Video and transcription of an interview with Asiya Islam, convenor of CRASSH’s early-career scholar writing group ‘Opening Lines‘.
Asiya, What is your relationship to CRASSH?
I first arrived in Cambridge in 2015 to pursue a PhD and as a new PhD student I found out about CRASSH just through the events that they put on and I came to know CRASSH as a place where there are really exciting workshops and seminars happening, and I attended quite a few of them. Then I eventually went on to realise that CRASSH also hosts research groups and conferences, and you can apply for funding and be more involved in their programme of activities, and this was an exciting avenue for me because as I said, I came to see CRASSH as a place where there’s really cutting edge research happening in quite creative ways and being profiled in quite creative ways, and this is something that I was interested in doing so a little further along the line when my research had developed a bit more and I had talked to various people and developed a network of researchers who were working on similar themes, I decided to put in a bid for funding a conference as well.
This was in 2018, so this is how my relationship with CRASSH really started, and it’s evolved since then. The first conference that I did was called ‘The social life of work’ and this was attended by academics from various disciplines, and this was an international conference as well and it was a great experience to organise this with CRASSH it was the right home for this conference, but also the kind of support and encouragement that I received from CRASSH was really good in putting together a conference of this kind, and since then I’ve maintained this relationship with CRASSH where I’ve not just attended but also put together events with people there. The second conference that I very recently organised was called ‘The Social life of care’.
That was really interesting because this was happening in the middle of a pandemic. When I first applied for the funding, we didn’t really know what we’d be doing in the middle of a pandemic, but that is how it ended up being. So with CRASSH we worked on what a conference during a pandemic would look like and especially a conference on care during a pandemic would look like, and it was great to organise this completely online.
Again, working closely with CRASSH and thinking about what this conference shape could be like when it’s in this kind of format and how it can be made accessible, and all of those questions, and over three days we had really great participation. The online format made it possible to have people from across the globe. So, in this way, I’ve worked quite closely with CRASSH over the last few years that I’ve been at Cambridge.
What made you decide to set up a writing group?
The other thing that I’ve most recently done with CRASSH is set up this writing group called Opening Lines. Now Opening Lines is a writing group, but I would also call it a writing programme.
My very initial thinking about this group, about this programme, was that as academics in arts, social sciences and humanities, we are often writing very much just at our own desks, in our kind of lonely places, and anyone who’s gone through an arts, humanities and social sciences PhD would probably echo this, especially towards the end of the PhD, when all of the students kind of go in their different directions trying to finish up the work that they’ve been doing over the last few years and you realise how isolating this activity can be.
So, one of my big motivations in thinking that we could set up a writing group for early-career scholars was to address this kind of loneliness and isolation in writing and of course, that’s quite personal to everyone, but I think it is a much wider phenomenon and in that sense, you know trying to cultivate collegiality among early-career scholars was a key reason that I thought we should have a group of this kind.
The second thing that I thought about, in addition to addressing isolation and writing for early-career scholars, was that there’s often very little support for writing, and what I mean by that is that as academics, of course, we are trained in writing, and when you do a PhD, you write a thesis so you do get training in writing, but there isn’t much support in thinking about that transition beyond the PhD to becoming an early-career scholar and the different kind of writing that’s going to entail.
This is something that again, I am coming at it from my own experience as an early-career scholar who’s transitioned from a PhD to a postdoctoral position, I started thinking about turning my thesis into a book, and while I knew that I can chip away at it myself, at my own desk, in isolation, I thought it would be so much better if there was support for this, and if I could do it with other people, so that was my main motivation in setting up Opening Lines.
Why is this writing group or programme different to others?
So Opening Lines as a writing group is distinct from other writing groups for a number of reasons, really. The other writing groups that I’ve been part of previously during my time at Cambridge have mostly been writing groups where a few of us get together to write, and that that’s helpful in itself because it gives you company, it gives you social contact with people, it addresses some of the isolation that I’ve already talked about that you face as a scholar in arts, social sciences. But these writing groups that I previously attended were just that so there were people meeting for writing sessions, just getting together to write. What we did very differently with Opening Lines was that we had this element of writing sessions, we could get together and write, but in addition to that we also had peer review sessions where we read out our work to each other and got feedback from each other, which is immensely helpful. And on top of that, we had a writing coach, Jenny Chamerette, she was a writing coach throughout the programme and with the writing coach, we worked on a whole range of issues that were related to writing but might not be considered directly part of writing.
So, for example, we had a writing workshop on impostor syndrome, and this is something that we keep talking about in academia and all of us recognise that we might have impostor syndrome. And especially as early-career scholars just starting out their careers, we might be thinking about where to fit in, how to fit in, can we fit in, and it was really helpful to have these writing workshops that helped us address some of these issues that are there festering away that as I said, don’t directly constitute writing, but definitely affect our writing and the way we write. So, this is distinctly unique about this programme, and as far as we know, this is the first of its kind writing programme in UK higher education sector.
How many people were in the group for and where were they from?
So, when thinking about setting up this Group, one of the considerations that we had was the size of the group, so we wanted to offer it to a lot of people, but at the same time, we also recognised that for a group of this kind to work, the numbers have to be limited so the people get to know each other. There’s a sense of this kind of close-knit community. There’s trust-building, there are relationships that we build through this group and that hopefully, we maintain beyond the group, so we decided to cap the number at 12.
So, we had 12 people join the group. We had a lot of applications which really only goes to show that this kind of a group is in demand and that there is a need for this kind of group for early career scholars in Cambridge but also beyond Cambridge much more generally in UK higher education.
So, we had 12 people who all came from very different disciplinary backgrounds, we had people from English, from linguistics, from classics, from sociology, anthropology, geography, economics, etc which was great, because then we also got to hear about each other’s work beyond our own disciplinary boundaries. In addition to that, these people were at different stages of their careers and at different stages of book writing as well, there were people who had already secured book contracts and were just working away at writing their books and then there were people who were just starting to think about what would my book look like? How do I even approach a publisher? Which publisher do I approach, so there were all of these different stages.
The third key element in thinking about who could be part of this group was just really thinking about diversity and when I say that what I mean is that in UK higher education we think about inequalities, particularly for early career scholars, women, black and minority ethnic people etc who are at more of a disadvantage than others, and this was a consideration that we took into account into thinking about what this group could look like, who should constitute this group? So we had people who’d come from very different disciplinary backgrounds, but we also had people who come from different social backgrounds, and I think this really made the group very rich for everyone to participate in.
What were the particular highlights of the programme?
The programme had many highlights I would say, and I’ve already talked a little bit about this, but I would say that the peer review sessions that we had were a particular highlight of the programme and the reason I say that is because we decided that we wanted to practise academia a bit differently so the kind of peer review sessions that a lot of us have become used to by being part of academia, are sessions where you go and ready to defend your work because you know that people are going to criticise and challenge and tear it apart. But that’s not the approach that we wanted to have.
We wanted to cultivate a space that could be kinder, that could be more generous, that could be much more constructive, and I think we achieved that and that was what made this really distinctive from anything that we experienced before to the extent that when we came to evaluating the group, towards the end, we had a final session and several people said that this experience had been transformative for them, so I think that really speaks to the way we decided to practise academia and practise writing, then specifically within this group by just being much more kind and generous and supportive to each other.
What advice would you give to anyone who’s thinking of signing up for a programme like this in the future?
The main advice that I would give to anyone who’s considering joining this programme in the future is to just go for it and of course, there’s going to be limited space, but hopefully, we’ll have enough iterations of this for people to find a space at some point during their time at Cambridge. I would also say that it’s difficult in the sense that when we think about writing, people have all sorts of feelings about writing, so writing is not always pleasurable.
It’s a process, but it’s a process that all of us as academics have to go through and will have to continue going through so when we talk about a group of this kind, it can sometimes feel a little bit intimidating to think, Oh, now there’s going to be 3 months of continuous writing by being part of this group by being part of this programme and can I actually do it, but as I’ve already said, one of the main things about this programme is that we want to cultivate any source of kindness, generosity, and supportive culture. So, if you are thinking about it, just feel free to apply and go for it and you’ll experience it for yourself.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would just reiterate how several people thought that this was a transformative experience. I think that really, really speaks to the way this group ran over the 3-4 months. As I said, I started it because I wanted to have friendly accountability but also, I wanted to create a community of people who can continue to support each other, and we’ve actually successfully done that.
So the programme is now formally over, but the 12 people who were part of the group have actually stayed in touch, and a few of us are still continuing to meet once a week to write together and the insights that we developed through the writing workshops over the course of the programme. They’re still very much there with us because they did actually have a profound impact on the way we think about writing we continue to have these conversations now informally, in our writing sessions as well, and I think that’s really testament to the success of the group.
Please note that this transcription was produced with Microsoft Word and may contain some inaccuracies.