When unexpected events such as the coronavirus pandemic occur – disrupting life as we know it – people adapt by finding new ways to connect.
Re-establishing the community was essential for the students and faculty at Stony Brook University, many of whom gathered at the Faculty Commons administered by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) for thesis boot camps and lectures. editorial groups before all classes close at the end of March.
Led by Shyam Sharma, Associate Professor and Director of the Graduate Program in Writing and Rhetoric, College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), these support groups have taken on a whole new look, with the now ubiquitous Zoom online format replacing the face-to-face meetings.
Interestingly, the new format boosted participation.
“Twice as many students applied for the second spring term of the boot camp thesis,” said Sharma, “perhaps indicating an increased need in the community to address physical isolation, as well as ‘a need for weekly steps against the chaos of planning. “He also responded to students’ demand for a summer session, which recently ended after seven weeks, after adding peer groups and workshops in online format.
The “drafting group” provides an environment of mutual support and accountability, based on the work participants did during the week and brought to the Friday meeting. Boot camp, on the other hand, requires students to prepare to write for the entire four-hour block every Friday. Students show up at 1:00 p.m. to share their productivity plans in small groups, then log off and write, then return to the same groups to report on what they have done.
The series “writing workshops” for graduate students, which Sharma led for the Center for Multilingual and Intercultural Communication during regular semesters, was integrated into the four-hour block on Fridays during the summer. Its goal is to “engage graduate students who wish to hone their writing skills” before joining training camp.
So why have writing support initiatives doubled in size?
Sharma speculated that the numbers had risen in part because of the isolation created by the pandemic.
“As one student put it, every day has become a ‘fuzzy day’ for thesis writers,” said Sharma. “Some miss the regular meetings with mentors, while others struggle with the need to change their thesis program when they could not continue with their lab work, and still others are overwhelmed by the increase. of work and stress in relation to their time management skills. “
In addition to managing the three different writing support pathways for graduate students – a boot camp, writing group, and writing workshops – Sharma also facilitates a writing support community for graduate students. faculty members.
Sharma’s colleagues, academics from all walks of life, also feel the need for the community to keep writing.
“In the group writing program, I paired writers using the Zoom chat room, providing them with a column from which to choose questions to ask readers for feedback,” Sharma said. . “Giving control to writers changes the dynamics of commentary, unlike reader-directed criticism. The pairs spend an hour exchanging comments on a few pages of the writing they have brought.
The Faculty Writing Group was created in collaboration between CELT and the graduate writing program, which Sharma directs. Its new collaborator, the office of the dean of the CAS, is also promoting it to the faculty. Troy Priest, CELT Lead Instructional Designer, and Amy Cook, CAS Associate Dean for Research and Innovation, are active co-facilitators and promoters of the program, which is advertised through newsletters, websites, Twitter and email.
The faculty writing group has also multiplied since the virus outbreak.
As of spring 2020 with 24 applicants, the drafting group grew to 42 applicants just after the March disruption, according to Sharma.
“The faculty groups have an overall participation of over 50%, compared to just under 50% with graduate students, which shows that we too need and benefit from a shared space and connection. ‘community and motivation, feedback and accountability – even online, despite the glut of online meetings and the pitfalls of fashion, ”he said. “We plan to further promote the fall offering, perhaps with two sessions, to better meet the needs of colleagues on both campuses. “
Student and faculty testimonials attest to the popularity of online adaptations during the pandemic epidemic.
“Writing is a big part of the PhD journey, and writing with other students has made it more productive and easier for me,” said Elena Hambardjieva, a student in the Pharmacological Sciences graduate program.
For chemistry student Alwin James, the writing group is invaluable.
“I can’t find enough time to write; I’m always distracted, ”he said, adding that he often suffers from writer’s block. “I cannot overcome my tendency to procrastinate. Attending training camps helped him overcome these challenges.
“Being on the faculty writing group reminded me that I am a writer and a teacher,” said Natasha Vitek, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution. “As we moved to distance education, all of my time was absorbed in learning new technologies, student availability, and Zoom meetings. I need the band to get me back on track and rewrite more than ever.
Despite the recognized benefits of virtual learning writing courses, organizers, teachers and students would agree that there is no substitute for meeting in person over a steaming cup of java.
Sharma delivers the opening speech at a virtual conference on online education.
“When there is no feeling of physical co-presence in an auspicious space, with the ‘room’ being a mishmash of all the spaces from which we join, we are quick to mute ourselves. “said Sharma, acknowledging the weaknesses of the virtual meeting. “Hosts for larger groups may need to set the default to ‘mute everyone’, and while it’s almost necessary, it’s terrible. We look at ourselves in the mirror rather than at each other – or we look at everyone at the same time – and these are bad ways of communicating.
This situation demands that the students be patient.
Still, “they focus on the opportunity to see each other and get along, work in groups, report and relate, so I use the advantages of technology, such as breakout rooms. and the chat function, to alleviate the challenges, ”says Sharma.
– Glenn Jochum