By Ben Reed
Early in fall 2019, some informal conversations about ways to support and enhance the dissertation writing process in the department led to a coordinated effort among students, faculty, and staff to establish a new dissertation writing group. Doctoral candidate Daniel Runnels helped organize the initial meetings and snacks for writers. The goals from the outset have been simple: to provide a regular, dedicated space and time to focus on writing the dissertation, as well as informal discussion of writing strategies, to practice setting useful and manageable goals, reflection upon outcomes, and to enhance our group solidarity.
Although finding a time frame that works for everyone is a challenge to coordinate among more than 80 PhD students, our decision to focus on Friday morning meetings quickly attracted a core group of weekly attendees in fall 2019. In spring 2020, we were able to reserve our conference room and plan teaching schedules in advance, and regular attendees doubled! As with virtually every other aspect of campus life, the dissertation writing group transformed suddenly in mid-March into a weekly Zoom meeting in the wake of the university's precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus. The transition to a virtual meeting has increased our screen time, but it has done so with the same spirit of solidarity, through a gallery of personalized Zoom backgrounds, impromptu pet visits, and sharing resources for navigating the new teaching environment and supporting one another along the ups and downs of uncertainty.
Foremost among the group's many successes are the creation of an additional Tuesday afternoon writing group, organized by Mazinha Vieira, and additional one-on-one writing partnerships among students with mutual academic interests. From my own point of view, I have learned a great deal about the changes to our lives through our morning conversations and goal-setting activity, including everything from reviews of ethernet cables (to support a strong Zoom connection), to the impacts of remote teaching on SLA research, preparing for virtual conferences, navigating increases in virtual office hours, and celebrating department birthdays in new ways. Spring 2020 brought us all unprecedented challenges, and the department's dissertation writing group has helped us weather those changes together.