Supporting Faculty As Writers Supports Our Students

Faculty Write Program

By Jennifer Ahern-Dodson |

For the past 10 years, I’ve led the faculty writing initiative Duke Faculty Write. The goal: to advance faculty writing through writing retreats and workshops, writing groups and peer mentoring, and consultations and coaching. Since it began in 2012, over four hundred faculty have participated in the program’s signature Summer Scholarly Writing Retreat and Workshop as well as academic year writing retreats and faculty writing groups. With the support of the program, participating faculty have published books and book chapters, academic articles, edited collections, blog posts and op-eds, earned grants, teaching awards, fellowships, and promotions, delivered sermons, presented conference papers and invited lectures, and started writing groups within their own departments and programs. And, perhaps more importantly, they have been part of a growing community of writers, staying connected to their writing and to each other after the summer writing retreat ends. 

So why am I writing for a blog focused on teaching? 

When faculty are supported as writers, they can also grow as teachers. In a longitudinal study of faculty participants in an annual summer writing retreat, my colleague Monique Dufour and I noticed what we call a “turn to teaching.” As faculty overcome challenges, learn new skills, and achieve their goals, they can also apply these insights and accomplishments to the student writers that they work with. Support for faculty writers can be leveraged in ways that also make a big difference for students.

Here are five ways that supporting faculty as writers supports our students:

  1. We learn that challenges can and do arise in the writing process, even for the most experienced and accomplished scholars.  Duke Faculty Write focuses on helping writers accept that challenges are a part of writing, and that learning to accept and overcome them is a key to making progress. What a good lesson to extend to students, too. When we get stuck in our own work, we can have compassion for students when they get stuck in theirs. When we participate in writing retreats and learn how to set realistic expectations for what we can accomplish during dedicated writing time, we can teach students to acknowledge and work within the time that they have. When we realize that relentless demands on our time make it hard to find time to write, we can consider how students are coping with the demands on theirs. We can consider that if we are feeling the strain of a culture of speed, students are as well.  
  1. We learn that writing is a lifelong skill, and we continue to develop as writers throughout our careers. How we wrote as graduate students is likely not the same as how we are writing now. We are writing for scholarly publication, and we are writing promotion dossiers, letters of recommendation, grant proposals, committee reports, and teaching statements. We need different kinds of support if we are pre-tenure or mid-career faculty returning to our scholarship after serving as department chairs or other administrative service, or if we are in a pandemic and trying to be fully present with our students, but struggling ourselves. So, too, for our students. What they need as first-year students is not the same as when they are seniors writing a thesis. When we get support developing our own writing skills as our writing contexts change, we remember students need support to develop skills over time as they gain more expertise in their disciplines. We need to help them expand their repertoire to be more adept and responsive to different writing contexts. We need to help them to build on what they learn as first-year writers as they develop their writing, thinking, and disciplinary practices–just as we do in our own careers. Writing proficiency is not a badge to earn, or a just class to complete–it’s a challenge to meet for the work at hand. 
  1. We remember when thinking really hard about something, learning something new, or figuring something out, it can be hard to write well. Sometimes our writing gets worse before it gets better! As we think about how to make sense of our data, or analyze artifacts, or read over long interviews, or inspect documents, we may not yet know how to write clearly for ourselves, nevermind and communicate our ideas to our audience. Often, we need space for messy thinking on the page, and we need readers who understand that good ideas take time to develop, articulate and revise for publication. We remember we need time to find clarity. When we remember what our writing looks like when we are unsure what we are arguing or where to find more evidence or how to respond to a critic, we can then think about how to design our classes so they allow students that space to be curious, to get a little lost and have a chance to figure things out (it’s usually not in one paper due at the end of the semester).
  1. We learn the importance of meaningful, supportive feedback. Sometimes as writers we focus too much on the negative critiques of our work. We remember the sting when an article gets rejected, or the confusion when a reviewer’s comments may be mean spirited or vague or unhelpful in a revise-and-resubmit and we are unsure how to respond. We remember what it feels like to be pulled in different directions by our research, not knowing what to choose. In retreats and writing groups, we learn that it’s important to have readers who can help us when we’re stuck in the muck, to encourage and offer specific suggestions, and remind us we know things. We learn how to ask for the feedback we need, and prohibit the feedback we don’t. We learn how to be a good reader! We remember that writing is complex and a practice that takes ongoing attention and feedback to keep momentum going. When we make the turn to teaching, we consider how to build meaningful instructor and peer feedback practices into our teaching and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students, to use our feedback repertoire to notice when they are stuck in the muck, and identify what they may need to move forward (which is not necessarily what we might need in our own writing).  
  1. We remember that a supportive writing community can make a profound difference. It’s not just about the products (although those are important to us in our jobs). It’s not just about the grades (although those are important to our students, even if we don’t want them to be). When we write with other faculty and talk about our ideas, we remember what got us excited about our fields to begin with, and that writing is thinking, too, not just an output or line on a CV. When faculty participate in writing retreats and writing groups that are designed to promote non-judgmental, non-hierarchical, and non-competitive spaces that promote curiosity about how writing happens and what it feels like to be in a space that’s not performative around scholarship, it can help us remember that the experience of writing matters, too. We learn how much more meaningful it is to be asked, “What excites you about your project” or “what are you trying to think about or understand with your project” rather than “what are you working on” (and we respond, “an article,” “book chapter,” “grant proposal”). When we make the turn to teaching, we consider how our classroom practices and course designs might contribute to competitiveness within a course, might privilege summative (grades) over formative (in process) assessment, or might neglect to position students as peer leaders in the class. We can apply what we learned from our experience with peer mentoring around our own writing to create opportunities for students to learn and to contribute to a collective learning enterprise that is inclusive of all writers. 

I’ve argued elsewhere that what faculty writers need is spaces that legitimize community and value experience as much as products. What I want to argue here is that what students need is faculty who are supported, who feel a sense of belonging, and who can make meaningful connections between their own writing experiences and their students’.

Supporting faculty as writers supports our students. As we work toward the new curriculum, let’s remember that we don’t have to keep our own writing separate from our teaching. We don’t have to choose between support for our writing and support for our teaching.  If we want students to feel a sense of belonging and to have meaningful connections across the curriculum, we need to make spaces for faculty to feel supported across their roles and responsibilities and to connect meaningfully with others across the curriculum as we do at Duke Faculty Write.

Jennifer Ahern-Dodson is an Associate Professor of the Practice in Writing Studies. She directs the Duke Faculty Write Program and leads writing retreats at Duke and other institutions and for organizations such North Carolina Campus Compact and the Central New York Humanities Corridor. In collaboration with Monique Dufour (Virginia Tech), she offers workshops on how to apply writing retreat insights to teaching.

In addition, she leads the Bacca Fellowship Program, and the 2022-23 Bacca fellows cohort will focus on aligning their teaching and scholarship. Deadline for applications is May 5th.

 The Duke Faculty Write Program is a faculty-led initiative sponsored by the Thompson Writing Program, with generous support from the Office of the Dean of Trinity College.