This account of my experience with the Sweetland Dissertation Writing Groups (DWGs) must start with a public confession: regarding dissertation writing and chapter-producing, the fourth year of my doctoral studies at U-M was not very productive.
Of course, I did a lot of valuable readings, took many notes and wrote short respectable paragraphs, visited archives, fulfilled some previous publishing commitments (thinking about my CV!), enriched my academic experiences by attending seminars and reading groups, kept my ancient language studies, and I even completed the mandatory prospectus, in which I set out in detail a promising, yet still non-existing, thesis (I hope I covered all the instances in which a graduate student can get lost). However, all throughout the year, an uncomfortable feeling accompanied me whenever I went: I knew that the promising-yet-non-existing thesis was always there, lurking in the dark. Moreover, another no less disturbing feeling weighed on me: I feared that my committee was expecting a coherent, flawlessly written, and perfect first chapter from me. Thus, all these thoughts prevented me from advancing.
I started my fifth year with these ominous presages. While searching for a lifeline, I paid attention to one of those e-mails full of constructive advice for graduate students at the beginning of each term; in this case, it was a message by our benevolent graduate chair. I spotted the Sweetland Center for Writing website in his e-mail, and luckily, I applied immediately to participate in the Sweetland DWGs. It was the best thing I could have done.
Once my group of four members was in motion, it was easy to organize a schedule among us. Each member had to send excerpts of his or her work (about 15-20 pages) in order to receive feedback from the rest. There would be two meetings for each member, eight in total.
Suddenly, my turn came. I quickly discovered that it was not difficult at all to face less pressing deadlines like those of our reading group. Actually, submitting excerpts to the DWG was a wonderful training for the imperative deadlines that would come later. My arguments and general goals were – more or less – clear from the prospectus. So, when my turn came I just put together scattered fragments, organized my first twenty-two pages, and sent them. What follows are my conclusions of that first meeting and the many others that came after it.
Sweetland’ recommended that we first comment on what works well and can be understood from our peers’ text. This positive criticism is the best way to start. When your fellow graduate students can see that you were able to develop a claim that is worth arguing, or simply wrote a good paragraph, this encouragement shows you the path to follow. Of course, after some nice reactions, we must also focus on what needs work. For example, that statement may be as brilliant as you think, but not in the middle of two completely unrelated sentences, your ‘alternative structure’ may be dangerously close to lacking any structure at all, or you may be providing too much information without elaborating it. In short, if you indulge in a somewhat unsystematic approach to your well-chosen topic, the DWG meeting will give you an opportunity to notice it.
But the most challenging component of the DWG is that you are usually addressing a group of graduate students from other departments who are not specialists in your own field, and this kind of audience can be a big test for your skills and self-confidence. Of course, in the process you will also learn a great deal. The DWG works against the entrenchment of positions which afflicts many graduate students (i.e., “Nobody outside my field can understand the genius embedded in what I am writing”). Actually, you do know that many people outside your field will necessarily read your work in the job market, so you must learn how to be clear and demonstrate your domain of expertise well. For non-specialists, you have to develop concise definitions of those complex, abstract terms that “everybody in your field is supposed to know.” If you get lost in highly specific and not always coherent ways, you will have your first clues of that too. If you are used to sheltering yourself behind those big authorities “who demonstrate the value of your evidences,” maybe at the end you will have to prove that those experts you use are truly experts. In a similar way, your peers’ comments can force you to think twice about whether that fascinating theoretical approach you are turning to is really working out in your text. In the end, you will acknowledge that your new friends really help you prevent some unforeseen risks.
Rather than complaining about your non-specialist readers, you can make the most of them. In the DWG you have the advantage of working with many people who will look at your topic from multiple perspectives — precisely what you have to do in your thesis! They will uncover for you potential links between your ideas and something you completely ignored, or show you new interdisciplinary trends perfectly applicable to your work. Of course, then you will have the task of finding connections between those disparate ideas or viewpoints about your writing, but the first step is done. You will also discover what arose curiosity and what didn’t, what is taken into account and what is ignored, or if some parts are worth engaging with in more detail. Lastly, all academic writing shares a common ground, even though it might come from different fields. Thus, if your colleague in the group definitely has a talent for shaping paragraphs, try to find out how he or she is doing it. You can learn a great deal from how your peers argue effectively, build smooth transitions, draw attention to the main points, or format their texts in an elegant way.
Sweetland provides materials and — even better — qualified advisors, who make this quest easier. However, not everything in the DWG is about your advancing in writing your dissertation, because there is also much you can do to help other graduate students. For vocational teachers or simply philanthropic group mates, that task can be the most satisfactory. By reading your colleagues’ texts, you will appraise evidence from their soundness and their relevance to a particular argument, you will determine potential causes of a problem, or suggest which findings to highlight. By assessing your peers’ writing, sometimes you will be acutely aware that the main idea is not clearly conveyed; if so, how can you help them make more explicit the valuable information that is embedded in the texts? In the best-case scenario, you will detect and nurture the strengths of others and propose ways to overcome weaknesses.
After one semester as a group member, I took on the responsibility of a group leader, which gave me additional duties. I scheduled and ran focused and efficient meetings. Sometimes this implies being aware of the group dynamics, particularly if someone is extremely quiet or speaks all the time. How can you motivate your peers to get their voices heard in a meeting? To criticize others’ work can be extremely complicated, especially if it looks great in the first reading. However, praise alone is not usually the best aid you can offer. To identify – and not ignore – problems is an art in itself. One fine day some of us will help undergraduate and graduate students as their advisors. At the DWG you can find an opportunity to start assuming that extremely difficult role.
All the tasks performed in the DWG remain with you for a long time as you write your thesis. Those comments serve not only for the most difficult mission of dissertation writers – the revision of one’s own writing – but also to create new materials based on the feedback you receive. Finally, by weighing positive and negative feedback – including, of course, that of your advisors – it is possible to develop a cohesive project in which the various components align.
My first chapter was not perfect, by all means. However, I developed the habit of submitting new material whenever my turn in the DWG came, and in a slow but steady way I still try to assimilate all the feedback I received. Ultimately, these strains allow me now to produce new sections and chapters on a regular basis, and to amend what I have already done. My formerly promising-yet-non-existing thesis is now finally an endeavor on target. And what I have learned in the Sweetland Dissertation Writing Groups goes even further beyond that.
Applications for the 2017/2018 Sweetland Center for Writing Dissertation Writing Groups are due on Wednesday, September 6th, 2017, and can be submitted online.