Tag: dissertation writing retreat

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.

Writing Time, Feedback, and Momentum: The Dissertation Writing Retreat – 2016

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

The sound of people thinking. That’s what you would have heard had you come to the University Writing Center this past week. With fourteen UofL Ph.D. students focused on  writing their dissertations. I swear that, given the intensity with which they were working, you could hear them thinking. This year marks our fifth annual spring Dissertation Writing Retreat. During the week, the schedule was the same: Writing in the morning, a short workshop and discussion on some area of20160525_104409

Dissertation Writing Retreat writers hard at work

research writing at noon (How to Write and Effective Literature Review, How to Revise and Respond to Committee Members’ Comments, How to Turn Dissertations into Publications, How to Keep Writing) , and the individual appointments with University Writing Consultants in the afternoon (and more writing…). The writers who took part in this year’s Retreat worked with a dedication and commitment that was inspiring. They came from eight different disciplines at the University: Anatomical Sciences and Neurobiology, Education, Engineering, Rhetoric and Composition, Humanities, Psychology, Public Health, and Sociology. 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.

Participants

Amanda Pocratsky, Anatomical Sciences and Neurobiology: It’s hard to synthesize in few words how much this retreat has transformed my dissertation writing experience. As a graduate student in the biomedical sciences, I was initially concerned about how effective this retreat would for me. These concerns proved unfounded. In the span of one short week, I’ve written my dissertation abstract and a complete first chapter. I will leave here with over half my dissertation completed, a well-defined outline of my discussion, and incredible momentum to push through the final stages. Moreover, the writing skills I’ve cultivated from this experience will effectively translate throughout my scholastic career. I strongly encourage students to apply and come prepared to succeed.

Yvette Szabo, Clinical Psychology: The Dissertation Writing Retreat has been invaluable to my dissertation progress! I am still collecting data for my dissertation, so I was able to

20160527_133544
Meghan, Rene, and Yvette hold a group consultation

use this protected time to write and edit large parts of my Introduction, Method and then outline my results and discussion. Overall, I doubled the length of my dissertation and received feedback on all sections.  Typically, I shift between many roles as a graduate student, so having the quiet space to work (relatively unplugged) was necessary and much appreciated. And working with the same consultant all week allowed me to talk through presenting ideas for my complex study as well as receive feedback on organization and parallel structure. Thank you for a wonderful experience!

René Bayley-Veloso, Clinical Psychology: I would highly recommend that any graduate student who is working on their dissertation attend the Dissertation Writing Retreat. I have made substantial progress on my dissertation in a very short amount of time. The retreat also helped me organize my thoughts and questions, which allowed me to have a necessary and productive meeting with one of my committee members.  I have learned quite a bit about my own personal writing process through this experience, and will be utilizing this knowledge to maintain momentum moving forward.

Jamila Kareem, Rhetoric and Composition: The 2016 Dissertation Writing Retreat has not only been the most productive time I’ve spent on my dissertation, but it has been the most valuable. The structure of the Retreat worked well, because it allowed me to prioritize my writing and get the most crucial aspects finished while I had guaranteed feedback. The Retreat helped me develop a more structured process to stay on track and to feel rewarded when I do. I’ve had a process that has worked pretty well, but the staff at the Retreat gave

20160527_143740
Dilan and Layne work together

me strategies to build upon it and work smarter. And it’s free! Just look for professional dissertation help around the Internet—prices are crazy! I would recommend the Dissertation Writing Retreat to every doctoral student whether they are having trouble getting started or almost done. The feedback, time, and structure you receive are invaluable.

Abby Burns, Epidemiology and Population Health: The Dissertation Writing Retreat provided an encouraging environment to work quietly alongside other students who all have the same ultimate goal – completing their dissertation and graduating.  It helped hold me accountable, but more importantly helped me build momentum that I hope I can run with in the following weeks/months.

Denise Watkins, Humanities: As someone who is married, a mother, and works full-time, the benefits of this retreat can’t be adequately explained. I was able to steal away from all other responsibilities and make significant progress. In one week’s time, my outlook towards my dissertation has changed from an insurmountable “where will I ever find the time?” project to a feasible, doable task.

Heidi Williams, Sociology: The Dissertation Writing Retreat provides supportive, focused writing time, as well as workshops and advice that help participants approach and manage their work. Working with a writing consultant helped me realize I was fixating on a problem, rather than making progress in an attainable way. I learned how to breakdown my writing into manageable, daily tasks that led to tangible results – an exercise that I could not put into motion myself.

Consultants:

Laura Tetreault, Assistant Director: In my conversations during the Dissertation Writing Retreat, either with the writers I was working with or the other consultants and writing center staff, we often circled back to one idea: writing is hard. (And interesting, and fun, and exciting, but also hard a lot of the time.) As a Rhetoric and Composition PhD candidate

20160526_111711
Laura Tetreault leads a workshop discussion on turning dissertations into publications

and Assistant Director of the Writing Center, people sometimes I expect that I have this whole writing thing figured out, but the reality is that I became interested in writing teaching and writing center work because I also find writing to be really difficult a lot of the time. But instead of finding this discouraging, I actually find it comforting that most writers express at some point how difficult writing can be for them. The common experience of struggling with writing helps to diminish the inner critic that many grad students have in our heads. I can tell that critic: hey, it’s not me; writing is just hard sometimes. And it gets a lot easier for me when I can find a sense of community in the struggle.

Amy McCleese Nichols, Assistant Director: Watching writers work on their dissertations this week has reminded me why I love one-on-one writing conferences. It’s been great to talk through ideas and text with writers who have differing processes. For some, it seemed like the chance to talk through small sections of writing/thinking gave them better language to describe their overall argument and intervention by the end of the week. For others, designing study frameworks and making targeted edits to various sections of text

20160527_144856
Rose and Amy discuss Rose’s dissertation

helped them accomplish larger goals. Working the retreat has also given me a better sense of what it might look like to write my own dissertation in the future; this is definitely an event I’d like to return to as a participant next year.

Layne Gordon: As a soon-to-be second year PhD student, I was so inspired this week by the progress of the writers I was working with! At the end of each meeting, we took a couple of minutes to set some writing goals for the next day. Although sometimes those goals had to shift or be adjusted (writing requires so much flexibility!), the writers always made progress and pushed themselves to get as much done as they could. While I got to learn a lot about their respective topics, I also learned a lot about the dissertation writing process itself and the importance of just not stopping.

Brittany Kelley: I learn so much when working with others on their dissertations, especially when it comes to the writing process. This year, I learned that it’s important to create a hierarchy of goals for your dissertation. The highest/most important goal is getting words on the page. The next highest/most important goal should be your well being. After you’ve got words on the page, remember to rest. See friends. Exercise. Eat well. Most importantly, be kind to yourself. You deserve it. Always.

Ashley Ludewig: I have always enjoyed working with students of all levels on their writing projects and this week’s retreat was no different.  But, even though I participated in the retreat as a tutor, this week was also really helpful for me as someone who is also writing my dissertation.  Talking with other writers as they thought through some of the most complicated parts of their projects and reflected on their writing processes reminded me to be more accepting of my own writing process and helped me see why I was feeling stuck in my own work.  Now, instead of beating myself up over a lack of progress, I feel prepared to re-think my priorities for the next few weeks and make a plan that will actually work!

Meghan Hancock: This year at the diss retreat I was reminded of the importance of setting aside concrete time to write in a space without distractions. It seemed like many students most valued the amount of quiet work time that the retreat provided them with, and in my last consultation, we talked about how to create those kinds of spaces after leaving the retreat as well as how to continue to block out time in schedules just for writing. Though I always encourage others to maximize their productivity in these ways, I don’t always practice what I preach. Being able to see the amazing work ethic that students at the diss retreat had this year has inspired me to try harder to follow my own writing advice and to set aside more routinely scheduled quiet times for me to work on my own dissertation.

Thanks…..

It’s also 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 Stephen Cohen, Amy Nichols, and Laura Tetreault. Thanks also to the fantastic consultants (themselves Ph.D. students) who do the most important work of the week in working with the writers: Layne Gordon, Meghan Hancock, Brittany Kelley, and Ashley Ludewig. And thanks to Dean Beth Boehm, of the School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

See you next year!!!!!!

Reflecting on the 2015 Week-Long Dissertation Writing Retreat

We just finished our spring Dissertation Writing Retreat at the University Writing Center. Last week, May 18-22, several writers from various disciplines met every day to push their dissertation projects forward – and to learn some new things about writing practices and strategies at the same time. Some of the DWR participants were in the early stages of their projects, working on dissertation proposals or their first chapters. Others were nearly finished with their dissertations. The retreat provided them with the time and space to write as well as feedback on their writing in daily consultations. In addition, the DWR hosted daily workshops on topics such as organizing a large writing project, writing a literature review, and leveraging dissertations for future uses.

The consultants who work during the Dissertation Writing Retreat are experienced writing teachers who are also PhD students currently working on their dissertations. After the 2014 DWR, the consultants offered some insightful reflections, and here is what this year’s consultants had to say:

On being in the company of other writers:

The dissertation writing retreat this year reminded me of the power of surrounding yourself with other writers. I’m always so impressed by the camaraderie across the disciplines that happens during the retreat, but also by how much more work these writers are able to get done in this space simply by being around other writers who are all going through the same process. Some writers at the retreat used this opportunity to give each other feedback, comments, and share advice, but there were also times when sitting in silence together was just as productive. Whether you use the time around other writers as a chance to share ideas or as a quiet work time to be around others in order to keep focused, writing groups are valuable opportunities to grow as a writer as well as a great way to keep yourself accountable.

–Meghan Hancock

On goal-setting and rewards:

As always, this past week at the Dissertation Writing Retreat was a true joy. My fellow dissertating comrades and I talked deeply about how to stay on track with the book-length project that is “THE Dissertation.” We were really focused on how to negotiate and renegotiate the kinds of working routines necessary to get through this seeming behemoth. We talked about a few really important ideas:

Set a low goal that keeps you motivated but that is easy to reach, like – “Write 100 words per day,” or “Read1 article per day.”

Then, when you reach the goal, give yourself a gold star (or even a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sticker) – just something to acknowledge the success!

  • Periodically revisit what you see as the whole scope of the dissertation, but don’t worry if that scope changes dramatically.
  • Figure out how to work effectively with each individual committee member, and the committee as a whole. Make sure to develop a comfortable working relationship with your director, above all.
  • Remember, it’s your dissertation!
  • And, finally, always take some time off for self-care!

It was a wonderful week, and I’m feeling fully energized to get back to my dissertation, 100 words at a time.

–Brittany Kelley

On habit-building:

The Dissertation Writing Retreat espouses many of the principles that writing centers value, among them making writing a daily habit. This principle resonated with me while I talked to DWR participants last week, especially because I am writing my own dissertation and working on meeting word count goals every day. If writing is a habit – and by writing I mean sitting down, opening a new document or one in progress, and making words in a row happen – then it is like brushing my teeth, looking over my shoulder before I change lanes, or feeding my cat in the morning. I don’t even think about whether writing will happen if it’s a habit. This is one reason why the DWR is a valuable experience for those participating in it. The retreat can teach the habit of daily writing, such that participants go on to continue the practice of writing every day even after the retreat ends.

–Jessica Winck

On being a member of the graduate community:

Over the last week, I’ve been thinking about mentoring. I had the privilege of working with two students in the Biology program who were at very different stages of the process at this year’s Dissertation Writing Retreat. One student was working on drafting her introduction while the other had completed and revised all of her chapters, and was working on further revision to turn one chapter into an article. While I learned a great deal about the growth of invasive honeysuckle plants in our area and colonies of bacteria, I learned even more about the value of mentoring. Throughout our time together, I was able to help the student who was further along with revising her article about bacteria, and she in turn was able to provide insight into the expectations that faculty in the department would have for an introduction on invasive honeysuckle. In this way, we all spent the week learning from each other, and I was reminded what a great opportunity graduate school is to be in a community of scholars, and that valuable help and advice is available from my advisor and committee, yes, but also from others who are at different stages of the process.

–Stephen Cohen

On commitment to our projects:

It’s hard to believe this is the 4th time I’ve consulted for the week-long Dissertation Writing Retreat. I’m thrilled that the Writing Center has been able to consistently offer this resource thanks to the support of many offices and departments across campus. While I’ve always been impressed with the work the writers do during the retreat, this year, perhaps more than any other, I was lucky to work with two writers who blew me away with their commitment to producing good work every day. Each took advantage of the writing time, guest talks, consultations, and other resources so that they were able to walk away with tangible progress on their projects. Their commitment was inspiring and reminded me of how much can be accomplished with a bit of consistent focus. It is my hope that they recognize the hard work they did this week and that it inspires them to keep writing just as much as it inspired me to return my own projects.

–Ashly Bender

The Week-Long Dissertation Writing Retreat: Notes from the Consultants

We just finished our spring Dissertation Writing Retreat at the University Writing Center. During the week of May 19-23, 14 writers from nine different disciplines took part, meeting every day to write and talk about writing. While some writers were in the early stages of their project and others were close to finishing, they were all provided with time to write and feedback on their writing. Each day the participants had several hours set aside for writing and then time for a one-hour consultation about their writing with a member of the Writing Center staff. In addition there were daily writing workshops on topics such as organizing a large writing project, writing a literature review, and working with committee comments.

Writing Time
Writing Time

The consultants who work during the Dissertation Writing Retreat are experienced writing teachers who are also PhD students currently working on their dissertations. Here are some of their thoughts about the work that took place during the week.

On developing writing strategies, aside from just making time to write:

While the dedicated writing time is often the benefit participants say is most helpful, another important benefit that I think often goes unnoticed until after the retreat is the development of writing strategies. Aside from developing dedicated writing time, it is important to have a plan, and more often multiple plans, for approaching writing and approaching the different tasks of a dissertation. The writing consultants work with retreat participants to practice and develop different techniques and strategies and for thinking about others that might work. For example, this year I worked with one participant on creating outlines both before and after writing. Starting with an outline can help you identifying which pieces fit into a chapter, but sometimes when we’re writing we get stuck thinking about what fits or not and end up not writing anything. In that case, it’s a good idea to just write what you have and then see what needs to stay, what needs developed more, and what belongs in another chapter or maybe even a different publication. So, while the retreat’s immediate reward may be time and more words produced, we hope–or I hope, at least–that the more beneficial reward is the writing strategies that can be applied to the dissertation and future writing projects.  ~Ashly Bender

On remembering to take care of yourself while dissertation:

Last week, I worked as a consultant at the Dissertation Writing Retreat. We were all at different stages of dissertation, but, by and large, we all started to see that the biggest challenge we faced was to remember that we needed, first and foremost, to care for ourselves as we dissertated. That we needed to give ourselves moments of rest. We needed to acknowledge even small victories. We had to remember to ask for what we need.

In other words, we all realized that there could be no dissertation without self-care and self-advocacy.

It seems to me that this is true of all writing situations. s important to remember self-care actions, such as:

  • Set small goals (100 words per day), and then provide small rewards when you meet them (one episode of a favorite TV show; one hour to do absolutely nothing school-related, etc.).
  • Always schedule in time for real rest. Schedule at least one, free weekend day per week. Or one full week during the summer. Take time away from the project. Allow yourself to recharge and incubate ideas.
  • Take time to visit your notes, and “throw-away” pages. Show yourself how much work you really have done.

~Brittany Kelley

On how academics really manage to complete projects:

During a late morning workshop on Thursday, I talked with participants about ways to maintain the habit of writing after the retreat. What they said reminded me of several important principles around completing academic writing projects. Many of the participants appreciated how the DWR structured a set time and place for writing. Committing to this routine meant that writing would not be an irregular event, but rather a habit. Participants also mentioned how they appreciated the group dynamic of the retreat as a form of accountability. Surrounded by other academic writers who were similarly working toward a set of goals provided motivation to continue – and at least one small group in the retreat committed to maintaining regular writing together in the weeks to come. And finally, several participants noted the value of talking to others about their writing. In reference to the daily afternoon meetings with writing consultants, the participants said that talking one-to-one about their projects became an important strategy for addressing challenges and setting goals. This rewarding discussion reminded me that completing academic projects has much less to do with how “smart” we are as academics, and much more with committing to working on a regular basis, developing and using strategies when we get stuck, and making sure to build in time for regular discussions with others about our work.

~Jessica Winck

Consultants and Participants Talking about Writing
Jessica discussing writing with one of the retreat’s participants

On project planning and the early stages of dissertation work:

I worked with two math education dissertation writers. Both were working on their proposals, which are due in August. I liked working with them at this stage as they are still making their way through the literature and methodologies. This was different than past retreats which participation stipulated a defended proposal. I liked this earlier stage in the process because I could help talk them through the lit review as well as scheduling out short and long term goals. The proposal stage is all about getting your bearings and this is what they needed help with most. As someone who is in the same boat as them, the beginning stages of writing this document, I learned a lot just from talking with them about their writing fears and challenges. And I think that talking helped them get writing.

~Jennifer Marciniak

On writing in a collaborative atmosphere:

This past week at the Dissertation Writing Retreat has taught me a surprising amount about the collaborative side of dissertation writing—a concept which I think contradicts what many of us think about writing, and especially in this rather peculiar genre. As a consultant, I began the week with few assumptions about the work ahead of me, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself paired with two students who had remarkably clear ideas about what their projects entailed, and what thoughts would need to go into the writing to get their arguments across. These students, it seemed to me, didn’t need a lot of coaching to get the work written, or even a lot of effort to make their writing read easily. Both brought that to the table on the first day. What they did need was just someone to receive those ideas as an uninitiated reader (uninitiated, at least, to their specific fields and projects), who could then bounce back the most salient ideas to them. I’m fond of automobile analogies, and to me this process felt very much like taking these projects for a “test drive” every day—I would take up whatever new ideas they had presented for the day, do a spin around the block in them, and then report back to their authors what was working and what might need more tweaking.

As a student currently working on my own dissertation, this test drive process was both enjoyable and informative. I was always happy to take a break from my own project for a few hours; to get out of my car and try a new one for a bit. I also learned quite a bit from seeing the process play out in someone else’s shoes. When,–after a day that saw a lot of suggestions on re-organization of points with both of my clients–I met with my own director and was given the same feedback, I realized pretty quickly how necessary it is to have a “test driver” on your team, who can exist outside of your project until you bring them in for specific testing.

“Test-driving” the dissertation with colleagues and consultants

We often think of writing as a solitary practice, and I feel like the drafting of a thesis or dissertation often feels even more so. But this week has made it abundantly clear to me that we all need a team to help us out from time to time; that we are, in fact, engineers who are designing a kind of textual machine that needs to work on the road, or in the field. I was happy to serve on two such teams this past week, and going forward with my own project, I feel more certainty about how to use my own.

~Benjamin Bogart

On the joys of the retreat:

One of the best things I saw this year at the Retreat was how much the graduate students enjoy interacting with each other.  I loved to see them share their advice about how they handled certain steps in the writing process, from organizing all of their research to how to structure certain chapters.  We do a lot as consultants, but I think a lot of the benefits of the Retreat for graduate students is how much they can learn from each other’s experiences as well.

~Meghan Hancock

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.

Ashly_Version_3The 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.

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.

Ashly_Version_3What’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.

Silencing the Dissertation Demons

Jennifer Marciniak – Assistant Director of the Virtual Writing Center

JenniferMAs a PhD candidate I have a lot of demons. For the majority of my doctoral career they have been there. They come to me in the form of voices –professors, colleagues, family members, even people who have no idea what it takes to undergo such a momentous task as a doctorate. Usually these voices are picking away at the back of my brain reminding me: “Only a week left before the rough draft is due, what the hell are you doing watching another episode of The Walking Dead when you have nothing for your lit review!?”  These voices started popping up during the initial two years of coursework. These annoying, lizard-tongued declarations always found me during that final push before the final papers were due. And they were loud. Overbearing. And, sometimes, overwhelming.

Even so, those seminar class demons do not hold a candle to those presently lording over my dissertation. As I begin this foray into the prospectus, which is the proposal or introduction to the dissertation, these demons are much nastier, and seemingly much less controllable. I say this because a dissertation is nothing like a seminar paper. You are not bound by (significant) deadlines like in a seminar class. Therefore, it can be much more difficult for people like me who need structure to hold themselves accountable. These demons are not harping on about deadlines. That’s small potatoes. These voices are a lot more destructive and vicious, creeping around in your psyche as you battle writer’s block saying, “You have no idea what you are doing. What are you even doing in this program? You are a complete failure.” And I can tell you from experience – and the blank pages that should be my prospectus – that it is hard to listen to this rhetoric and not start believing it.

So, I started looking for help. What I found is that I am not alone with dealing with these demons. I knew that to a certain extent, though.  I am part of a cohort of seven doctoral candidates dealing with the same issues, but it’s nice to see it in writing that you are not a complete botch on the academic landscape (like my demons tell me every day). The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill has resources for dissertation writers like me who need some consolation during this mammoth undertaking. One of the most beneficial resources they offer is a handout called “Silencing Your Inner Critic.” The information provided was a bit shocking – it was like they had a microphone inside my head and were recording the demon voices as they ridiculed me mercilessly. I think many writers going through a similar situation would benefit from an understanding voice, so I thought I would share this self-help resource here. It starts out with questions and bulleted “critic” voices. While UNC-Chapel Hill uses “critic,” I changed it to “demon,” as I thought it more appropriate for the way I hear them in my head:

What is your demon’s greatest fear?

  • That you’ll sound dumb
  • That you’ll disappoint a mentor
  • That you are an academic impostor
  • That you are not enough of a genius
  • That you won’t get a job
  • That you’re missing something within yourself (you aren’t talented enough)
  • That you’re missing something in the research (you didn’t find the famous article)
  • That you’re not worthy to make your claim
  • That your idea isn’t significant enough

When does your demon speak most often?

  • While you are writing
  • Before you sit down to write
  • After you’ve drafted something
  • While you are doing things unrelated to your project
  • Anytime, anywhere

Whose voice does your demon resemble?

  • A parent
  • A teacher
  • A smarty pants

I originally put an asterisk (*) by the bullet points that I hear most often from my demons, but realized afterward that I put an asterisk after every single one of them. So I deleted them. My demons pop up to tell me how much I suck as a doctoral student pretty much all the time. When I am washing dishes, cleaning out the closets, folding laundry. I am constantly thinking about writing, but also constantly battling reasons why I can’t sit down and do it. Because of whom my demon voices resemble, I am shell-shocked into silence because of the fear of sounding dumb, disappointing people, and basically being inadequate. But what now? UNC- Chapel Hill does not leave you hanging. They provide do-it-yourself questions to help you battle these demons:

  • Where might constructive criticism help you in the writing process?  Who might you consult for constructive criticism and when might you schedule that consultation?
  • In what other situations does your demon speak up?  How do you respond to your demon in those instances and move forward?
  • What might you say back to your demon when he/she pipes up?

While I will not divulge what I say to my demons (it’s inappropriate for a public forum), I think there is definitely something to be said for consulting someone outside of your committee for assistance. Many university writing centers offer dissertation workshops, or “boot camps,” that aim to get participants on a schedule. The overall goal is to jump start the dissertation and get the participant writing while providing simultaneous feedback. Some workshops are designed for those who are just starting the dissertation, while others are for those who are finishing up and need support with chapter revisions. Other workshops are designed to assist participants throughout an entire semester, sometimes two semesters, providing a more rigid schedule, as well as communal feedback.

The University of Louisville Writing Center held its first dissertation writing “retreat” in May 2012. I was one of the writing center consultants working with participants finishing their dissertations. For five days I worked with two doctoral candidates on chapter revisions. It was exhausting work, but at the end of the week there was significant progress. And, reportedly, a silencing of the participants’ own demon voices.  Since the retreat was so successful, The University of Louisville Writing Center will offer its second dissertation writing retreat in May 2013. The retreat, which caters to students from all disciplines, allows students to write, revise, and rework their dissertation chapters during the course of each day. Participants also have the benefit of one-on-one help with a writing center tutor as well as group activities with other participants. Those interested in participating in the workshop must have an approved dissertation proposal or prospectus, completed (or nearly completed) the data material gathering process, the approval of their dissertation advisor, and the commitment to writing each of the five days of the retreat. Applications for the retreat must include a copy of the proposal or prospectus, a one-page cover letter indicating why the retreat will be beneficial, and a letter of support from a faculty advisor. Deadline for applications is April 1, 2013.

For more helpful (and encouraging) tips from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Writing Center like “Silencing Your Inner Critic,” visit their website.