“Camaraderie and Great Ideas”: Reflections on the 2018 Dissertation Writing Retreat
Bronwyn T. Williams, Director
Last week I attended the University of Louisville’s commencement ceremony for doctoral students. As I looked through the program I noted the names of eleven of the graduates who had previously attended one of our University Writing Center Dissertation Writing Retreats. Several of them came up to me afterward to tell me again how valuable they found the experience of the writing retreat and the significant difference it made to them in their progress toward their degrees. As we talked about the jobs they were moving on to and their plans for future scholarship, it was gratifying to think that we had played some useful role in their graduate education.
This past week we once again were host to 14 Ph.D. students who participated in our spring Dissertation Writing Retreat. This is the seventh year we have held a week-long writing retreat in May during which the participants spending their days writing and having daily individual writing consultations with members of the Writing Center staff. Every day we also have small-group discussions about various issues of dissertation writing (Ways to Structure Chapters, Strategies for Self-Editing, How to Revise Work for Other Purposes, and How to Approach Literature Reviews). We also keep everyone well-fed throughout the week with snacks and lunch.
The writers who participated in this year’s retreat represented eight different disciplines at the University: Education, Engineering, Nursing, Rhetoric and Composition, Pan-African Studies, Pharmacology, Psychology, and Social Work. The best way to get a sense of the experience of the retreat and its impact on the writers who took part, however, is to hear from the participants and consultants themselves.
Tammi Alvey Thomas, Social Work. By far a fantastic experience! I would recommend this for anyone writing their dissertation. The staff at the Writing Center are extremely helpful and great to work with. Don’t miss out on this opportunity! I left the retreat much more organized, focused and energized.
Imelda Wright, Nursing. I had the privilege of attending the Dissertation Writing Retreat in May 2018. It was well structured with plenty of space for the occupants to write at their own pace without interruption. There was adequate support and structure throughout the day to help with specific questions. In addition, a personal writing consultant was assigned to each participant daily to assist with content, technique, and overall structure of writing.
Overall, the retreat was terrific. It was enriching and productive to be in a space surrounded by like-minded people with similar goals to each other. There was a cohesive sense of camaraderie and great ideas were shared. In addition, I loved that lunch and snacks were provided; this allowed and encouraged participants to remain in the general vicinity during the day.
Edward English, Ph.D. Student in Rhetoric and Composition and Incoming Assistant Director of the University Writing Center. This year’s dissertation writing retreat was energizing and helpful for me on a number of levels. I’ve just finished the first year of my PhD in English Composition and Rhetoric and when the Spring semester ended, my mind and body craved anything unrelated to school. I immediately took solace in long naps and hours of Netflix, in addition to enjoying trips like visiting the Red River Gorge and having one too many mint juleps at a very odd rainy Derby.
After a couple weeks of this leisure, however, I needed something manageable to get me back into the momentum of productivity. The dissertation writing retreat ended up being a wonderful balance of summer fun meets academic growth.
Interestingly, though I was the consultant, offering assistance to two awesome Experimental Psych. PhDs, I felt like I was the one who learned so much. Not having even started my own dissertation, reading through others’ work helped familiarize me with the types of challenges and rewards I can likely expect when I start running this academic marathon. What’s more, my two consultees were eager to absorb whatever questions or constructive criticism I had to offer—giving this Comp. 1 & 2 writing instructor a powerful (and much needed) inflation to his teacher ego and the satisfaction of feeling like he was truly helpful. I’m looking forward to being a consultant again next year, and am thankful that I’ll have this dissertation writing retreat available to me when I’ll need guidance and instruction on how to work through my own piece.
Layne Gordon, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center and Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. Having helped facilitate the Dissertation Writing Retreat in 2016 and 2017, I came into this week knowing that I could look forward to the excitement and energy that’s created when a group of writers come together. Each year, it’s so motivating to see people enjoy the shared experience of using writing to work through their ideas and scholarly identities. What starts on Monday as a gathering of individuals, each immersed in their own projects and challenges, ends on Friday as an interdisciplinary community of writers. What I noticed this time around, though, was how productive this interdisciplinarity can be–and, selfishly, how helpful it was for me as someone who is also working on my dissertation. Both of the writers I worked with this week were genuinely interested in hearing about my dissertation progress and offered feedback and resources that were so helpful. I walked away from each consultation feeling supported and valued by the writers I was working with, even though we were in different disciplines with different methods, theories, and goals. I was really reminded this week of what reciprocity looks and feels like, and how much we (writers) all have in common when we are approaching challenging–and rewarding–writing projects.
Jessica Newman, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center and Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. I’ve had the pleasure of helping to facilitate the Dissertation Writing Retreat both this year and last year. This year, as before, I was impressed with the writers as individuals (their commitment to sit down at 8 am each morning and write, and then continue to write) and as a community (supporting and learning from each other). But now that I am further in my own dissertation, the Retreat took on an even deeper resonance, and I appreciated the opportunity to myself take part—during group discussions, lunch and consultations—in the exchange of suggestions, ideas, commiseration and support. This sharing ranged from reviews of data analysis software to tips on how to use the vocabulary of your field to the often strong emotions evoked by writing those pesky lit reviews. I look forward to seeing the support, accountability and productivity from the Dissertation Writing Retreat continue in the Writing Center weekly Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Groups this summer and this fall.
Caitlin Ray, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing and Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. As a consultant for the Dissertation Writing Retreat, I found that, in addition to helping writers, I personally got a lot out of the week. I was reminded of the power of talking about writing, working as a community of writers, and the importance of sharing research in an interdisciplinary context. My favorite parts of the week were the moments at lunch, or during workshops, when we got to chat about our research. Even when we were tired (or hungry) I still saw our eyes light up when talking about our research, and how often we found commonalities between research interests or methodology questions even when our fields were quite different from one another. I think that sometimes the frustration and daily grind of dissertation writing makes us forget that our research projects are really cool, and have the potential to make real impact on the world.
Rachel Rodriguez, Ph.D. Student in Rhetoric and Composition and Incoming Assistant Director of the University Writing Center. This week I had the opportunity to work with two writers from my own program, and our shared base of disciplinary knowledge helped us fast-forward into conversations about how knowledge is made and who “counts” as knowledge producers in the contexts of their research. Since both writers were focusing on the organization of their data chapters, we spent time playing with various options, envisioning how each schema might impact their overall message. I found myself getting really absorbed in the work they are doing, and our collective excitement made for a fun atmosphere where ideas could build off of each other as the week progressed. Getting a glimpse into both of their writing processes as well as strategies for goal-setting was personally rewarding, reminding me how attuned we are to our own way of writing, but how much we can learn by talking about how we write with others.
THANKS FOR ALL WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLE
It is important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat – Cassie Book, our Associate Director, and Robin Blackett, our Administrative Assistant, and Assistant Directors Layne Gordon, Jessica Newman, Caitlin Ray, and Christopher Stuck as well as the other fantastic consultants (themselves Ph.D. students) who worked with the writers: Edward English, Rachel Rodriguez, and Rick Wysocki. And thanks to Dean Beth Boehm, of the School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies, for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.