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

[Update: May 7, 2021: DWGs will begin anew in September 2021, and new participants have already started signing up. If you’re interested, please read the text below, then complete this form if it looks helpful. Groups are capped at 10 participants, and selections for the Fall 2021 groups will be made in August. Note that you must have a @utoronto.ca account to access the form.]

What are DWGs?

DWGs are specialized master-class style seminars 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.

Who can join?

DWGs are reserved for doctoral candidates (i.e. you must have completed all program requirements other than the dissertation) enrolled in graduate programs in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Joining a DWG requires a real commitment, in terms of both time and active engagement with others’ writing. Participation is expected even when your own work is not being workshopped; these groups only work if there is a mutual commitment. 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) should be taken as a minimum expectation.

How do DWGs work?

DWGs meet every two weeks for a term or more. One week before each session, based on a predetermined schedule, some participants precirculate a draft of their work-in-progress. Each member is expected to submit at least twice per term, though some changes to the format may make this number closer to 3-4 times per term.

A range of submissions are appropriate. They can range between a few paragraphs to 8 pages double spaced. My preference is for rougher 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 prose. At the other extreme, a paper can be too polished for the group; at that stage it should be going to your supervisor or committee, not to the group!

How does the workshopping work?

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. We are not gatekeepers. The group is there, instead, to identify and suggest places in the document that may benefit from extra attention, from re-arrangement, etc.

A good meeting should leave 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 meetings (which are virtual for the time being). 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 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. Such concerns 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.

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.