By Mary Jane Curry and Jayne C. Lammers (Warner Graduate School of Education, University of Rochester, US)
This, our last post on large group writing events, comes from associate professors Mary Jane Curry (Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Jayne C. Lammers (Ph.D. from Arizona State University), at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education and Human Development. Mary Jane is director of Warner’s Writing Support Services and her research focuses on academic writing and publishing by multilingual scholars and graduate students. Jayne is director of Secondary English teacher preparation and she researches adolescents’ writing, particularly that which is shared in online communities.
Many of the recent posts on social writing events have highlighted the benefits of writing together—not necessarily collaboratively—but usually in the same time and space. We share this view, and here we discuss the evolution and management of the week-long writing camps we offer for faculty colleagues and doctoral students in our graduate school of education. For the past few years, these camps have taken place in January before spring term and in June to set a strong course for summer writing. We call them ‘writing camps’ rather than ‘boot camps’, not only to avoid a military metaphor, but also to evoke the idea of a structured but pleasurable social experience of doing academic writing.
These camps began in 2011 with a two-day writing retreat offered to faculty members and advanced graduate students designed along the lines of Rowena Murray’s (2015) social writing events. For the first few, shorter retreats, we used a structure in which up to 20 participants alternated individual writing time with discussing writing with a partner and with taking breaks.
As our longer writing camps have evolved, we’ve become more relaxed about it all—who can participate, how many writers can join in, how we spend our time, and how we all interact. The bottom line is that the social time writing together motivates us, connects us to each other, and re-energizes us in our writing work—in ways that seem more powerful than just using the same time to work alone. Bringing students and faculty together for these camps has provided the bonus of giving students a realistic glimpse into how faculty members experience our work lives: We too need to carve out time to write; we too struggle with writer’s block and the emotional issues related to high stakes writing (anxiety, perfectionism, exhaustion, etc.); we too benefit from structured supports to move forward, set goals, and accomplish them.
To organize the camp, we reserve a large meeting room with lots of windows and tables, which accommodates about 45 people (though our attendance ranges from 20 to 40). Fortunately, our dean generously pays for, and our support staff coordinates the order and delivery of, morning coffee/tea and daily box lunches, and the participants contribute snacks. Apart from choosing a lunch option on the previous day, participants don’t need to make a specific commitment about when they’ll join—the goal is to encourage anyone to come whenever they can set aside the time.
We believe in goal setting and monitoring. We put flip chart paper on windows and ask participants to post their daily goals then enjoy the satisfaction of checking them off. These posters stay up all week to keep a visual record of the group’s accomplishments. At some camps, we’ve offered short special sessions on writing techniques such as freewriting and mind mapping or longer sessions on topics like responding to journal gatekeeper feedback, but otherwise, it’s basically a ‘shut up and write’ atmosphere—with a lot of emotional support and cheerleading.
Our daily routine has one of the organizers act as a timekeeper, setting an alarm for the 50-minute mark each hour. During this time, we ask that cell phones be silenced and we recommend that email be turned off, but we don’t monitor the email or goal setting. In the 10-minute breaks and an hour-long lunch break, we encourage participants to share progress, concerns, and roadblocks, as well as to discuss their writing. We also encourage participants just to interact socially and build community. And sometimes we’ve had a participant leading yoga stretches during breaks.
We make no judgment about what people write—for faculty colleagues it might be updating a syllabus, writing a review of a journal manuscript submission or, of course, producing any number of academic genres. For doctoral students, the only prohibition is that students who are writing comprehensive examinations are not invited to participate—other than that, students might work on course papers, dissertation proposals, data analysis, dissertations, articles or book chapters, grants, or anything else. We are less concerned about what people write than that they write.
At the end of the week, we set up an exit survey online and compile a list of participants’ writing achievements, to share with the writers and the dean as a celebration. Achievements may not be listed in terms of projects completed but rather progress made.
These camps have become regular features of the annual calendar at our school, but they don’t just magically appear. Co-organizing the camps has enabled us to spread out the extra work that these events inevitably entail, starting a couple of months before the event begins. Someone has to get the ball rolling to identify the week, reserve the space, confirm the dean’s financial support, send out invitations, create a sign-up sheet for registrations and lunch orders, organize a thank you card and donation envelope for flowers we like to give to our support staff at the end of the week. While in some institutions this work is performed by staff at Writing Centers, in our case running the camps is really a labor of love. And at times we’ve faced challenges in getting our own writing done during these weeks, not only because of the time needed to manage daily logistics but also because opening the camp up to students means it’s easy for them to feel that the camp enables quick access to advisors. We often compromise by using the lunch breaks as time to meet with students but we try to protect the six hours a day for our own writing—like writing this post.
Murray, R. (2015). Writing in social spaces: A social processes approach to academic writing. London: Routledge and the Society for Research into Higher Education.