As a thank you to the academics who have been involved in our project, we invited them to a two-day writing retreat in a hotel near Lancaster.
The retreat consisted of writing sessions of around 90 minutes, with goal setting at the beginning and sharing of reflections at the end. We worked in small groups of around six people, and got together in a larger group for breaks and input sessions.
The only ‘rules’ were that internet access was discouraged during writing sessions to avoid distraction, and that we kept to time. After lunch each day, the project team shared a selection of insights from the project so far and invited discussion on these.
Participants worked on a variety of types of writing including chapter outlines, book proposals, research articles and reviews, and the discussions around these echoed many of the project’s wider findings. One of the things that struck me was how much the group had in common, despite our different disciplinary and institutional contexts. We all struggle to find uninterrupted stretches of time and headspace in which to write.
A mathematician shows academics from history, marketing and educational research how to use LaTeX (photo by Greg Myers)
Each writing session was what one participant called “a buzz of intense, silent activity”, and everyone made progress towards their goals. At the end, the group shared their thoughts on what they’d take away from the retreat and it was gratifying to hear so many positive comments. One historian said that it reminded him how productive he could be. Someone pointed out that writing retreats were liberating rather than remedial, and someone else said she realised, by virtue of writing with others in the room, that she was not the painfully slow writer she had thought herself to be. It appears that having protected time to focus on writing, and having the opportunity to talk informally about and reflect on our writing practices bring affective and motivational benefits as well as the obvious gains in terms of text produced.
Best of all, several participants spoke about trying to organise something similar in their own departments or research groups, and spreading the word that academics probably shouldn’t have to wait for invitations from projects like ours to find space to write in a supportive environment.
There is plenty of evidence that academics embrace social justice in principle (who wouldn’t?), and also that they try to put this into practice in large numbers, engaging in civic engagement activities on top of their usual workload, for no reward and often in the face of active disincentives (Bond & Patterson, 2005; Watermeyer, 2015), but to what extent do notions of social justice actually motivate what they do? And do they share a common understanding of what social justice means?
These were the questions addressed by our recent paper at the Higher Education Close Up (HECU8) conference at Lancaster University, Historians don’t set out to change people’s lives. The Academics’ Writing project didn’t set out to find out about social justice, but we asked the academics who participated in our study about what shaped their writing and how they interpreted the idea of ‘impact’ as outlined in the REF since 2014 .
You can find our slides here and can read the associated paper here.
The project team delivered a paper this weekend at the Language, Literacy and Identity conference at the University of Sheffield on the role of relationships in academic writing and identity. We drew on data from phase 1 of the project, in which participants talked about the importance of relationships in their writing practices.
Digital technologies such as Skype and Google Docs (plus many more digital platforms) made collaboration on writing easier and faster, but many of our participants told us that meeting face-to-face brought benefits that online communication could not by making it easier to build trust, to get others’ cooperation when leading a project, and to communicate in a second language, as many academics do. The social dimension of writing, as discussed by Uta Papen and Virginie Theriault in their presentation on writing retreats at the same conference, meant that being able to combine chat and coffee with writing made the experience more productive and enjoyable.
Academics talked about the “learning all the time” from conversations with others around writing, and this continued throughout their careers. Even senior academics spoke about the need for informal support networks to enable them to learn from their peers. This highlights the need for universities to foster a culture in which such informal relationships and networks can thrive.
These days, many universities are removing boundaries between student and staff spaces, and replacing staff common rooms with open seating areas accessible to all. This reduces the places where academics can talk in confidence about their research aspirations, about the inevitable rejection of papers from journals, and about the pleasures and pains of creating knowledge. Furthermore, workload pressures often mean that academics struggle to find time to chat informally about writing and the emotions it stirs up. This should be taken seriously given the role that relationships play in nurturing a writing culture and facilitating learning, not only about writing, but also about who we are as academics and team members.
The slides from our talk can be viewed here.