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by Cally Guerin

In the past I’ve been reluctant to go down the ‘Thesis Writing Boot Camp’ path. To me it sounds punitive, as if only the naughty students who have failed to make sufficient progress need to attend. And when unfit writers arrive, they’ll be forced into doing the work they didn’t complete previously, pushed to the limits of their ability in exercising their minds (if not their physical bodies). My own attitude to working with research students is much more focused on creating an inclusive, collaborative community of mutually supportive scholars – I want them to feel that I’m looking after them, rather than criticizing their hard work and extensive, long-term efforts.

But boot camps have become part of the annual program in lots of universities in Australia since Peta Freestone and Liam Connell introduced the concept at the University of Melbourne. There is some very useful advice on what has been successful in a convenient set of guidelines. As far as I can work out, boot camps seem to follow from the popularity of both ‘Shut up and write!’ groups and extended doctoral writing retreats pioneered by people like Barbara Grant and Rowena Murray, as well as the Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo) approach. Students know about what’s happening at other universities and want to be part of what they see being effective elsewhere.

So I decided to give it a go.

I wanted to keep things fairly simple as a first foray into this kind of writing event. The schedule was set for five mornings in one week in February, 9am-1pm, to kick-start the 2016 academic year in Australia.

The event was held in some rooms in our usual building, but in a separate section away from participants’ offices. By using this familiar space, participants could travel to the sessions easily instead of having to find a new bus route or car park; could have ready access to their offices to run back for any forgotten materials; and could use their university internet connection (for writing purposes, but hopefully not for checking distracting email or social media!).

Participants were reminded one week ahead of the start date to think ahead about the overall writing outcomes they wanted for the week. We worked to a timetable of three writing ‘sprints’ each morning; a timetable for the 15 sprint sessions was provided so that participants could assign specific tasks to work on for each session.

The group meeting and discussion time was kept to a minimum, as the focus was on producing the writing. We had just half an hour at the beginning of the first morning for participants to introduce themselves to each other and explain their projects and approaches to the writing tasks they had set for themselves; then another short session at the very end was used to report back on what they’d achieved during the boot camp and to make a writing plan for the rest of the year.

During the morning, we had two short breaks to allow for more discussion time and social chat. An urn, tea and coffee were provided – very simple catering, but enough to refresh the writers (and keep them nearby, rather than wandering off to get a flat white in the café across campus and arriving back late to the next writing session).

Some participants were unable to attend all five days, owing to other responsibilities, or found they needed to arrive late or leave a little early sometimes. These adults had signed up voluntarily (unlike some compulsory boot camps); this group was more than capable of making sensible decisions about their time and priorities. A week-long boot camp doesn’t work for everyone, and gracious withdrawal is perfectly fine. Nevertheless, overall attendance was consistent and the public commitment to the boot camp seemed to provide a sense of accountability to the facilitator and the group for missed sessions.

By Friday lunchtime a lot of words had been written, and good progress made in conceptualising thesis arguments and structures. The habit of writing on demand was established, and participants could brag to themselves and others about what they’d achieved through their concerted, consistent efforts. The hope is that this sense of achievement will encourage participants to continue writing to a schedule.

Have you instituted your own thesis writing boot camps or participated in one? Are there pitfalls to be wary of? What worked for your group, and what recommendations do you have for others considering starting something along these lines?

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