Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Faculty Writing Accountability at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution



Writing. It's critical to our success as academics, no matter where we are employed. And we all wish that we had more time for it, no matter how little time our universities or departments allocate to other activities. The pressure to produce has many documented negative outcomes, including poor sleep, mental health problems, and in some cases, data forgery. Though nowhere is the tension between writing and not-writing more acute than at primarily undergraduate institutions that have high standards for research. (And often also have very high standards for service.)

To be fair, undergraduate institutions often have a broad definition of "research" - not just producing papers or books, but conference presentations, supervision of student thesis projects, and generally involving undergraduates in the process. But many still emphasize papers or books as "real" productivity; these seem to get more attention (both inside and outside the institution), and they are necessary to be competitive for external funding.

So how do faculty with teaching loads of 3+ per semester make time for writing? Write in the morning, write every day, close your door, say no, etc. are well-known and well-used. But these are not always enough to ensure productivity when you have 100+ students each semester who all think they're paying for personal attention. Consequently, writing accountability groups have become popular: partners or small groups agree to produce written work by a deadline and push each other to stay on task. These groups tap into social processes known to work for other behavior change efforts (weight loss, increasing physical activity). 

For example, large-scale endeavors such as Shut Up and Write Tuesdays (#SUWT) allow participants from all over the world to write simultaneously, check in, and receive encouragement from others in the same boat. So you get opportunities for support, reinforcement, and social comparison all rolled into one. Similarly, there is a positive pressure via public commitment of goals. In smaller groups, the added benefit is that someone is supposed to hold your feet to the fire and not take any excuses for lack of productivity. 

But how does "holding someone accountable" actually work? I use all of these social principles in my interventions for health behavior change, with success thus far. But one challenge is helping partners/group members to be effective disciplinarians, without discouraging the participants they're supposed to he helping. To date, I've taught research participants to communicate with each other about what is and is not helpful. Some people want and respond well to a Jillian Michaels approach, whereas others need a softer touch. I've encouraged my participants to reflect on this and communicate their needs to their partners/groups, which seems like a decent place to start. 

But decades of psychology research show us that we don't always know what's best for us, or what will be most effective for instigating change. So how can we select the most effective accountability team for enhancing our productivity? I ponder this question in response to our upcoming writing group at my primarily undergraduate institution. Faculty from different disciplines, at different career levels, with different goals will try to help each other accomplish something over the next few months.

The group coordinators had the insight to ask for our preferences for partners, and I found myself unsure of how to respond. Would someone inside or outside my discipline provide the most useful feedback? Someone equally junior, or much more senior? Although I've been fairly successful so far, I know that I can learn a lot from those who have struggled; but what is it, specifically, that I need from them? What should I share about me that would be relevant for other members?

My current support network. I have an ongoing accountability agreement with a good friend from graduate school; we are immensely helpful to each other, but this happens in fits and starts, and I'd like to be more consistent about it. I'm starting another agreement with a friend from grad school whom I greatly admire, and I'm all about the positive-outcome social comparisons. I also have the privilege of writing alongside some excellent scholars on Twitter, whose success and encouragement motivate me (@iladylayla, @ATRWibben, @josephsonjyl). All of this has taught me that my ideal partner would be consistent, encouraging, and not take any excuses.

This is your life moment of the week: Our first writing accountability meeting at my institution is tomorrow. I need to prepare! Very much looking forward to it and to opportunities to reflect on group processes.

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