Accountability, Participation, Productivity, and Community: The Second Book Writers’ Workshop in the Virtual Age

Thomas Balcerski and Honor Sachs

Bell System Advertisement, 1 May 1918. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The SHEAR Second Book Writers’ Workshop almost didn’t happen this year. Around mid-March, when we initially planned to send out a call for submission, the world was rapidly collapsing. Under such circumstances, the workshop felt like a pipedream. After initial conversation during the early stages of the crisis, we decided that the best thing to do was to postpone the 2BWW until life returned to normal.

As the months wore on, however, it became abundantly clear that life was not going to return to normal anytime soon. We began to receive emails from folks asking about the status of the workshop. It was heartening to hear that an online workshop might actually have traction. Cautiously, we decided to give it a shot, to experiment with the first-ever online edition of the 2BWW. We initially envisioned a scaled-back program; something modest and experimental. We solicited the help of two incredible mentors—Annette Gordon-Reed and Karin Wulf—who graciously agreed to help sustain the program. From there we sent out a call for proposals and hoped for the best.

To our enormous surprise, the response far exceeded our expectations. We received as many submissions for an online version of the workshop as we had for the in-person conference the year before in Cambridge. In total, we received nineteen proposals, over half of which were from people who wished to circulate chapter drafts with the rest neatly split between drafts of book proposals and fellowship applications. We received so many submissions, in fact, that we had to scramble to find additional mentors. We were extremely fortunate that Amy Greenberg and Caleb McDaniel jumped in at the last minute. Within two months, a workshop that we thought would be too much to ask of people during a pandemic had emerged as a vibrant program with considerable scholarly wind beneath its wings.

Initially, the logistics of hosting the workshop online were a bit of a puzzle. The least technically complicated option would have been to let the mentors and participants each organize their own online sessions individually. We decided against this, however, for two reasons. First, we wanted to avoid placing an organizational burden on mentors to make such arrangements. Second, and more importantly, we felt that atomizing the workshop into autonomous groups meant losing some of the collective camaraderie that has become an integral part of the 2BWW. So, we decided to gather all the participants, mentors, and organizers together on Zoom, before moving into breakout groups. This brief moment of connection allowed us to see the faces of friends and colleagues who we would normally spend time talking and collaborating with in hotel lobbies, conference rooms, coffee shops, and bars.

The process of shifting to a virtual workshop taught us a number of important lessons. Here are four insights we picked up as we navigated the shift to a virtual workshop:

  1. We learned that accountability motivates. Accountability is always an essential part of the writing process, but the stress of living in a pandemic placed undue strains on our ability to sustain momentum and production. We heard from several people who expressed gratitude for keeping their research and writing momentum going. In many ways, sustaining programs like the 2BWW through times of instability is more important than ever.
  2. We found that a wider range of people participated. Initially, we were surprised by the turnout, but in hindsight, we should have expected this. We were able to field submissions from people who might not otherwise have the time, funds, or ability to travel to conferences, helping to mitigate some of the economic inequalities endemic to higher ed. This year, participants in the online 2BWW were a globally dispersed group across continents and time zones. With travel budgets likely limited in the coming years, a virtual format might help increase access to the intellectual experiences of traditional conferences.
  3. We created tangible evidence of productivity. Despite disruptions to our research agendas and our writing schedules, we are still subject to annual reviews, and we are still required to show progress on our research agendas. With conferences and annual meetings on hold for the foreseeable future, the 2BWW allowed many of us to illustrate our ongoing productivity to university administration, to document ongoing work, and to demonstrate sustained progress on new research. Such evidence matters.
  4. We reaffirmed that intellectual community matters. The opportunity to gather together to discuss each other’s work, to bolster one other, to celebrate research triumphs, and to learn more about the exciting scholarship unfolding in our field was a tonic for our unsettled present. In these troubled times, virtual communities are a vital stopgap measure.

Moving to an online format changed the experience of the 2BWW in some ways, but it also made clear how some aspects remain the same. For all involved, the virtual 2BWW proved it is possible to create a forum for supportive and constructive scholarly exchange online. Whatever may come in 2021, we look forward to continuing to gather as a community of writers.

14 August 2020

About the Authors

Thomas Balcerski is associate professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Honor Sachs is assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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