December 1, 2020

Isolated Writing in a Pandemic

by Anisha Ahuja

When on campus, our research papers are living documents and our dissertation work is alive and breathing. Circulating between classes, passing one another in the Honnold-Mudd library, and building study groups in the in-between hours are always spaces for the movement of ideas. One of the beauties of Claremont Graduate University and its community of writers is the unique and distinct perspectives of each and every student. Working at the writing center, I’ve learned about concepts in psychology, contemporary problems in public health, Asian history, and different conventions of social science data collection. Even in the same discipline, the graduate students at CGU all work within their own niche fields, but their writing is always influenced by the cohort that surrounds them. Before the pandemic, my research papers were building upon themselves everyday simply by walking with a peer from one class to another. Some of our classes even dedicated time to reading one another’s work and giving feedback. My formal research papers were constantly evolving and changing through casual conversation and (mostly) friendly workshopping.

One of the biggest losses to our academic and writing experience during the COVID-19 pandemic regulations is that our semester papers no longer resemble the living documents they once were. Setting up online study sessions only works one-third of the time, and we’re less inclined to send over our full papers to our cohort due to our own insecurities. Writing final research papers in isolation is antithetical to the collective nature of graduate level scholarship. While in “normal times,” a self-imposed writing session with your phone shut off may have helped you work through a large chunk of pages, a mandated months-long personal writing retreat contradicts the tenets of graduate school pedagogy.

Writing papers is supposed to be social, physical, and tactile. Graduate papers are supposed to be informed by conversation in between classes and scribbling on one another’s work. Graduate scholarship is, for me, most importantly about the collective. Our papers are collective in nature. The work we have turned in and published has been evidence of the ways graduate students are always influencing one another; our ideas get jumbled together that maybe the origins of thought lose themselves entirely – our work is just a product of our collaborative experience in education. Writing is a product of hybrid thinking and representative of the collective and cooperative components of being in and surviving graduate school.

I recently saw a tweet that plainly said “I miss writing in public spaces.” The ability to sit down on campus, and see your peers, whether they join you or respect your time to write from afar. Writing together is a way to respect one another’s process and be able to check in when we’re ready to share our work. It is a system of trust, reliability, and accountability fostered through kindness and support. Sitting on a specific floor of the library signals the type of vibe of study you’re looking for. You’ll probably run into a student worker you know, ask them for help and tell them what books you’re looking for. They might recall some other work to check out. You might both find linkages in your research, and maybe even decide to write a paper together one day in the future. Our writing is intended to find life in physical academic spaces informed by the way we are collectively drawn together and inspired by each other’s work. There is always a mutuality to the way we talk about our work, when we’re passing one another on the way to class or deciding to sit down at Hagelbarger’s and workshop or outline immediately. Our campus became a graduate school only as we moved through it and placed the casual conversations of our day into intellectual consideration.

This moves beyond just semester papers. The removal of group writing and workshopping environments – like conferences and panel presentations – completely transforms the type of articles we eventually submit to editorial boards for review and publication. Those boards were never intended to be some of the first readers, and our professors expect to read drafts already affected by our classmates and their other students. Without engaging with panel-moderators and presentations at conferences, can our papers really mirror the generations of an embedded and existent writing process? One of my conferences, where I was workshopping a thesis paper, was cancelled, it being scheduled one of the first weeks the quarantine started. Losing access to feedback from students studying theology for my first paper attempting religious studies probably had a greatly negative affect on my work. Even more structured environments like conferences, which also require submitting early abstracts, are indicative of the necessity for group writing environments that involve both feedback and support and encouragement.

Is it possible to ever fill in these gaps in our current modes of isolated scholarship? Probably not. There’s something special and irreplaceable about the formation of a paper over the course of the semester that relies on the verbal and notated exchange of ideas, some that maybe either get blurred away from their origins or friendily cited in our footnotes. I’m not sure if there will ever be anything quite like it until we can return to campus or be around each other. But we should be able to recognize the extra effort we have all put in to make our own academic communities and circles stronger, maintaining the blend of the social and the scholarly. I hope that when this pandemic ends, our inboxes are filled with each other’s drafts and that we’ve all become experts in shared screen functions. I hope our texts are filled with questions about not just study sessions, but whether we can send over our paper for feedback or just talk through our ideas – even if we don’t have classes together or even if some of us are done with coursework all together. The resilience of graduate students extends beyond our abilities to read hundreds of pages at a time, but is truly seen in our commitment to staying close to one another and trusting that sharing our own work will be a safe and productive experience. Even if it’s less natural or more nerve-wracking to initiate paper exchanges or request peer review when we’re not sitting next to each other every week, it’s powerful to be vulnerable with the work we put our whole hearts into. It’s a testament to young students, in different social and economic settings, to keep our academic experience a collective one. This insistence on collective intellectualism translates into all components of our lives. It doesn’t have to be – and it’s not – just a product of a physical campus. Maybe it’s an organic part of being a student to be able to survive massive ruptures in our predicted experience.

The pandemic’s impact on writing has transformed the writing center’s duty and structure in more than just the obvious ways. The writing center has now become the only source at CGU that helps reinvigorate the flow of ideas and concepts across our campus. In the last few months that I’ve been working at the writing center, I’ve worked with students on research papers, short essays, literature reviews, statements of purpose, and dissertations.

One source of writing community I have found is through the CWR, where I make sure to check up on my own writing beyond just being a writing consultant. Yet as a writing consultant, I’ve found it to be a space for both me and my tutees to build a deeper sense of community through writing and discussion. These sessions are not meant to be impersonal nor one-sided. Each session is an opportunity for us as graduate students to share thoughts across disciplines and work through our ideas both verbally and written; I find my own work influenced by each session. The CWR has always been a space for peers to work together, but even more so it an opportunity for deeper intellectual engagement that has been removed from our current form of education. Much like asking each other for some quick help on fleshing out concepts during a break in class, the writing center can be a space to ask those questions that we would normally be unable to whilst writing alone in our apartments.

Working at the writing center has helped to fill in an absence I’ve felt without my cohort as part of my day-to-day graduate experience. The CWR has also expanded the reach and radius of my own personal campus. The CWR itself is a transdisciplinary space, allowing students and consultants to connect across all disciplines and embrace the collaborative components that attracted so many to the University. Being inter- and transdisciplinary can extend beyond just disciplines, but even re-introduces us to others at different stages of their projects in our own disciplines. While these connections have sustained the beauty of the CWR since its inception, the pandemic has and will illuminate the components of communal writing in the CWR even more than before. In turn, the writing center has the opportunity to move towards these traits – the transdisciplinary nature, friendly and collaborative component of an appointment, and the ways it reflects our conversations and inquiries we have with the friends and peers we trust. The writing center’s dissertation bootcamps, writing retreats, and writing groups, especially, are other institutionalized forms through which it helps break up the monotony of isolated writing right now. Now is when these components of the CWR are able to fully shine, and when their necessity is even more visible. Beyond the physical and institutional structure that was always available, the CWR can be a space to fill in the feelings of camaraderie that infuse our campus.

We have all struggled in different ways the past semesters in isolated studying and thinking; we never expected our next stage of a long education process would have to adapt itself into a lonely vacuum of reading and writing. But what hasn’t changed is that the strength of our cohorts has always expanded beyond the physical confines of buildings and parking lots. Our abilities and commitments to think collectively will always be a core component of how we inhabit our positions as graduate students and writers.

If there’s one thing this pandemic confirms for a lot of us academics-in-training, it’s that writing papers was never supposed to be an isolated or individualist process. The evolution of our work is cooperative. Our presence as writers in our programs is shared and informed by one another and our dedication to keep the work we do alive, breathing, and ever-evolving in whatever writing situations we find ourselves in.