On finding a writing partner

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that doctoral students in education are a bit of a self-selecting group. As a rule, we’re generally people who like school — a lot. And when I say we like school, I mean really. Consider the obvious. We like school so much that in addition to having become teachers as young adults – a choice that would ensure we got to spend all of our adult working lives in schools, we each had an epiphany that would allow us to be even more schoolish. We each decided, as grown ups, to enroll in a doctoral program so that we could read about teaching and learning all of the time, write about teaching and learning all of the time and teach about teaching and learning whenever we weren’t reading or writing. And — here’s the real kicker — we decided to become doctoral students knowing full well that (a) we would be paid very little to do this work, (b) that it would take years (if ever) to return to the salary we made as teachers and (c) of course, that after all of this extra school love, we might never actually get a professorship.

It’s crazy what we do for love, isn’t it?

You might be wondering where I’m going with this?

As psychology students we also know that people like things that they’re good at. The truth is that part of why we love school so much is that we’re good at it too. We know the culture of school. We know the system and how to excel in it. We like its values — hard work, creativity, responsibility, collaboration — but not too much collaboration because independence is also pretty essential. I mean, nobody takes the ACT with a partner, right?

So, one of the great surprises of doctoral study comes when professors tell us to “find a writing group”.

In these moments, in doctoral seminars around the College of Education, you can almost hear a collective gasp. Politely, we all nod our heads. In our minds, questions swirl.

“What if everyone in my group thinks I’m a terrible writer? What then?”

“How can I be sure to get good advice from other people whose writing I’ve never even read yet?”

“I have so many questions myself. How could I possibly help other people?”

Plus, part of what has made us good students is that we’ve been able to navigate the expectation of “independence” in schools very, very well. We were told early and often that we only cheat ourselves if we don’t learn to do things on our own. Who were we to question this?

In graduate school, we should because, oddly, at the top of the schooling ladder, working too independently can prevent us from thinking our best thoughts.

Eventually, we all reach our own limits and realize that the thinking that would earn an “A” can only take us so far in the quest to contribute to the world’s knowledge about variable X. Another epiphany comes when we look around and realize that the only people who can help us think harder than we have ever thought before are our peers.

And so, doctoral student colleagues, as we become scholars, I offer this post as a nod to the people who have helped me to think better and write smarter over the past four years — my peers. Like you, I love school and I have been adept at navigating school independently. However, as I find myself teetering near the top rung of the schooling ladder, I realize that it’s my peers who now steady it from below — each one with an idea, or a recommendation or a suggestion that will allow me to step with greater confidence into the stratus of a dissertation and a lifetime of researchable questions.

Embrace your ZPD and find a writing partner who may not know more about your topic, but who brings you fresh eyes, a critical mind and questions that will help you to think better.

Thanks to my writing partner, Selena Protacio, who always reads and responds with care and wisdom. Thanks too, to stalwart colleagues Kristen Kereluik (who has provided so much feedback on ideas that I’ll forever be in her debt) Autumn Dodge (who has read really terrible drafts and still found good things to say about them) Paul Morsink (who can find holes in any argument and help me think of solutions), Laura Jimenez (who inspires me to work harder), Leigh Graves Wolf (who knows just when to share an idea that will take me in a new direction) and Kristin McIlhagga (who listens and gives encouragement). Thanks as well to countless other classmates and advisors (professors included) who have looked at this, that and the other thing, always with a generous heart and fresh mind.

P.S. There is some debate in the world about collaborative dissertations. Hmmm…would it be better than a dissertation you write yourself?
Crossposted at ideaplay.org on September 13, 2012.