Just Three Saturdays: Comparing Dissertation Writing Retreat Models
Ashly Bender, Assistant Director
Last weekend the Writing Center wrapped up our third Dissertation Writing Retreat. Much like the previous two dissertation retreats we’ve held, this one offered doctoral candidates the opportunity to have dedicated writing time and resources as well as time each day with a writing consultant. Unlike our previous retreats, we did not meet every day for a week; instead we met three Saturdays in a row. The difference in scheduling offered a unique experience that offered a different set of advantages than the week-long retreat.
First, the week-long retreat—which is a common model for these kinds of events—is useful to writers because it can be particularly helpful for breaking out of a rut and for developing daily writing habits. Our director, Bronwyn Williams, wrote during our first retreat about what the week-long model can offer. Some of our clients for the May retreats came in with the goal of finally wrapping up a chapter or with starting a chapter. Writer’s block is a common concern. In fact, this past May when I served as a consultant for the retreat that is exactly the place I was in, and I was hoping that like our writers I would be able to find the key with scheduled time each morning to write. We also work with writers during the week to develop daily goals or practices that will encourage them to do some writing every day. Hopefully these practices will continue once the week is over.
Certainly we have had good feedback from participants in the past two retreats. We’ve heard repeated calls for more retreats and more support for doctoral candidates in the form of writing groups and writing spaces. The School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies has responded to some of these call, as this semester they are starting Dissertation Writing Accountability groups. And, of course, the Writing Center always welcomes those who simply want to use the space to write or work during our open hours.
While we’ve had good feedback about the week-long retreat, and plan to continue offering them, sometimes circumstances call for some flexibility. A number of those interested in the May retreat were unable to attend because they work full-time jobs during the week. Many of these students were candidates in the College of Education and Human Development, and with the support of their college, we are able to design a Dissertation Writing Retreat that would meet all day for three Saturday in a row. Like our previous retreats, participants wrote in the morning and then, just before lunch, a short presentation was given on a dissertation writing strategy. In the afternoon, participants met with a consultant to talk about parts of their dissertation, writing strategies, or other writing related topics.
The biggest advantage to meeting across three weeks—in this consultant’s opinion—was that there was a higher likelihood of developing habits. One hope of the week-long retreat is that repeated practice for five days, with support and peer supervision, will plant the seed of a habit. For the participants in this retreat, they had at least two weeks to practice and then report back about their effectiveness. There wasn’t as much direct support, but the accountability for progress was a little higher since they had a week to make progress between meetings rather than just an evening. One habit that I worked on with two of the participants was the practice of doing some writing or work every day that related to the dissertation. These women had busy lives—teaching, raising families, and other commitments—but they also worked hard to do even fifteen minutes of dissertation work every day. Of course, it wasn’t easy and some days that fifteen minutes didn’t happen. For the most part it did though, and I have confidence that they will be able to keep it up.
This is certainly not to say that one scheduling style for a dissertation writing retreat is better than another. Instead, I would argue here that each schedule works toward a different set of goals and has different expectations. Perhaps the week-long model is better for getting a burst of motivation and production that can get the ball rolling (again, sometimes) while the three-week model is more effective for establishing not just sparking habits. As the Writing Center moves forward and continues to host these retreats, we will be exploring these early thoughts and more. So, stay tuned; there’s more to come.