Writing About Religion: Building Online Communities

Each summer do you get started on a research project only to set it aside when school begins?  Do you have a “revise and resubmit” article that you never revised or never resubmitted? Could this be the summer you break the cycle?

One August when I was still junior I began my typical chorus of laments of how in spite of all my hard work, I hadn’t still finished my most crucial writing project over the summer.  Moreover, I knew once the semester started I was doomed:  if I couldn’t write deep thoughts during my free time, what hope did I have once the students returned and committee obligations began anew?

“Did you even do a quarter of what you had planned?”  Asked one of my kindly senior colleagues.  “If so, you are doing really well.”  On some level her supportive remark pointed out (correctly) that perhaps part of the problem was my unrealistic goals. Yet, that wasn’t the whole problem.  “Freed” from the weekly meetings with my dissertation director that had gotten me through my PhD thesis, I spun out each summer in a free fall of unaccountability.  Writing in graduate school had been quick by necessity: I turned in my work, got feedback, revised.  In contrast, writing my first book post-graduate school (on Native American converts in colonial New England) was painful, lonely, and took forever. 

When it came time to write my second book, I changed my strategy.  I organized a book group for people in my division who were on sabbatical.  We met in coffee shops, exchanged work, make helpful suggestions, supported each other’s attempts, and perhaps just as crucially provided real deadlines for when work would get done.  The process was as fun as it was effective: I finished on time, and the book went on to win praise from the initial reviewers and even a couple ofawards. Thrilled with the results, in the summers that followed, I organized several other “faculty research support groups” that were open to colleagues across the college.  We talked about how to write book proposals, how to keep on track, and what made grant applications successful, and we exchanged work.  The participants changed, but the spirit of support and collegiality remained constant.

One of the best summer projects we took on was Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks.  Whether you are a graduate student or a seasoned writer, Belcher has tips that will improve your writing and work habits.  Often when I am reading a book or article, I am struck by how the writer has missed an opportunity to clarify their structure, make a stronger argument, or use their literature review more effectively.  Belcher to the rescue!

This summer we will be using Belcher’s book for our on campus faculty research support group, but I am also keen to experiment with using Belcher in the digital realm.  The internet is the often disparaged for creating connections that are fleeting and false (how many of your facebook friends do you actually know?).  Can digital tools be used to forge real connections?  Perhaps we might even prove right Gretchen Rubin’s sister’s hypothesis that “People succeed in groups.”  When people in our group succeed, is their success also likely to make us successful (Happiness Project 243)?

What’s the plan?
  1. 24 people (max.) all buy, read, and follow Belcher’s book for the summer.
  2. Every other week, we meet virtually as a large group using “Go To Meeting” to have a full group discussion about strategies for success and which of Belcher's tips work best.
  3. The weeks in between you will meet virtually with three to four other people and exchange the parts of your work Belcher expects people to have written by that point (e.g. abstract, lit. review, etc.). You should read each other’s work, give supportive feedback, and learn from each other’s triumphs and pitfalls. 
What it will cost you: your dedication and time.  Otherwise it is just the cost of the book.  On a tight budget?  The kindle version is cheapest, or you can just borrow from a library for free. If you connect with your computer, there is no cost for Go to Meeting.

Some limitations:  although my sister and father claim some aspects of Belcher’s book are applicable for academic writing in the sciences, my experience at Reed is that it works best for people in the humanities and social sciences.  Also, I think writing groups work better when people have some overlap in their areas of interest, though not necessarily too much; hence I am going to try to connect people whose work is somehow related. In contrast, I don’t think it necessarily helps to have people all be the same stage of their careers.  People coming out of graduate schools today have training in academic success that was unheard of 20 years ago.  Likewise senior people may have insights and experience with journals that are worth sharing.

Expected Questions:
  1. How is this different from services like academic writing club, academic ladder, or The Professor is In? Answer: unlike academic writing club and academic ladder, it is free and you will actually exchange writing with people, read their work, and give and get feedback.  In contrast to the peer editing section of the Professor is In, I will connect you with people in related subject areas and schedule large discussions every other week.  In addition it has a limited time frame and a specific weekly goal.
  2. Can I do it in addition to academic writing club, academic ladder, or some other group? Sure. By all means.
  3. Do I need to be good at computers to do this? Not particularly. You can use either a phone or computer to connect to the live forums with “Go to Meeting.” All you need to do is be able to dial a number. If you connect using your computer there is no cost for the call and you can see a live feed of what people are saying. Personally I like exchanging documents via google docs, but if you have a low tech group, feel free to just email them to each other.
  4. Why 24 people? The number is somewhat random, but it is how many can communicate using the version of Go to Meeting to which I have free access. Mathwise, it also allows us to break easily into groups of 3-4.
  5. I am not working on an article, but I am working on a book/dissertation chapter. Is that ok? Sure. Some parts of the process (e.g. which journal to choose) will be irrelevant, but the basic principles remain.
  6. Belcher’s book assumes I have written a version of the article already (e.g. as a conference paper), can I just start from scratch? Yes. I have used this book for that purpose before, and I think it saves a lot of rewriting. Again your process may be slightly different, though, so make sure you indicate you don’t already have a draft when you fill out the form so that I match you correctly.
  7. I am working on my PhD. thesis, may I still join? Sure. No problem.  
  8. What are the approximate dates?  June 1st- August 22nd.  Why?  I am on semesters.  I am hoping if you are on quarters it will help jump start your summer.
  9. What if I am gone part of the summer?  No problem.  That is the bliss of the digital format.  As long as you think you will be able to connect and stay on schedule you should be fine.
Interested?  Fill out this form (https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1bRLD5asczZ9bsp9nzrq263Fjlks_7UDMyP9NnNtIPig/viewform?usp=send_form) and tell me what your area of expertise is and what kind of project you will be working on this summer.  I will match you with two to three other people who are somehow related to your area.

Questions?  Either ask them below in the comments (if you have a question, someone else will undoubtedly have it as well) or fill out the form or email me at leibman AT reed.edu.


Karen Johnson said…
Laura-Thanks for organizing this. I'm not going to join this summer, but I have found *great* success using Belcher's work.

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