New Ideas, New Progress, and New Friends: Reflections on our 2019 Dissertation Writing Retreat

By Edward English, Assistant Director

Last week we once again hosted fourteen Ph.D. students who participated in our spring Dissertation Writing Retreat. This is the ninth year we have held a week-long writing retreat in May during which the participants spend 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 lunches.IMG_6628

The writers who participated in this year’s retreat represented ten different disciplines at the University: Biochemistry, Biology, Early Childhood and Elementary Ed., Education, Microbiology, Nursing,  Public Health, Rhetoric and Composition, 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.

Jessica Newman, Consultant (PhD Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition)

This is the third UofL Dissertation Writing Retreat that I’ve helped out with, while working on my own dissertation. For the first two, I was an assistant director at the University Writing Center and so took part in the retreat introduction, breakout groups, etc. This year, though, I participated as consultant only, coming in after lunch and leaving two and a half hours later.

The determination and productivity of the grad students who take part in the retreats were more salient to me than ever this year: rather than arriving each morning as things were getting started, I would instead step from the afternoon heat into a room quiet with reading, typing, scribbling and highlighting, and I would leave before the Writing Center closed for the day, the writers just as focused as when I arrived. I really appreciated working with my two writers as they shared their projects, obstacles and strengths. Talking with them reminded me, as I hope that I and the retreat reminded them, that we are not alone in this.

Rachel Rodriguez, Consultant (PhD Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition)

rachel.jpgThe Dissertation Writing Retreat serves as a designated space and time for individual drafting and revising, but this year I reflected on the myriad of unexpected benefits of the retreat. There is something magical about working in the presence of others (don’t mind my shameless plug for the Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Group). Many writers flock to libraries or coffee shops to work within that buzz of human activity, but even if silence reins during the retreat, the gravitational force of a group of individuals all working together on different iterations of the same massive, complex task is undeniable. One writer mentioned that when they felt like they couldn’t focus, they’d look around the room at everyone who was still intently writing and say to themselves, “if they can, I can!” before diving back in.

This week, several of us consultants would even arrive early to work on our own writing projects in the staff room, hoping to ride that productivity wave. When the writers surface for breakout workshops and sessions with their consultants, we’re all given the rare opportunity to act as representatives of our disciplines, verbalizing what we know tacitly about how knowledge is made and shared in our fields.

It’s a strange realization that “dissertating” doesn’t look the same in every discipline, and that a dissertation serves different roles and materializes into different products depending on your field. This exposure to interdisciplinarity crafts us all into better and more reflective scholars. As this year’s group of writers look ahead at seemingly disparate careers in university departments, science research labs, hospitals, K-12 classrooms, and even tropical rainforests, the dissertation writing retreat is one avenue through which we all learn about how writing is contextual, adaptive, and always evolving.

Melissa Amraotkar, Writer (PhD Candidate in the School of Nursing)

The social accountability of being in an atmosphere surrounded by other graduate students working on their dissertations kept me on track. Daily one on one meetings with the same writing consultant gave me more confidence in my writing plan, helped me to be more creative in writing, and provided a space outside of my committee to discuss my dissertation topic. Small group discussions with Writing Center staff members were beneficial in exploring aspects of writing that I hadn’t considered. I would recommend this retreat to any graduate student writing a thesis/dissertation.

THANKS FOR ALL WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLEcassie.jpg

It is important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat, including Bronwyn Williams, our Director; Cassie Book, our Associate Director; and Amber Yocum, our Administrative Assistant. In addition, Assistant Directors Aubrie Cox, Edward English, Rachel Rodriguez , and Christopher Stuck were instrumental in the planning and execution. Finally, the fantastic consultants, themselves Ph.D. students in English, Megen Boyett, Layne Gordan, Jessie Newman, and Christopher Schiedler helped our writers make progress each day. And thanks to Paul DeMarco, Acting Dean of the School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies, for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

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