Using Zoom Breakout Rooms to Build Community in an Online Class

Well, somehow an entire semester flew by without a blog post and now we’re already a full month in to the new year! Part of me wants to apologize for not posting as frequently as I intended; however, in addition to teaching a new (to me) course, I held an administrative position as Writing Program Assistant, participated in a dissertation seminar, completed a dissertation chapter, and began my first foray into the academic job market. These were all great experiences, but sadly something had to give, and it was this blog.

I’m also excited to share that I had two publications released: a chapter in the edited collection Consumption and the Literary Cookbook (Routledge) and a co-authored course design in the Fall issue of Composition Studies. I fully intend to post about my (admittedly limited) experiences with writing/revising/submitting pieces for publication at some future point, especially what has helped me as a graduate student.

But now, the actual focus of this post…

Image of Keyboard with the Shift Key replaced by the word Strategies

This past fall, I taught Professional Communication for Engineers at my university. Not only was it my first time teaching the course, but it was also my first semester teaching entirely remotely (synchronous class held via Zoom in conjunction with a Canvas course site). As a result, I was really worried about being able to foster a sense of community in the class, since some of the ways this happens in an in-person class (e.g. students chatting with each other as they arrive) doesn’t seem to translate to a Zoom environment.

One method that I found highly effective was using Zoom breakout rooms at the beginning of class, which I referred to as Community-Building Rooms. I randomly assigned students to breakout rooms in groups of 3-5, gave them a discussion starter question (e.g. What TV show are you currently binging? Where is your favorite place to eat near campus?), and then allowed them 5 minutes to just chat with each other. I did not enter these break out rooms (instead I used this time to take attendance) and made it clear to students that they could discuss the question and/or whatever else they wanted. My hope was that these daily breakouts would give students a chance to interact with one another in a way they might normally do through before-class chatter in a physical classroom. 

I was pleasantly surprised at the results. In an anonymous end-of-semester survey, I asked students to tell me what worked (and what didn’t) in the course, particularly regarding the remote delivery. Almost universally (and totally unprompted), students specifically mentioned these breakout rooms as a highlight of the course and something that gave them much-needed human connection and a sense of community. While this activity took about 10% of each instructional period, it seems to have filled a very important need for students faced with full days of remote instruction. If you’re looking to incorporate more student interactivity this semester in your remote class, I encourage you to give this strategy a try.

Searching for other classroom activities? Here are some posts from the archives:

Start-of-Semester Activity: Introduction Letters

Classroom Activity: How Perspective Shapes Perception

In the Classroom: Last-Day-of-Class Activities

Start-of-Semester Activity: Introduction Letters

Well, we’re back in it folks–another academic year is upon us! Of course, as we’re all tired of hearing by now, this semester is going to be anything but typical (at least, if you’re in the U.S. where COVID-19 is still running rampant). But after taking some time off from teaching (and blogging) this summer, I’m ready to jump back in. This semester I am teaching ENGL 398: Professional Communication for Engineers (a professional and technical writing course). This is my first time teaching this course, and it will be quite a change after teaching creative writing most recently, but I am looking forward to trying something new!

In honor of the new semester, I’m using today’s post to share an assignment I regularly use during the first week of classes. If you’re already a couple of weeks into the semester, don’t worry–you could implement it a bit later as a way to touch base with students. Since I am teaching completely remotely this semester, I have adapted the assignment slightly (which I’ll touch on later in this post). I will also share my own letter for ENGL 398 (I adapt the letter slightly each semester) with you as I do with my students.

One last note: I make no claim to have originated this assignment. I found a version of it online once upon a time and have adapted it to my courses and personality.

Assignment Nuts-and-Bolts

Depending on how much I am using a LMS in a given semester, I either ask students to post this assignment to Canvas or submit it to me as an email. Below are the instructions I use for this Intro Letter assignment:

“Hello wonderful students,

In order to help me get to know you, I would like you to compose a 1-2 page “letter” introducing yourself to me as your instructor. You can type up this letter and/or make a video recording–whatever you prefer! This letter will include a description of your past experience with and relationship to writing that responds to the following questions:

  • What types of writing do you engage in? This includes writing both inside and outside of school, such as essay assignments, lab reports, emails, social media, creative writing, etc.
  • What do you like or love about writing?
  • What do you hate or fear about writing?
  • What (if anything) do you expect from this class?
  • Anything else you would like me to know about you.

I am also participating in this assignment: you can find my letter [here].”

Assignment Benefits

As you can see, the assignment is pretty straightforward. Despite that, though, I find I learn a lot about students from these letters. I get insight into their anxieties about writing right off the bat, which allows me to look for patterns of worry that I can address throughout the semester. I am also often surprised by how frequently students write something along the lines of “I used to love writing when I was little, but somewhere around [late elementary/middle/high school] it became an activity I dread.” I don’t promise to get every student in my classes to love writing again, but I find it useful for both myself and students to reflect a bit on what they like and don’t like about writing. We usually get at least one productive class discussion out of it!

I also think it’s useful to remind students that they do a lot of writing that is not school-related. I believe broadening students’ conceptualization of writing can get them out of a “I love/hate ALL writing” mindset to “Okay, I guess I like writing some things but not others–why is that?” self-reflection and metacognition can help students break down binary thinking, and this assignment is an easy way for students to practice these skills.

I mentioned earlier that I adapted this assignment slightly to remote teaching. The major change I made was that I recorded myself reading my letter as well as including the written version (students can opt to either watch or read). I also gave students the option of posting a written version of their letter or submitting a recording of their own. My campus gives us access to Echo360 recording software (which is now integrated with Canvas, our LMS), which made recording, editing, and posting the video pretty painless for me. (I actually wanted to share my video letter here as well, but posting video is not included in the free version of WordPress.)

Occasionally, I also ask students to post a modified version of their letter to our online discussion board as a way of introducing themselves to their classmates. I make sure to tell them that they are free to include as much or as little of the original letter as possible (for example, sometimes students disclose personal information to me as their instructor that they wouldn’t necessarily share with their peers). I am definitely doing this again this semester, as I hope it will help us all feel more a part of a community.

So that’s it. If you give this assignment a try (or if you’ve done something similar in the past), I would love to hear about it!

My First Experiment with Labor-Based Contract Grading

You might have heard about labor-based or contract-based grading practices as part of a larger movement against traditional grading practices (for example: this piece and this piece by Prof. Jennifer Hurley, this piece by Alfie Kohn, and this piece by Jesse Stommel). At the heart of these debates about grading as an assessment of learning is often questions about what is being measured, how it is being measured, and whether such an assessment contributes to student learning. Other teacher-scholars, such as Asao Inoue have pointed out the ways racism can be inadvertently perpetuated through traditional assessment methods.

Labor-based and contract-based grading have been introduced as an alternative form of assessment. As the name implies, labor-based grading focuses on the time and effort a student invests in an assignment rather than the outcome. This method of grading is often (but not always) communicated to students in the form of grading contracts. (If this is all brand-new to you, it might be helpful to read Traci Gardner’s infographic on labor-based grading geared towards students.) These contracts vary in degree of “contractual” language employed, but they are essentially a document that outlines what the students need to complete in a given semester to earn a particular letter grade. The labor asked of students therefore varies based on the grade they choose to work for.

I experimented with labor-based grading methods this past semester (Spring 2020) in my Introduction to Creative Writing course. I felt labor-based grading would be particularly well-suited to my teaching philosophy for introductory creative writing: to motivate students to experiment and push themselves out of their comfort zones as they learn basic craft elements of poetry and fiction.

In the remainder of this post, I will first describe my past experience with teaching introductory creative writing using traditional grading methods. I think this previous experience is a useful backdrop for understanding my desire to change my assessment methods (but if you don’t think so, feel free to skip it). I will then compare that experience to my experiment with contract grading in Spring 2020. Finally, I will conclude with a list of resources for those who might wish to delve more deeply into this assessment methodology (including sample grading contracts I have found online).

My Experience Using Traditional Grading Methods in the Creative Writing Classroom

When I first taught introductory creative writing in Fall 2018, I used traditional grading methods despite the fact that I did not feel comfortable grading students on the “quality” of their writing when many of them were writing poetry and fiction for the first time. Furthermore, at the STEM-oriented institution where I currently teach, many of the students who enroll in introductory creative writing are not English majors or minors–they are coming to the course as a pure elective. At such a beginner stage, I don’t want students to get hung up on whether or not they are “good” writers; rather, I want them to focus on their writing choices and the effect of these choices on potential readers.

For better or worse, students* have been trained to view traditional grading practices (A-F or point-based grading scales) as measuring the quality of what they produce. While some teachers might have found a way to get students to take risks while using traditional grading practices, I found such practices constrained even my thinking about student assessment. Here is the grading policy in my 2018 syllabus:

“When grading the writing you produce in this course, I will focus on your timely completion of assignments and the way that you navigate the revision process in particular. Your thoughtful participation in discussions and workshops and your commitment to mindfully developing your work over the course of the semester will also be considered. The percentage breakdown for the course grade is as follows:

Participation                                                               5%
Collection Journal                                                      5%
Daily Writing Exercises                                             10%
Workshop Drafts                                                        25%
Workshop Feedback                                                   25%
Short Story/Creative Nonfiction/Poetry Collection Paper        10%
Final Portfolio                                                              20%”

This sort of breakdown probably looks pretty familiar. I don’t necessarily think the process of weighing activities/tasks differently was the problem, but this given that I am also a product of the American education system, framing evaluation in this way made it difficult for me to deviate from the rubrics and standards with which I was familiar.

Despite regularly encouraging students to revise their work if they were not happy with the original grade, I found that when faced with a choice between a risky move or a “safe” one, they nearly always opted for the latter. They did not want anything less than an A on their initial submissions, even with the opportunity to revise. We might be tempted here to blame the students themselves (or their parents) for seeming so risk-averse. But considering that students have spent their entire educational lives up to this point being rewarded for conformity (whether through standardized testing or trying to guess a particular instructor’s taste), is it any wonder that they continue to play it safe in college?

I also noted this semester that students tended to ignore the feedback on their stories and poems from their peers during workshops unless it coincided with my own. I again attribute this move to the assessment methods I was using: why bother listening to their classmates when in the end it was the instructor’s opinion that mattered? (This observation led me to change my workshop and feedback methods during Spring 2020, which I describe in a previous post.)

My Experience Using Labor-Based Contract Grading in the Creative Writing Classroom

Before I describe my experience this semester, I should note that the conditions for this experiment were not ideal: due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all courses at my institution were moved online following Spring Break in mid-March, and I revised my expectations of students to reflect the extraordinary circumstances (a decision I plan to discuss in a future post). This mean that for all intents and purposes, I essentially disregarded the grading contracts my students signed after mid-semester. My students, however, did not necessarily do the same (but I’ll get to that later).

I found the biggest difference of grading contracts versus traditional grading methods to be in the amount of up-front work required. I spent several hours over several days writing and revising my grading contract (this was on-top of all the research I had done on contract grading). The benefit to this up-front time investment is that it left me free to focus on providing feedback and support to students during the course of the semester, rather than measuring their work against a rubric and assigning points or letter grades to their writing. I found that this dramatically shifted how I approached student writing: I was no longer looking at it through the mindset of whether it “merited” an A, B, C, etc, but rather reading it for what it was–an experiment or work-in-progress. This shift to contract grading revealed to me how so much of the “feedback” I typically provide students is really a justification of the grade I’m assigning. Without having to give each piece a grade, I approached their work with a generous spirit (the mindset I always want to have but find difficult to maintain with traditional assessment methods).

I opted to distribute the grading contracts separately from my syllabus, so as not to overwhelm students on the first day of classes and give me the opportunity to discuss this assessment method with them in class in advance. Here is the language I used in my syllabus to introduce labor-based, contract grading to students:

“I do not believe traditional grading practices are conducive to the spirit and goals of this course. In my experience, it is difficult for students to take risks, experiment, and try something new when they fear being graded on the outcome. Additionally, this is a purely elective course, and I assume you would not be taking it if you didn’t want to take risks, experiment, and try something new! However, the university still requires grades, so we will be using a contract grading method this semester. More information on contract grading will be provided during the first week of the semester.”

The actual contract I distributed to students is linked below.

Because of it’s length, I will just share a preview of what constituted “A-level” work in this course:

  • Attend class regularly (missing no more than 2 classes)
    • Missing more than 2 classes will result in a .5 grade reduction for each additional absence.
  • Fulfill participation/engagement expectations (as outlined in syllabus)
  • Submit drafts of 5 poems
  • Significant reimagining of 3 poems
  • Submit 3 revised and polished poems in your Final Portfolio. NOTE: These should be the same poems as the ones you “significantly reimagined”; final versions of poems should be substantially different from original drafts and significant reimaginings of poems!
  • One of the following fiction options:
    • Microfiction Option
    • Submit 2 microfiction drafts (500 words or fewer)
    • Submit a significant reimagining of 1 of your microfiction drafts (500 words or fewer)
    • Submit 2 revised and polished microfiction stories (500 words or fewer) in your Final Portfolio. NOTE: final versions should be substantially different from both original drafts and your significant reimagining (i.e. not just cleaning up grammar and calling it a revision)
    • Short Story Option
    • Submit 1 short story draft (full story; 1000-3500 words)
    • Submit 1 significant reimagining of your short story draft (full story; 1000-3500 words)
    • Submit 1 revised and polished short story (full story; 1000-3500 words) in your Final Portfolio. NOTE: final version should be substantially different from both original draft and your significant reimagining (i.e. not just cleaning up grammar and calling it a revision)
  • Satisfactory completion of Author’s Note reflections accompanying each draft of poetry, microfiction, and short story pieces
  • Timely submission of feedback on ALL of your writing group’s drafts (as defined by guidelines)
  • Satisfactory and timely completion of short story/poetry collection essay (as defined by assignment sheet)
  • Satisfactory and timely completion of final reflection (as defined by assignment sheet) in your Final Portfolio.”

While students certainly had questions after I distributed the contracts and they had a chance to look them over, they were mostly clarification questions, and I did not meet any overt resistance to the idea of labor-based assessment methods. If anything, they appeared excited at knowing exactly what they were expected to produce during the semester and the ability to “control their own destiny,” as it were, by agreeing to the terms in advance. As the semester progressed, I did not run into the usual barrage of questions about what a student’s grade was in that exact moment, since they knew that if they were completing what was on their contract, they were receiving the grade they had contracted for. I was also never approached to justify a particular grade, since students knew that if they had not satisfactorily completed an assignment, I would email them and let them know it needed further work to be counted (this actually didn’t happen much at all, though).

The biggest hiccup (other than the pandemic), was that I had a couple of students with disability accommodations for flexible attendance–something I hadn’t anticipated, but certainly should have. (I have somehow not had students with relevant disability accommodations in my classes up until this point–it was previously accommodations for things like testing which I don’t do in a writing class.) Initially, I was concerned that attendance accommodations would throw off the contract system, but after meeting with a representative from the Disability Resource Office, I understood how I could meet these specific students’ needs within my contract system. (The compromise, for those who are curious, was to allow these students up to 6 absences without penalty, but more than that would result in failing the course.) So in the end, this turned out to be a non-problem.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of this section, I cannot consider this first experiment with labor-based contract grading a true representation of the method, as the pandemic caused me to radically re-evaluate what I would require from students for the second-half of the semester. The short version here is, I basically threw the contracts out the window and allowed students to self-grade for the period of the course affected by the pandemic. Many of the students, however, continued to work towards the grade they had contracted for and explicitly referred to their contract in email communication and in their final reflection papers.

Despite the fact that I did not maintain focus on the grading contracts through the end of the semester, a couple students referred to them in their course evaluations. Here are some comments:

“Grading procedures fit very well with the class – less pressure to “write well,” so I could focus on being creative.

“I liked the grading structure of this course, and felt that it encouraged growth and creativity better than traditional grading.”

“The grading policy was very clear.”

“Super easy to understand what was expected from a student, and it was extremely pleasant to have a professor so committed to my growth as a creative writer.”

This positive student response to the grading contracts, coupled with my experience (as the instructor) in deploying them, has convinced me to return to this assessment method again in the future, both for creative writing and other writing classes. While I do not believe labor-based contract grading is necessarily suitable for all courses (and obviously contracts will look different for each course in which they are used), I think it’s worth considering this assessment method in your own classroom–especially if traditional grading practices have never sat well with you.

Additional Resources**

In addition to my own grading contract posted above, I’m linking some additional resources on the topic of labor-based contract grading (including other sample grading contracts). If you are interested in employing this assessment method in your own classroom–or are just interested in the topic–I recommend checking out some of these pieces.

Cordell, Ryan. “How I Contract Grade.” (includes two sample syllabi)

Elbow, Peter. “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching [co-written with Jane Danielewicz].”

Hurley, Jennifer. Grading Contract.

Inuoe, Asao. Grading Contract for ENGL 160W.

—. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom.

Litterio, Lisa M. “Contract grading in the technical writing classroom: Blending community-based assessment and self-assessment.”

Rajabzadeh, Shokoofeh. “Labor Contract.”

SUNY Cortland. “Grading Contracts 101.”

Warner, John. Discussion of Contract Grading from Inside Higher Ed (Part I and Part II)

* I am primarily describing American students, or students who study in the United States and have therefore adapted to our grading practices. These are the students I have taught, and I do not wish to unfairly conflate other countries’ approaches to grading and assessment in this piece.

**I want to thank my colleague Joe Spieles for sharing many of these resources with me.

Why and How to Form a Grad Student Support Group

Hands-down, one of the best decisions I’ve made during my PhD program was joining a PhD support group (sometimes referred to as accountability or writing groups–I’m using “support group” as an umbrella term in this post). Graduate school can be an isolating experience, especially once you’re out of coursework, and a support group can provide you with the community you may be missing. Such groups are also extremely helpful in giving you some external motivation to do your work at times when your internal motivation might be running low.

My current support group affectionately refers to ourselves as “Accountabilibuddies,” which I think captures the essence of an effective group: you should be working with people who are interested in supporting you and holding you accountable to your goals and whom you can support in return. In this post, I’ll be talking about my experience forming and participating in a couple different support groups and sharing some tips and advice for creating one of your own.

Why Form a Grad Student Support Group?

I’m already sold! Tell me how to get started.

As I mentioned above, a support group is a small community that helps you reach your graduate school goals. Maybe you’re still in coursework, and you’re looking for people to co-work or study with. Maybe you’re working on a prospectus, thesis, dissertation, or article manuscript and want someone outside of your advisor to bounce ideas off of or provide feedback on your drafts. Maybe you’re looking for people with whom to share advice or experience. Maybe you’ve found that you need help with motivating yourself to work. Or maybe you just want to feel less alone in the grad school experience. Depending on how you structure it, a support group can accomplish any and all of these things!

You might decide that a writing-specific support group is the best fit for your needs. Peg Boyle Single endorses writing groups in her book Demystifying the Dissertation, as does Wendy Belcher in Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks (I highly recommend both of these books, by the way). Belcher also facilitates a Facebook Group (Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks Discussion) if you’re looking for something specifically on that theme or just want low-organization writing support.

My Experiences with Grad Student Support Groups

I have been part of three separate support groups during my grad school career. The first was an already-formed writing group of English PhD students at my university that I was invited to join during the first year of my PhD program. The three founding members of the group were all 2+ years into their PhDs (which in my program, means they were out of coursework and were either at the prospectus- or dissertation-writing stages). This group met once-a-month at one of our group members’ residences, and each member would bring a project to work on during the meeting. For me, this usually meant a paper for a course. Sometimes, we would workshop someone’s writing. However, these meetings were also a chance for socializing, and I found that they were invaluable in giving me an “inside scoop” into my program and insight into the “road ahead.” By bringing me into the fold, the founding members were able to take on an informal mentorship role and saw just how far they had come since the start of their PhD journey. This group lasted for the first 2-3 years of my doctoral program (when the founding members graduated and moved on to other awesome things), and these women have all become close friends.

The second support group I was part of was much shorter-lived and focused on accountability. I formed this group at the start of Summer 2018, which was the summer between Years 2 and 3 of my PhD program (when I was working on my dissertation prospectus), and it lasted only until the start of the next academic year. I had been thinking about joining an online-only accountability group, but I didn’t want to pay to join one brokered by a company (these do exist, btw). So I reached out to friends from my MA program and one of the founding members of the group I described above, all of whom were post-coursework and wanted to remain productive over the summer. In other words, our group included five members from three different English PhD programs, not all of whom knew each other. I set up monthly Google Sheets and shared them with the other group members. Each group member had their own tab on the spreadsheets set up with a calendar; otherwise, they were able to customize their sheet to reflect their goals and how they wanted to document their progress.

While the second support group did not survive past that summer, I used my experience forming and moderating that group to start my third group–the one I’m currently a part of. This time around I wanted a hybrid online/in-person group experience, so I reached out to three other PhD students in my program (I’m a cohort of 1, so it happened that they were all at an earlier stage of the program). I used the Google Sheets template I had developed from my online-only accountability group to create a space for us to post daily goals & accomplishments, share struggles, and support one another (see photos below for an example of my tab from November 2019). The in-person component involves meeting for an hour once a month to chat about our current goals and projects, celebrate accomplishments and progress, and share our struggles and concerns (we have been doing this via Zoom since the pandemic). We close out each meeting by sharing our goals for the next month. As the most “senior” member of the group, I get the satisfaction of sharing my experience with the other members, and we all benefit from each other’s support and the sense of accountability to our little community.

Snapshots of my spreadsheet tab from November 2019.

How Do I Form a Grad Student Support Group?

There isn’t one static process for starting a support group, but I’m going to give you a step-by-step guide below. Feel free to mix the steps to your preference! If you already have a group of people in mind, you can of course involve them in the decision making process.

  1. Decide what kind of experience you’d prefer. Entirely online? In-person or synchronous? A bit of both?
  2. Think about how long you want this group to operate. A summer or semester)? A year or more? Do you want to start with a one-month trial period? (If you’re not sure, you can wait and decide this with your future group members.)
  3. What is the group’s focus? Is it writing-specific, where you’ll workshop drafts? Is it more general accountability and support?
  4. Determine who you’d like to invite to your group (see Additional Tips & Advice below). Consider whether you want to work with members of your current program, people in the same discipline but at different schools, or other members of your university in different programs. Do you want to work with people at your same level (say, cohort members or people at the same stage as you), or would you like to mix people at varying stages of the program?
  5. Reach out to these prospective group members directly, or post an advertisement in your campus’s grad student Facebook group, subreddit, or other online forum. Make sure to be clear about your participation expectations for and the format of the group, so people know what they’d be signing up for.
  6. If your group is planning to use a joint spreadsheet, volunteer to set it up (I continue to be in charge of making each month’s spreadsheet for my current accountability group. It only takes me five minutes.) If you’re meeting in-person or synchronously, discuss with your group if you should meet at each other’s houses or a neutral location like a coffee shop (or pick your video conferencing platform if you’re social distancing). Volunteer to host the first meeting!
  7. Set up calendar invites and reminders, if desired, and decide what you’d like to do in the event a group member cannot attend a meeting (do you cancel or reschedule?).
  8. Ask all group members to set goals and communicate their needs to the group. Do they want to finish a dissertation chapter? Complete a certain amount of reading each day? Apply for a fellowship or grant? How do they want to be held accountable for their goals?

That’s pretty much it! The most important thing to getting a grad student support group off the ground is for everyone to get in the habit of participating. The “forming and norming” stages are when your group is at greatest risk of dissolving for lack of momentum.

Additional Tips & Advice

  • I think the ideal size of an accountability group is 4-5 members. This number is manageable for a one-hour meeting and gives each member access to a range of perspectives.
  • In my opinion, a successful support group’s members should care more about collegiality than competition. The goal of a support group isn’t to one-up one another–it’s to support one another! Therefore, if you’re planning to form a group, think about people who would be willing to celebrate your successes and lift you up during your low moments.
  • I believe all members of a support group need a willingness to be vulnerable. Really, this comes down to emotional honesty. It’s unfair to your other group members if they’re willing to share their struggles and you are unwilling to reciprocate.
  • What is shared in the support group stays in the accountability group. Each individual should be able to trust that their groupmates will respect their privacy.
  • No one member should dominate the group discussion (particularly important for groups that meet synchronously). Each group member should get a chance to share during every meeting.
  • For asynchronous, online-only groups: I recommend asking each group member to check in on the spreadsheet every day, even if it’s just to write an encouraging note to a group member. This will help create the habit of entering goals and accomplishments in the spreadsheet and ensures that you’re all supporting each other regularly!
  • If a group member can no longer participate for whatever reason, it’s respectful to communicate that to the other group members (rather than ghosting).
  • Group members’ needs might change over time, especially if you’re forming a more general support group. One of your members might decide to quit the group or take a leave-of-absence from their academic program: it would be kind (if they’re willing) to continue supporting them as they make this transition, especially if they’re willing to continue supporting you.
  • It might take a bit for your group to find its rhythm. It will help if group members remain flexible, especially at the beginning, as you work out the ideal structure for your group.
  • Finally, it’s okay for a group to run its course! All good things must come to an end, after all.

Are you thinking of starting a grad student support group? Do you have experience in one and want to share your advice? If so, please comment on this post!

A List of Non-Academic Job Market Resources for Humanities Grad Students

When I first reached out to my undergrad professors about applying to English graduate programs, I was met with what at the time felt like a disheartening response. Yes, they would write me rec letters, but they also asked me to really think about why I wanted to get a PhD. “You have to want it for the degree itself,” they told me, “because a career as a professor is not guaranteed.” After some reflection, I decided that I did want the degree, even if a career teaching at a college or university didn’t appear at the end.

I’ve been thankful a number of times over the past 6 years that I started my grad school journey with that knowledge in-mind. Now that COVID-19 has turned our world upside down and made an already dismal academic job market comedically bad (see this, this, and this), I am even more thankful. Knowing I was pursuing a degree with no guarantee of the “traditional” job outcome at the end has meant I’ve always been thinking about how I would transition out of academia if needed (or, honestly, if I just decided that leaving academia was the right choice for me).

Unfortunately, graduate programs in the Humanities are still very much works-in-progress when it comes to counseling grad students on careers outside of academia. If the current pandemic has you thinking about non-ac jobs for the first time, you might be wondering where to even begin. I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but since this topic is probably on a lot of our minds, I thought I’d share some of the resources I’ve found over the years. To be clear, these resources are geared towards grad students in the Humanities (though many will likely also be applicable to those in the Social Sciences and/or STEM).

Finally, these are resources I’ve personally found useful or plan to read when they become available. I am not being compensated by any authors or companies for listing them. You should also check out your college or university’s Career Center and alumni network.


Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide by Christopher L. Caterine (forthcoming from Princeton UP, Fall 2020).

Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving In and Beyond the Classroom (forthcoming from Duke UP, Aug. 2020)

The Professor is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your PH.D. into a Job by Karen Kelsky (2015)–specifically the final section of the book: “Leaving the Cult”

“So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius (2014)

Succeeding Outside the Academy: Career Paths beyond the Humanities, Social Sciences, and STEM edited by Joseph Fruscione and Kelly J. Baker (2018)


Beyond the Professoriate

Imagine PhD (a FREE career exploration and planning tool for the humanities and social sciences)

The Beyond Tenure Track section of The Professor is In (these services are not free but might be worthwhile depending on your situation)

The Versatile PhD (check to see if your institution has a subscription)


“Not So Graceful Period: My Alt-Ac Story” by Kelly J. Baker (a good read if you’re considering freelance writing; you might also check out her memoir Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces about leaving academia)

“Overcoming the Ph.D. Stereotype” by Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood (2019)

“The Ph.D.’s Guide to a Nonfaculty Job Search” by L. Maren Wood (2014)

“‘Putting the Humanities PhD to Work’ (An interview with Katina Rogers)” by Scott Jaschik (July 8, 2020)

“What Can You Do With a Humanities Ph.D., Anyway?” by Elizabeth Segran (2014)


These are just a couple of general career-advice books, outside of well-known books like What Color is Your Parachute?

Designing Your Work Life: How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (2020; I read their earlier book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. This newer book appears to be focused on work specifically but I’m guessing maintains the same over-arching theme.)

Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One by Jenny Blake (2015)

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still anxious about my future job prospects (I’m scheduled to be on the job market this coming fall, after all), but knowing about these resources has kept me from complete panic.

I’m sure there are many great resources that I’m missing here. If you know of one, please send me a message or leave a recommendation in the comments!

In the Classroom: Last-Day-of-Class Activities

Think back to the last day of classes when you were an undergraduate student: what do you remember?

My memories are mixed. I don’t recall much about the last day of most of my classes–I’m guessing they involved course evaluations, and some definitely involved the teacher bringing in food. One thing I do remember is a creative writing professor distributing a list that combined life advice and well wishes for our future.

I can no longer find this list (although I’m certain I saved it), but I know one of the first pieces of advice was to invest in that which connects you to the earth: quality shoes on your feet and quality tires on your vehicle. While I still think of this particular advice every time I’m in the shoe aisle at Target, I think the list itself stayed with me because it was such a different–and therefore memorable–way to end a course. As an instructor now myself, I try to find ways to end my courses with something more memorable than course evals and food.

So in this post, I want to share a couple activities that I’ve tried over the years. They did not necessarily originate in my brain–I’m certain I got some ideas from this 2006 Chronicle of Higher Ed piece by James Lang. But as Lang mentions, last-day-of-class ideas are more difficult to find than first-day ones, and since the end of the semester is before us I thought I’d share a couple activities that I’ve tried.

Letters to Future Students

I first saw this activity in the Lang article I mentioned above. The premise is simple: ask students to write a “letter” to future students in the course describing what they will learn and what they need to do to succeed. The activity asks students to focus on their learning over the course of the semester as well as the habits that helped (or hindered) their experience. I have used this activity twice now, and each time I am struck by the insight it provides into my students’ experiences and their perceptions of me. I also think this activity is a good precursor to course evaluations, since it asks students to practice self-reflection (or metacognition, if you include the “Habits of Mind” developed by the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project in your syllabus, as I do.)

I also find that students become engaged with this activity because it asks them to help out their peers. I tell students that I plan to use include these letters as a supplement to my syllabus the next time I teach the course (which I do intend to do). Here are a couple examples of the letters I have received from students:

“Dear future student, 
In this class there are a few tips I have to succeed! I really enjoyed this class and I hope you do too! Remember to explore genres out of your comfort zone and enjoy the writing process.
1. Don’t procrastinate. Do your work as it is assigned and stay on top of things to avoid stress over due dates!
2.  Consider all feedback you receive, from your groups or instructor. This feedback is helpful and will allow you to become a better writer. 
3. Have fun! Be creative and don’t be afraid to tread out of your comfort zone. This class is a chance for you to express yourself and you should take advantage!”

“To future students, you will find this course to be one of the most challenging yet rewarding. It will make you step out of your comfort zone and then some. But it’s a good uncomfortable feeling, because there is a great support system in this class. Some tips for future students: 
– Go to class with a purpose, that is a goal to learn something. This mindset will help you learn something about your writing style, or a technique to incorporate. 
– Listen to your classmates. This class is filled with intelligent people from all different majors at case. You can learn a lot from them. 
– Don’t be hard on yourself. Writing is hard, but the environment created promotes taking chances and experimenting. This classroom promotes creativity.”

I ask students to post their letters to a discussion forum in Canvas, but you could ask them to submit in any way you choose–even anonymously.  

Visual Representation of Learning

The other last-day-of-class activity I’ll share to day is one that asks students to visually represent their learning in the course. I used this activity during the last day of my upper-level topical writing seminar.

I started this activity with an individual free-write exercise where students responded to the question: “Think back over what we’ve read, wrote, and discussed this semester. What has changed in your thinking about food and health since we started this course?”

After students had a chance to write for several minutes, I divided the class into small groups. Group members shared their free-writes with one another and were then tasked with revisiting the syllabus’ course objectives and reflecting on the different discussions and reading/writing activities we had done throughout the semester. Then, I distributed poster board, markers, and other art supplies (I also asked students to bring their own), for each group to create a visual representation of the thinking and learning they’d done in the course. This visual representation could be anything: a concept map, a comic, a graph, etc.

Here is an example of what students created:

Visual representation: drawings of some of the authors whose work we read during the semester (as well as of me–the figure in red)

I also recommend this activity as a way to help students relax a bit before finals. So often, this is the point of the semester where students are most sleep-deprived and anxious, and during this activity, I was able to see students become more relaxed and happy. I say let your students get a bit playful and silly with this activity if they want! There’s something therapeutic about arts-and-crafts.

If you’re wrapping up a semester of teaching, I hope you’re able to end things on a high note! Teaching is difficult work, and in case no one has told you this lately: You’re doing a great job.

Writing Assignment for Creative Writing Classes: Short Story/Poetry Collection Review

This week I’m offering up a critical writing assignment I designed for my Introduction to Creative Writing class. In addition to assigning students regular poetry and fiction exercises, I ask them to complete a 2-3 page “review” of a short story or poetry collection. (You could also include creative nonfiction essay collections, if that fits the genres covered in your course.) Students choose whether they want to work with fiction or poetry and select the specific collection to review (although I reserve the right of approving their choice). I find it’s a great way to introduce students to new (to them) writers/poets and counterbalances the breadth of reading in creative writing classes with a bit of depth.

I juxtapose breadth and depth because part of what creative writing instructors desire to do–at least in my experience–is to expose students to the sheer variety of wonderful short fiction and poetry that exists. We may also (rightly, IMO) want to showcase a diversity of writers/poets. The trade-off, of course, is that by emphasizing breadth it’s easy to sacrifice depth: it’s hard to assign an array of fiction and poetry while at the same time assigning multiple stories or poems by any particular person. As I explain to students, one of the benefits of reading many pieces by a particular writer/poet is getting a sense of their individual voice as well as the variety within one writer’s own oeuvre. The short story/poetry review assignment I have designed is one way of reconciling both breadth and depth.

Jump to assignment sheet.

Assignment Nuts-and-Bolts

I introduce this assignment to students quite early, during Week 2 of the semester. I also ask students to physically go to a library or bookstore to choose their collections (ideally, by the end of Week 3). Additionally, I give some restrictions on the collections students can select: I ask that they be written for the adult market (not children or YA), be published within the last 20 years (so they’re getting a sense of contemporary work), and be published by a press rather than self-published (a decision that is not without controversy but is an attempt at quality control). If a students’ choice meets these three parameters, then I nearly always give my approval, regardless of whether I personally like the work or think it is “good.” After I have approved students choices, I direct them to spend Weeks 2/3-9 reading and re-reading their collections.

I have chosen to give this assignment a “deadline window” rather then one firm due date. Because this is mostly a self-directed project–one that is theoretically going on in the “background” in addition to their regular homework for the course–I think it makes sense to give students agency on choosing when to write and submit their papers. Therefore, I ask students to post their papers sometime between Weeks 10 and 13 (past mid-terms but before finals are too close). At my university, this means students have Spring Break to read or write their papers (which is helpful for those who inevitably procrastinate). In my experience, students appreciate the flexible deadline window. As a bonus, a deadline window rather than a due date makes the assignment friendly for students with disabilities that require a flexible assignment deadline accommodation.

As for the review paper, I keep the requirements fairly open. In the assignment sheet, students are directed to write, “[2-3 double-spaced pages] about the book that examines the writer’s style, variation between pieces, patterns you notice, and the piece that most stood out to you (either because you loved it, hated it, didn’t get it, etc).” Students are also permitted to describe their feelings and reactions to the collection, as long as they also reflect on their reactions.

I choose to have students post their reviews to a discussion board in Canvas (my institution’s learning management system) so they are visible to the entire class. You could certainly ask students to submit them to you only, but the benefit of the discussion board method is that students are able to read each other’s reviews and perhaps find another collection they want to read. (On that note, I encourage students to read each other’s reviews but do not require it. You could, of course, require students to read and comment on all or a handful of their peers’ reviews.) If a student needs to revise their paper (see next paragraph), I ask them to submit the revision to me directly, so they are not publicly shamed in front of their peers.

My assessment of these reviews is pretty much “pass” or “revise and resubmit.” If a student addresses all of the facets of the assignment, they “pass.” If not, I ask them to do some revision (time for revision is another benefit of having the paper due a few weeks before the end of the semester). A more comprehensive assessment would also be perfectly compatible with this assignment, particularly if you’re adapting it to an upper-level creative writing class and/or want to formally teach students the genre of the book review.

Assignment Benefits

This assignment engages students with varying degrees of experience with creative writing. Some students come to a creative writing class having never written creatively before–they just want to try something new. Other students have been writing poetry or fiction on their own for some time but have never participated in a workshop. Some students in this latter group might write prolifically but avoid reading work in their genre(s) of interest (due to the anxiety of influence). By allowing students to choose the genre and collection they read (with some restrictions), students are able to self-direct their exposure to new writing and writers.

If you are teaching creative writing online (either regularly or because of the coronavirus pandemic), this assignment lends itself well to online instruction, as it is primarily self-directed on the part of the student. While I remind students to select, read, and review their collections periodically, most of the work is done on the students’ own schedules.

I hope you find this assignment helpful as a way to introduce critical writing into the creative writing classroom. Feel free to download and modify my assignment sheet, posted below, for your own classroom. If you try it (or some variation of it), please share your experience in the comments!

Start-up and Shut-down Rituals for Writing Dissertations & Theses

Posting about start-up and shut-down rituals for grad students has been on my list of blog topics for a while. However, I’m focusing on it this week because a lot of people have suddenly been thrown into working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, and I think this post could be helpful for them, too. Transitioning to remote work is challenging. I really struggled last fall when faced with a semester of exclusively writing my dissertation–I had a teaching release, so I had no real reason to go to campus most weeks and spent the majority of my time working from my home office.

I was first exposed to the idea of creating start-up and shut-down rituals (or routines, if you’d like) for my dissertation writing time through Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. While writing routines have existed pretty much forever, what I found useful about Newport’s use of these rituals was that they’re as much about helping you disconnect from your “deep work” (i.e. intense, focused work, which certainly includes writing) as getting into it, helping you to establish boundaries.

I found that by establishing start-up and shut-down rituals for my dissertation writing time, I was better able to follow Joan Bolker’s advice in Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day to write a little every day rather than in a cycle of procrastinating-and-binging. (If you haven’t read Bolker’s book yet, I recommend doing so.) Start-up rituals help get me in the mindset for writing, while shut-down rituals help me disconnect from it after I’ve completed the tasks or amount of writing time I have set for myself that day. As Newport argues, I found that having a clear shut-down ritual gave me a sense of closure about the day’s work and prevented me from anxiously thinking about my dissertation in every moment that I wasn’t actively working on it. In other words, my shut-down ritual reduces my dissertation-related anxiety because I know I have “wrapped things up” for the current day and allows me to enjoy the non-dissertation aspects of my life without feeling guilty that I’m not constantly working.

If you find that you’re in the procrastinating-and-binging cycle that Bolker warns against, or if you struggle to disconnect from your work at the end of the day, you might give start-up and shut-down rituals a try. You can customize them, of course, but I’ll provide mine below as an example.

My Start-up Ritual

I use my start-up ritual whenever I’m going to sit down and actually write part of my dissertation (which I try to do at least a little bit of every weekday once I’m past the data-gathering and analysis stages. As much as possible, I keep my weekends dissertation-free). I find that my most productive writing time is during the morning, so I protect my mornings from meetings and teaching prep. (I also have a larger morning routine that includes shower/breakfast/yoga/goal-setting journal that I complete every weekday, whether I’m writing or not.) Here’s my ritual:

  1. I brew a fresh cup of tea and sit down at my computer. If it’s a Friday, I print a copy of my “Dissertations Goals and Accomplishments” table to use for the following week (more on that in a bit).
  2. I look at my “Dissertation Goals and Accomplishments” table and remind myself of the writing time or task I’ve set for myself that day. (Sometimes I set time-based goals, like “Write for 45 min” and sometimes I set task-based goals, like “Incorporate sources x, y, and z into Lit Review, but more often it’s both: “Work on introduction for 30 min”.) I adjust these goals if needed, to account for any changes to my schedule that might have cropped up since I shut down the previous day.
  3. I’m part of a writing accountability group, so next I open up the group’s shared Google Spreadsheet and record my goals for the day on my tab (I plan to write about accountability groups in a future post!). I also write a note of encouragement or comment on my groupmates’ progress on their tabs.
  4. I turn on some classical music (I can’t focus when there’s lyrics).
  5. I open up yesterday’s draft of whichever dissertation chapter I’m currently working on. Following Peg Boyle Single’s advice in Demystifying Dissertation Writing (another book to check out if you haven’t already), I re-save the draft with the current day’s date. (I create a new document every time I write, which is useful in case I decide to return to a previous iteration of my chapter for some reason.) So all of my dissertation-draft files look something like this: “Chapter 2 draft 3-20”.
  6. I update the sticky note on my desk where I record my running word count for the current chapter, using the word count of my current document as the starting point. (e.g. “Started at xxxx words.”)
  7. I dive in.

Maybe this is an excessive number of steps, but it’s what works for me (and the whole process generally takes less than 10 min). The word-count sticky note is weirdly motivating, as I also record the word count at the end of my writing time for the day. I like seeing the total grow slowly over time; it’s a visual way to measure my progress.

My Shut-down Ritual

When I’ve worked for my allotted time or completed my assigned task, I use my shut-down ritual to wrap up for the day (again, find what works for you):

  1. I note the ending word count on the day’s draft and record it on my sticky note: “Ended at xxxx words”.
  2. I pull up my computer calculator app and subtract the start-of-day total from the end-of-day total, to see how many words I actually wrote that day. Sometimes, it’s 500+, other days it might only be 50. I don’t let myself worry too much about that though, because even a little is still progress.
  3. I return to my accountability group spreadsheet and record the number of words I wrote that day in the relevant cell. I also record the number of minutes I wrote (it should match the time goal I set for myself that day, but it doesn’t always. That’s life). If I experienced any struggles and want support or commiseration from my groupmates, I record them in the “Struggles/Comments” cell.
  4. I check my groupmates’ tabs to see if anything has changed for them that I want to respond to.
  5. I go back to my draft and save it. Then, I upload a copy to Google Drive (my preferred way of backing up my dissertation-related work).
  6. Finally, I record the day’s progress in my “Dissertation Goals and Accomplishments” table. If I met my goals for the day, I draw a smiley face. If I didn’t, I draw a frowny-face. (Childish? Perhaps. But I get motivated when I see a string of smiley-faces, and I’m not going to fight it if it works!)
  7. If it’s a Friday, I add up the total number of minutes I spent writing that week and divide by 60 (to get the number of hours I wrote). I record this total on the top of my table and put the sheet in the folder designated for this purpose. I also print next week’s “Dissertation Goals and Accomplishments” table.
  8. I check my Google calendar to see what I have scheduled the next day and then record my writing goal for tomorrow (or Monday, if it’s a Friday) in my “Dissertation Goals and Accomplishments” table.
  9. I check off “Work on Dissertation” from the day’s to-do list in my goal-setting journal.
  10. I move on to whatever else I need to do that day.

You might be wondering why I set the following day’s goal in advance. This is another idea I got from Newport: he claims that documenting what you will do the next day (or, the next time you’re scheduled to return to your project) gives your brain a sense of closure, so it’s not constantly “pinging” you to remember what you have to work on. I have found that this is true for me: my brain trusts that I will come back to the task when I’ve off-loaded it from my working memory by writing it down. Setting your goal the day before also takes the decision of what you’re going to do off your plate the next day, which can be a source of procrastination in itself and contribute to decision fatigue. I find if I don’t know what I’m going to do on a given writing day, I waste a lot of time trying to decide; it’s easier for me to make a decision on next-steps when I’m still in the flow of the previous day’s writing.

Final thoughts: I really advocate that start-up and shut-down rituals be used regularly, in order for them to become rituals. This means that I think they work best when used as part of a regular writing routine, not a procrastinate-and-binge cycle of writing. To make writing-a-little-every-day work, however, you also need to commit to stopping when you’ve reach the day’s goal, trusting that you will continue the next day. It might not feel like you’re making a huge amount of progress each day, but that’s okay: when you look back over the week (or the month, or the semester), you’ll find that little bit a day really adds up. That’s the reason I use a physical table to record my goals and accomplishments in addition to the writing accountability group spreadsheet: I like being able to flip back through my progress in physical form. It’s important to be able to shut down each day and enjoy other things: your life is more than your dissertation!

If you develop some start-up and shut-down rituals for yourself, I’d love to hear about them–please share in the comments!

Using Online Writing Groups in the Creative Writing Classroom

If you’re a grad student writing instructor (or any writing instructor), you’re probably in a bit of a panic right now transitioning to online instruction for the next few weeks or rest of the semester due to coronavirus. I know I am.

Considering the situation, I thought I’d share how I’ve been conducting online writing groups for my Intro to Creative Writing class this semester. In fact, all of the writing my students have completed this semester has been workshopped online, rather than in class (where we focus on discussing craft readings and poetry/short fiction models). This is the first time I have used online writing groups, and it was going well even before the sudden online transition–students will just keep submitting their weekly writing assignments as usual, and they’re already quite used to this process. However, if you’ve been doing workshopping/peer review in class, you’ve likely also been training students on how to provide effective feedback to their peers. These skills remain the same for online writing feedback, so it should be a fairly smooth transition.

While there are ways to conduct live, synchronous workshops/peer review using a platform like Zoom (in large-group through a regular meeting and in small-group using Breakout Rooms within meetings), what I’m describing today is how to conduct such workshops asynchronously using Canvas Discussion Boards. Canvas is my campus’s online learning portal; if your university uses a different platform, such as Blackboard, I imagine the same tools are available but the set-up process might be a bit different.

How I Set Up the Online Writing Groups

I decided to keep my students in static writing groups throughout the semester. My reasoning was that static groups would give students time to build trust with their group members (forming-storming-norming-performing) and allow them to get to know each other’s writing styles, strengths, and weaknesses over the course of the semester. The trade-off, of course, is that students only get feedback from the same classmates repeatedly. I thought this might be an issue, but when I gave students the option of switching up their writing groups at midterm, they unanimously voted to keep them as-is, saying they felt like they had developed trust and comfort with each other. However, they did suggest creating a separate discussion board forum that everyone could access as a space to share their “greatest hits” (the exercises or pieces of which they were the most proud) with the entire class, which I did.

I created writing groups of four students each. Considering I have 16 students in my class this semester, this division worked particularly well. I also think it’s a manageable number for the students as well, since they are reading and responding to three classmate’s pieces. You might want smaller group sizes if your students will be reviewing research papers or longer essays.

Step-by-Step Instructions for Creating Group Discussions in Canvas

A Group Discussion can be thought of as a “small-group version” of Canvas’s typical Discussion forum. In a Group Discussion, students can only view and respond to the work of classmates in their same group. You, as the instructor, can view all the groups. Your instructions will also be applied to all of the groups, which is convenient for you.

But before you can create a Group Discussion, you will need to set up what Canvas calls a “Group Set” (which is essentially your class divided into small groups).

Here’s how to set up a Group Set (in seven steps):

  1. Enter your course page on Canvas and click on “People” in the left-hand menu.
  2. In the upper-right corner of the “People” page, you should see a blue button labeled “+Group Set”. Click on this button.
  3. A pop-up window will appear with a form for you to fill out to create the Group Set. My “Group Set Name” is just “Writing Groups”. You can also choose whether to let students sign up for groups themselves, or you can randomly or manually assign them to groups.
  4. When you’re finished entering this information, click “Save.”
  5. If you choose to manually assign students to groups, you will then be taken to another page to set up the groups. Click the gray “+Group” button to begin creating your small groups.
  6. Another pop-up window will appear, where you can enter the name of your small groups. I labeled mine “Writing Group 1”, “Writing Group 2,” etc. Repeat this process for the number of small groups that you need.
  7. Now you can add students to each group. On the left side of the page, you will see an “Unassigned Students” column, with your students listed beneath it. Click and drag student names and drop them into the relevant group on the right. You can view the students in each group by clicking the little arrow next to each small group’s name. This information will automatically save; you don’t need to click a “Save” button.

Once you’ve finished assigning your students to small groups, you can create a Group Discussion forum in Canvas.

Here’s how to create a Group Discussion (in seven steps):

  1. Click on the Discussions link on the left-hand menu to get started.
  2. On the Discussions page, click the blue “+Discussion” button in the upper-right corner.
  3. Add the title of discussion forum and the instructions to students in the relevant text boxes. All students, regardless of their small group, will see these instructions.
  4. Once you’re finished with these instructions, scroll down until you see the “Options” section. Select any options you want to apply to this discussion.
  5. Look down a little further in the “Options” section, and you will see a check box next to the text “This is a Group Discussion.” Check that box.
  6. A drop-down menu will appear for you to select your Group Set. Choose the Group Set you just created (e.g. Writing Groups) from the drop-down menu.
  7. When you’re finished, click Save & Publish at the bottom of the screen.

For future discussions, you can re-use the same group or create new groups by adding another Group Set on the People page.

How I Conduct the Online Writing Groups

In my class this semester, students post a piece of creative writing every Friday. During the poetry unit (first half of the semester), they posted poems written based off of a prompt I provided them. Now that we’ve moved into the fiction unit, they will be posting a combination of fiction exercises and eventually drafts of their short story or microfiction stories-in-progress. They also post a short Author’s Note, where they describe how the writing of each particular piece went for them and can ask for specific feedback from their group members, as desired. Students are then responsible for responding to each of their writing group members’ pieces by Sunday night.

After a lot of reflection, I made the decision not to respond to my students’ writing in their writing groups. I noticed in my past experience teaching creative writing that students would default to my feedback and disregard their classmates’ feedback if it differed from mine. I understand that–I’m the teacher, after all, and our school system trains students from a young age to work to please the teacher. So I took the risk* of not responding to my students’ writing, and instead focus my efforts on responding to their feedback to each other, as needed.

What does this look like? Since the first week of the semester, I have been working with students to develop their ability to provide effective and constructive feedback. This process has involved framing our examination of published poetry and fiction in class as an analysis of the writer’s choices and considering the possible reason for and effect of those choices. (Honestly, this is how I approach writing in other, non-creative writing classes as well. For several semesters now I have assigned Mike Bunn‘s excellent article “How to Read Like a Writer” during the first week of the semester to frame how we will read and discuss writing in the course.) We have also spent a lot of time in class discussing what effective and actionable writing feedback looks like. Finally, I read through students writing and feedback every week and email students who need help (or a push or redirection) in their feedback. I am, in a sense, assessing their feedback and not their fiction or poetry itself.

You might still be wondering why I think this strategy is worthwhile. In part, it’s because I believe training students to effectively “read like writers” will have a larger impact than helping them polish a particular poem or story–especially at the introductory level. But I also think this is a question of trust: if we want to de-center ourselves from the student’s learning process, we have to be willing to trust that students can support each other–and learn from reading and responding to each other’s writing–if given the tools and freedom to do so. Additionally, I cannot follow students through the rest of their writing lives, weighing in on their writing choices. However, if they build trusting and productive relationships with the members of their writing groups, they have the option of continuing these groups beyond our work together this semester. I, at least, believe that having a group of people with whom you feel comfortable sharing your writing and can depend on for constructive feedback is one of the biggest blessings a creative writer (or any writer) can have–and one of the hardest to find. By not inserting myself into their group’s dynamic, I am not undermining their trust in one another’s abilities.

What’s Been the Outcome?

Overall, I’ve been very happy with the feedback students have provided one another in their writing groups. They weren’t perfect overnight, of course, but by continuing to revisit feedback strategies in class, and reinforcing these practices individually as needed (through my aforementioned emails), I have noticed a steady improvement across the board. Some students have needed more guidance than others, and this is also to be expected. I have also noticed an increase in the confidence with which they guide each other’s writing development, and between the three peers who respond to each writer, at least one of them usually identifies the areas I would have commented on anyway. I also want to be clear that most of my students this semester have never written fiction or poetry before our class, much less taken a previous creative writing course. So these results are not due to students having a lot of prior experience with these tasks.

All this is to say that yes, you can conduct effective online writing groups/workshops/peer review, if the coronavirus has forced you to suddenly move such work online. I hope this post has given you enough practical information to guide you and soothed some anxiety. If you find the post useful or have any other advice/strategies to offer, please share them in the comments.

*I say “risk,” because not responding to student writing runs counter to much of what I have been taught in writing pedagogy over the years.