Scholarly Productivity and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Cultivating Community in a Remote Writing Group

Woman typing on computer

Dr. Carol Anne Constabile-Heming, Professor of German, University of North Texas.

Because of the isolation that resulted from the emergency shut down of colleges and universities as a response to the spread of COVID-19 in the spring semester, the sense of community that ordinarily germinates organically on college and university campuses all but vanished. This, coupled with disruption to the operations of scholarly organizations that normally host annual conferences and professional development opportunities, has acted as a barrier to scholarly productivity for many faculty members. This is especially true in the case of women and minoritized faculty who are shouldering the majority of caregiver duties, including caring for sick family members, supervising home schooling, shopping, cleaning, and cooking. In the midst of the often-impossible demands this places on one’s time, energy and focus, scholarly activity—most especially writing—can easily fall to the bottom of the incredibly long task list.

Faced with my own uncertainties and concerns about moving my research projects forward, I longed for a way to recreate the serenity of summer. Summer break, for me, typically involves travel to archives in Germany, where I spend a minimum of four weeks concentrated on writing. I knew I was going to miss the scholarly community that I have cultivated over the course of my career, so I started imagining a new way to think not just about scholarly productivity but also scholarly community. Is it possible, I wondered, to create a virtual community as a site of collective support? I looked first to my writing accountability group, a small network of German Studies scholars within the scholarly collective Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum (DDGC). Each week, members of the accountability group set writing goals and publicize them to other members of the group. At the end of the week, members reflect on whether or not they met their goals. It is a supportive community: if one does not achieve one’s goals, the other members are there with a sympathetic ear, offering support and advice. There is no judgement.

I used this accountability environment as a platform to create a digital remote writing group. As Douglas Lightfoot has written, accountability writing groups “provide a framework” for writing that increases “the likelihood that the [writing] schedule will be maintained.” Because the DDGC writing accountability group already consisted of a group of scholars at all levels interested in supporting each other and in the writing process, it seemed like the logical place to start. In this article—in hopes that my experience can be of use to others who may wish to replicate something similar—I offer a description of how I set up the writing group, what some of the outcomes and responses have been, and practical tips and advice for moving forward.

The Advent of the Digital Writing Group “Remote Write on Site

Unsure how much interest or staying power the “Remote Write on Site” project would attract. I started out by planning two six-week sessions in order to accommodate colleagues teaching on the quarter system whose academic terms did not end in May. Twelve scholars joined the first session: members included one graduate student, seven assistant (or equivalent) professors, two associate professors, and two full professors. The sessions utilized Slack and Zoom to facilitate writing, which occurred each Wednesday from 11-3 pm Central time. All participants began by posting writing/productivity goals for the six-week session to a dedicated Slack channel. Prior to the weekly Zoom writing session, participants posted specific writing goals for that session. Because many of the participants had never met, we spent 30 minutes during our first session introducing our research and ourselves. In subsequent weeks, the writing session would begin with a round robin, with each participant articulating their specific goals for the session. Following this brief introduction, participants muted their audio and turned off the video and retreated to their personal space to read and write. After one hour, we checked in via the Zoom chat function, updating on progress made or discussing resistance that we were experiencing. A sense of community developed very quickly, and everyone chimed in to offer support, advice, or just cheer each other on. After a second hour, participants turned cameras and audio back on and just chatted. This functioned much as a coffee break would in a normal face-to-face situation. During this check in, we often talked about resistance we were encountering and shared tips on overcoming that resistance. After approximately 15 minutes, participants returned to the business of reading and writing. At a final check in, everyone noted their progress. Even though we had already spent nearly four focused hours on writing, many participants remained energized and indicated that they planned to devote a few more hours that day to their projects. All 12 participants continued in the second session and four more scholars joined us, bringing the total number of people in the writing group to 16.

Outcomes and Responses

During the final week, I conducted a survey of participants to gather information about the success of the program. Participants noted various reasons for joining the group including wanting to finish specific projects like a book manuscript, a need for greater writing accountability, and a desire for a sense of community. This need for community was a direct result of the isolation brought about by the pandemic. Everyone brought different expectations to the group, though there was uniform agreement about hoping for greater accountability. A strong sense of camaraderie and community developed. Importantly, participants remarked that they were able to move projects forward. One of the greatest benefits was a shared realization that everyone struggles with writing at times; participants eagerly shared tips and strategies with one another for moving projects forward. Overall, participants were pleased with the progress they made on their various goals over the summer. Not everyone checked everything off the “to do” list, but all agreed that they learned along the way how important it is to define goals in ways that are achievable. Participants listed community building, accountability, and support as the major benefits of the program.

There has also been another interesting outcome that I did not anticipate: our writing community has morphed into a mentoring cohort, in which more senior faculty coach and encourage graduate students and assistant professors. We talk about the importance of writing plans and productivity pipelines, strategize how to politely but forcefully say no to service requests, and have learned to view writing as a form of self-care. We also share memes, recipes, and photos of our pets. We have developed from a group of strangers who are geographically distanced and scattered across time zones into a group of scholars and friends who look forward to the time we get to spend together each week in community and in writing. This dynamic developed organically as the weeks went on, and it has only added to the value of the writing group for all involved.

Moving Forward

All sixteen participants agreed to extend the second session an additional two weeks and all expressed interest in continuing the remote writing group in the fall semester. We continue to experience successes. During the fall semester, we organized more frequent and shorter writing groups to accommodate everyone’s teaching schedules and service commitments. The group also grew to 27 members, though not all are active weekly. The sense of ownership in the overall endeavor also has grown, as different members have volunteered to serve as host for each of the writing groups. A core group of 10-12 members joins at least one writing group a week. For my part, I now host one group each week, but regularly participate in two others. We also devised a plan for the semester break, with three of us leading groups on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. To supplement these regular sessions, two participants have organized intense writing boot camps (one in December and one in January). During the week of December 14, we sponsored a total of 31 hours of collective support for research and writing.

Cultivating Community via a Remote Write on Site Group: Practical Advice for Others

A program such as this one is easily replicable with the prevalence of technological supports such as Slack, Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. Beyond the initial organization of setting up the Slack group and scheduling Zoom meetings, it is not a labor-intensive endeavor, and running the program for 14 weeks during the summer did not impede my overall productivity. Here are some tips and pieces of advice for other scholars who may wish to replicate something similar for their own practice:

  • Cultivate commitment and create a supportive environment. In order to cultivate community in this type of program, all participants need to commit to doing the writing and to supporting each other. In the case of our group, all but one participant is a member of the DDGC scholarly collaborative, so we started out with a sense of common purpose and shared values because of this affiliation. However, if you are starting a remote writing group from scratch this may not be the case. To cultivate commitment and create a shared sense of purpose, I suggest setting aside time at the first meeting to develop a set of guiding principles to which everyone agrees to adhere. It is important to set expectations about how community members will interact and support each other, to commit to active listening, and to respect that each participant may be at a different stage in their career or project and have different priorities.
  • Coordinate across schedules. The greatest organizational challenge to this type of endeavor is finding a time that works for most. Because the initial summer group met only once weekly, there was limited flexibility. As the endeavor continued and grew during the fall semester, we built in some more flexible scheduling. Whereas morning hours accommodate the schedules of participants from the United Kingdom, later afternoon hours serve participants from the West Coast and those serving in administrative capacities well. Such varied scheduling allows for the flexibility of different teaching schedules, the need to attend to caregiver duties, and also different work styles.
  • Growing the group. Because of our connection to the DDGC scholarly collaborative, we have a built-in platform to promote the group. Each semester, one of the DDGC Blog administrators posts information about the writing accountability group, with links to information about joining the Remote Write on Site group. We have utilized social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter) to publicize this information. Individual participants also post information on their personal social media accounts—a daily picture from writing boot camp for instance–attracted considerable attention and inquiries from others about our work. When asked specifically what our group is, a typical response is “a remote writing retreat” and a “space for accountability” to get writing done.
  • Setting the right tone as the group host. Keys to hosting sessions are a willingness to listen actively, to facilitate dialogue, and to ensure that all participants speak, both at the beginning by articulating goals and at the end for reflection. At the outset of each session, the host should greet all participants by name and allow each an opportunity to share. The host must also moderate so that the focus is on scholarship and writing. Depending on the size of the group, hosts should allow 10-15 minutes for this initial sharing phase. The host also needs to track time, prompt sharing for the chat check-ins and to call everyone back to the group at the end.
  • Absorbing what you learn. A common thread throughout the sessions is that writing is not something that just happens; it requires focus. The stress of the pandemic stretched many of us to the limit in terms of maintaining concentration. Group members were quick to share techniques for managing resistance, such as breaking projects down into smaller, more manageable tasks (e.g. “Today, I’m going to focus on the introductory paragraph”; OR, “I’m not feeling particularly creative, so I’m going to deal with formatting notes and bibliography”). Most participants work with a timer: one interesting tip was to use the timer not for writing, but for distractions. For instance, if I feel compelled to check e-mail, I can do so for 10 minutes but then I must return to my project. Though we are all trained scholars, it was comforting to listen to the different tips and techniques others use. One person shared that writing a few pages by hand helps them focus, while another shared that they typically print out their document, cut the paragraphs apart, and use them as a visual organizer to rearrange their own writing.
  • Making the group work across disciplines. I believe that our group has been successful because we share similar research interests, which helped to develop a sense of community very quickly. A less homogenous group may need more time to get to know each other, and I suspect that cross-disciplinary groups that have a common thread such as a humanities group or a group of social scientists will have tips and topics in common. The biggest key to success in my view is having a cross-section of experiences and career levels. Several of the more senior scholars in my group view the mentoring of graduate students, contingent faculty and pre-tenure scholars as a way of paying forward the support that we have received throughout our careers.

After some seven months, participants in the Remote Write on Site are beginning to reap the fruits of their labor. Projects begun and submitted during summer 2020 have been accepted for publication or have been published. The group delights each time someone reports a project’s acceptance. There is a shared sense of accomplishment and gratitude for the accountability, support, and mentorship. My desire to create a virtual community of collective support has been realized, and it proves that we can reimagine our spaces and our pathways and continue to be productive even in the most unsettling of times.

Portrait of CostabileDr. Carol Anne Costabile-Heming is Professor of German in the Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, University of North Texas (USA). She has published extensively on 20th- and 21st-century German literature and culture, including essays on censorship in the GDR, the role of the Stasi in the GDR public sphere, and on the authors Ingeborg Bachmann, Volker Braun, Friedrich Christian Delius, Jürgen Fuchs, Günter Grass, Günter Kunert, Peter Schneider, and Christa Wolf. Her current monograph, Friedrich Christian Delius: Witnessing German History is under contract with Camden House. Her research has been supported by the DAAD, NEH, ACLS, Fulbright Commission, and the Deutsches Literaturarchiv.