8 Things to Consider when Organizing Your Digital Humanities Writing Group

I do so much work with Digital Humanities for my position. So much. But do I ever write up any of that and submit it to publication? Ha, nope.

I write everything else of course, and this always falls to the back burner. And I’m willing to bet that sadly, I am not alone. How many of you do cutting-edge work in whatever field you happen to be in, and then put off the writing for summer, or for next year, or for when you get that research leave, or or or?

We all know this is a major missed opportunity for critical reflection, for peer feedback, and for collaboration. Fortunately, Rebecca Panter, another postdoctoral fellow, felt the same way. So we made 2016 the year we did something about it: we started the Digital Humanities Writing Group for faculty and grad students on campus who found themselves always doing and never writing it up. And as anything worth implementing is worth implementing well, we slapped an ambitious goal onto it: each of our members will have a complete journal article or manuscript chapter finished by the end of the Spring 2017 semester.  

It’s a lot, but it’s also doable, and I think that is one of the main draws of the group. Just like you eat an elephant one bite at a time (well, I don’t. I hope you don’t, either. We don’t have enough of them on this planet for you to be making them part of Taco Tuesdays.), you write an article one page at a time.

As you can imagine, there are specific considerations to keep in mind when the group is academic, interdisciplinary, DH-focused, and comprised of both grad students and faculty. And that’s without the normal struggles that come with forming a writing critique group. Here’s what we’re doing to increase our chances of success:

1. The Meetings- we decided to meet every other week. Two weeks is a good chunk of time to allow people to create some content independently before each check-in. We decided on a consistent time and place. We also have free coffee. Name-brand coffee.  

2. The Plan- We took out a calendar and blocked out that time every two weeks, skipping holidays and university breaks. This meant we had a total of 14 meetings to work with in the 2016-2017 academic year, and that members know in advance which days to keep free for meetings.

3. The Experts- There’s no point in reinventing the wheel, so my colleague and I consulted a book that helped us both write journal articles as grad students: Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, by Wendy Belcher.  While we aren’t following the book exactly, it has a lot of great ideas for how to divide up the task of writing a journal article into manageable chunks that lose their intimidation factor. We also flipped through a few other writing books for ideas and inspiration, and decided that we needed accountability, motivation, and an uncomplicated and consistent workflow for the group.

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Writing Groups: Keeping writers firmly in the blue since forever.

 

4. The Schedule- First we set aside meetings 1 & 2. The first meeting was for introductions, and customizing the plan accordingly. The second for a guest speaker from the Writing Studio on campus to discuss ways to identify the best times for writing in our schedules,  and how to give constructive and encouraging non-discipline specific feedback to colleagues. Then we created a list of all the things that need to be done to write an academic article, and divided them into twelve.  We ended up with a schedule that specified what the group will be critiquing during each meeting. This gives everyone 14 days to create a segment of roughly 5-7 pages of their article. This of course varies depending on what we are doing (abstract, intro & conclusion, lit review, etc.), but it works out to a manageable 3-4 pages per week most weeks.

5. The Feedback- At our first meeting, we did introductions of our article ideas, and some natural groupings formed. We now have small clusters of people working in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), on digital cultural studies, pedagogy, and on topics related to software & database use in the humanities. There are two to three persons per cluster, and as we only meet for an hour each time, group members will only critique the 5-7 pages of their cluster which they will have read before the meetings.  This keeps the reading load down and prevents too much feedback in the initial stages of writing. Remember, the idea is to stay motivated and accountable, and to keep the writing moving forward, so we’ll save the more specific criticism for the second draft. Toward the end of the year, we do have a session built in for more specific line-level feedback: we will break create pairings of people who haven’t worked together yet, and have them read one another’s full articles for clarity, flow, strength of argument, and cohesion.

6. The Tech- Instead of manually coordinating this via email, the group decided to use Slack. (If you don’t use Slack, I highly recommend it- it’s such an intuitive tool for co-working and keeping group materials organized with virtually no learning curve). We each write our rough drafts in Googledocs and then drop those into Slack the night before for our clusters to read. That brings us to…

7. The Accountability- Having bi-monthly feedback on a work-in-progress (WIP) as it develops is

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People who let their partners down will be given dunce caps.

wonderful. Each time a member shows up to the group, they have the chance to present a very low-stakes portion of the work, and have one or two others to bounce ideas off of. These partners can talk through and spot unanticipated pitfalls, or provide ideas that spark unexpected chances or directions in which to develop the topic. It’s also really exciting to help shape someone else’s WIP and to see it grow and improve.  And for those who need the stick instead of the carrot (no judgment here),  the small size of the clusters ensure that if someone has nothing to bring to a meeting, or fails to show up, they are actively letting their partner(s) down.  

 8. The End- Knowing that this group has been created for a sole specific purpose, and has a built-in end date gives us focus and something tangible to work toward. It removes ambiguities and keeps us moving. This group is strictly for people to use to help them sneak some extra writing into their already full-to-bursting days this year.

I’m very excited about this group and the way it is organized. I come to the digital humanities from a history background, and this is my first attempt at writing a peer-reviewed piece for a digital humanities audience, rather than a historical one.  Having others from a wide variety of backgrounds along for the adventure is making  all the difference.

 

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