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by Cally Guerin

Many years ago when I embarked on an academic life, I naively imagined that it would consist of lots of long intellectual conversations exploring complex ideas informed by extensive reading in highly specialised areas. It didn’t take long to work out that there were quite a few other things that have to be done as well, leaving very little time for my imagined world. But pockets of this vision do exist and I was lucky enough to inhabit that world at the IDERN meeting this year.

IDERN (the International Doctoral Education Research Network) had its third meeting in Stellenbosch last month. The group held its first meeting in 2007 in Montreal, and had been formed by a group of likeminded doctoral education scholars including Alison Lee and Anthony Paré. This year’s meeting was convened by Barbara Grant, who has extensive experience in running writing retreats, and Liezel Frick. It was wonderful being amongst stimulating debate and discussion and – perhaps most excitingly – careful thinking about the current state of knowledge and research in our field. While there were several keynote addresses and panel presentations that fed into the discussions, about half of the time was given over to small group discussions. Some questions were provided to guide the themed conversations, but all groups seemed to range widely though related territory.

One of the general aims for the meeting was to consider possible directions for future research into doctoral education. Discussion groups formed around themes: academic writing; supervision; doctoral education as social practice; international/intercultural/postcolonial doctoral education; identities; and student journeys.

Interestingly, although writing started out as a separate category, it didn’t seem to work on its own in this context – but was inextricably integrated into all the other group discussions! For DoctoralwritingSIG that’s an encouraging sign of just how central writing is to every facet of our work in doctoral education.

Learning in Higher Education (LiHE) is another group that provides opportunities for academics to get together and spend a few days talking about their writing. In this context, a theme for an edited book is announced and proposals for chapters are invited. Authors put forward proposals and then progressive drafts of chapters for several rounds of peer review. After that, the whole group comes together in person, to live and work together intensively for several days. All authors receive further feedback from each other before the chapters are finalised for publication. Time is spent on considering how the papers relate to each other (authors have all read several other papers through the reviewing process), and the overall shape of the book is mapped out. I found it deeply satisfying to be part of this process in which generosity and collaboration were promoted instead of competition. Eva Dobozy has more to say about the LiHE model.

Academic life seems to be getting busier and busier, and opportunities for extended discussions with colleagues seem to be rarer and rarer. It seems to me that these kinds of conversations are a necessary part of developing our disciplines and of developing our knowledge. In the contexts described above, I was lucky enough to join in conversations with a number of scholars whose work I greatly admire. Now I find myself testing new ideas by asking ‘So what would XXX say about that?’ This is one way in which these face-to-face meetings have a ripple effect across institutions, and across countries.

Where are you managing to find places or spaces to engage with colleagues about your research and writing in similarly extended ways? Does it need to be structured in the ways I’ve described, or are you creating other kinds of opportunities to do similar thinking, talking and writing? I’d love to hear how you are managing this aspect of your writing life, whatever stage you are up to in your academic career.