Rethinking Our Image of the Solitary Historian
The discipline of history tends to be solitary—even “isolating” and “lonely,” according to recent Perspectives articles. We often lack scientific laboratories, the fieldwork of anthropologists, or the interviews conducted by other social scientists. Co-authorships remain rare. All this can leave historians particularly vulnerable to isolation, burnout, and low morale—which I experienced myself before I learned about co-writing.
Co-writing is the act of writing with others at a fixed time and in the same space, in person or virtually. It is distinct from co-authorship: co-writers are not collaborating on a shared project. Rather, each works on their own research or creative work. My conviction about its usefulness emerges from my own professional struggles. I was fortunate to begin a tenure-track job soon after graduate school, but I arrived unprepared for the challenges of a small teaching-intensive college. My time and focus were directed toward teaching, advising, and service, and I failed to make sufficient time for research and writing.
Unsurprisingly, my research and productivity suffered. I wrote and published, but not as much as I had hoped—and certainly not with joy. I struggled silently. I never reached out to anyone for advice on the practicalities of scholarship or successful habits of scholar-teachers, since I assumed that I should already know how to do the work. After all, hadn’t I finished a dissertation and landed that elusive job? Increasingly, I wondered if perhaps research and academia were not right for me.
In this state of existential crisis, I secured a yearlong unpaid leave and moved away. With time and distance, I focused on research and went into problem-solving mode, consuming as much academic writing advice as possible. I read about maintaining productivity, forming good habits, combating writer’s block, and more. I experimented with an expensive online writing group where teams of participants were led by a writing coach, all logging their daily writing sessions. I tried a habit contract—a formal, written commitment to a daily writing habit, with a financial penalty for not following through—with a fellow medievalist. I participated in a standard academic writing group, meeting monthly with three other faculty members to discuss one another’s research. Nothing really worked for me.
I never reached out to anyone, since I assumed that I should already know how to do the work.
Finally, I reached out to friends and colleagues, seeking their advice and asking about their struggles. Two suggested co-writing: a friend told me about the website Shut Up & Write, while a new colleague revealed that she had organized co-writing sessions at her former institution. I thought co-writing had the potential to create strong habits with built-in accountability for my writing practice. I returned to campus with an idea and the support of a few colleagues who were also silently struggling to make research progress.
And so Write Now, Right Now (WNRN) was born in the fall of 2016. The notion was simple: scheduled times and spaces in which faculty could sit and write. No introductions, no workshopping, no instructions—just come and write. It was difficult at first, dealing with an erratic schedule and shifting rooms and dragging along a makeshift coffee bar, but faculty showed up from different departments and for myriad reasons. One humanist had been talking about his book project for years but had not yet managed to sit down and write it. Another showed up discouraged by a multiyear fallow period in their work after achieving tenure. A tremendously prolific and well-funded scientist with collaborators elsewhere liked the idea of writing alongside faculty at our institution. A newly arrived social scientist was drawn by the prospect of meeting people and finding community. To these and so many other faculty, the benefits quickly became apparent. By the spring of 2017, we found routine and stability: we equipped a room in a science building with a Keurig, a minirefrigerator, and cozy lighting and decor and held regular hours hosted by multiple faculty.
More than six years later, WNRN hosts at least 12 co-writing hours per week during the semester (nine per week in summers), alongside three-day writing sprints during breaks. Dozens of faculty, representing all divisions and ranks and both contingent and tenure track, have participated, and all have boasted increased productivity. Our co-writing community has demonstrable outcomes that we do our best to quantify, logging numbers of participants; hours spent writing; and submitted and accepted articles, books, grants, and other projects. Our success has earned us a dedicated space in a newly renovated building, a substantial budget, and a course release for the organizer.
I have been astounded by WNRN’s impact: my one humanist colleague not only wrote but published his book, and the other ended his slump and earned promotion. I have created strong habits that keep me writing whether it is summer break, a teaching-heavy semester, or sabbatical, and by my best estimate, my productivity has tripled. Equally importantly, I have found joy again in my writing. Writing can often be agonizing, but my anxiety and stress have largely lifted because my relationship to my work has changed. Writing is not something I must do or must isolate myself to do; it is something I get to do and do alongside great people. As an extrovert, I had found it difficult to choose solitary research over the engaged work of the teacher, committee member, or adviser. I was drawn to working with students or even attending faculty meetings because I longed to be with others. Co-writing means that writing no longer requires isolation. That vital role of community in my work has been an unexpected realization.
When contrasted with writing groups, co-writing communities are profoundly inclusive. Traditional writing groups must be limited in size to allow everyone the opportunity to regularly share their own work for critique. Such groups also tend to form around faculty members in adjacent disciplines to ensure helpful feedback—what could I say about a mathematician’s research? In contrast, a co-writing community asks only that participants show up and write. One’s project or discipline is unimportant, and space alone limits the number of participants. This inclusivity has created a truly interdisciplinary community. On most days, this means at least one political scientist, a planetary scientist, an ancient philosopher, a religious studies professor, a Russian literature specialist, usually an education specialist or biologist, and, of course, a historian are all in the same room, each of us staring with great concentration at our laptop screens.
Feelings of solidarity arise simply from the presence of other faculty. Before co-writing, I knew that my colleagues were engaged in research because I heard announcements of publications, but I had never seen them perform the work leading to those publications. Now we observe one another’s research and writing daily. Sometimes we share writing or ask for advice on research, other times we celebrate successes or seek consolation after rejections, and often we discuss our habits and tips for productivity. Through co-writing, we have fostered a strong collegial community, and our participants’ overall morale has increased at a time when many of our colleagues in higher education are experiencing the opposite.
These habits and communities should continue throughout our careers, even during teaching semesters.
This community was particularly critical during the pandemic. When campus cleared out in March 2020 for remote learning, we shifted to a virtual format. Rather than inviting colleagues to write in a physical room, we shared a Zoom link. Two hours a day, we logged in, shared quick hellos, and then turned off our microphones (and some their cameras) and co-wrote just as we had in person. It was neither as fun nor as well attended as our in-person sessions, but it maintained both our habits and our community during a difficult and isolating time. The virtual format also ushered in positive transformation and growth by highlighting previously invisible accessibility issues. Once our co-writing community returned to a physical room, we made every in-person writing session simultaneously virtual. Now faculty on sabbatical, at home sick, abroad for the semester, or not wishing to travel on a nonteaching day can virtually join the on-campus, in-person writers.
Co-writing should not feel unnatural to historians. When we go on research trips to archives and libraries, we read and write alongside fellow researchers, working away quietly until breaking for coffee or lunch and informally discussing our work. These habits and communities should continue throughout our careers, even during teaching semesters. Nor does co-writing mean changing the nature of the work itself. My research questions, methodologies, and writing style are the same, but my habits, productivity, and mindset have improved tremendously. And building a co-writing community is low cost and low risk. You can, as I did, begin by finding a few faculty friends willing to try it out, booking an on-campus meeting room, and advertising the schedule to the entire faculty. Then you need only show up at those times and places and write. In the worst-case scenario, no one else attends, but you still spent that time writing and developing a habit. In the best case, you build a vibrant co-writing community that increases productivity and improves faculty morale.
One critical lesson from my co-writing community can benefit even solitary writers: we must talk more about how we work—especially with graduate students, historians from underrepresented and minoritized groups, pretenure junior colleagues, and contingent faculty. More than discussing schools of historiography, theory, and methodology, more than debating how to interpret sources, historians must discuss how we manage to sit down in our chairs, put our fingertips to the keyboard or pens to paper, and produce scholarship. What habits and routines improve our work? What motivates us? What deflates us? All scholars struggle; we must stop pretending that earning a doctorate means one knows how to be productive. The events of the last few years have encouraged us to rethink our lives, our careers, our teaching, and more. We must also reimagine our image of the solitary historian and work to build a community that will ensure a robust future for our discipline.
Dana M. Polanichka is an associate professor of history at Wheaton College (Massachusetts).
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