Creating time and space: Jacob Babb leads faculty writing groups

19th September 2016

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—“They struggle with it. They dread it. They lose sleep over it.”

The speaker was Jacob Babb, assistant professor of English at IU Southeast. He was talking about writing, and the people who have trouble with it, namely students—and faculty.

This semester Babb is leading a writing group for faculty, to help members of IU Southeast’s teaching community overcome personal and professional obstacles to writing. After successful trials last year and a well-received retreat over the summer, the project appears well on its way to becoming a fixture of campus life.

Publish-or-perish lite

When it comes to clichés about academic life, nothing comes close to “publish or perish”—the term for the pressure that faculty are under to produce books, monographs, reviews, chapters and articles in order to hold onto their jobs.

The reality is more complex, but there is a grain of truth to the tale.

“We’re a teaching institution, so publish-or-perish doesn’t have quite the same intensity that it does at other universities,” Babb said. “Nonetheless, faculty have to have a consistent publication record in order to earn tenure.”

So the pressure, where it exists, comes more from wanting to climb a ladder than from fearing a plunge through a trap door.

The challenge arises when trying to balance the desire for advancement with other, closely related scholarly and service obligations.

It’s not quite a zero-sum game.

After all, teaching isn’t just a certain number of hours spent talking in a classroom, it involves staying at the forefront of one’s field in order to deliver information that is current, challenging and relevant. It’s a feedback loop: publishing is how teaching becomes more useful, and teaching is how publishing becomes more impactful.

And service—including committees and task forces, community engagement initiatives, mentoring relationships, conference leadership, offices in academic organizations—is directly related to providing a quality classroom experience to enhance student success, and in turn deepens the contextual environment from which publishing draws both inspiration and resonance.

“Most of the people who participate [in the writing groups] are looking beyond publish-or-perish,” Babb said. “They’re active scholars because they want to be active scholars, not just because they want to survive.”

Setting your research on fire

To help faculty understand their own goals and take control of their writing lives, and with financial support from the Institute for Teaching and Learning Excellence (ILTE), Babb created a faculty learning community in the spring of 2015. This proved so successful that he continued through that summer.

“The community provided faculty members with the chance to set aside specific time periods for writing and to discuss their long-term and short-term writing goals with other faculty members,” Babb said.

This, in a nutshell, is the basic vision for the writing retreat and writing groups that followed, funded by the IU Southeast Academic Affairs large grant program.

More than honing technique, the writing groups focus on establishing writing as a priority and devoting time to it. It’s both a mental shift and an act of discipline that begins with giving oneself permission to carve out time for writing.

“There’s nothing different from writing time than teaching time or service time,” Babb said. “You have to defend it.”

Defending that time can be tricky, since saying “no” to requests for involvement does not come easily to many people. Faculty have to find their own methods for defending their writing time.

Gregory Kordsmeier, assistant professor of sociology, participated in this summer’s writing retreat where he completed revisions on one paper for submission to an academic journal and made significant progress on another. He is also a member of the current fall writing group.

“Being a professor feels like you are constantly putting out fires with teaching and service, and that the only way to get things done on your research is to set your research on fire from time to time,” Kordsmeier said. “That is, find something with a hard deadline that you can work toward.”

For Kordsmeier, conference and journal submission dates are perfect fire-starters.

Practicing discipline

According to Babb, addressing the writing needs of faculty members has become a field of study in its own right, driven by the increasing demand for publication at research-oriented institutions.

His project weaves findings by Anne Ellen Geller, Michele Eodice, Paul J. Silvia and others into a program that gets faculty writing and reflecting on that writing.

At the summer retreat, a small amount of time was spent each morning discussing individual writing goals, and the rest of the day was spent writing, save for an informal debrief at the end, to assess how much progress had been made.

Given the range of fields involved, the conversations did not delve into subject matter or style, but concentrated on the structure of the working day, the relationship of intent to execution. Just having those conversations can be enough to generate habits.

“All of this to make writers aware of how they function as writers,” Babb said. “When they’re more aware, they write more.”

The results were positive. According to Babb: four or five pieces were completed and submitted for publication during the summer workshop.

Finding what works

While it might seem that taking time away from teaching to write undermines faculty dedication to the classroom, nothing could be further from the truth.

Few faculty are actually trained writing instructors, but those who are more in touch with their own struggles as writers, and able to articulate and work through those struggles, are more apt to understand, accommodate and support the similar struggles of their students, according to Babb.

In addition, conceptual and procedural techniques can be passed on, to aid students stuck in park.

For one, encouraging them to write in short, regular periods of high concentration rather than massive blocks actually helps them be more prolific, and setting aside small amounts of time—even 30 minutes a day—to write will actually boost productivity.

“We produce in bursts rather than big stretches,” Babb said.

For another, students can be shown how to break up large writing projects into manageable goals, with assessment built into the process as it progresses.

Like many faculty members who have taken part in the program, Kordsmeier believes that he and his students have benefited.

“I think it opened me up to the idea that there is not just one way to produce good writing,” Kordsmeier said. “You need to find what works for you.”

The faculty writing support program being built by Babb, and co-facilitated by Maria Accardi, coordinator of library instruction, is a five-year plan that envisions one group per semester through this academic year, augmented by two retreats next year and three semester-long groups and two retreats in 2019-21. Accardi is the first IU Southeast faculty member to join Babb in planning the retreats and the writing groups, invited in order to bring voices from multiple perspectives from around campus to the project. Babb is hopeful that more IU Southeast faculty members will take leadership roles in the initiative as it grows. Eventually, invitations will be extended to faculty from other members of the Kentuckiana Metroversity, creating an interdisciplinary and collaborative community of writing scholars.

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