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ODU Women Writers Don’t Let the Pandemic Stand in Their Way

Annette Finley-Croswhite and Narketta Sparkman-Key

During the first surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in April, reporter Colleen Flaherty published an article in Inside Higher Ed that generated much attention. In a piece entitled "No Room of One's Own," Flaherty quoted several editors of academic journals who expressed concern about the decline in article submissions authored solely by women scholars. The article also explored the gender-specific burdens coronavirus places on women, especially in terms of child care and homeschooling, reinforcing what University of California-Berkeley law professor Mary Ann Mason, co-author of "Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower," calls a "baby penalty," in which the career paths of women academics are negatively affected by having children. This statement of hardship is not to discount helpful fathers, but for many reasons — sociological, cultural, and economic — child care responsibilities fall heaviest on women and certainly reflect our own experiences as scholars and mothers.

At Old Dominion University, Flaherty's article began to circulate and female faculty started discussing their own fears about decline in research productivity. As day care centers and schools closed, many female colleagues found themselves at home with children who were often equally frustrated by the isolation from their friends because of social distancing. Women scholars without children also struggled with the burden imposed by the pandemic, the anxiety it generated, and all of the extra work involved in getting courses online.

In the midst of these concerns, the Office of Faculty Diversity and Retention and the Center for Faculty Development united to devise an Online Women's Writing Forum hosted by the two of us and Dr. Tomeka Wilcher, the educational program developer at the Center for Faculty Development. Wilcher also built much of the Blackboard site to accompany the forum. The forum ran for six weeks in June and July and included 39 registrants.

Six modules were designed to offer faculty structure and accountability. Each Monday opened with an inspirational huddle and group discussion. Participants were encouraged to post their weekly goals on the discussion board at the beginning of every week and record whether those goals were met at the end of the week. Real-time Zoom writing sessions offered spaces where faculty could work and write throughout the week. Smaller groups of four to seven participants were also created to offer each other encouragement. Several of these groups used text-messaging to communicate, commiserate, and congratulate.

Sparkman-Key's original idea for the writing forum was to provide a supportive environment for women to write together. But in hindsight what she found was that the space we created became one of encouragement, motivation and sisterhood. Writing and research were conducted, in fact quite a bit, but ultimately participants found a team of cheerleaders and advocates to encourage them and normalize their emotions as they pursued their writing goals.

"I must say that I was encouraged through this journey and truly enjoyed the Zoom writing sessions," Sparkman-Key said. "I saw new faces and heard the experiences of women I had never met before. It was a rewarding experience for me as a leader of the forum, and I cannot wait to launch new dates to continue our work this fall."

All three leaders emphasize that the structure of the Women's Writing Forum was not content-critique driven. Scholars have lots of opportunities for their work to be assessed. There is always the "dreaded reviewer #2" in any article submission who is often highly critical. Rather, what we offered was incentive to get the words written. Scholar Joli Jensen, Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa and author of "Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics," states (p. 137), "We need to help each other actually get our writing done. Once it's done, we also need support for getting it revised and into circulation — not just planned, talked about, and agonized over." Many of the writers in the forum were actually working on revisions that had been shelved for some time. The forum gave them the space, courage, and motivation to "revise and resubmit."

Most faculty participants expressed a great deal of satisfaction with the writing forum and the work they produced during the six-week period. A few comments are below.

"The Women's Writing Forum gave me the kickstart I needed to clearly define goals for the week, identify potential obstacles and how to handle them, and check in with myself on how I did. I really enjoyed the breakout groups focused on topic. And the virtual writing sessions via Zoom were integral to actually accomplishing my goals. I loved my experience with the forum and would definitely sign up again!" — Abby Braitman, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology

"Being a part of the Women's Writing Forum helped me to connect with colleagues both in my department and in other departments and colleges. Several of us realized we have overlapping research interests and have connected about potential collaborations on projects, which is very exciting! The supportive environment helped me to remember how to set (realistic!) goals, remember I am not alone in my struggles, and the accountability within the group was very helpful." — Kristen Herron, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology

"The Women's Writing Forum not only helped me find what works for me to stay focused and productive in writing and research this summer, it also gave me such a welcoming support system of fellow researchers and writers who shared their thoughts, fears, and aspirations. The forum gave me a boost of confidence in my own abilities, taught me how to be happy with even very modest accomplishments, and proved to me that I don't have to be on this academic journey all by myself." — Marina Saitgalina, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School of Public Service.

"Although the Women's Writing Forum was beneficial from a writing perspective, it was even more helpful with my morale and attitude towards my professional progress this summer. Our weekly check-ins allowed me to air my insecurities about writing and hear that many other women feel the same way. The weekly meetings definitely helped me maintain a positive mindset throughout the summer." — Luisa Lucero, Lecturer, Community and Environmental Health

"I enjoyed participating in the Women's Writing Forum very much. I felt very supported and encouraged by my cohort and because of accountability to report in and out each week to my cohort, I found I was able to get my writing back on track! I look forward to participating in future Women's Writing Fora!" — Joleen (Westerdale) McInnis, MS LIS, MFA, Liaison Librarian for the Life Sciences and the College of Health Sciences

The Old Dominion University Women's Writing Forum was a success and a model that can be used again. Accountability and encouragement proved to be the most obvious outcomes as faculty reported submitting articles, finishing book chapters, revising papers and reports, and undertaking tedious copy-editing of major projects. But it was the community established that will also be remembered as a hallmark of the forum.

Maybe in crowded living conditions generated by the pandemic it is hard to find that "room of one's own" that early 20th-century author Virginia Woolf thought essential for women writers, but via the forum, participants carved out online spaces to be productive.

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