Smile and Write provides structure in an abnormal time

Laura Brown was looking for a little structure during a time when so much about daily life feels anything but normal.

The assistant English professor found it through the Smile and Write program offered by the provost's office. It uses peer accountability to help faculty and staff keep their writing projects on track while connecting with others in the program.

"There is so little in my day that is structured right now, so it has been very helpful to have this structure around my writing and research," Brown said. "It is nice that it is not something I have to set up, and it is someone else bringing the group together and getting it going."

The provost's office previously offered writing accountability groups in which individuals were paired with a mentor, but this option focuses strictly on writing.

"Especially for our tenure-track faculty, they need something that gets them on this path of writing whether it be articles, books or whatever their discipline requires," said faculty success coordinator Katharine Hensley.

How it works

The program began this fall, meeting on Zoom Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Participation ranges from five to 15 people. Meeting virtually has proven beneficial for faculty and staff.

"It actually makes it easier than meeting in person because you don't have to leave your office to join the group and work for two hours," Hensley said. "It is really simple."

Each meeting begins with participants telling the group their goals for the session. Once work begins, microphones are muted but cameras stay on. As the session draws to a close, people again take turns talking about what they accomplished or what challenges still are present.

"It has been nice to have a space where you are writing with other people and hearing what they are working on," Brown said. "People are excited about their projects -- and that can be really motivating. Or, if there are moments when people are really frustrated with a project, that makes me feel better because that is often how I feel."

Registration is available through Learn@ISU. Six winter session dates were added at the request of participants, four of which remain: Dec. 29, Jan. 5, Jan. 12 and Jan. 19.

Multiple benefits

Brown has been working on an essay during the sessions and plans to devote upcoming time to developing her online spring courses in Canvas.

"I'm excited to have those concrete times on the calendar when I know I will have to sit down and chip away at it," she said. "The accountability and having something on the calendar that I can't move is important. I think that is true for a lot of faculty."

Philosophy and religious studies associate professor Travis Chilcott had been looking for a writing community when he came across Write and Smile.

"I have the need to get some writing done in the middle of the craziness of this pandemic, and the semester is so consumed by teaching," he said. "I was extremely happy when the provost's office did this."

Chilcott has attended every session as he works on his book manuscript.

"We are in isolation and writing can be a very lonely process, so this program has created a community and a sense of solidarity," he said.

"Overwhelmingly, I hear from faculty that it is an opportunity to work on things maybe they don't want to work on or get pushed to the back burner because they have other things to do," Hensley said.

Participants also meet faculty and staff they might not interact with otherwise.

"It is nice to meet people you may not normally cross paths with, and it might turn into someone you seek advice from or work with that you had not anticipated," Brown said.

Going forward

Smile and Write will expand in the spring semester with two sessions each week, one at a fixed time and another floating day to make it available to more faculty and staff who are interested.

"Just having that accountability is something I learned I really rely on and makes a difference in how much I'm able to get done," Brown said.