Writing group ‘boosts productivity and reduces stress’ at Oxford

Writing group ‘boosts productivity and reduces stress’ at Oxford

A writing group for PhD students and early career academics has helped to boost productivity and reduce stress for Oxford University humanities students.

Dr Alice Kelly, the Harmsworth Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, set up The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities’ Academic Writing Group in October 2015. The group meets twice a week, on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings, to give students frequent and dedicated time for writing.

Twice a week, 14 students attend the sessions in the Radcliffe Humanities building. There are two 75-minute writing sessions with a coffee break in the middle. Before each session, attendees share their goals for the next 75 minutes with their neighbour. These should be “specific, realistic and communicable,” says Dr Kelly.

Then everyone focuses on writing, without checking their email or social media. After the session, they report to their partner whether or not they achieved their goals.

Dr Kelly says the group has had a significant impact on students. ‘The impact of the group in terms of writing productivity, reducing student stress and promoting a sense of community has been profound – beyond what even I had anticipated when I first introduced these sessions,’ she says.

Dr Kelly says: ‘The writing group offers, for six hours a week, what most workers get every day: a start time, a stop time and peer pressure not to procrastinate on the internet. Over a term’s worth of attendance, this produces serious results. One participant had “rewritten a draft thesis chapter, written a conference abstract, edited two reviews for an online publication, finished two book reviews and edited several chapters of a volume”.

‘Since its beginning, the group has been enormously popular and is always oversubscribed. I have become convinced that such writing groups are an affordable and highly effective way of reducing early career isolation and improving mental health, and could be implemented more widely.

Dr Kelly adds: ‘Most people need structure, accountability and discipline if they are to work productively. But this is exactly what disappears when highly qualified, often perfectionistic people start the rewarding but lengthy and lonely PhD process.

‘This is especially true in the humanities, where, in contrast to the more communal research environment that scientific teams enjoy, study is often solitary. I believe that universities can, and should, do much more to generate a sense of group motivation, camaraderie and peer support among early career scholars in the humanities.’

Participants in the group say it has benefited their research and their wellbeing. 'The PhD can be such an isolating place; it’s very calming to come to a place where, twice a week, we’re reminded that working independently doesn’t have to mean working alone,” said one. Another praised the group as “an invaluable resource that should be mandatory for all PhDs.'

The group is part of The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities' (TORCH) provision for early career academics. Professor Elleke Boehmer, Director of TORCH, said: 'Alice Kelly's academic writing group has been a game-changer, bringing together a range of doctoral and EC Humanities researchers in a true and all too rare collectivity that has seen everyone improve their productivity while at the same time experiencing reduced stress.

'Fortified with plentiful supplies of healthy snacks the group has met week on week, under Alice's unfailingly sensitive and intelligent guidance.'

Should other universities replicate the idea? Dr Kelly thinks so. ‘Having an academic writing group at every university could be a simple yet powerful way of making the task of writing more productive and rewarding for the next generation of scholars,’ she says, ‘indeed, the response to the article on social media demonstrates its broader applicability to a wide number of professions outside academia too, with playwrights, journalists and other professional writers commenting “Where can I join?”'

Dr Kelly explained the idea behind the writing group further in a post for The Times Higher Education.