Many academics are under increasing stress in their academic role. Research has suggested that increases in stress are linked to teaching more students, less time to spend with students, heavy workloads, more administration to deal with, and poor management. Stress has also increased due to funding cuts and government initiatives threatening the future of education. Finally, pressure to secure research funding and the insecurity of academic posts are all deemed to be stressors. Securing appropriate qualifications (such as a Masters or PhD), bringing in research funding, improving the CV to secure academic posts and promotions, and achieving national and international recognition are all important to building a successful academic career and are all dependent on a strong publication record. However, gaining sufficient time to devote to the production of theses, articles, books, reports and research proposals is difficult for students and staff to achieve alongside teaching, pastoral role, research and administrative tasks.
Writers’ retreats are one mechanism that students and staff can use to prioritise time for writing. Writing retreats were established several years ago under the auspices of the School of Education and Social Work Educational and Life Transitions research theme and the University’s Research Centre for Transformative Change: Educational and Life Transitions (TCELT). The aims of the writers’ retreats were to give due recognition to the importance of writing in academia; to provide opportunity to devote time to writing; to support staff and doctoral students’ writing through regular facilitated meetings; and enhance the quality and sustainability of writing for personal and career progression. The structure and format of the retreats were based on the structured writing retreat model developed by Murray and Newton. The retreats were held on a monthly basis (last Friday of the month); were facilitated by an academic; and the sessions (typically 9am-5pm) were structured using the Pomodoro writing technique of specific time slots for setting targets, writing, and review of targets. To enhance the experience, social breaks were timetabled into the retreat. Recently, as the COVID-19 pandemic grew, writing retreats were held virtually rather than in face-to-face sessions.
As TCELT Co-Directors, Dr Beth Hannah and Professor Judith Sixsmith recently agreed to organise and co-facilitate the writers’ retreats. Beth had, in April 2020, participated in a 2-day intensive course for academics (run by Professor Rowena Murray) on leading and facilitating writers’ retreats. This course, alongside discussion with mentors such as Professor Divya Jindal-Snape and academic reading, enabled reflection on the purpose and effectiveness of writers’ retreats. These reflections were translated into the relaunching of the TCELT Writers’ Retreat held virtually on Microsoft Teams on 27th November 2020.
The 9am to 4pm session was planned to provide an opportunity to revisit the purpose and structure of the writers’ retreats, and to consider ways of building an ethos which is supportive, collaborative, engaging and enjoyable. During the session, participants were asked if they would be willing to contribute to a blog about their experiences of taking part in the writers’ retreats so that the perceived value and benefits of taking part in retreats could be established. This was especially important given the need to move from face-to-face to virtual sessions; in particular the experience of writing in such sessions, the benefits of the retreat, the downsides and the opportunities were all subject to participant reflections.
Some of the key themes which emerged from analysis of the contributions of three of the participants (Divya Jindal-Snape, Jing Chen and Kaushalya Herath) will be presented here, together with the reflections of Beth Hannah and Judith Sixsmith as facilitators.
Engagement with Writing
The participants felt that the retreat enhanced engagement with the task of writing; enabled a more focused approach; and provided a sense of legitimacy in concentrating on writing, rather than pursuing other, perhaps distracting aspects of the student and staff academic role:
“It can be so easy to get distracted by other, equally important, demands on your time. If you are in a writers’ retreat, have discussed your targets for the day, and review it from time to time, it focusses your mind on the importance of your writing rather than letting that slip.” (Jindal-Snape)
This quote reflects the concept of cognitive disengagement with writing highlighted by Murray. Using a questionnaire survey, Murray explored the views of 42 academics from UK universities about disengagement with writing. The research represented participants from a range of different disciplines. Murray identified three forms of disengagement from writing: physical, social and cognitive. She incorporated these forms of disengagement in a newly developed conceptual model of writing disengagement to modeldisengagement with other tasks and focusing on writing.
In terms of the writing retreat session we held, and emphasising one of the perceived benefits of structured writing retreats found by Murray and Kempenaar, the “value of ‘unplugging’ from email and internet in order to concentrate exclusively on writing” (p. 1002) was a key benefit highlighted by the participants and facilitators.
Support from other writers
In their study which explored why women are attracted to and appear to benefit from structured writing retreats, Murray and Kempenaar identify social support as a key element. Drawing on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, they highlight the importance their participants placed on a supportive environment at the level of the microsystem. This supportive ethos in our writers’ retreats was mentioned by all the participants:
“I think it is an online club that encourages and supports each other in academic writing. At the same time, someone sitting across from the computer is writing with you. It is also a relaxing online chat room, where everyone can chat about different topics and share different life trajectories during a break.” (Chen)
As indicated above and in the below quote, such support is not restricted to the activity of writing, but also extended to the social wellbeing breaks timetabled into the writing day:
“I enjoyed the conversations over coffee during the breaks. They helped me to be relaxed and feel that I am a part of something. Since Covid 19 has made us work in isolation, it was wonderful to have that feeling of being a part of something.” (Herath)
Getting to know other members of the group, their ideas, perspectives and research areas was also seen as a benefit, connecting staff and students across disciplines, topics and Schools, going beyond academic concerns and into personalities:
“In my experience, our writers’ retreats have also provided really good opportunities for getting to know each other as not a staff member or student but as a fellow writer. We have the same identity and a sense of belonging to the group and therefore the writers’ retreat.” (Jindal-Snape)
Murray and Newton describe an evaluation of a newly developed form of writers’ retreat, which utilised what they described as a ‘typing pool’ model. This incorporated 3 elements: writers working in one room; structuring the time into writing and discussion slots; and discussing progress in writing. The perceived benefits of such a structured approach were highlighted by one of the participants:
“It was also helpful that we discussed the targets of each participant for the day in the beginning. I like having smaller targets for smaller time slots, and when I shared them out loud, it encouraged me more to achieve them.” (Herath)
Setting targets for writing slots and evaluating the achievement of such targets (or not!), helped participants realise their own potential and to be more realistic in their writing expectations:
“One thing I noticed was that the first target I set for an hour’s writing wasn’t achieved. Instead of being disappointed, I discussed this with the other participants and reset a target in the second hour which was more achievable. So over the retreat I learned more about my own writing ability and ended the day happy rather than disappointed.” (Sixsmith)
The perceived motivational advantage of participants joining the session remotely was highlighted by one student who was in Sri Lanka at the time of the November writers’ retreat:
“I had a very productive day at the TCELT writers’ retreat. The feeling that there are others working at the same time and I could see them online made me feel connected even though they are miles away. It motivated me to sit and focus on my writing. …. I was able to join the writers’ retreat from Sri Lanka because it was online. This would be a good opportunity for distant learning students too.” (Herath)
As facilitators, we asked participants to keep their cameras on to try to replicate the experience of being in the same room. In the direct quote above, Herath commented on being able to see others online and how this created a sense of connection.
The necessity of shifting to remote writers’ retreats has created opportunities to expand the reach of the activity. For example, we could open up the monthly retreats to the International Network of Transitions Researchers. This would also extend potential participants beyond academia as the Network includes policy makers and practitioners.
In conclusion, the virtual writers’ retreat operated to encourage writing in a social and connected way, promoted reflection on the task of writing and enabled personal development in writing which might otherwise not have been possible. The retreat provided a sense of legitimacy of the importance of the writing task itself, reinforcing the value of the activity to the academic life.
Dr Beth Hannah is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Dundee. Her research focusses on educational transitions, the inclusion of children and young people with additional support needs, promoting children’s mental health and well-being, consulting with children, and action research.
Professor Judith Sixsmith is Professor in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Dundee and a Visiting Professor of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University. Her research focusses on issues of marginalisation; health and wellbeing including conceptualising health, service provision, delivery and experience; adult social care; Quality of life, participation and older people; healthy ageing; ageing and technology; ageing in place and place-making; and Palliative and End of Life care.
Acknowledgements: Jing Chen, Kaushalya Herath and Divya Jindal-Snape
Image copyright: Divya Jindal-Snape