This post’s title might be a bit of a misnomer. For many of us, trying to meet on platforms like Zoom, Jitsi, or Microsoft Teams while alone isn’t always possible. We’ve moved back in with families, share space with roommates, cohabit with partners, are responsible for caring for children, and contend with the atmospheric backgrounds of life no longer sanitized by institutionalized academic spaces, like seminar rooms. Someone knocks on a door with a delivery. Dogs bark. A car alarm echoes through an open window. We have other companions with us: pets, houseplants, and small flies visiting our bright screens.
These small universes are condensed into four or five Zoom screens approximately twice a week for our unoriginally titled “Writing Group.” We are all PhD students in anthropology, connected through our participation in the Society for Cultural Anthropology's (SCA) Contributing Editors program. Our bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens feature as backdrops. Sometimes these backgrounds change: one of us put up wallpaper; another rearranged plants; one of us moved between houses for fieldwork; and one framed a photo. Subtle changes greet us as we meet to write.
Writing here means many things: dissertation chapters, journal articles, fieldnotes and interview transcriptions, student feedback, comprehensive exams, grant proposals, postdoc applications, emails, tutorial plans, and reports requested by interlocutors. It includes reading for the purpose of writing. It also includes writing this very piece. Initially, writing was the primary concern: how to write, and write under the present conditions, in a space that could work for us differently than others that had been made available to us, and then to actually do the thing of writing.
This group challenges us to further question: What does it mean to write during a global pandemic and during heightened attention to police brutality, incarceration, and social, political, and ecological injustices? What ways are we called to approach our writing with these conditions in mind? What barriers keep us from doing so? And who does our writing ultimately serve?
The Writing Group rose out of the necessity to feel connected with other graduate students amid the alienation the pandemic brought forth, and to establish other forms of social life amid the existential angst of feeling that the four walls we were living in were closing in on some of us. One of us (Andrés) had been in contact with many other SCA Contributing Editors and wanted to create a low-stakes space that wasn’t about contributing content for the Fieldsights sections, but that expanded the Contributing Editors’ network into lateral relations of support and solidarity. It also arose from the intense pressures to meet deadlines, make progress, and be productive in our PhD programs despite pandemic interruptions to research, teaching, and writing. The Writing Group created a space of mutual understanding, support, and accountability amidst impending limits to funded PhD support.
The Writing Group was ultimately an excuse to be virtually present, in the presence of far-away others. To talk through our challenges and to have a space in academia where we can be more of our fuller selves and bypass a lot of theatrics that many of us associate with graduate programs and now, their online gatherings. We abandoned the upright postures, the grad seminar omniscient talk, and the necessity to need to sound smart and have the right take. We toned down the intensity, opening up spaces to ramble, to crack jokes about academia and the absurd nature of the current moment, to talk about the little joys of life, our private lives, and to simply acknowledge others’ circumstances. In between writing sessions, we turn back to our mics and cameras, never knowing where our conversations will digress us toward, where we may end up as we channel stories and our streams of thought, and for how long. These are necessary digressions and wayward travels that make the writing possible. Yet the Writing Group has exceeded the instrumental role of getting writing done. It’s become a new space of friendship we had not imagined was possible during these times, and in that process, it has allowed us to reimagine what academia could be if we were to discard the hostile dispositions of critique and competition that are cultivated in graduate students in the name of professionalization.
Ultimately, this group opened up a space to feel happy for others and ourselves despite feeling like our worlds are falling apart. We see these possibilities echoed in other efforts to find friendship, community, and fulfillment online, and whole-heartedly agree with Uzma Rizvi and colleagues’ reflections that “this relational aspect of togetherness as something we experienced, rather than just studied, shifts the ways by which we incorporate theory into our everyday research: we are not working on something but working with something” (2021). As a writing group, we work together: workshopping one another’s pieces, socializing and connecting over our experiences as graduate students, and sharing in one another’s growth. In turn, our individual research interests and stakes have broadened and changed. As a form of “working with,” we move beyond critique and engage what Eve Sedgwick (2003) describes as a reparative or additive approach to our reading and writing practice.
How the Writing Group Works
The Writing Group space works differently than formal dissertation writing groups. The group meets around writing sessions with (initially) short unstructured check-in sessions—no formal updates but rather a casual, friendly, and low-stakes, “How are you doing today?” Many times we don’t talk through our ideas about our writing or even what we are writing about but simply use the time to just write, turning off our webcams and mics (freedom from the surveillance of oneself by oneself and by others) and working together virtually until someone turns their mic back on and gently calls for a check-in. Generally, we rotate facilitating the sessions, but facilitating here means scheduling and hosting the Zoom call (rather than monitoring discussion). The facilitator may ask what we’re working on for that session, keep time, pull us back after thirty-minute increments of writing, and suggest a wrap-up with some reflections and thoughts. Sometimes these concluding check-ins last fifteen minutes. Other times we talk for an hour. Our procedures and structures vary depending on the needs of the small group—for example, our gatherings became more relaxed in Fall 2020 as we adjusted to the academic year returning to full swing in the United States and Canada. We sometimes spend more time discussing the ongoing challenges—financial, political, climatological—that have impacted our writing energies. And in each of our locales, things seem to hit at different times. Forest fires tinged the air for one. Police brutality filtered into another. University hiring freezes affect many of our near futures. Varying degrees of lockdown impact connection and energies. Uncertainty generally permeates all. There is much to discuss from our geographical locales and much to compare between our institutional affiliations.
The short increments of work and checking in and the size of our group help. A roll-call of twenty or even ten participants in a session can generate exhaustion before writing even begins. A smaller group ensures time and space to share and to get to know one another without the structure and formalities a larger group would require. Occasionally, just two of us greet each other in the morning and get to writing. Sometimes all five of us are present, swapping impressions of our sessions. We exchange ideas and suggestions for our writing materials but, for many of us, our research locations and subjects differ greatly. Some unfamiliarity with one another’s canonical texts and conversations means that we share article suggestions not necessarily as experts but as interested readers enlivened by new pieces and foundational texts in our own journeys as scholars.
We are in different stages of our degree progress. This, we find, is beneficial; it is significant, in particular, for scholars just entering or exiting their fieldwork to have access to the experiences and insights of those writing dissertations, as well as applying to post-docs and teaching positions, especially during Covid-19 times. Depending on department organization and availability of more senior graduate students, these insights may not be easily available, and the landscape of academic and non-academic jobs in the present moment can’t always be gauged by supervisors who have been firmly rooted in tenure-track positions for years, who may very rarely sit on hiring committees, or who, by dint of their positions, lack insight into non-academic work. Furthermore, knowledge about post-fieldwork progress may often be given piecemeal and with supervisory preferences attached.
Finally, each of us hails from different institutional affiliations. We write from various cities and time zones across North and South America (Pacific Standard Time, Colombia Time, Eastern Standard Time, Atlantic Standard Time). We joined this specific writing group outside of departmental connections for various reasons: for some of us, a department writing group has never been available; for others, the desire to avoid large departmental dissertation writing spaces might help circumvent unwanted comparisons of progress and anxieties about competition. Fresh peer perspectives have helped enliven our academic passions and interests. Even our point of connection—as Section and Contributing Editors for the SCA—fosters reflection on both shared sensibilities and divergent practices and localities. Our work for the SCA channels different passions and energies toward reviewing, editing, curation, and making, all of which differently inform our writing practices and engagements with our work when we circulate it to one another. In another vein, the SCA program has helped bring together junior scholars who are interested in cultivating particular kinds of experimental and multimodal ethnographic writing, as well as sensibilities toward engaging anthropological theory and analysis—all of which have aided in our work of bolstering the collaborative environment of our group and doing the kinds of scholarly writing that excite us.
The writing community that emerged out of our Writing Group was serendipitous to some degree; we would have never imagined forming such a group prior to pandemic times. The Writing Group, with each of us at different degree stages and Zooming in from multiple localities and time zones, only became possible as we lost our regular schedules and structures, paused fieldwork, and had to work from home. Our Writing Group is very simply a group of graduate students meeting to do what we need to do to keep passing the checkpoints of academic progress required of us—moving at different paces but doing it together. Forms of virtual togetherness emerge out of what felt previously like impracticalities of distance and disconnection.
There are some important takeaways we have learned for new or ongoing efforts to create supportive graduate student gatherings, particularly for those organized around the necessities of academic writing and work. These techniques are not unique to online writing spaces:
- Small groups can help keep people accountable to write by generating a shared sense of purpose and investment in one another’s writing. A small group size can also create a sense of familiarity and intimacy that enables and encourages peer mentorship and support.
- A note on size: The small size of our group is important because our energies can only be spread so thin. Likewise, our investments in one another take time—time to review, respond, and check in.
- A note on accountability: For us, accountability is enabled by several responsibilities, including checking in and setting intentions for daily work, committing to generous and constructive reviews of one another’s thoughts and writing, and keeping one another apprised of whether or not they can be present during particular writing group meetings. Accountability likewise affirms one another’s labor and participation as valuable, as something shared and reciprocated among participants.
- Meeting regularly (once, twice, thrice a week) for short increments can help build structured writing practices that can be carried into other days. This continuity of presence also keeps us apprised of each other’s wellbeing, energies, and struggles.
- Seeking out writing group participants within a shared discipline but outside of departmental affiliations or subject-specific parameters can help to focus attention on anthropological writing practices rather than on better capturing debates in subject-specific literature or focusing too heavily on departmental preferences or training.
- Refusing to sanitize writing in the cascading scales of time and space within which we are precariously embedded means that we discuss problems with writing as also problems of access and attention amidst our obligations as researchers, students, friends, and family. Similarly, successes in writing are due to the connections and responsibilities we have to each other and to those who teach us—interlocutors, elders, peers, supervisors, and others.
Ultimately, small groups are formed and established within existing academic networks. As Section and Contributing Editors and graduate students connected to resourced universities (to varying degrees), we recognize that making these spaces relies upon already existing and exclusionary channels of access and prestige associated with academic associations and societies. Exclusion can be a barrier, but it has also been a necessary means to distribute our energies toward one another in ways that can be sustained and don’t lead to burnout.
The labor of such groups—co-teaching and mentoring—could be diverted from already over-extended graduate student energies into better-financed departmental support. Some of our frustrations and concurrent extensions of guidance and suggestions to one another are due to a lack of existing training or resources aimed at equipping graduate students for stages of degree progress and post-graduate or post-academic futures. In the Writing Group, our original intentions were never to take on this kind of labor, yet it has unsurprisingly and necessarily been brought into our engagements with one another—and willingly so—as graduate students work to knit together non-institutional channels of access, support, and guidance.
In our writing group, we cannot help but notice the shape and manner in which our lives filter into our sessions, regardless of the number of participants present. Sometimes this means we don’t do much writing. The timelines of our degrees, our uncertainties about futures in academia, the countdown of our funding packages, the tidal waves of racial injustice, ecological ruination, and viral outbreaks that have and will continue to break against often indifferent institutional walls—these inform our writing and connections with one another, and we refuse to sanitize our engagement and writing with one another of these experiences and stakes. These are the shapes and textures of our writing, scales that could be differently acknowledged and incorporated into academic writing practices and spaces writ large.
Rizvi, Uzma Z. (and colleagues). 2021. “Unexpected Happiness in Virtual Spaces.” Anthrodendum. January 27.
Sedgwick, Eve. 2003. Touching Feeling. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.