Texas Tech University

Prioritizing Publishing: Group Aims to Help Women Faculty in Research

Heidi Toth

June 10, 2016


The Women Faculty Writing Program, the second of its kind in the nation, provides support, accountability, skills and sanctioned time for writing.

Writing Group

For three hours a week, the only consistent sound in room 119, Doak Hall, is 80 fingers tapping on keyboards. Every now and then someone coughs. No dings announcing a new email or ring of a phone call can be heard. Social media, checking email and phones are strictly verboten.

It's the perfect balance of camaraderie and individual focus for these eight women professors, all of whom are hard at work on their research. Publishing is a must for every academic; it's also the only part of their job description that isn't on a semester schedule with grades, exams and deadlines built in. As such, despite its importance, research often is the first thing that slides when the semester gets busy.

Caroline Bishop

For the professors in the Women Faculty Writing Program (WFWP) at Texas Tech University, which just finished its first year of existence, these three hours of research time are sacrosanct. It's on the calendar, they set goals and hold each other accountable, and attendance is mandatory if they want to continue in the program. Most, though, don't need to be convinced of its importance. They want to be there.

“Academia is still very male-centric,” said Caroline Bishop, co-founder of the program and an assistant professor in classical and modern languages and literature. “Before I did this group in Indiana, I'd never been around so many academic women of all departments and all ranks. I was just blown away by how supportive they were of each other's success. We should all be in it together.

“I think that's the feeling I enjoyed most about the group there and why I wanted to bring it here.”

Elizabeth Sharp

Filling a need

Texas Tech reaching Tier One research status from the Carnegie Foundation in February amplified the need for professors to have time set aside just for research, said Elizabeth Sharp, an associate professor of human development and family studies and co-founder of the program. This is true for all academics. Professors are evaluated – and promoted – according to how much they publish, yet teaching, grading, interacting with students and doing service work within their departments generally require more immediate demands on professors' time, leaving research to squeeze into the gaps.

This is an even more common problem for women in academia, Bishop said. A recent study showed male professors, on average, spend an hour more a week on research than their female peers. Women spend an hour more a week on service and half an hour more on teaching.

“It's not because women are working less, it's because women are given more service work to do,” she said. “Women do disproportionately more of that than male academics do.”

Kristin Messuri

That led into the second set of statistics that showed Bishop how critical setting aside time for research is. As universities throughout the country hire entry-level professors, the new hires are split almost evenly – 50.5 percent of entry-level professorships go to women.

However, the number of women professors with tenure make up only 43 percent of tenured faculty, and at the highest level of promotion, women make up less than a third.

“There's a real problem keeping and promoting women,” Bishop said.

Many attribute that in part to the lack of dedicated time to research. It's not just in the United States either. Kathryn Hollingsworth, a visiting law professor from the United Kingdom, said she has much the same experience as her American counterparts.

“Increasingly it is difficult for us to carve out time for writing, and it is always research that is the thing that ‘gives' because, although important, it is usually not urgent,” she said. “Yet it is the aspect of our job on which we are judged and promoted. The WFWP allows us to prioritize our writing. It also helps combat the isolation of academic writing and to encourage and enthuse each other.

Anna Novotny

“Going to the group was the most productive time of my leave period.”

Deidre Popovich, an assistant professor of marketing in the Rawls College of Business, agreed. She's a first-year professor who has done online writing groups before, but found the face-to-face meetings increased her productivity and accountability. She learned how to be a more effective researcher through participation in the writing program, she said.

Erin Collopy, chairwoman of the Department of Classical and Modern Languages and Literature (CMLL), said she's been in groups that allowed professors to discuss their research, but it wasn't dedicated time for actually getting work done. She also was more likely to skip that group if some other duty came up, which is common in administration. That wasn't true with this group, she said.

Getting started

Bishop brought the idea from Indiana University Bloomington, where she was a visiting assistant professor in 2014-15. She was a part of a women's writing group there and found she benefitted from attending.

Marjorie Buckner
Marjorie Buckner

“It really was amazing,” Bishop said. “It was my favorite thing about being there.”

When she started at Texas Tech in fall 2015, she met Sharp, who is chair of the President's Gender Equity Council. Sharp liked the idea and approached Kathy Gillis, director of the University Writing Center, and associate director Kristin Messuri as well as Charlotte Dunham, director of the Women's Studies Program. They also coordinated with Juan Muñoz, senior vice president for Institutional Diversity Equity and Community Engagement, and two months later the WFWP was accepting applications.

The membership pool is built into the name; the group is open to women faculty members at Texas Tech with the goal of encouraging the members to write articles and book chapters, apply for fellowships and grants and submit papers to academic conferences. In the fall 17 women joined; for the spring semester all 17 returned and a few others applied as well.

The women come from all ranks, although Sharp said they give preference to women with tenure-track appointments. The application also asks about the research each professor is doing and what she believes she will gain from membership in the group. It also emphasizes that this group is supportive, not competitive. 

The women come from a range of disciplines, including law, education, marketing, journalism, anthropology, languages and literature. Bishop studies Greek and Latin languages with a special emphasis on Roman philosopher Cicero, while Sharp studies gender and family ideologies with a feminist framing. Some do quantitative, data-heavy research for which they rely on multiple co-authors; others in the humanities focus more on qualitative, individual analyses. The professors don't always have much in common besides their gender and career.

For three hours a week, though, they come together to share ideas, set goals and write. The professors are divided into three groups, all of which meet at a set time once a week. Bishop said in the fall they divided professors by discipline, putting science researchers in one group and humanities in another. However, they realized each group missed out on valuable insights from people who think, study and research in different ways, so since then they divided professors based on when they were available to meet.

The first half-hour is a group chat based on an article they've all read, which usually relates to the research and writing process. They also set individual writing goals for the day and write them on a white board. After the pleasantries and discussion, each faculty member opens her laptop and does research for two and a half hours.

What that research looks like depends on the professor. Sharp said the program members, called fellows, sometimes use the time to read or analyze their data or organize their information. Bishop used the time to hone her application for a Loeb Classical Library Fellowship, a program administered by Harvard University. She received the fellowship and will spend the next year at St. Louis University, which has the Vatican Library's archive on microfilm, finishing a book titled “Cicero's Intellectual Politics.”

The other fellows celebrated when Bishop received the fellowship, as they did for each accomplishment, be it the completion of daily goals or one of the many external results. In the first seven months of the writing program, members collectively published 20 peer-reviewed journal articles and submitted 25 additional articles, applied for four national fellowships, submitted one book proposal and started three more, received a national research award, submitted and received a grant and submitted or wrote dozens more conference papers, book chapters and other publications.

While some of this would have happened without the writing program, participants said having the sanctioned time, structure and accountability made a huge difference. It was particularly helpful for first-year professors who were creating new curricula and getting used to a new place.

“I think everyone has a tough time in their first year in a new job, and I had an extra tough time because another faculty member in my department left unexpectedly,” Bishop said, adding much of his work ended up on her desk. “It would have been really easy to just get swallowed up in the service and the teaching and the stress. Having that dedicated time for research was so helpful for me.”

Creating a woman-only space

Worrying about publishing and making time for research is an experience every academic shares, and all of the participants in the WFWP have leaned on their peers, both female and male, for assistance from time to time. But for Sharp and Bishop, making this a woman-only space was critical to its mission.

“The larger issue is inequities still exist,” Sharp said. “We're embedded in a system that continues to highlight ‘male' as the normative – consider our language, e.g. freshman, bachelor's degree, mankind, etc.”

For some participants, allowing only women was a hard sell. Collopy initially was turned off by the gender divide. She felt that way because she wants to believe academics live in a post-gendered world – “we're all feminists, right?” – and because as chair, she knew plenty of male faculty members would benefit from such a group.

She joined anyway after encouraging Bishop to start the program, and her hesitation disappeared.

“The CMLL faculty is equally divided between men and women, but that is not the case for many other departments across campus, and our upper administration is primarily male,” Collopy said. “Women also are socialized to be caretakers, so they often spend more time on teaching and service than men do. Having the organized time to meet and making the meeting a priority allows female faculty to carve out time for research.”

For others, being among women was the biggest selling point. Popovich liked how open they could be in talking about issues that were specific to women on campus.

“I think women have fundamentally different experiences in academia,” she said. “It's nice to have faculty who are in similar situations to talk about some of the aspects that are unique to women. Whether we want to admit it or not, female faculty have different challenges than their male counterparts. It is nice to be in a collaborative, kind, judgment-free group where we can talk about these issues and try to figure out ways to proactively handle them.”

It also allowed for networking among professors of different ranks and fields. The fellows discussed opportunities to collaborate with each other, feedback on different types of research and even non-academic subjects they had in common. Bishop said a number of women who had children coordinated to get additional child care options in Lubbock. It also took women, especially those working toward tenure, out of their offices to do their research.

“Research tends to be very individualized,” Sharp said. “What I think is so important about this is we've created a community of women scholars from throughout campus.”

Although the group isn't for everyone – some professors organize, research and motivate themselves without problems – it has its place for many people, Sharp said. She has tenure, is well-established in her field and has half a dozen different research projects, and she found going to the WFWP helpful.

“We all have considerable demands on our time, and our work is frequently interrupted,” Sharp said. “Most of us receive emails non-stop, and we know faculty members spend considerable time answering emails, but our research demands attention too. The writing program helps us prioritize research.”

Women professors interested in participating in the fall semester can apply online by Wednesday (June 15).