EP3: On Writing Groups with Dr. Cora Lingling Xu

There is a story behind every scholar. 

Welcome to Global Scholar Stories, a podcast by the Journal of International Students. We share the personal stories of scholars behind their research in international education.

This episode is part of our Season 1, where we explore how we can develop our relationship with writing. I hope you could get some inspiration from our guests who will share how they became authentic and strong writers in the field of international education. 

Our guest for this episode is Dr. Cora Lingling Xu. Dr. Xu is a sociologist and an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Durham University in the U.K. She is also the Executive Editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education and an Associate Editor of JIS. Her research interests include education mobilities, social inequities, intersectional identities, rural-urban divides, and geopolitics that can shape our educational and life trajectories. As a way to share her academic work and mentorship for graduate students, she has founded the Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities, which is a cross-disciplinary network with more than 500 members around the world. She has her own Youtube Channel among many other appearances in radio and podcast shows. We’ll add the links to our podcast’s website so please visit them to know more about her versatile portfolio. Now without further ado, let’s begin our conversation!

Asuka Ichikawa: All right. So welcome Dr. Xu, it's really great to have you on the show. Thank you again. 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Thank you. Asuka for inviting me. I'm very honored. 

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you. It's especially great to have someone who was a previous international student. And I believe many of our audience is really interested in your story. So thank you again for being here. That said, before we dive into the conversation about academic writing, I was wondering if you could share about your journey as an international student and now as a scholar. 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Yes, absolutely. So I'm Cora Xu, an Assistant Professor at the School of Education in Durham University in the U.K. I received my Ph.D. degree from Cambridge University and my master's from King's College in London. Both were supported by full costs scholarships. I'm an executive editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education, and then the Associate Editor of the Journal of International Students, which I'm very proud to be part of.

As for my personal trajectory, I come from a small rural village in Southern China. I'm the first person in my family to enter university, to get a professional job first as a teacher, and then to study abroad as an international student and get a post-graduate degree and then become a university professor. All of these are new and alien to my parents, but I'm sure they are quite proud of me. So that's my story. 

Asuka Ichikawa: It's really a resilient story. And so thank you very much for sharing that. I'm curious, could you speak more about what led you to become a sociologist, especially if it's something, new to your family history? 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Absolutely. My interest in educational mobilities and especially in sociology of education was largely stemmed from my personal experiences. As I mentioned, I grew up in an impoverished family in a rural village in Southern China. My family was always struggling to make ends meet when I was growing up. Thanks to the full-cost scholarships. I was able to pursue my undergraduate studies in Hong Kong and my master's and Ph.D. in the UK To me, education migration has been a pivotal means to achieving upward social mobility and enriching and broadening the scope of my life in unimaginable ways. However, my own trajectory has also revealed to me the many inequalities that are plaguing our society. My research has shown that it is harder and harder now for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve upward mobility through education and or education mobilities. I have, therefore dedicated much of my research with a view to addressing such problems. 

Asuka Ichikawa: That really shows how your research is rooted in social justice and your personal trajectory through that. I feel like there's so much in that, sentence right there. I just wanted to open up a space. If you wanted to add anything about how you see your intersectional identities shaping and impacting the work that you do. 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Yeah, that's a brilliant question. In fact, this is an area that I am endeavoring to pursue at the moment. In fact, I have found that these intersectional identities that I have and in fact, many of my participants or, my own students have, are becoming more and more central to my, lines of thinking and to my everyday lived experiences.

And therefore. some of my most current, research or most recent research studies or projects have been about the intersectionality of, international students and indeed international academics, how they navigate, the very sort of Western-centric. Sort of very White spaces, especially in the West.

For instance, one of the projects that I am conducting with my own Ph.D. students is a piece of collaborative autoethnographic research, in which we, reflect on our own personal intersectional identities and lived experiences that you have just mentioned, and we are trying to tease out the complexities of our own experiences, especially we want to explore what it is like to be in a supervisory, doctoral supervisory relationship and so we, in the process of generating and also analyzing all data and it's proving to be a very, how should I put it, intellectually very challenging process, but also extremely insightful and exciting to process. 

Asuka Ichikawa: That is wonderful. And as one of the international students following your work and seeing you being interviewed by, for example, BBC, I think it's really important that international students themselves get to really explore and define who we are and go against this deficit narrative. 

The question I had was from an international student to becoming a scholar, what did that trajectory feel like for you? For example, have you thought about other careers before becoming a sociologist? I was just wondering if you wanted to add anything to that. 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Yes. Yes. Yes. I think that's a great question. And I said it's actually very important. What I struggled the most is that, is that, how do I explain my job to my parents, because my parents, they have never been to a university, actually. They have not had much, opportunities or much chance to get a lot of education because of their times and because of their family backgrounds. And I remember when I published my first academic article and I was so excited, I told my parents and my parents asked me, so do you get paid? How much do you get paid? I said, no, I don't get paid. I just published a paper. They say, if you don't get paid and why do you publish a paper? It's like this kind of things. And yeah, like recently I did quite a lot of Ph.D. examinations as an external examiner and, these are the things that I, again, I find very intriguing, very interesting, very important to my job. But it's kind of difficult to explain what it means to my parents. But this process of explaining my job to my parents also allows me to sometimes be quite reflective about what I do. 

So why do we publish articles? First of all, if you don't get paid it makes me reflect quite a lot. So in, for instance, in explaining to my mom how do I, examine a Ph.D. thesis, I have to make it extremely extremely accessible. And that sort of helps me to really understand my job, much better.

It's a very interesting journey for me. I, before I was an academic, I was a secondary school teacher and I have to say that I really enjoy my current job now, because it's really a space for me to constantly, always engage with very interesting ideas, very exciting ideas. And I feel that I'm constantly challenged, and and my thinking is constantly evolving and that is extremely enriching, challenging, but enriching, but also very rewarding, and also like interacting with, scholars internationally with my PhD students who are all doing very exciting projects. And I learn a great deal from them. I feel that I'm constantly learning and that is, an important, sort of privilege to have, at the same time. 

One of the reasons why I started my social media channels, including the YouTube channel is because I feel that, academia itself has been quite opaque and quite difficult to navigate, especially for first-generation scholars like myself. And so I sort of wanted to open up the space a bit. I think it's interesting that they would talk about opening up a lot, opening up the writing, opening up the academic space as well. So I feel that it's important for people like myself who have been able to navigate the space to some extent, to demystify it, to democratize access a little bit.

It's not easy. It's not easy. And I, myself, I was still feeling very confused and puzzled by some of the practices, some of the hidden rules that I'm still not very sure about, but I think, one important thing that we should all keep, or I should keep doing now encourage other scholars to do is to keep communicating, and if you have a question, don't think, oh, it's a silly question. I should just keep it to myself. Just ask, and, who knows maybe someone out there will be able to answer your question. 

Asuka Ichikawa: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Cora. This is a podcast, but I've been nodding so hard throughout your answers because, as the first one to do graduate studies in my family as well, I really resonate how democratizing knowledge and how to navigate it so crucial and, yes, this generational, but also academic sort of gap and trying to describe what you do to your family is very real as well And so all the more, thank you so much for sharing your perspectives today, Cora, and this is absolutely wonderful. And so I really look forward to your future work as well. 


So with that, perhaps we could dive into the theme of Season one, which is academic writing. To begin could you share how you have been evolving as a writer across time and space? 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Yes, this is such an important and central question to my own, scholarly journey. My initial training as a writer could be traced back to my journey in Hong Kong. At that time, I was an undergraduate student and my English was so poor that I could hardly understand the simple English instruction in class.

I remember submitting a piece of writing of only 100 words long in English, and it was full of mistakes. And after my consultation with the tutor, I burst into tears because I realized that my writing was terrible. I was, however, shown ways to improve it. And through immersing myself in lots of reading, listening, and writing, using English, I was able to graduate with a first-class honors degree, and writing in academic English became much less challenging for me. 

Then I went on to pursue my master's in London, where I had to write a 6,000-word essay and a dissertation that was 20,000 words long, all in English, obviously. These were extremely challenging, but I received very clear guidance about the assessment criteria. And I planned my writing in advance, allowing myself time to do the research to draft. And then a new draft and edit… I was able to tackle these challenges of writing and obtained a distinction for my master's degree. However, when I embarked on my Ph.D. in my first year of Ph.D., every three weeks, I had to submit around 2,000 words of writing to my supervisor. And this was incredibly stressful. Not only that I realized that my previous writing skills and habits were not of much help, I found that I could no longer rely on sudden inspirations and bursts of writing that I used to rely on. Instead, I had to have a very steady stream of output almost on a daily basis. And this was because the Ph.D. was a marathon and not a 100-meter sprint. Luckily this was a time when I encountered the Cambridge University writing group, which was to change the remainder of my life as a Ph.D. student and is still featuring dominantly in my life as an academic now. 

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you so much. And that is a wonderful segway to why we wanted to talk about a writing group, especially with you, because you have been an organizer of writing groups at the University of Cambridge, Keele University, and now at Durham University. And on your website, you've mentioned that you are a believer in community writing. I believe most people tend to associate writing as like a solitary activity but I was wondering if you could begin by telling us what exactly a writing group is and how it works and why it matters. 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Gladly. Yeah. So in the writing group, you work with other researchers or writers in the same space at the same time, you still work on your own independent writing tasks, but you share the same format of writing routines with your writing buddies. So this is incredibly simple, but highly effective. And in my view, elegant routine.

Basically, every writing session begins with a five-minute discussion whereby you set your goals with a peer. Then it is followed by a 45 to 60 minutes focused writing session, which is followed, then by a five-minute discussion about whether, and to what extent you have reached your target with your peer. This is then followed by a 10 to 15-minute break, then another writing session begins following the same routine and so on and so forth. During the workday that begins at 9:00 am and finishes at 5:00 PM. You can get about six to seven sessions done. If you write 200 words in each session, you can practically write around 1,400 words in a day.

I have colleagues who actually managed to write more than that. The important thing is that by working together in your group, you are held accountable for what you announced to be your goals. During the writing sessions, everybody is asked not to check their social media or emails, instead, focus on the writing or sometimes they can just come to read. So it could be your reading tasks. When you hear other colleagues typing away, you become incredibly motivated and concentrated on your own writing or reading tasks. You can often become twice as productive as it would have been if you work alone. An added benefit is that because the writing sessions are separated by 10 to 15-minute breaks, during these breaks, you can relax, stretch and socialize with your peers. 

One thing you can make sure that you get better physical health by taking breaks and stretching regularly. Another thing you got to share experiences, make new friends, and gain new insights from your peers who are in the same writing group. I personally have made lifelong friends from the writing groups and have learned a great deal of information, techniques, and advice from my very intelligent, writing group buddies. 

Asuka Ichikawa: Wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. Especially on the accountability and also having peers to support each other. And I think you've also touched upon self-care in one of your mentoring videos on YouTube channel that you have, and I was wondering if you could also talk more about how might having a support circle and your self-care habits may also be important, especially if you're writing for a long time or…

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So in a writing group or in the writing community, it actually effectively becomes a very pivotal shelter, a space for me to turn to, or indeed or other members of the group to attend to when we have questions confusions and when we need help. And it becomes my support network, a safety net, more importantly, it reveals, very often the hidden curriculum of academia in very spontaneous and often authentic ways. So it has served a very important role in helping me to grow as a scholar. And many of the tips that I got from the writing group have also been related to what you have just mentioned, self-care.

So for instance, during the breaks, some of my colleagues would say, oh, Cora you've been working too hard, there's this, yoga exercise or there's this meditation resource that you can make use of. And again, I would not have been able to access this, or I will not even be thinking about these if I did not, have this sort of 10 to 15-minute breaks and these conversations with my writing group buddies. 

Asuka Ichikawa: And in terms of thinking about, organizing writing workshops, how do you open up your writing, which can often be part of who you are, especially if you're writing something, even if it's academic or rather personal, writing can feel like an extension of yourself. And some people may feel, not quite ready to open up your work in front of others. So I was just wondering if there are any sort of group norms or something that can be communicated at the beginning of the workshop to have that safe space, in this writing workshop? 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Yeah. I really liked the notion that you have, brought up, which is a safe space. First of all, when you're thinking about organizing the writing group, you may want to begin to organize it with somebody that you trust, somebody that you like working with to begin with, but then as the group grows, you know you may attract more and more colleagues.

So this is probably a time when you can, establish some routines. You can begin by introducing yourselves what you do, or what you research, what your hobbies are. And then, you tell each other in a very friendly way. And know this is a space where we work together. We share, tips, we share goals, et cetera, et cetera. It's also a space where we want to be encouraging, but also be respectful of each other's views. Some of these very general rules can be established when new members join. And I think each writing group is unique, right? It depends really, very much on, the members are very, diverse and vibrant and that they have their own talents, their own preferences, so it's like an ongoing negotiating. Yeah. 

But just now you also mentioned that writing can be quite, quite difficult. So how do you begin? So if you feel stuck or not sure where to begin, in the writing group that I run, we usually have a writing exercise called free writing. In fact, for me in the mornings, even nowadays, I often begin with free writing. And in this exercise, you just keep typing or if you are writing on a piece of paper and then you just keep writing non-stop. You do not check for grammar. You do not return to a sentence to edit it. Rather, the idea is to get your thinking, your thoughts out on the page, as much as possible. Even if you don't know what to write, you still have to type. And what you are going to type is “I don't know what to write”. 

So I just have to keep writing, keep typing. But usually, during this exercise, you can write about anything, really how you are feeling, what you are thinking, what's in front of you. What you can see, what you can hear, and then gradually you will begin to write about your task. What chapter you are working on or what type of article you're working on, which key arguments you are developing, or you are feeling that you are stuck with? What are the major barriers? How you plan to tackle them? What are the concrete goals you want to achieve within that day? And before, you know, it, you have around 500 words in front of you, or perhaps even more. And perhaps in these 500 words, you will find that maybe 200 or 300 of these words will be useful for your writing task that day. So I usually find that these exercises are very helpful to open up in a sense.

Asuka Ichikawa: Absolutely. I think, certain anxiety before you write is pretty much real. And so I think free writing can be of help. Just to separate your writing self and editing self. I was wondering if I could also, ask for more of your thoughts around feedback. So when in a writing group, I'm assuming that you will get a chance to share your work, but also for you to share any insights or feedback you may have for others' work. And do you have any suggestions on how we go about this process? If, for example, we were to comment on somebody's work, making sure it's not pure criticisms or anything like that, but, of course, if there's great things that's really great to say and maybe easy to say, but if there are things that you feel like, oh, maybe this part can be rewritten or something. How can we be mindful constructive, feeds back providers to our peers? 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Ah, that is interesting that you asked this question because the writing groups that I run, usually we, for instance, the current writing group that I run, we have colleagues who work across a diverse range of disciplines. For instance, we have a German historian and we have, an international relations scholar who is researching environmental governance, and I, myself, I'm a sociologist of education and international student mobility. The writing group it's really, it's just a space for us to work on our own tasks.

So we don't actually engage in commenting on each other's writing, each other's pieces. However, during the especially the five minutes discussion after you have completed a writing session, for instance, I would say, you know what, I did not achieve my goal. And this was because I was distracted. I had to explore this concept a bit more, and I had to read. And they, my partner may say, oh, you know what, next time you've experienced this, these are probably some tools that you can use, so this is the kind of feedback that we would get. Yeah. So I guess what you just mentioned just now is probably a kind of group that you're in visiting that is where you would also read each other's work and comment on each other's work. Is that right? 

Asuka Ichikawa: Yes, this came from my experience in creative writing workshops so I am understanding that there are different types of writing groups where one is how you just mentioned just gather, be accountability partners, focus on your work kind of space. Whereas other workshops can be more sort of hands-on, share your work. kind of space. But, yes, yes, definitely. I guess people can choose what kind of, writing workshops they would like. And any suggestions for starting and also sustaining, a writing group? 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Yeah. Yeah. So it is actually quite easy to start a writing group. The least number of participants in need so as long as you have a buddy, who wishes to write together with you, then you can start a writing group. My experience is that, a writing group of between five to eight members are ideal because you can get a good group dynamic, but the size is not too big. 

To start a writing group you also need to make room bookings, especially if you write face-to-face probably if you have resources, have some tea and coffee or even snacks and these can be quite attractive to graduate students. I personally, found this quite motivating for myself when I was a Ph.D. student.

But mostly publicly you'll have to turn up if you are the organizer, so people know that whenever they will come to you during the advertised time slots, there is somebody there to work with. Hence it may be better to co-organize it with at least one or two more people so that you can cover for each other if one person has to be unavailable. And this is really important for sustaining. 

When I was at Cambridge, my colleagues from different colleges and departments booked different rooms for our writing group across the university. And this was rather stimulating because I got to visit places and rooms that I would otherwise never had the chance to, to visit and work. So it, it is worth exploring, with your writing group members, what resources you can together, to maximize your writing. 

Very important thing to do, to bear in mind, is that to run a writing group you need to have a good timekeeper. This person has to be strict with the timing, for instance, you sometimes have groups that really enjoy chatting with each other so much so that the breaks can be extended from 10 minutes to 20 to 30 to 40. And then your breaks are too long. You eat into the actual writing sessions time, and therefore the timekeeper has to be very strict but also be courageous enough to signal that it's time to stop and ask everyone to return to the writing routine. So when I was at Cambridge, I was sometimes affectionately referred to as the lady with an iron fist, because I was probably quite a strict timekeeper. And, but I do think that it's quite important to have somebody that is, quite strict with the time. 

Asuka Ichikawa: Definitely, the socializing time can be appealing, but then also it takes some kind of discipline, to keep the group going for sure. Thank you for that. And when it comes to having spaces for writing groups, with the pandemic and things, I'm seeing some emergence of online writing communities, for example, and could you share your views on what a virtual writing community is? 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Yeah. yeah, exactly. So during COVID-19 I actually initiated an online writing group with Durham University, which is my current workplace and it worked quite well for me and some of my colleagues. Online writing communities can be really inclusive because they also allow members to join from their homes. And as a result, we were able to include members from various institutions. So not only Durham but also from other institutions and even across countries. So we had some, colleagues joining from other countries. So these are advantages that in-person writing groups can never, or can seldom, parallel. And therefore it may be a good idea to organize online working groups. Personally speaking though, I still prefer the in-person like in groups because I enjoy the conversations during breaks, much more and the excitement of, exploring new places with my writing colleagues.

Asuka Ichikawa: Absolutely. It's almost magical how people can connect with each other nowadays online. And, even before the pandemic, I suppose we had the means, but then now it's becoming more natural and, yes. Finally, I was wondering if anybody would like to reach out to you, for mentorship or know more about your work – how could they get connected with you? 

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu: Yeah. So I have a YouTube channel, which you have referred to, briefly. My YouTube channel is called Dr. Xu Gazing at Academia where I share tips of observations and sometimes questions about academic job searches and academic writing and reading. You can follow me on YouTube, therefore, by following me and subscribing to my channel. You can also contact me, via Twitter. I'm quite active on Twitter. And my Twitter handle is [at] Cora Lingling Xu. 

Asuka Ichikawa: Thank you again, Cora. You were so helpful in helping us understand what a writing community can be. And I really appreciate your thoughts and advice. Thank you so much. 


JIS is an open-access journal that empowers the voices of international students around the world. We would like to thank the generous institutional sponsorship of the American Council on Education, Old Dominion University, and the publication partnership with Emerson College. 

For updates on the new episodes, please visit our website or Twitter [at] jistudents. To share your feedback please write to us at globalscholarstories@gmail.com

This was Asuka Ichikawa. Thank you for tuning in. Until next time, please stay safe and well.