Academics take off for scholastic nirvana

Retreats allow scholars to rediscover the joys of writing. Rebecca Attwood reports.

January 10, 2008

Amid mountains of marking, bursting e-mail inboxes and gruelling grant applications, academics are seeking refuge at retreats dedicated solely to providing the space to write up research papers.

A growing number of universities are offering their staff the chance to take time out and head off campus for a "writing retreat", usually held at a hotel in the countryside, where they can engage in intensive writing sessions, free from distractions.

Coventry University has been running funded writing retreats for its staff for more than a year and now also offers retreats to staff from other universities. The events are held over two days in rural Warwickshire, where up to 20 hours are set aside for intensive work.

"Scholarly writing retreats are an antidote to the growing pressure to publish," said Mary Deane, senior lecturer in the Centre for Academic Writing at Coventry, who runs the sessions.

"By encouraging academics to abandon their e-mail for a designated period, retreats offer invaluable release from the plethora of requests and inquiries."

Delegates first set detailed writing goals and start drafts with the help and encouragement of a "facilitator". On the final day, participants prepare to give a presentation and compare their achievements with their original aims.

"Retreats are intensely motivating because delegates are able to achieve - and often exceed - the goals they set for themselves," Dr Deane said.

Sarah Moore, dean of teaching and learning in the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Limerick, has been running retreats since 2001. She has just completed a study on the effects of writing retreats and is confident that they offer long-term benefits and enhance career prospects.

"Getting dedicated tracts of writing time is possibly harder now than it has ever been," she said. "With the pressures of the research assessment exercise, people often write out of anxiety rather than desire. This is about making it an enjoyable, creative thing to do. People rediscover why they became academics in the first place."

Rowena Murray, reader in the department of educational and professional studies at the University of Strathclyde and co-author with Professor Moore of The Handbook of Academic Writing, said writing retreats were no longer seen as a "bizarre" way of doing academic writing.

"I think people recognise that they can change how they write, and some are now more willing to admit that, since there is increased pressure to publish."

The retreats she runs for her university are structured sessions, with everyone writing in the same room on laptops at a country house in the Trossachs in Scotland.

"The culture of writing created at a retreat is what many academics expected to find when they joined university: the collegiality, the sharing of ideas, the spark of cutting- edge research and the enjoyment of talking about work in progress, but it's not like that now. Retreat creates some of those factors," she said.

As well as producing hard outputs in the form of papers or chapters, retreats can make people more productive, Dr Murray said. She added that she tried to sustain the positive effects on return to campus through writers' groups.

Stephen Foster, principal lecturer in law at Coventry, spent time at a writing retreat in preparation for submitting his portfolio of evidence for his PhD on prisoners' rights.

"It provided an excellent balance of self-discipline and expert tuition," he said.

Marie Krumins, manager of the Centre for Inter-Professional e-Learning based at Coventry, is also an advocate. "My colleague and I went with an idea of what we were going to write, but there was so much idea generation that it really grew," she said.

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