Honest Discussions in Graduate Writing Cafés

Visual representation of the program described in the text.

Vol. 2, No. 4 (Fall 2020)
by Keith O’Regan

Keith O’Regan is the Graduate Writing Specialist at the York University Writing Centre. He has published on disparate fields such as Post-Graduate Writing Education, Film and Aesthetic Theory, and the Poetics of Escapism. His monograph, a comparative analysis of the poetic and theatrical work of Bertolt Brecht and William Blake will be published with Brill in the Spring of 2021.

Whether it be in the nature of the workshops offered, the limitations of a typical 60-minute appointment, or in the attention to the concrete tasks associated with short essays, current forms of writing centre support are not always best attuned to the needs of graduate student writers working on longer form projects  such as masters’ theses or doctoral dissertations.

With increasingly stretched supervisory faculty, the writing mentorship graduate students receive beyond the writing centre can be limited, slow and delayed. This mentorship is sometimes structured as top-down paternalistic programs often organized around bureaucratic or financial incentives.

I have been working to redress this issue at York U’s Writing Centre since 2017. Through an investigation of other institutional supports available to graduate student writers and the scholarly literature on supporting the unique needs of dissertation writers, I developed and led a new program of support: A registered writing centre program in which graduate students commit to engaging in an 11-week writing café, with the opportunity to meet with the café facilitator for four one-to-one consultations.

Building A Collaborative and Non-Competitive Writing Community

The importance of using communal spaces such as writing cafés came out of a need to orient our support for graduate writers on intrinsic motivation fostered by writing community. My survey of non-writing centre programs aimed at supporting graduate students and decreasing time-to-completion revealed a trend toward top down and paternalistic approaches of unrealistic and arbitrary deadline setting, which are proving ineffective, not least due to the detrimental effects on graduate students’ mental health.

External pressures and measurements of success can have detrimental effects on writing outcomes, causing graduate writers “less satisfaction and lower[ed] self-esteem” (Fegan, 2016, p. 24). In contrast, the café focuses on intrinsic motivation with personal goal setting built into the schedule. We are working towards a welcoming, collaborative, productive environment (foregrounding the student’s conception of progress) that aims to engender a shared co-operative environment.

The objective in this project is to reorient the writing space as one which reinforces “the value of regular peer group communication and connectedness for developing a sense of belonging” (Hutchings, 2017, p. 11). The academic evidence on the importance of communal writing groups is significant, and by bringing dissertation writers together we have sought to contribute to a “nourished scholarship” (Carr, Galvin, & Todres, 2010) that helps students navigate the dissertation process and move towards completion.

By combining the cafés with one-to-one writing mentorship, we have aimed to centre the learner’s active participation. This participation is highly dialogic, staged, and student-led (Nordlof, 2014).

Writing centre efficacy is also tied to the capacity for one-to-one mentorship to address motivational issues and learner attributes that correlate with learning, such as attitudes toward learning, writing, self-efficacy, and the institution itself (Babcock, Day, & Thonus, 2012). Studies of writing centre impact on student performance (often viewed through the admittedly not unproblematic prism of course grades) dating back to early iterations of writing centre pedagogy show a clear correlation between one-to-one mentorship and student performance, over and above the impact of writing courses and other forms of group instruction (Tiruchittampalam et al., 2018). While the impact of writing centre instruction on retention and completion rates for graduate students has yet to be fully studied, this initiative of program of support aims to at least begin to redress this imbalance.

A Thesis Writers’ Café

Visual representation of the program described in the text.

Each Café is run by a graduate writing specialist and has the capacity for up to 15 graduate students. Participants are required to register for the program, which entails an 11-week commitment to engage in:

  • 3-hour Café writing sessions, and
  • up to 4 individual writing consultations with the graduate writing specialist running the café.

This approach focuses on student accountability in community. The Café also reconceptualizes accountability, framing it not as a commitment to number of pages written, but rather as a dedication to metacognitive awareness of writing process. In the Café, participants are invited to reflect upon unproductive aspects of their writing processes, reinforce those that work, and learning from each other to build new skills and capabilities. While goal setting does become a key feature of participation, especially during the one-to-ones, this is framed specifically in regards to a student’s individual progress goals and long-term accountability to themselves.

The graduate writing specialist facilitates both the group writing sessions as well as one-to-one consultations with registered participants. The graduate writing specialist begins each weekly café writing session with an informal 25-30 minute “check-in,” a discussion period centred on a topic that it is either brought up by a student in advance, or one that the instructor introduces based on what the research shows are problem points for dissertation writers, and commonly voiced difficulties of graduate writing.

This is followed by writing periods (following the “pomodoro” method) of thirty minutes, each broken up by a five-minute break. During each pomodoro, students have the possibility to speak with the graduate writing specialist if they are stuck or have a specific problem that they are seeking to work through. The café ends with a “check-out”, wherein the graduate writing specialist encourages participants to speak to the experience of writing experience writing that day.

Coupled with this support, students have four one-to-one appointments with the graduate writing specialist. These discussions are student-driven, and often include goal-setting, working though previous or recurring writerly problems, in-depth chapter or proposal analysis, inter alia. During these appointments we see that students make most significant progress in their dissertation, in no small part due to the dedicated accountability structure of the cafés and one-to-ones.

Positive Outcomes

During this program of personalized writing mentorship, students have worked through problems of dissertation writing that move beyond those that are generally attended to by supervisory faculty. These include but are no means limited to dealing with impostor syndrome, recalibrating expectations midway through terms and projects, balancing multiple projects and obligations, and the creation of writing communities and conditions of writerly success. The café has successfully built mentorship relationships with and between dissertation writers, supporting students’ self development (Lindsay, 2015, p. 185).

Students find the café to be a non-judgmental space where they can work through ideas and drafts before higher-stakes submissions to their committee members.

The honest discussions that happen in the cafés build a rapport with the group and the writing instructor. Participants feel less anxious and are increasingly willing to share their works-in-progress over the course of the café. With reduced writing anxiety, students are able to make greater progress on their projects with greater efficacy and less stress (Huerta et al., 2017).

Demand for the program has only grown since it launched in Fall of 2017. Registrations have consistently doubled maximum capacity within a few days of limited notices going out, and while the YorkU Writing Centre has increased the amount and frequency of its offering throughout COVID-19, adding the expertise of Dr. Laura Allen in the process, demand still outweighs availability by almost two to one.

Continuing through Covid

The writing café and accompanying one-to-ones have been able to continue through the COVID-19 pandemic, making best use of Zoom and WC Online platforms. We are hoping that the program will help to maintain student momentum by countering the social isolation of graduate work that the pandemic has intensified.

While writing a dissertation will always be challenging, today’s added insecurities require that dissertation writers be offered increasing levels of support, with synchronous support being a key feature (Deshpande, 2017). Following Kumar and Johnson, the cafés and one-to-ones are deeply implicated in providing “structure for communication and support in the online environment and for the scaffolding of research education” (Kumar & Johnson, 2019, p. 71).

Finally, the success of a program like this would not have been possible without the support of Writing Centre Directors Stephanie Bell, Jon Sufrin and Andrea McKenzie, and the tireless effort, encouragement and guidance of James Robertson.

Further Reading

Babcock, Rebecca Day, & Thonus, Terese. (2012) Researching the writing center: Towards an evidence-based practice. Peter Lang.

Carr, E., Galvin, K., & Todres, L. (2010) Facilitating nourished scholarship through cohort supervision in a professional doctorate programme. Encyclopaideia, 14, 125-46.

Deshpande, A. (2017). Faculty best practices to support students in the ‘Virtual Doctoral Land.’ Higher Education for the Future, 3(1), 12-30.

Fegan, S. (2016). When shutting up brings us together: Some affordances of scholarly writing groups in the neoliberal university. Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 10(2), A20-A31.

Huerta, M., Goodson, P., Beigi, M., & Chlup, D. (2017). Graduate students as academic writers: writing anxiety, self-efficacy and emotional intelligence. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(4), 716-729.

Hutchings, M. (2017). Improving doctoral support through group supervision: Analysing face-to-face and technology-mediated strategies for nurturing and sustaining scholarship. Studies in Higher Education, 42(3), 1-18.

Kumar, S., & Johnson, M. (2019) Online mentoring of dissertations: the role of structure and support. Studies in Higher Education, 44(1), 59-71.

Lindsay, S. (2015) What works for doctoral students in completing their thesis? Teaching in Higher Education, 20(2), 183-196.

Nordlof, J. (2014). Vygotsky, Scaffolding and the role of theory in writing center work. The Writing Center Journal, 34, 45-64.

Tiruchittampalam, S., Ross, A., Whitehouse, E., & Nicholson, T. (2018). Measuring the effectiveness of writing center consultations on L2 writers’ essay writing skills. Languages, 3(1), 4.