Recently the 3 AWS staff members were truly, actually in the same space for a few days—and we have pics to prove it! It felt like an enormous luxury. And it made us reflect a little about virtual coworking and community.
One of the weird things about managing a virtual community is that we simultaneously feel painfully aware that we’re not together … and somehow forget it, too. Video chats bridge the physical divide—allowing Scholars to convene about their writing, gain emotional support, or even socialize over a glass of wine.
Communication and gathering are some of the most important features of the Studio, and they’re critical to research support—but they can also be tricky because scholars also need to be able to have solitude when they need to focus. And sometimes figuring out whether solitude or community is what’s needed isn’t as easy to identify as it sounds. One thing that’s clear is that academics write more productively in some kind of community, even if it’s just a buddy system. They don’t even have to write in the same room, writing “together,” but they do have to be kind of tandem writing, knowing that they’re both or all writing during the same period, and coming together to mark the beginning and end of the writing period.
And even if you’re a true introvert, when you’re doing hard work, there’s a basic comfort in knowing that someone is there with you. We do a lot of virtual cowriting in our workspace, including
- video cowriting (in which we open a “meeting room” video chat, put in on mute, and invite people to join in and then basically ignore each other and work … which is surprisingly helpful), and
- text-based cowriting channels where scholars can check in, state their intentions or just say “I’m here,” and then go on with their work knowing that they’re not alone. Others are there, like them, trying to do their best work. And even when no one is on at that moment, they can see a record of others having checked in. And we are there, ready to provide support if the scholar needs it.
These cowriting spaces are remarkably effective—and remarkably resilient. Although we tend to love our books and other tactile and physical aspects of our professional lives, it’s also the case that academia was on the leading edge of internet use from the beginning. Many of us—including all of the AWS staff members—grew into our professional lives using these communication modes from the beginning. In fact, for a large chunk of Studio Scholars currently at ranks between mid-associate professor and early full professor, the internet as we know it today evolved in tandem with our own growth as graduate students. This means that collectively, we have from the beginning appreciated that community includes the people physically around us as well as people we may talk and work closely with but only actually see when we happen to be at the same conference. We know how to draw meaning and fulfillment from both kinds of community.
We also collectively appreciate working in pajamas and at weird hours. Obviously virtual communities offer huge flexibility payoffs in terms of being able to connect from (almost) anywhere instantly, not having to factor in travel time to meetings, and not necessarily having to be visible to others. There are also two other intertwined perks that we find, if anything, even more important: being able to control the extent and the timing of your engagement with the community. You can use your camera or not, share your screen or not, or be audio-only (or not). Within the textual realm of the workspace—which is where most people spend most of their time—you can join a cowriting space or not, get notifications or not, mute some channels entirely and visit them only when you want to.
This abundance of options means that there’s not a zero-sum choice between community-building and getting work done. Anyone who has been in a writing group knows that feeling where you have to decide whether you are going to spend your valuable time together discussing what you came to discuss or sharing war stories about work or non-work stressors. In the end, both are important. What a virtual community allows you to do is check in to the workier spaces when you’ve got your A game in effect and the more social spaces when you’re ready for that.
It also allows you to get support for working and writing while you are actually doing the work. One of our favorite things about the Studio is an incredibly simple feature: status lights. All you have to do to turn your Studio workspace status light on is have the Slack app or website open (Slack is the company that hosts our workspace.) Although you can turn it off so that people can’t tell whether you’re on Slack, most people leave their status light functions in place. That means that whenever you visit our community, you can see a row of status lights on saying that others are here. We’ve gotten messages from scholars saying that they were feeling discouraged and then came to our virtual workspace and were inspired to keep going just because they saw that others were working. It’s a powerful and strangely moving dynamic.
As I type this right now, I see Berkeley and Julia’s lights on, as well as those of a handful of scholars. It’s inspiring me right at this moment. Studio Scholars can “come to the Studio” to work, but they can also just work on their own. That scholars are choosing to be here, on Slack, on a Friday afternoon in late June, reminds me that this is important work that makes a concrete difference in people’s lives. My fellow staff members’ status lights telling me they’re here also feels great because I know that the Studio is being well cared for—and I know the Studio Scholars who are giving their scholarship some love this Friday can also see that we are here. It goes a long way toward bridging the distance between us.