#FiveFridays Challenge keeps Miami writers committed and connected through COVID-19

When we kicked off the #FiveFridays Challenge in mid-February, we did so with the goal of encouraging Miami faculty and graduate students to set aside time each week for their writing projects. The deal was simple. Stop by the Howe Center for Writing Excellence (HCWE) for five sessions of our Friday Writing Hours and you earn a $20 gift card. A total of 17 people reached the five-visit milestone. An impressive number, we feel. However, that number only begins to tell the story of what the #FiveFridays Challenge ended up meaning to the HCWE community.

Five Fridays Challenge posterYue Li, Associate Director of the Discovery Center for Evaluation, Research, and Professional Learning, was first to make the five-visit milestone. She hit it just five weeks to the date after the challenge started! Li’s position at the Discovery Center is quite research intensive. She told us she routinely manages 5-10 projects at a time. So, it can be difficult for her to “defragment” her calendar without “some external help.” Our Friday Writing Hours provided just that external help Li needed as she further developed writing on her research topic: how technology integration in PreK-12 STEM learning might influence STEM career outcomes.

Another challenge winner, Joyce Fernandes (biology), tells a story similar to Li’s. Between teaching, running a research lab, and directing the Office of Research for Undergraduates, Fernandes can only find so much time to write in a given week. She came to each Friday Writing Hours session with a manageable writing goal. In this way, she’s made good, steady progress on a manuscript about an NSF-funded program to retain underrepresented student groups in the biological sciences through mentored research experiences.

These were exactly the sort of valuable experiences we had anticipated offering our Friday Writing Hours attendees. What we couldn't have foreseen was how Writing Hours would become an important social outlet for many after we all began to work from home.

When campus closed in mid-March, we could all sense the pandemic was going to change our lives. However, until we actually entered the stay-at-home environment, we couldn't really know how feelings of isolation and uncertainty would impact the way we lived and worked. At the HCWE, what we did understand was that trying to preserve something of a status quo would be crucial to those who turn to us for support. So, one step we took was to move Friday Writing Hours online. Participants joined just by filling out a “set your intentions” sheet before the session. They also had the option of joining a video chat on Cisco WebEx.

Friday Writing Hours attendees connect via a virtual chat room.

Friday Writing Hours attendees interface via WebEx video chat.

Turns out, the number of attendees actually increased during the online period. Plenty of people joined the video chat, too, grateful for the opportunity to see friendly and familiar faces. Anita Mannur (English) and her cats were weekly staples of the video feed. Mannur told us she looked forward to her Friday morning routine, which entailed brewing coffee, getting comfortable with her cats on the couch, and joining virtual Writing Hours to, “work in quiet harmony with like-minded people.”

PhD students working on their dissertations have long been regulars at Friday Writing Hours. They were especially so in the second half of this semester as they’ve faced the unique challenge of being both teachers and students in this moment. English Literature doctoral student Sidne Lyon appreciated the “sense of normalcy, consistency, and community” that Writing Hours offered while she found herself having to “delete all [her] scheduled events, work times, teaching periods.” This sentiment was echoed by clinical psychology PhD student Sarah Dreyer-Oren, who said she valued the “sense of intentionality and camaraderie during what has otherwise been a less structured time.” Hua Zhu, another doctoral student in English Literature, summed it up by saying virtual Writing Hours helped her feel “less isolated.”

Congratulations to all the #FiveFridays winners! The Howe Center for Writing Excellence will be spending the summer working on ways to continue supporting you as writers and teachers in whatever academic situation awaits us in Fall 2020.