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Time to retreat and write!

Date Released: Wed, 16 September 2015 16:29 +0200

In their call to promote a collective model of slow scholarship, Mountz et al. (no date) describe a feminist ethics of care as work that “requires us - at different moments in our days - to stop, reflect, reject, resist, subvert, and collaborate to cultivate different, more reflexive academic cultures” (p. 13).

Last week, this time, we had just finished settling in and had started the first session of our three-day off site research retreat. This took place at Woodlands Cottages in Kenton-on-Sea from the 31st of August to the 2nd of September. It was a first for me, and an event I had been eagerly looking forward to since the start of my Masters thesis. In spite of my mild trepidation as the occasion approached (about what to expect and what was expected of me), I have to say that the retreat could not have arrived at a more appropriate time. Apart from the fact that my parents who were visiting from overseas were available to look after my eight-year-old daughter while I was away, professionally I was experiencing a writing block. Research students often report difficulties such as time issues, negative affect, access to resources, intellectual block and lack of support (McAlpine, Jazvac-Martek & Hopwood, 2009). In the month of July (click ‘next’ at the bottom of the page to a few articles back) Tracey Feltham-King made a reference to the positive effects that a CSSR colloquium or retreat could have on “TESTS” (Trauma due to Exposure to Sensitive Topics Syndrome). I can vouch that a retreat can also cure a writer’s block. The retreat for me was extremely refreshing and I have returned feeling motivated with a new found sense of purpose. I am not alone in my positive experience of the retreat. I have compiled the reflections of some of the other participants, which with their consent, I share below. Our retreat appears to be a response to the call made by Mountz et al. (no date) that I highlighted at the start of this article.

“When I am on retreat I feel as if I have found my tribe. These people have been through what I have been through. I do not have to explain myself (too much) and we are all heading together in the same direction. And as an aside- they are really interesting and wonderful human beings.”

“For me this was not just about focusing on my writing and research, but also my first opportunity to meet Prof Macleod as well as the CSSR team.  So I had been a bit daunted (to say the least) – however, the moment I met Catriona and then subsequently each member of the CSSR, I felt like I had found my tribe.

  • What struck me was the supportive environment in which research and critical thought takes place – not holding back on critique, however done in such a manner as to constructively build on each individual’s research.
  • The opportunity to escape normal life and focus solely on my research, along with like-minded people, was invaluable to my phd journey – which can at times feel very solitary and scary.
  • I left having met people I consider friends, and with renewed focus and confidence in my decision to take on my research.

What a privilege to be part of the CSSR. I feel very very lucky.”

“Yeah the retreat was nice and helpful. The place was good despite of the weather. I found all the activities (generative writing and active writing) to be enlightening. I had a chance to think of new ideas and to write them with coherence, as well as understanding the use of APA (though a bit complicated). I enjoyed the atmosphere of being around cheerful, helpful and caring people. At least had a chance to interact with others (since I'm never at the office)”

McAlpine et al., (2009) believe that in order to fully understand research students’ experiences, it is equally important to consider how students relate to practices such as informal and semi-formal activities, that often tend to get overlooked in academic discourses. They also contemplate the extent to which various informal and semi-formal activities must be supported (or not) considering their positive impact but also considering everyone’s time constraints. Based on further reflections below, it seems to me that the constructive and creative results of a retreat (with all its activities and interactions) far overshadow what might be otherwise be seen as a loss of time.

“Wonderful three days away. The change of scenery and the structured writing exercises provided the perfect combination for successful writing. I really enjoyed the generative writing exercise as it allowed me the chance formulate ideas without the pressure of formal writing. This made the formal writing exercise easy, as I was able to make concrete the ideas I had formulated during generative writing. The ability to play games on the side made the three days enjoyable.”

“The writing activities were so insightful for me. In particular, I started off generative writing without a clue of what I was going to write. When I started writing I was intrigued with the level of my work that I was engaging with. I received invaluable feedback from the people I discussed my work with.  The two key points that I take away from this experience are:(i) Writing is a skill that needs practice and  (ii) it's important to employ the 'eagle eye view' when writing.”

“The CSSR research writing retreat was enormously helpful. The generative writing exercise really helped me put pen to paper and launched me into the writing phase of my masters.  The informal conversations and discussions around writing and research were helpful. I finally feel confident enough to tackle my proposal.”

“I have learnt to appreciate the fragmented work as much as the final draft because it really is a valuable part of the process. I have also learnt to be comfortable with sharing incomplete and incoherent ideas, using this as an opportunity to gain clarity. The receptive vibe at the CSSR has definitely made all of this less anxiety provoking. Thanks guys!”

“The retreat was, for me, a great opportunity to put some ideas down for chapters I hadn’t yet started to write. I found it to be a productive space.”

“This exercise allowed mutual collaboration that added great conceptual value to my research.”

“Writing retreats are always exciting for me. This one was particularly so because it offered me an opportunity to reconnect with writing and my research, both of which I had been circumstantially compelled to suspend. It was both exciting and helpful for me to be here and I intend to keep the momentum going.”

“To engage in this intense creative process with such a committed group of colleagues has been really challenging –for it displaces me from my usual ‘habitus’ in writing- but also extremely comforting and rewarding.”
-Pedro Pinto

As for me, I found the change of scene invigorating, in spite of the incessant rains. The physical distance from the regular workspace, as well as the generative writing activity allowed me to dis-connect and re-connect with my research from a different angle that produced an “a-ha” moment. What I most valued however, were the various informal discussions with my colleagues. These were not merely insightful and constructive but also revealed that we were all struggling with different aspects of our work – something that I strangely find comforting. The last point I wish to highlight (which was brought up by a colleague) is the serendipitous nature of being randomly paired with the right person that allowed our research to connect creatively – so where one saw bridges, the other saw holes. Mountz et al., (no date) emphasize that when “given the chance to marinate, ideas ripen, often resulting in some of our most thoughtful, provocative, and important work” (p. 3). The retreat provided us that opportunity, and I am extremely grateful for it.

-By Yamini Kalyanaraman


McAlpine, L., Jazvac-Martek, M., & Hopwood, N. (2009). Doctoral student experience in education: Activities and difficulties influencing identity development. International Journal for Researcher Development, 1(1), 97 – 109.

Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., et al. (n.d.). For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University. Forthcoming in ACME, International E-journal for Critical Geographies. Retrieved September 8, 2015 from https://www.academia.edu/12192676/For_Slow_Scholarship_A_Feminist_Politics_of_Resistance_through_Collective_Action_in_the_Neoliberal_University

Source:CSSR Psychology: Yamini kalyanaraman