Writing groups: Who, what, where, and when?

Last week, a small group of NU Women members met to discuss writing groups, to share experience, best practice, and thoughts on continuing to develop NU Women’s writing groups and others across the institution. The discussion space was used for collaborative sharing around writing groups and was facilitated by Dr Stacy Gillis.

Who are writing groups for? Who participates?

Based on the diversity of experiences from those participating in the session, it could be said writing groups, in some form or another, are for everyone! Particularly, they benefit people who want to develop their writing techniques or practices, and for those who are feeling overwhelmed and need a space to catch up on research work without working during the weekends/holidays. This is particularly helpful to people with parenting and/or caring responsibilities, to whom other approaches such as writing retreats are inaccessible.

Writing groups represent an opportunity to learn from and with our peers, and functions best when participants hold each other accountable, and each take phatic responsibility for the success of the group. With this in mind, some people mentioned that they found interdisciplinary writing groups to be particularly helpful for fostering these attitudes, as interdisciplinary groups relieved feelings of pressure and competition.

In more practical terms, it was suggested that between five and eight participants seems to be the preferred size of a group. The benefits of women-only spaces were also discussed, as these can be a safer space for participants, particularly as the organisational and emotional labour of running writing groups often falls to women.

“What can I give to a group? What can I take?”

What are writing groups for? What needs to they address? What work is needed to create them?

Broadly, there are three types of writing groups: long-term and open-ended ones; they can be short-term and organised around meeting a specific deadline or delivering a certain output; or they can be project-based and orientated towards collaboratively achieving a certain goal. Each of these has their own kinetic energy and are preferable to different people depending on working styles and current career goals. They can also be particularly helpful for skill sharing and acquisition among colleagues when organised around things like proposal writing.

Writing groups also present an opportunity to check-in with each other, celebrate each other, and be honest with each other about the research process and struggle. Their value also carries beyond providing a space for writing, into being a space for solidarity, making friends, and networking (particularly in interdisciplinary groups). In this sense, writing groups also function as an act of feminist solidarity – guided by principles of mutual support, transparency, and flexibility. They are a protected space of care within the neoliberal institution.

In terms of organising work, there is some logistical planning needed to set up and run writing groups. This is variable depending on the levels of commitment from participants, whether they happen online or face-to-face, and whether there’s suggested reading or other tasks for participants to complete before each session. What is appropriate for your writing group depends on the needs and preferences of your group and the amount of time you can commit to organising.

Where do/should writing groups happen? Where are they needed?

Within the meeting there was broad agreement that the ‘where’ of writing groups should be flexible, not only to the circumstances of the pandemic but to other factors such as childcare commitments and workflow. Much of the discussion however was focused on the relative pros and cons to organising online versus offline writing group meetings. It was noted that, while both have their own distractions a significant benefit of online meetings is that they alleviate some of the organising pressures of room booking. However, online meetings do carry the problem of Zoom burnout and low engagement.

It was also identified that, because writing groups can be useful to staff and students across the institution, there is a need to share best practices. However, there is some resistance to the institutionalisation of writing groups to preserve their feminist, counter-neoliberal strengths.

When do/should writing groups happen? How do we identify when writing groups are needed?

In practical terms, writing groups tend to work best when their meetings are around two or three hours long, and when they’re not just drop-in sessions but require regular commitment from their members (while avoiding being to rigid to the detriment of mutual care within the group).

At times, writing groups arise organically out of other meetings or networks, or out of reading groups. Similarly, we can ask when the right time is for writing groups to happen. Should they always be ongoing, or should they happen around crunch seasons? As was found throughout the session, the answers to these questions are dependent on individual’s needs and outside commitments.

Interning for NU Women

After two years as an intern for NU Women, Caroline Rae reflects on her experience with the Network through an interview with current intern, Maia Almeida-Amir.

Maia: Why did you decide to intern for NU Women?

Caroline: I am really interested in issues of gender equality – as reflected in both my Ph.D. research where I look at representations of the environment through a feminist lens, and in my other job as an editorial assistant for the journal Feminist Theory. Working for NU Women seemed like an opportunity to make a real, lived difference and champion equality, diversity and inclusion in the very place I work and study. And I am so glad I did as it’s been a really good opportunity to see how change can be instigated within the institution and understand the impact a network like NU Women can have for all women working across the university.

Maia: What has been your favourite event during your tenure at NU Women?

Caroline: Reflecting now, I would definitely say the Christmas Social 2019 was one of my favourite events – it was the last in person event we ran before the pandemic and it was lovely to meet and connect with our members in a social setting. 

I would add, however, that the events we’ve ran in the last year virtually have been an amazing way of connecting with our members in what has sometimes felt like an incredibly isolating and difficult year. I really enjoyed Emily Yarrow’s discussion of female academics’ experience of research evaluation and Barbara Read’s talk on failure and casualised staff. The topics resonated with me as I’m about to submit my thesis and enter the job market and, while it can be hard to hear about how these issues are impacting women in academia, it has been beneficial to hear about other people’s experiences of casualisation and REF and how female academics are advocating for change through their research.

Maia: What has been your favourite piece of work you’ve done for NU Women?

Caroline: In 2020, not long after lockdown started, I was involved in curating the blog series on living and working in lockdown. The stories we collected gave an insight into how our members were coping with the challenges lockdown brought – whether that was moving home, maternity leave or even just trying to stay connected with colleagues – the stories really resonated with me and so many others and highlighted how NU Women can provide a sense of community and comfort for its members that extends beyond the walls of the institution.

Maia: What do you think you’ll take forward from your time at NU Women?

Caroline: Certainly, that sense of community – we are fortunate to have this network at Newcastle that connects women working in all roles and across all levels. I will definitely continue to act as an ambassador for the network and I’m looking forward to returning to in-person events.

Maia: Finally, what advice would you give to incoming interns?

Caroline: You’re as much a member as you are an intern so think about what you would like to see from the network and advocate for it; if there’s a particular speaker you’d like to invite or a project you’d like to lead on, then go for it! The more suggestions and ideas we have coming from women across the university, the more diverse and inclusive the events and activities the network runs will be!

The Girls Network

Thank you to Stacey Wagstaff, the Girls Network North East Manager, for joining us last week to start off our summer events.

The Girls Network is a national charity, operating in eight regions across the country with a mission to “inspire and empower” girls aged 14-19 by connecting them with hand-picked mentors in a variety of career paths.

The mentoring programme is designed to respond to the systemic social and educational failings for teenaged girls, particularly those coming from poorer homes.

To illustrate the difficulties faced by teenaged girls today, Stacey shared with us a video of girls sharing their concerns.

As shown in the video, the pressures from social media, bullying, body image, pornography, and exams are immense. This is compounded by educational difficulties and worries about the future: at sixteen 50% of girls from the poorest houses get no GCSE passes; less than 6% make it into higher education; and only 2% reach the most selective universities.

As Stacey explained, many of these girls had high aspirations, but didn’t believe they could actually achieve them.

You can’t be what you can’t see.

Here is where the mentorship programme is designed to intervene.

The programme connects women from a variety of professional and life-experience backgrounds with girls for a series of one-to-one mentoring sessions delivered over the course of a year.

The aim is to be an ally for teenage girls, offering them experience, confidence building, support networks, and a space to think about their future.

Beyond this, the Girls Network offers workshops and work experience placements, and the girls who participate have lifelong access to their Ambassador programme, providing them with long-term support.

The programme clearly has a big impact on mentees. Of the over one thousand girls mentored each year 96% reported improvements in their confidence, and 98% said they felt more positive about their future.


If you’re interested in becoming a mentor for the Girls Network, please apply at https://www.thegirlsnetwork.org.uk/become-a-mentor

There’s online training sessions coming up over the summer months, with mentor-mentee matchmaking events in the next school year. Participating in the programme requires a commitment of 2-3 hours a month.

If you want to get involved by fundraising, offering work experience placements, or delivering workshops – get in touch by emailing stacey@thegirlsnetwork.org.uk

Women’s Empowerment in STEM (and Saudi Arabia): Dr Jolanta Weaver

dr-jolanta-weaver-01Dr Jolanta Weaver is a Consultant Endocrinologist working at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead. She is a Senior Lecturer in Diabetes Medicine at Newcastle University UK and a Visiting Professor at King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, KSA. In her ‘Empowering Women’ blog she tells her story of the power of offering help to others to make life more fulfilling.

 

 

Sherin’s story shows us that impossible is nothing and highlights the power of seeking meaningful mentoring to unlock your potential.

Sherin is my ex-PhD student living in a country where women’s privileges are not as generous as in the United Kingdom, yet her aspirations are universal. She is a prime example of a woman who, if given the right mentoring and environment, will flourish.

She is a mother of three living in Saudi Arabia. Her university education started in Egypt where she hoped to qualify as a doctor, but when her mother died prematurely she had to stop studying medicine to look after her siblings. Sherin had the support of her father who recognised that she was more than able to climb a “big mountain” when the time was right. After finally graduating with a degree in Biochemistry, Sherin had just one chance to complete an MRes degree in North Africa. However, she made a conscious decision to abandon it as it was not providing her with enough of a challenge. She ended up completing an MRes in the UK but had to return to Saudi Arabia to join her husband and start a family. A few years later, when her children were old enough, her (female) supervisor suggested she should come to Newcastle University to seek female supervision to mentor her towards a PhD.

It was then that I decided to take on the role of her supervisor as I felt there was a challenge in supporting a female scientist who was clearly keen to do well and needed support. It was also exciting to learn about women’s lives in other countries.

My visits to Saudi Arabia revealed the huge challenges she was facing as a woman in higher education. Nevertheless, her University made it possible for a married woman with children to complete a PhD between two very distinct countries; she took part in a joint supervision scheme between King Abdul Aziz University and Newcastle University, performing experiments in both countries. The advantage of this scheme was that Sherin was not removed from her own environment but was instead improving it from within. We were both creating the building blocks for her PhD but we were also paving the way for other women scientists. But we knew this would not be easy…

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Credit: Dr Jolanta Weaver

I figured out that in a society and institution where women had fewer rights, nor were they as valued or supported as men, the only way to help Sherin was through excellence in clinically relevant research. Her intellectual recognition and respect for exemplar scientific conduct would ultimately allow her to be treated on a par with men.

During Sherin’s research there were probably initially more downs then ups. In taking this role I recognised we could not take any shortcuts as we both wanted this to be relevant to the scientific community and my patients. There were many sleepless nights for both Sherin and myself. We were on uncharted territory, performing experiments that had never been tried before with equipment that did not always work (like many PhDs). Her endeavour was not just about getting significant p values but about solving problems and getting up quickly after a fall. Sherin not only completed a commended PhD thesis but she managed to publish a manuscript in peer review journals higher than she anticipated.

This story is not only about scientific achievement but also about how to achieve this in a balanced and fulfilling way. By now I was more than a supervisor, I was Sherin’s friend. I could advise Sherin on how to cope with the daily demands of teenagers! Sherin and her children are now undertaking very active sports on a regular basis so that her family bonds become even stronger.

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Credit: Dr Jolanta Weaver

So, what was the secret of Sherin’s success? Several words to describe her come to mind: resilient, single-minded, determined, courageous, hard-working. These words may be socially accepted as more masculine attributes, but for Sherin they also came with love for her children and family. Of course, these are certainly not mutually exclusive, but they have to be applied at the right moment. When offered mentoring she worked very hard to reap the benefits from it, although she did not immediately see the advantages of the long-term investment. Over the course of our collaboration, I saw Sherin grow stronger, more assertive and more focused. She learnt to be selective in her research and could decline projects which were lacking in scientific rigor. It was apparent that her knowledge of how to recognise meaningful research was increasing on a daily basis.

The accolades for her hard work grew steadily. Sherin became an Assistant Professor much quicker than others in her institution.  She was allowed to become PhD co-supervisor of my next PhD student from King Abdul Aziz University much earlier than anticipated. Her achievements became recognised by her institution who selected her to apply for a Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) fellowship at short notice. She was not selected this time, but we will try again next year and make it a stronger application. Indeed, if Sherin were awarded an MIT fellowship on the first attempt while this would be fantastic, it would also mean that there’s no further mountain to climb.

So, what is the bottom line message? Believe in yourself that doing the right thing will be recognised. Seek and benefit from help when it is offered. Offer your help to others to make your life journey more fulfilling. Grab opportunities and run with them. Go for it… as Ellen McArthur’s poster says on my wall.

Helen Berry on ‘Finding your Voice’

helen-berryThe prospect of public speaking is one which may strike fear in the hearts of many of us. As women, it is common to face additional setbacks such as lack of confidence and feeling anxious of criticism. All is not lost, however! Helen Berry, Professor of History and HaSS Dean of Postgraduate Studies, held an excellent session for the NU Women based around finding our voices within the public sphere. Helen has extensive experience in public speaking, be that in the lecture theatre or further afield in contributing to discussions on the radio or appearing on TV.

Below we discuss some of the most common challenges we might face in speaking within the public sphere. Taking heed of the tips that follow might help those butterflies disappear.

“What if my mind goes blank?”

There are several strategies out there to help us with keeping our talks on track, it’s a case of choosing the right method for you. Index cards or PowerPoint presentations with keywords on them are a good start in helping us to keep focused and improve our fluency. Don’t forget to slow down, too, to give yourself time to think – slowing down your speaking speed to about half of what you think is normal means you’re more likely to hit the optimum listening speed.

“What are others thinking of me?”

The truth is, they don’t care. They came to hear you speak, not to judge. Often we are our own worst critics! Find a friendly face in the audience and keep calm.

“What if I can’t make myself heard?”

Don’t be afraid to interrupt. Speak deeper and louder. Most importantly, don’t apologise. Cut out the I’m sorry buts and the I may be wrongs from your vocabulary and be confident that what you’re saying is a useful contribution to the discussion.

“I’ve never done this before”

This is a valid worry and one that almost everyone will have experienced, but don’t admit it! Audiences want to feel comfortable and seeing that you are too will help them to relax. Keep a journal for future reference and note down what works and what doesn’t. Remember that you’re in charge of the situation, so make sure you project an aura of control even if you don’t feel it.

“I don’t like audiences, large or small!”

You know about the subject (the audience is there because of it) and you have something valuable to say, so give yourself permission to speak. Take a look at Michelle Obama and Julia Gillard’s excellent speeches and note how they speak to their audiences.

 

Some final points…

Be resilient, be positive and build yourself a support team of family and friends to give you feedback… Practice makes perfect! Most importantly though, remember what you’re passionate about and why you’re doing it. This is what will get you through.

For further reading, Helen recommends Patsy Rodenburg’s book Presence as a practical guide to improving presentation skills. She is a former voice coach with the Royal Shakespeare Company. You can also catch her talking about the ‘three circles’ concept from the book on YouTube.

Helen will be doing another session in May 2017 that will be open to the whole NU Women’s network. Registration for this event will be shared closer to the time.

 

Gender and Race – Guest Blogger: Chi Onwurah MP

Our guest blogger, Chi Onwurah MP, Newcastle Central’s elected MP and Shadow Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy,  discusses her embracement of the term ‘intersectionality’, her experiences as a black female Geordie of Irish and Nigerian decent, brought up on benefits on a council estate by a single, disabled mother, and her career progression from a woman in STEM to a woman in Parliament.

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Chi Onwurah MP

Continue reading “Gender and Race – Guest Blogger: Chi Onwurah MP”

Creating an online identity as a researcher

Charlotte Mathieson offers some useful and practical tips on how to develop and manage your digital identity.

In 2016 I spoke to NU Women about my experience of creating a digital identity as a researcher, and in this post I outline some of the key points of my talk. Since I started my PhD at the University of Warwick in 2007 digital tools have been essential to my practice as an academic, and especially useful to me in navigating the post-PhD years as an early career researcher.

Continue reading “Creating an online identity as a researcher”