Robbie Short

Dissertation writing in the humanities is often a solitary process, spent in libraries and other lonely study spots. But this summer, the Graduate School of Arts and Science’s new three-year Writing-in-residence Dissertation Working Group pilot program gave graduate students the opportunity to build a writing community among students and mentors.

Funded with a $350,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program aims to develop sustainable writing habits among graduate students in the humanities before the year in which they work full-time on dissertation writing. During this summer’s workshop, which ran from early June to mid-August, the 15 graduate student participants spent every weekday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Sterling Memorial Library, where they worked on their dissertations, workshopped their writing with fellow participants and faculty mentors and listened to speakers who discussed specific aspects of the writing process, according to Valerie Hansen, a history professor and senior faculty mentor of the program. Each participant also received a $2,000 grant to support research and research-related travel throughout this school year.

“One of the central goals of the program was to create a community where we were sharing our ideas and working through the process together of writing a dissertation and, in doing so, fostering a sense of accountability with each other,” said Travis Zadeh, a professor of religious studies and the junior faculty mentor for this summer’s program.

Zadeh described the dissertation writing process as a “marathon, not a sprint” that requires a well-organized plan to execute successfully. Most undergraduates and graduate students, Hansen added, resort to “binge writing,” in which they pull all-nighters the day before a paper is due to reach the minimum number of pages. The program is designed to unteach such practices.

Three graduate student participants interviewed by the News said the program helped them improve their dissertation writing and jump-start their careers. Elisa Ronzheimer GRD ’18, a sixth-year graduate student studying German literature, said the program taught her simple methods to write eloquently and productively. Participants also learned technical skills, such as how to convert a dissertation thesis into a book and how to footnote well, during weekly lunch workshops, according to Ronzheimer.

Andrew Chung GRD ’19, a fifth-year graduate student in the music department, wrote half his dissertation during the workshop, which has set him up to finish his dissertation a year early. Janna Gonwa GRD ’19, a fifth-year religious studies doctoral candidate, told the News that the workshop also put her in a good position to finish writing her dissertation by this time next year, which will allow her to put more time and effort into her job applications.

In addition to fostering sustainable writing habits and accelerating the writing process, the program seeks to create a community and “dispel the myth that all writing is done alone,” according to Zadeh. Gonwa said she was grateful to have a small support network of graduate students, adding that several of the program’s participants continue to meet in the library to work on their dissertations and brainstorm.

“During the school year, [the dissertation writing process] is a lot like being a monkey in a cell. There is a lot less guidance and support programs during the year,” Chung said. “Having a writing group is very helpful and beneficial because of the social pressure to just show up every day and work on something, which is not a pressure that you have during the school year.”

Chung, Ronzheimer and Gonwa all said that dissertation writing for the humanities can be an isolating process. Gonwa told the News that students have a tendency to become “hermits” and get into an “unhealthy head space.”

According to Chung, the Center for Teaching and Learning hosts a handful of dissertation groups that meet a few times a semester, but there is no program during the school year that supports small working groups that meet regularly. The in-residence dissertation working group could serve as an “extraordinary model” for new programming throughout the school year, he said.

Ronzheimer said the program made her and some of the other participants realize that teaching good writing practices should start earlier in graduate and undergraduate education, certainly long before students start writing full-length books. There is much to be gained by integrating writing as a “professional activity” into the graduate curriculum, Zadeh added.

He described the opportunity to mentor students as a valuable experience for him as a writer.

“It builds that sense of camaraderie that we’re part of this together, that it’s a community of the mind, of the written word and how we go about pursuing those ideals. It was really inspiring,” he said.

Applications for next summer’s Writing-in-residence Dissertation Working Group will be available beginning in November.

Adelaide Feibel |