USSO Interviews SHAW Postgraduate Writing Workshop Organiser Jon Coburn

In July 2014, the Society for the History of Women in the Americas held its third Postgraduate Writing Workshop in Cambridge. After the dust had settled, Emma Horrex spoke to the organiser, Jon Coburn, about SHAW, the programme, and the importance of postgraduate-led events.

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Hi Jon! Can you tell us a little about what SHAW is and how you got involved.

The Society for the History of Women in the Americas was founded by Professor Jay Kleinberg in 2008. It is dedicated to the historical investigation of women and gender in North America, South America and the Caribbean, either within or between nation states or the northern and southern hemispheres. One of SHAW’s core aims is to organise a range of events every year to enable scholars to come together and create personal networks and professional collaborations. We’ll be having our 6th annual conference this year and also run the monthly ‘Gender and History in the Americas’ seminar series at the Institute for Historical Research. SHAW launched a new journal, History of Women in the Americas (ISSN 2042-6348) (http://journals.sas.ac.uk/hwa) in Spring 2013, which is a peer-reviewed, open access e-journal publishing scholarship on women’s and gender history in all parts of the Americas across all centuries.

I originally got involved with SHAW through a Postgraduate and Early Careers Training Workshop held in 2012. The event was incredibly helpful with some fantastic speakers. The association itself is a very welcoming and inclusive body with such a close-knit membership. I became a member the next day. I later spoke at the annual conference before the former Postgraduate Rep, Imaobong Umoren, and I began to organise the Postgraduate Writing Workshops.

What motivated you to organise these postgraduate workshops?

Speaking to a few fellow postgraduates at a SHAW event made Imaobong and I realise that it is sometimes difficult for PhD students to have guidance or feedback on their writing styles. There are many training sessions related to the research process, which is naturally very important. However, methods of stylish academic writing are rarely discussed by postgraduates. The structure and cohesiveness of your writing is just as important as the research that has gone into it. We felt that SHAW could lend itself well to hosting some sessions where students could come and talk about how best to project their research within their writing. We hoped to provide an informal environment for PhD students to submit any short extracts of their work for peer-review by their fellow postgraduates, to discuss the intentions of their research and how best to convey their argument to an audience that is perhaps not familiar with the subject, and also to allow students to build on their personal networks.

How did you go about organising the workshop and did you encounter any obstacles?

Imaobong and I raised the idea of hosting a series of workshops with the Steering Committee of SHAW who were overwhelmingly positive about the idea. We narrowed down what it was we wanted to achieve and how best to achieve it, which led to the idea of holding afternoon workshops for between 5-10 PhD students at a time. We endeavour to keep the sessions informal and with the intention that students can discuss a range of issues with fellow postgraduates, but we make sure participants can achieve feedback from experienced academics who are in attendance as well.

The biggest obstacle has actually been finding locations for the events that are within distance for everybody. We move the workshop each time so that we can cater to the largest number of possible respondents. Participants have made long journeys from Glasgow, Newcastle and even Groningen, Holland to attend, so it is important that we host the events around the country to make it easy for everyone to come. The first event was held at University College, London, Institute of the Americas; the second was at the University of Oxford; and the third, just last week, was in Cambridge. We are provisionally looking at Newcastle and possibly Manchester for the next couple of workshops.

What kind of support have you received when organising these workshops?

We are grateful to the Paul Mellon Professorial Fund for providing funding for the workshops. It has been a massive help. The workshops have also benefitted greatly from the support of the hosting institutions – UCL, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. SHAW is very supportive of the workshops. Rae Ritchie has always been on hand to provide her help, as well as useful and very insightful analysis to all aspects of writing and the academic process. Jay Kleinberg and Dawn-Marie Gibson have been a source of great feedback. I’m very appreciative to Charlie Jeffries for her help in organising the latest workshop too.

So much support has come from the participants of the events themselves too. Not just in terms of the feedback they have given, but for their enthusiasm in the sessions and their desire to take something away from the day. The workshops can be fairly amorphous at times with ranging discussions relating to the PhD process, and everyone that has come has provided many useful talking points. I am indebted to the support of many people from SHAW and from the academic community generally.

So, how did it go on the day?

It was a gorgeously warm day in Cambridge and the windows were wide open throughout. We started discussing individual submissions at 1pm, dedicating around 45 minutes to each piece of writing that participants had sent in. The discussion would begin with a bit of background to the research generally, where the extract fit into the larger picture and the intention of the section in question. Participants are free to ask for advice on specific issues but receive comments, praise and feedback for the entire piece. The feedback is always constructive too. Issues that arose related to the minutiae of writing, such as sentence and paragraph structure; framing quotes and using sources; the use of tenses; the overuse of particular words; and the explanation of concepts and theories.

These conversations, though, were punctuated by more general discussions concerning things such as conference etiquette and conducting research abroad. Anecdotes were shared about the experiences we have all had during the production of our PhD theses and, hopefully, the attendees enjoyed a lively day with their fellow postgraduates, as well as an informative workshop. The session ended at 6pm but discussions continued at a local pub for a while afterwards!

Emmanuel College where the latest SHAW Postgraduate Writing Workshop took place

Emmanuel College where the latest SHAW Postgraduate Writing Workshop took place

What kind of feedback have you received from attendees? 

The feedback has been really positive so far. In particular, participants note that simply having a submission deadline is useful as it requires them to commit to writing so many words within a set period of time, something that I know is really beneficial to me personally as well! Attendees find the feedback very practical and also appreciate the collaborative nature of the workshops. The encouragement to critically assess pieces of writing is also a very helpful aspect of the workshops.

The sessions are what they are because of the feedback and suggestions of attendees. The workshop starts with a loose idea of what needs to be discussed but can quickly be caught up in general conversation about the writing process. The feedback we have had in the past has informed how we approach future workshops and we actively encourage any comments and suggestions from participants. The intention of the workshop is to provide a useful forum for postgraduates to come together and engage in discussions with each other, so we try to implement whatever it is that attendees feel is worthwhile to achieve this.

Do you think postgraduates need to do more to get involved in projects like this these days?

I try to get involved with anything I can and I find events like this really useful to my own work – I can sometimes do with a few people casting their eyes over my own writing before I’m happy with it! I would encourage postgraduates to get involved with any sort of project that can aid in their research and writing. I personally find it very beneficial to attend events outside of my institution and, in some cases, outside of my specific subject area. It allows an opportunity to extend my academic circle, receive external feedback for my work, and practice explaining my research to a new and varied audience. SHAW in particular is good at organising these kinds of events and it is partly for this reason that it has developed such a close-knit community within its membership.

Finally, have you any advice for other postgraduates who want to do something similar?

If you find that you could use some form of guidance or training that is not already provided, chances are that your colleagues could too. The SHAW Postgraduate Writing Workshops came about out of a shared realisation that several of us could benefit from a forum to discuss a particular aspect of our PhD project that, we felt, had not been catered for. Imaobong and I both desired a writing workshop, so set about organising one. In a sense, it was a selfish need! However, it was a need that is shared by others. My advice would be to talk to fellow PhD students about what help you need and then work towards securing that help.  The workshops themselves are relatively easy to organise once the wheels are in motion. The format of the sessions is still developing but, now that we have had several successful events, we know what works and what we can expect from workshops in the future.

Planning for the next SHAW Postgraduate Writing Workshop will begin soon and is due to be held midway through next semester. If you have any questions or if would like to know more about the workshops or SHAW itself, feel free to email me at shawwriting@gmail.com.

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About Jon Coburn

Jon Coburn is a Teaching Fellow in American History at the University of Hull. His research focuses on the US peace and antinuclear movements of the Cold War with a particular interest in the experiences of women. Jon investigates the interrelationship between memory and identity and the way in which individual recollections of the past affect the construction of historical narratives.
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