Write, Talk, Repeat: Reflecting on the Benefits of Our Second Dissertation Writing Retreat
Ashly Bender, Assistant Director
Last week our former Assistant Director Barrie Olson wrote about the anticipation and promise of participating in our second Dissertation Writing Retreat (DWR). After a long, restful weekend and some reflection, it seems that the DWR delivered on nearly all its promises. Like Barrie, I participated in the retreat as a consultant, but as a dissertation writer myself, I found it helpful on multiple fronts. The biggest benefit of participating in the retreat, though, was being able to work with other graduate students both inside and outside of my field. The Dissertation Writing Retreat may be all about writing, and involve a good deal of writing, but talking about the writing helps to solidify the meaning of all that work, especially with those who aren’t familiar with the work.
Since I’m at the early stages of the dissertation process, my direct experiences may be somewhat limited. Nevertheless, between working with many different dissertation writers over the years and my own experiences, it seems that articulating the dissertation succinctly is one of the biggest challenges. In my own graduate program, we’re often advised to develop multiple versions of our answer to the question, “What is your dissertation/project about?”: ranging from an “elevator” version to a 15-20 minute version. Condensing an approximately 200 page project into a brief description isn’t all that easy when your brain is filled to the brim—maybe over the brim—with theories, research, examples, and other data that is “essential” to understanding your project. And, believe me, it all seems essential when it’s your project.
Working with two different students from drastically different disciplines (one in the Humanities and one in the hard sciences), I found that the feedback that they most often needed through the week was to write what they were explaining to me in sessions. That seems so easy, doesn’t it? All writers know it really isn’t as easy as it sounds. You often need someone else to spot the gap in your writing and tell you where you aren’t explaining something. It isn’t always about missing information though. Maybe your verbal description of your project really emphasizes a particular aspect or connection in your project, but you only have one sentence or a paragraph in 30 pages about that aspect. A good listener and reader can help you find those disconnections between what you’re saying about your writing and what’s actually happening in your writing.
What’s really inspiring for someone like me is that those conversations are not just helpful for the writer. Having these conversations with two DWR participants helped me realize why I was having such difficulty drafting the introduction to my own dissertation. I’ve been writing pages and pages leading up to the point that I always begin with when I talk to people about my project. When I realized this during the retreat, I thought to myself, “Well, duh. That’s the problem.” Reaching that “duh” moment isn’t always easy though, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last one I have before this whole dissertation is written.
Fortunately, for all twelve participants in this year’s Dissertation Writing Retreat, these kinds of conversations were not limited to the one-on-one consultations we had each afternoon. Each day around lunch time, we also offered short workshops about the dissertation process, including writing the literature review, managing time and production, working with committee members, and developing support networks. In addition to hearing from some of the writing consultants, we also benefited from the insight of Dr. Stephen Schneider and Dr. Beth Boehm. The participants found the workshops especially helpful because they offered the opportunity to ask questions about the dissertation process generally but also to receive project-specific feedback from those who were currently working on their dissertation and those who had already completed one.
With all this praise in mind, it seems a little suspicious that I would claim that the retreat delivered on almost all its promises. Based on this post and the feedback from our participants, what could possibly have been missing? Technically, you’re right; it wasn’t missing anything it promised. Yet, as ambitious scholars we’ll always want more of a good thing. More time to write, more time to work with others on our writing and on our projects. More free food. We are still students after all. Thankfully, many of our participants said they would return to visit the Writing Center to work on their projects. And hopefully, we will all be inspired to create these kinds of supportive writing groups beyond the structure of the Writing Center.
That’s our dream, and this year was one more successful shot at achieving it.