Science, writing, and sharing in the age of pandemic: Write. Often. Better. Together.
By Kristina Quynn and STPF alumna Gillian Bowser
Q: What do a literary critic and a pollinator biologist have in common?
A: We both write for a living.
Writing is so ever-present and so foundational to research that it is easy to overlook or dismiss its capacity to create common ground between campus colleagues of seemingly disparate fields of study. More than publications on our curriculum vitae, writing is the very process, practice, and product by which those of us in scientific research and in higher education learn, professionalize, and become and remain experts. And, while there may be grains of truth in the stereotypes of English professors as tweed-loving, solidary readers with their noses in books and of ecologists as energetic scientists collecting samples in the great outdoors, these divergent images obscure a greater truth. The truth is that for many hours, days, and weeks of the academic year the critic and the biologist work with the same tools in very similar conditions. And, in some cases, in the very same room.
Gillian Bowser (the pollinator biologist) and Kristina Quynn (the literary critic—turned witing program director) have written alongside each other at on-campus CSU Writes hosted writing retreats for nearly five years—individually crafting their own proposals and articles, and, now, collaboratively producing this very blog piece for Sci on the Fly.
Before the COVID-19 global pandemic, the biologist and critic-turned-director would write in a multi-table conference room, accompanied by art historians, economists, chemists, scholars of social work, veterinary clinicians, civil engineers, and various other faculty from across the more than 80 departments that make up this research focused land-grant institution. Various researchers at Colorado State University gather once a month to tap away on laptops, share morning coffee, and lunch-time conversations. The physical conference room has simply been a place for us all to write—together. Academic writing retreats dispel another stereotype of research writing: that it is an isolating and solitary act for research writers. While, yes, much of the research process requires periods of solitude for analysis and the crafting of words on the page to contribute findings, analyses, and novel understandings to the field, we have found that “writing in social spaces,” as Rowena Murray calls it, has facilitated and enhanced our productivity and our ability to focus on our individual texts, collectively. We write more and we write better simply because we write together. Now, CSU—like all schools and universities across the nation—has closed its campus to non-essential personnel. Our writing retreats have been dispersed as the nation shelters in place to flatten the curve during COVID-19.
Virtual writing retreats seem like an odd concept. Why would anyone connect on a virtual platform not to collaborate or work on common themes, but simply to write synchronously?
The physical retreats, hosted by CSU Writes—a professional research writing facilitation program—support writing as both a cornerstone practice as well as a primary means of professional development of students, faculty, staff and researchers. CSU Writes’ programming is rooted in models of “writing containment” through time and space and is designed for writers who are looking for support (often communal and sometimes commiserating) in the form of peer feedback and support. But all of this professional cross-polination has been designed and studied as in-person events and in physical spaces. For certainly, when and where and with whom we write matters.
Forced by a global pandemic to move our retreat to a virtual video conference room, we have been pleased to experience that writing together itself remains the social event—as we sit together in front of separate computer screens, share goals, and simply write. While not a formal study, we discovered that our virtual writing retreats (March and April) capture that social space almost as if the keyboards themselves are connected in virtual space, sharing a common mouse and replacing the connection of a physical space. Virtual writing retreats have proved to be unexpectedly and increasingly important social support in a professional context during the time of social isolation where classes and teaching had moved online as well.
As the soil scientist and writing guru, Joshua Schimel reminds us: to be a scientist is to be a professional writer. Given that upwards of 90% of STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine) publications include two or more authors, we know that our crafting of texts from beginning to end includes a community of research professionals. For neither does the work of field, of lab, or of publication/grant submission happen in isolation. We research and write together.
While we know that the field, the lab, and much of our collaborations require non-digital, in-person connection, we have found that our virtual conference room has helped us maintain a sense of connectedness and normalcy in a world rocked and much altered by COVID-19. Because we (Kristina and Gillian) had pre-existing collegial relationship and mutual appreciation of the practice of scholarly writing that came out of face-to-face in-person conversations over coffee and tea, it is difficult for us to tell if we would have established the same professional bonds if we first met in an online retreat. What we have discovered is that virtual spaces can connect across disciplines and foster a virtual community of scholarly writing in unexpected ways.
We also recognize that writing, as a scholarly exercise is more important even during a global pandemic that restricts physical connections. Hence, our tagline as a writing community resonates even more during this time: write. early. often. better. together.
Kristina Quynn, Department of English, Colorado State University
Blog image: Dr. Lexi Gehring, biochemist