Writing Retreats as Sites of Resistance, Inclusivity, Self-Care and the Care of Others?

Image: Cathryn Lavery

Thursday 2nd February, 2017

Carli Ria Rowell

Delighted to have been one of sixteen attending the Sociological Reviews writing retreat from a pool of over seventy submissions I arrived at Glasgow central station on the afternoon of September 14th feeling both grateful and excited for what was to come. As a final year doctoral student I have spent much time conversing with fellow doctorates as well as established academics regarding thesis writing drawing upon my personally burning concerns of ‘where do I begin’ and ‘what’s the best approach’ as starting point for discussions.

Consequently, over the past three years and as a result of seeking advice from countless others I have acquired a bank of advice that ranges from those that attest to the benefits of a writing plan that details the intricacies of the thesis to those peers that, having adopted the Pomodoro technique of writing exclusively in twenty-five minute blocks simply tell me to ‘shut up and write’ and of course everything in between.

As a doctoral student, central to my journey is the writing up of the thesis, within the social sciences this comprises some 80,000-word document that reports one’s investigation detailing the contribution(s) to knowledge. The written thesis marks one’s transition from postgraduate student to independent researcher serving as the bedrock for future research within academia and/or industry. It’s the end result of months and years of data collection and analysis that guides future thinking and practice made possible only by the passion and enthusiasm for the research on part of the researcher. Thus, the thesis is a celebration of one’s intellectual curiosity and commitment to one’s discipline.

So why then does much discussion, both popular and professional solely center around the negativities of the doctoral write up? There exists a surfeit of commentary presenting the write up as something to ‘survive’ to ‘get through’ and to ‘just get done’. Such accounts grapple with issues pertaining to productivity woes, stress, isolation, burnout, feelings of adrift and adverse effects on one’s mental health presenting the write up as an unmanageable burden.

The Sociological Reviews writing retreat with Rowena Murray challenged the aforementioned narrative leading me to pose the question of whether writing retreats are sites of resistance, inclusivity, self-care and the care of others as I allude too in the final paragraph of this post. Rowena began the writing retreat by reasserting the importance of academic writing for without the practice of writing academia would at large cease to exist. From wining research grants to the dissemination of one’s research and theoretical ideas writing is key to academia. Without the practice of writing not only would research cease to circulate within and beyond the academy but so too would the production of knowledge.

However, despite the centrality of ‘writing’ to both sociology and academia per se writing as Rowena argues remains an activity that is at large absent on campus. As PhD students and established academics working in contemporary higher education we increasingly find ourselves constantly negotiating competing demands, these demands work to distract from the practice of academic writing. Consequently, as Rowena argues writing is no longer mainstreamed into the daily lives of those working within academia but omitted from academic workloads and workplaces so much so that writing has instead become a hobby like activity. It is in this vein that the retreat sought to provide us with career long methods so as to enable us to mainstream writing within our daily lives.

The focus of the retreat was solely upon the practice of writing and so, prior to the retreat we were encouraged to decide on our writing project, completing all preparatory reading, note making, and planning prior to the retreat, including deciding upon the structure of our writing project. Added to this, the internet and access to one’s mobile phone was banned. The retreat was structured around a series of fixed, timed, writing and discussion slots of sixty (morning warm up) and ninety-minute writing slots over the duration of 2.5 days.

Writing goals were central to the success of my time at the retreat which were identified at the start, shared with peers and then redefined and reflected upon as time went on and were defined in terms of words written, ideas conveyed, sections of paper or chapter written and so on. A guiding principle was that we were there to write ‘small chunks’ by breaking writing tasks down and allocating tasks specific time frames followed by a regular review of ones writing goals both on an individual basis and with peers.

The logistical arrangement of the writing retreat was one of a ‘typing pool', located all in the same room we sat in an oval like shape working as individuals but also as a community of practice. It is in this way, from working as a community of practice the retreat provided a supportive, friendly environment were ideas, success and stumbles were shared with peers in a surveillance free environment, that is, no one was checking up on ones ‘productivity’ or formally monitoring ones writing.

Throughout the retreat the importance of taking writing breaks, getting out and engaging in light exercise and maintaining a healthy diet was stressed. I often sit at my desk eating my lunch, or refuse to take short breaks under the fallacy of productivity so here I learned a fundamental lesson. Rowena facelifted the retreat and was responsible for executing the timetable; opening and closing down peer discussion; individual and group reflection; whilst also enforcing breaks and daily exercise.

My time at the Sociological Reviews writing retreat was a highly enjoyable experience both intellectually and socially. I could not help but thoroughly enjoy both the practice of writing, reflective peer review, and discussions of one another’s work and broader project(s). Working alongside senior academics, early career and doctoral researchers encouraged me to accept the title of a ‘writer’ legitimately. Moreover, the stories of one’s academic trajectories that were shared over evening meals and lunch times strolls provided me with insights into academia that as a first generation students is seldom available to me. Of the insights gained and lessons learned it was that pertaining to academic impostorism that was the most fruitful. Working as a community of practice I witnessed firsthand that even established academics, like myself, experience challenges during the academic writing process. Said insight was invaluable and has since led me to reinterpret issues of writer’s block, writing anxiety, perfectionism and the act of being ‘stuck’ in ones writing as mere occupational hazards rather than signs of impostorism within academia and non-belonging within the academy.

It is the aforementioned benefits of the Sociological Reviews writing retreat beyond words on pages that has led me to ask the question of whether writing retreats are sites of self-care and the care of others? I argue, yes. As actors within academia I encourage us all to re-evaluate the available on and off campus spaces envisaging them as potential sites of structured writing retreats which serve, as a strategy in overcoming various negativities associated with thesis write up; as a tool for a more inclusive academy; as an intervention of resistance against the neo-liberal university; and importantly; a site where self-care and the care of others can take place.

Carli Ria Rowell is a Economic and Social Research Council doctoral student in the department of Sociology at The Univeristy of Warwick. You can follow her on Twitter and Academia.edu. Her PhD research is a theoretically informed and empirically driven thesis exploring ethnographically the experiences of first generation working-class university students at an elite UK University.

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