Members of the graduate writing group stand in the Mandel Reading Room. Back row, left to right: Daniel Ruggles, Ashley Gilliam, Joe Weisberg, Marie Comuzzo. Front row, left to right: Manning Zhang, Emily Thoman, Sanchita Dasgupta, Anna Valcour.

Members of Brandeis's new graduate writing group pose for a photo. Back row, left to right: Daniel Ruggles, Ashley Gilliam, Joe Weisberg, Marie Comuzzo. Front row, left to right: Manning Zhang, Emily Thoman, Sanchita Dasgupta, Anna Valcour.

January 23, 2024

Abigail Arnold | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

For Marie Comuzzo and Anna Valcour, the idea to start a writing group for Brandeis PhD students sprang from their recognition of the importance of community in facilitating writing success. After supporting each other through the writing process, the two third-year PhD students in Musicology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies were inspired to bring the idea to more students. And when they talked to GSAS about the group, finishing each other’s sentences and filling in the gaps in each other’s ideas, their own collaboration and mutual support was apparent. “I never would have done it without Anna,” said Comuzzo.

“Likewise,” said Valcour.

The two began writing communally in the fall of their second year, when they would meet from nine to five at one of their homes each Monday to prepare for their comprehensive exams. “It was our first chance to really be there for each other,” said Comuzzo. “It really structured it and kept it very real–some days we did not want to work, but we did because we felt accountable to each other.” At GSAS events, they also met other students from various departments who, like them, were fearing the isolation of the post-coursework stage or were already in that stage and feeling a lack of community. Realizing the importance of their own structured time, Valcour said, they realized that “this should be a thing we do for as many people as we can.” In the summer before their third year, Comuzzo and Valcour wrote and revised a proposal for funding a graduate student writing group. They received funding from the Mandel Center for the Humanities and from the Office of Graduate Affairs; GSAS provided them with a faculty advisor in Jon Anjaria of the Professional Development team.

With funding secured, the two put out a call for applicants and assembled an interdisciplinary cohort of eleven participants, all PhD students in their third through fifth years. In addition to Musicology and WGS, the group members come from English, History, Politics, Psychology, Sociology, and Social Policy. The group meets weekly on Mondays from nine to five. Many work on interdisciplinary projects, and the group thrives on the varied disciplines it brings together. It allows the participants to share resources from across campus with each other and to bring new perspectives on each other’s work; for example, said Comuzzo, group members have suggested conferences for others to attend that they would not otherwise have thought of. In addition, said Valcour, “there’s a lot of networking we can do. Several people have facilitated connections between students and faculty or scholars outside of their own programs.”

Having a regular group that meets on the same day every week also facilitates writing success for the members. “When you get there, you all stay,” said Valcour. “It’s built on the community, rather than being a drop-in model.” Comuzzo agreed. “The accountability element is very important,” she said. “It’s really different from other things offered on campus because we meet with the same people every week–we’ve become friends, and we hold space for each other.” Meeting physically has been very helpful with feelings of isolation, she said, but the group has decided they want to continue meeting over the winter break, even virtually, to maintain their community. “It says a lot about the group and what we’re getting out of it,” she said. The group has also implemented structures to help with this accountability, tracking each other’s goals and reminding each other of them.

On a typical day, the group begins by going around the table and setting goals, which they track in a shared Google doc. They then get to work until lunchtime, with lunch provided for all from the group’s funding. Lunch, said Valcour, is “community time;” the group doesn’t work while eating and spends the following hour getting coffee, walking around campus together, and catching up on emails. “Budgeting it in makes it feel safer,” said Comuzzo. “Then you can write for two or three hours and it’s fine if you don’t answer an email.” “We’re building in the wellness portion with those two hours,” added Valcour. They then write again, from 2:00 until 4:45, followed by checking in about the day’s accomplishments and challenges and setting goals for the week. They have also brought in guest speakers during lunch, including GSAS’s Marika McCann, who did a CV workshop, and Academic Fellowships’ Meredith Monaghan, who talked about grants. Comuzzo and Valcour hope to have more such speakers during the spring semester and possibly to add an additional peer review hour each week, “due to popular demand,” Valcour said.

The group has succeeded beyond Comuzzo and Valcour’s dreams. “Everyone has said how much they’ve gotten accomplished very specifically because of the group,” said Valcour. Members have written grants, applied for and been accepted to conferences, had articles accepted for publication, and written entire dissertation chapters. Comuzzo added that members might propose an idea during lunch–for example, for a course they might teach–and receive so much encouragement from others that they write and submit an application that afternoon. “We set goals with a box checking system, and the best part of the wrap-up at the end of the day is to get to check all the boxes!” said Comuzzo.

“It’s very therapeutic!” said Valcour.

The two hope to continue their specific group next year, while passing the model on to a new group of students for another cohort. Since having a small group composed of the same people is important to the success of the idea, they plan to get other students involved in starting a new group for next year. “We’re hoping that this model can be passed down and that people will recognize that this is a system that works,” said Valcour. While they hope to see their idea continue, they also had words of encouragement for other students who have their own ideas for programming and support they’d like to see on campus. Both mentioned the power of working together as a team, as developing new programming can be a long process and the collaboration is essential. The professional development team helped them think outside the box with their idea. “We felt like we could do it,” said Comuzzo, “and knew the people who would help us.”

Most of all, Comuzzo and Valcour emphasized the importance of community in helping students through the inevitable struggles of a PhD program. “Be okay with sharing how much you’re struggling with a peer,” said Comuzzo. “I think what brought Anna and I so close was sharing how hard things were and how difficult it is to get a PhD. Actively creating connection is a very important part of surviving a PhD program.” “We hold each other during the struggles,” added Valcour. By creating the group, the two have built on their own bond and expanded their community. “I know I could send my abstract to anyone in the group and get feedback,” said Comuzzo. “There’s that level of trust and care. I hope that will stay for life.” They also celebrated the work they themselves had done. “We’re making impactful change within the PhD community,” said Valcour. “It’s really important that as grad students, and possibly future educators, we recognize that we do have some semblance of power to enact change. We have the ability to create a group like this and see what a change it makes in everyone’s lives.”