‘What Are You Working on Today?’

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By Libby Anthony, Heidi Lawrence, and Amy Reed 

Few experiences as a graduate student prepare you for life as an assistant professor. The requirements of even the most rigorous seminar paper are still different from those of journal articles or grant applications. There is no graduate-school equivalent for the labor involved in teaching a 4-4 load with multiple preps. And graduate students, for good reason, usually do not attend faculty meetings.

Once you add in the unfamiliarity of everything — new department, new campus, new city, new colleagues, new friends — it becomes clear why the initial months, and even years, of an assistant professorship can be riddled with anxiety and uncertainty.

How to be productive in our new spaces and amid new requirements vexed all three of us immediately after beginning our first tenure-track jobs. In graduate school, we had been friends and allies. Now, as we’d always done before, we quickly found ourselves turning to each other and confessing: "I’m lost. What am I supposed to do?"

Over the course of a few months, we settled on a solution that we call "remote co-working." Basically, we transformed our graduate-school friendship into a professional one, aimed at keeping us connected and productive.

Our approach is similar to other academic support groups we’ve heard about, yet different in its approach and scope. It’s like a writing group, except it doesn’t always involve writing. It’s like an accountability group, except we don’t really hold each other accountable to anything. It’s like a bunch of friends hanging out while drinking coffee, except we gather via Skype or Google Hangouts. Most important, it’s about getting work done — sometimes a little, but more often, a lot.

We are in our fifth year of remote co-working, and thought that other early-career academics might benefit from hearing about our experiences, lessons learned, and best practices. What we describe below is a model for sustained, collaborative productivity that we hope will help others navigate the transition from graduate student to assistant professor, and on.

So how do we structure our meetups? Here are five organizing principles:

  • Schedule the time. Typically we contact each other at the beginning of a semester to set a regular meeting time. Our sessions can range from an hour to a full day. Then we block out those times on our calendars. Of course, plans often change and life intervenes (surprise meetings, doctor visits, child-care issues), but having a scheduled time that is set aside and protected keeps us accountable and organized.
  • "Meet" via technology, and keep video and sound on. We convene over some type of video chat (Skype, Google Hangouts). While platforms like Google Docs might be practical for writing collaboratively, we find the video features of Skype and Google Hangouts to better mimic the shared office or coffee-shop experience. As we work, we can continually see small windows of one another at the tops of our screens. This is also an aural experience, as we can hear one another typing away. If we can hear one another being productive, it makes us want to be productive, too.
  • Keep catch-ups quick and limited. One of the best parts of this practice — and one of our biggest challenges — is that we are all friends. It can be easy to default to "friend mode," talking about life, venting about work, or just chatting. We’ve found that our meetings are most productive when we start out with a limited amount of "catch-up" time ("Let’s talk for 15 minutes before we start to work"). That allows us to reconnect as friends (different from what you might experience in, say, an on-campus writing group) while also staying focused on work.
  • Set goals and parameters for each session. We usually begin with a question: "What are you working on today?" That allows each of us to explain what we will be doing and what we hope to accomplish. Sometimes our session goals are unspecific and flexible: "I need to figure out what is going on in this chapter I’m drafting." Other times, they are specific and urgent: "I am going to finish grading these last five papers in the next hour." We are never working on the same thing (aside from the time we took to write this article) or rarely even the same type of task (all of us writing or grading, for example).
  • Regroup, share, and encourage. We like to close sessions by recapping what each of us have achieved that day and what we still have left to do. Listening to others talk about what they got done that day, and being able to voice our own accomplishments is a big source of motivation. Hearing encouragement from a peer can keep us focused on the task at hand and supported through the next step.

One of the biggest challenges we faced as assistant professors was learning how to structure our time productively. On that front, remote co-working has resulted in three key benefits.

Flexible accountability. Unlike writing groups, which assume that everyone participating is working on the same problem — the need to produce research outcomes — remote co-working is more flexible. During our arranged online work meeting, each of us sets our goals for the period. Frequently, one of us will be grading while another is revising a book chapter, or one of us will be drafting a conference proposal while another is planning a lesson.

Immediate feedback. We get instant advice on our questions and concerns — large and small — in a safe space. During most of our meetups we are working silently. But we also check in with one another, to ask for advice or report on our progress. For example, one of us might ask, "I’m writing an email to a student — could you listen to it and let me know if it sounds too harsh?" or "I’m trying to argue X in this section of my article, do you think I need to draw on Y’s work?" or "How do I write a negative review letter?"

It’s not easy to get answers to such questions in your own department. In the case of the first question, a colleague might not be available to offer quick, immediate advice over something so small. The second question might not be answerable by a department mentor who has a different professional background. The third may be a slightly embarrassing question to ask your department chair.

This type of quick feedback, however, can reassure inexperienced faculty members that we are on the right track and provide motivation to keep moving forward with our work rather than getting mired in a guessing game fueled by a lack of confidence.

Networking. It might sound counterintuitive — since our remote co-workers are people with whom we went to graduate school — but, in fact, this model is a way to begin establishing a national professional network. We’ve experienced this in two ways:

  • First, two of us work in a similar research area. By maintaining our professional relationship, we have been able to collaborate on conference proposals, evaluate each other’s manuscripts, and even plan joint projects. This also enlarges our professional networks as we introduce each other to people we’ve met on our home campuses and beyond.
  • Second, the diversity of our job placements serves a professional advantage. The three of us work at different institutions with different departmental makeups; different research, teaching, and service expectations; and different political conditions. Skeptics might assume that a faculty member at a two-year regional college might not have much advice to offer a faculty member at an R1 university (or vice versa), but that has not been the case. We are learning how problems are handled at different types of institutions. And that gives each of us new or unique ideas we can offer as alternatives to our existing departmental or campus cultures.

The most invaluable benefit of remote co-working, however, is not professional but personal: social and emotional support.

Regardless of where we moved, we all found that being a new faculty member could be isolating. Even in supportive and welcoming departments, faculty members usually work alone. The rigors of an academic career often do not leave a lot of time for forging new friendships or exploring new towns. We found ourselves missing the shared office spaces of graduate school and the robust conversations about pedagogy, research, and service that those spaces enabled. More important, we missed our friends.

Remote co-working has allowed us to maintain and even develop our relationship. We now "see" each other on a regular basis, and we have grown together as we’ve moved through our early careers, gotten married, and had children. Although remote co-working is not the only way we maintain our friendship, it has been a particularly satisfying one.

As we like to say to each other at the outset of every session: Happy working!

Libby Anthony is an assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College, Heidi Lawrence is an assistant professor of English at George Mason University, and Amy Reed is an associate professor of writing at Rowan University. They earned their Ph.D.s in rhetoric and writing at Virginia Tech.

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