It is no secret that Black women graduate students are severely underrepresented at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). As a result, counterspaces that serve Black women specifically are needed now more than ever.
Counterspaces are safe spaces that lie outside of mainstream educational spaces and its members are comprised of individuals that possess marginalized identities. Counterspaces are needed due to the normalization of White identity and culture, resulting in curricula, pedagogies, and campus norms that “other” and isolate Black women.
Counterspaces can provide empowerment, love, and support to Black women that is absent from spaces that center White identities. Further, Black women’s writing groups can serve as a counterspace where students can mentor, discuss relevant issues, and critique each other’s work. Unfortunately, Black women’s research interests are often seen as too controversial, unimportant, or lacking rigor. Writing groups as counterspaces for Black women scholars can uplift Black women, help us become better scholars and mentors, and encourage and reinforce the importance of Black women’s research.
Writing group counterspaces can serve as a form of peer mentoring, which can increase Black women graduate students’ retention, persistence, sense of belonging, and socialization. Peer mentoring is when a more experienced student assists a less experienced student, and it has proven itself as a strategy that helps to improve the mentee’s academic performance. The peer mentor provides the mentee with advice, support, and information. Additionally, peer mentoring has been found to be more influential than faculty advisors and professors. Further, graduate student persistence is heavily influenced by disciplinary and departmental socialization. Unfortunately, Black women graduate students often struggle to find peers in their department that they identify with, resulting in isolation and being left to navigate challenges and unwritten rules on their own.
For Black women with career aspirations in academia, departmental and discipline-specific socialization must occur at the faculty and peer levels. As such, Black women doctoral students need access to faculty members and peers willing to mentor them, analyze their writing, and collaborate with them on research projects. However, many Black women at PWIs find themselves the only Black woman in a department, and are often excluded by their White peers from departmental socials, study groups, and writing groups, which contributes to feelings of isolation. Black women have also reported receiving less help and mentoring from White faculty and peers regarding publishing.
So, who can Black women graduate students turn to for support and guidance concerning writing? We can turn to our sister circles. By surrounding ourselves with other Black women working towards a common goal such as dissertation/thesis completion, publication, or grant proposal submission, we can encourage and support each other. A writing group can provide feelings of hope, emotional support, increased confidence, and enhanced sense of belonging.
Furthermore, Black women have reported that writing groups have helped them to set and complete goals regarding dissertation/thesis completion and graduation. Black women’s writing groups can combat these feelings of loneliness by providing opportunities to work alongside other women that will validate them and their work, as well as provide a sense of safety.
Finding counterspaces for Black women graduate students at a PWI may be difficult, but there are strategies Black women can take to find safe spaces to work. Virtual and in-person writing groups can be developed with Black women met at regional and national conferences, through campus organizations, social media groups, possibly within a specific department or discipline, and through writing retreats on campus. Online writing groups, such as Shut Up & Write Tuesdays and Academic Ladder’s Writing Club provide its members with a space to share goals, engage in each other’s work, and receive valuable feedback.
Black women graduate students that connect at conferences, through organizations, and social media can also join or establish online writing groups. These writing groups can be discipline specific or serve as a general writing space. For Black women graduate students feeling isolated and excluded studying STEM-related topics; issues concerning race, gender, or intersectionality; or conducting research on controversial issues, an online writing counterspace can provide affirmation, validation, and a sense of community.
In the absence of an already established writing group, Black women graduate students can take the initiative and create one, whether it be an online version, face-to-face, or a hybrid type of writing group. Organizations that serve the Black community and women are good places to find individuals interested in joining a writing group. Look to organizations such as your Black Graduate Student Association, Black Cultural Center, and American Association of University Women.
Also, look to organizations within your academic unit. For example, our College of Engineering houses the National Society for Black Engineers and the Women in Engineering Program. By inviting Black women you know through your networks, we can help other Black women reach their academic goals by supporting each other and holding each other accountable. It may also be beneficial to invite Black women faculty to the writing groups. Creating a counterspace where Black women graduate students and faculty come together to work toward common goals can provide an opportunity to build a sense of community, cultivate mentoring relationships, and develop research collaborations.
In developing a writing group, be sure to consider the following:
I have participated in a writing group specifically for Black women graduate students. Though we were small in number, it made a difference knowing there were other Black women on campus experiencing some of the same writing challenges as me. We have shared writing strategies, supported each other, discussed research, and created a “homeplace.”
bell hooks described “homeplace” as a place of resistance where Black people can go to speak freely and safely, find stability and trust, and affirm and heal each other. I believe writing group counterspaces can help fill these needs. Black women: As we go forth and conquer those writing goals, whether it be a thesis, dissertation, or journal manuscript, stay the course. You’ve got this!
Torrie A. Cropps is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Youth Development & Agricultural Education at Purdue University. She currently serves as the Educational Outreach Coordinator for the Mentoring@Purdue program, an initiative aimed at enhancing mentoring relationships between faculty and women and underrepresented minority students pursuing STEM-based agricultural and life science degrees in the Purdue University College of Agriculture. You can follow her on Twitter @ScholarCropps.