Dissertation Working Groups (DWGs): What They Are, How They Work

DWGs are designed to provide a structure and community to help dissertation writers write more, faster and better by reducing common impediments like isolation, insecurity, anxiety, lack of accountability and lack of feedback. They are modeled on the classic creative-writing workshop.

They meet every two weeks throughout the year. Every session, two (or sometimes three) members of the group will have precirculated a draft of their work-in-progress. This has to be submitted at least a week before the session. Each member should plan to submit twice per term.

In line with the DWG’s goal, our discussions are geared toward constructive feedback—as opposed to critique or picking apart arguments. This is not to say that there should be no criticism—of course not! It’s more an issue of emphasis, tone and intention: our goal as members of this group is to help each other out with the writing / revision process. Submitting your writing to the group should not feel like submitting to your supervisor or committee; the group is not there for quality control or for picking apart ideas. It is there to identify and suggest places in the document that may benefit from extra attention, from re-arrangement, etc.

A good meeting should leave the authors feeling eager and full of ideas about how to revise their manuscript.

To this end, feedback on submissions is given orally (not in writing) during virtual meetings. The most productive approach is to keep feedback selective (focusing on systemic issues or, alternatively, single issues that have a serious consequence for clarity/readability/coherence), rather than listing lots of smaller issues (e.g. typos, formatting). We usually begin with some positive feedback, followed by constructive criticism. As befits the purpose of this group, comments should focus on writing issues (clarity, structure, “flow,” paragraphing, etc) rather than content.

I will provide some guidance about how to do this. One practice to avoid is asking the author to account for themselves. There are productive ways of asking questions, but there is no need, within the context of the DWG, to be asking questions like “Can you explain why you addressed this issue in this way?” These sorts of question, which are more appropriate for members of the supervisory committee, put the author on the defensive, which is not what we’re about. Instead, such comments can more productively be stated as facts about your own needs as a reader, for example “I didn’t quite understand why you dealt with this issue in this way.” The author can thus register the issue without feeling the need to respond, unless they want more detail / explanation.

Submissions. A range of submissions are appropriate, including passages a few pages long to a full chapter/article draft. My preference is for shorter, earlier submissions—drafts that are advanced enough to have structure, but that have not yet been through multiple rounds of revision and/or editing. An outline is insufficient for submission: it has to be in more or less continuous prose. At the other extremely, a paper can be too polished for the group; at that stage it should be going to your supervisor/committee, not to the group!

Commitment. Joining a DWG requires a real commitment, both in terms of time and in terms of active engagement with others’ writing. Participation is expected even when your own work is not being workshopped; these groups will only work if there is a mutual commitment to reading peers’ submissions. Circumstances make perfect attendance unrealistic, but the expectation is that you put the meetings in your calendar and be prepared to attend every meeting. Attending 2/3s of the meetings (roughly 6 per term) can be taken as a minimum expectation.

Finally, two “rules”:

1.      No Excuses, No Apologies, No Explanations. Those submitting work should not apologize or feel the need to account for the roughness, incompleteness, etc of their writing. Those qualities are expectations in this group! Nor should they submit written preambles explaining or contextualizing their submission (that can be done during the seminar).

2.      No Reading Recommendations. In other words, when giving feedback, refrain from directing them to references the author may have missed. I can explain my reasons to those who’d like to know why.

Current DWGs: There are currently three DWGs, which have been running continuously since early 2019. One is for doctoral candidates in Social Sciences (including ethnography), the other two are for doctoral candidates in Humanities. One of the Humanities groups is more suited to those early on in the dissertation process (i.e. about to begin or working on their first chapter), while the other is more for those later on.