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This week’s post is from Brett Say, a graduate student and program coordinator at George Mason University, USA. Brett’s interests include faculty and peer mentoring as they relate to graduate student development, learning outcome development, and writing across the curriculum. Brett received his bachelor’s degree from the Pennsylvania State University and his Master’s degree from George Mason University with a concentration in professional writing and rhetoric.

It’s no secret that the interests of graduate students, particularly new graduate students, change and mature with time. It happened to me. I’m part of what you might call the burgeoning group of non-traditional students, although I wasn’t always that way. Sure, I took the traditional undergraduate path (4 years, give or take, ages 18-21) but then left academia to enter the “real world.” A few years and a few experiences later, I returned to academia with the hopes of learning how to better address professional issues my colleagues and I were facing in the corporate world. This decision led me down a path that would not only change my career, but also the way I looked at writing and higher education.

Before entering graduate school, I had spent several years writing and managing proposals for a large engineering firm outside of Washington, D.C. Because of this, and my undergraduate degree in English, I enrolled in a Master’s program focused on professional writing.  As I moved through the program, however, I realized that the topics which I believed I was interested in weren’t really what I was interested in at all. It wasn’t until I began considering doctoral programs in my field that I had a sudden realization that I was, academically at least, alone. The faculty members with whom I had been working, while supportive, didn’t share my new interests. I no longer felt I had a mentor to guide my research and writing. This was further complicated by the fact that, as a non-traditional student, I was working full-time and going to school at night. Feeling adrift, I did what any self-conscious graduate student would do – I turned to the literature.

I was relieved to find that in other disciplines people were actually writing about the issues that interested me.  When I found an article particularly aligned with my interests, I looked up the author and felt even more hopeful.  Not only did this professor share my interests, but she had completed her doctoral work at the same university in which I was enrolled. It had to be fate, right? There was one minor issue – she was now about 500 miles away.

Eager to speak with someone who shared my interests, I didn’t let distance stop me. I emailed the professor and asked if I could speak with her about her work. When she agreed, I was happy enough just to speak with someone.  Shortly into our first conversation, however, I found that our writing interests were even more aligned than I had originally thought. The faculty member also recognized it and asked me to collaborate on a manuscript she had been preparing. In all honesty, this caught me off guard.  Call me naive, but I had never heard of a professor writing with a student from a different university…let alone different latitude! I couldn’t help but think to myself, “What’s the catch?” After working with her for a few weeks, I found an answer to that question…

…There was no catch! It just made sense. This was an opportunity for a developing graduate student to learn from, and write with, an established author on a topic of shared interest. Moreover, it was an opportunity for the faculty member.  Doctoral education, by nature, is specific with many unique areas of interest. Thus, finding a student who is well versed in a faculty member’s area of interest, and one who is highly motivated, can be just as difficult for faculty a member as it is for a student who is looking for  a mentor. Couple that with the clichéd publish-or-perish mentality, teaching loads, and administrative responsibilities, and trying to write for publication can be just as lonely for faculty as it can be for students. So why not take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself? Why confine faculty-student writing collaborations to opportunities within an institution? After all, faculty collaborate globally all the time.

One issue with this idea could be that the mentor-mentee relationship is still seen as an in-person relationship. This idea is likely even more entrenched  when it comes to collaborative writing at the doctoral level (Maher, Timmerman, Feldon, & Strickland, 2013). But, in the 21st century, is this an antiquated view? The goals of academic mentoring, typically, are to provide students with instrumental and psychosocial support systems that will help them succeed (Eby et al., 2013).  But does that mean that a writing mentor must be in the same room, city, or even country? Certainly, there is much to be said for in-person mentoring interaction, especially around collaborative writing. In fact, I prefer it. However, sometimes it’s not practical or even possible. So why do students and faculty tend to limit themselves to writing with those who are in their own institutions, especially now that it’s so easy to interact remotely (Dennen, 2004; Khan & Gogos, 2013)?

I suspect the answer is more political than you might think. Higher education can be a territorial place, particularly when it comes to research and scholarship. If “Professor Smith” from “University A” collaboratively writes with a graduate student from competing “University B”, what happens when that work is published?  Will the professor be questioned as to why he/she didn’t collaborate with a student from his/her respective institution? Will the student be penalized by his or her own faculty for “betraying” their program? Or, will both universities applaud the collaboration? I imagine a combination of all three…And that’s ok. But we can see how the former outcomes might cause apprehension.

The atmosphere of doctoral education is changing in so many ways. For a non-traditional student like me, it’s an interesting time; but for graduate students who feel adrift, it can be anxiety-producing. I feel lucky to have a strong idea of where I would like to go and to have people who can help guide me along the way. In the 21st century, I argue that we shouldn’t limit collaborative opportunities to produce new knowledge simply because of geographical or institutional boundaries. This is especially true for doctoral students who need to practice writing for their disciplines as much as possible. It’s also important to remember that, as students, we can more easily identify our writing mentors. We read their writing in journals, book chapters, and blogs. They, however, have no way of knowing who we are. So reach out to them…they just might reach back. There is nothing to lose, and a lot to gain.