended exercise in figuring out what you don’t know. Like when you discover, after writing fifteen pages about the exigence—the newness—of your project, that someone else asked and answered your question back in 1991. And that they’ve been read by pretty much everyone (How the heck did you miss that?) In writing the dissertation, I am frequently confronted with my own liminal disciplinary status, and it’s humbling and a little unnerving to get to know so well what I don’t know (yet). Though there are many good reasons that it needs to feel that way, in the dissertation writing group you might have the chance to conquer those creeping-feelings of inadequacy over a fry- or beer- or coffee-laden table.

What I find particularly attractive about the interdisciplinarity of dissertation writing groups is that you’ll have the opportunity and the pleasure of knowing (probably) just a little about your fellow writers’ areas of study. You can ask questions, venture ideas, draw connections, observe the works of a particular discipline’s writing without putting your ego on-the-line or worrying that everyone will suddenly realize that you’ve never read Bourdieu (the social theorist, imposter!). Most of all, you will realize that you know just enough to give the necessary feedback writers need. Your genuine curiosity in a different academic subject will help writers figure out issues that they might have taken for granted given the fact they’re experts in their fields. You get that much needed reminder that your brain can process information creatively, vigorously, and with some abandon.

And even if you happen to trot out some really ridiculous claim, you’ll give your fellow writers a chance to remember that they are, in fact, knowledgeable members of their academic communities. You’ll give them a chance to see themselves as the academics they are practicing to become. Or, you might give them the chance to hear what a non-expert makes of their arguments and language. They’ll get the opportunity to be vetted by an (imagined) interdisciplinary committee for that tenure track job in the most wonderful place they can imagine, and they’ll have the chance to practice guiding “outsiders” through the labyrinth of their discipline’s writing. Notwithstanding this dreamy situation, they will hear some great ideas and helpful insights—I benefitted a lot from the wisdom of my fellow writers. Their “English and Education” feedback was really, really good, because I was able to make it mine after our discussions. I realized that talking together gave me the opportunity to feel confident and comfortable as an English and Education scholar.

All that said, dissertation writing groups are not the place where you’re going to get your ideas or writing vetted for disciplinary-soundness. But that’s a good thing, I think: that’s why we’ve got committees. Dissertation writing groups are not committees. If your dissertation writing group hates the third paragraph of your second chapter, you can listen with interest, and then move right along. You are 100% the boss of your writing in a dissertation writing group: everyone else is there to help you become aware of that. And that’s a nice feeling to have, and one that you’ll carry with you for the rest of life, whether you decide to work in academia or in any other profession.

Fall 2016 Dissertation Writing Groups Applications can be found at http://lsa.umich.edu/sweetland/graduates/writing-groups.html.
Applications are due September 9th.