Setting up academic writing communities

Academic writing with all its trials and tribulations, can sometimes be easier and more enjoyable in the company of other people. So providing students with opportunities either to write together or to talk about writing together seems to me to be an important way of overcoming some of the difficulties experienced in the writing process. There are various ways of going about establishing joint spaces for writing but I am interested in exploring options for doing a bit more than this and trying to create some kind of academic writing community.

I sometimes run writing retreats for Masters students and I’ve written about this before. Retreats are also widely used by the Higher Education Academy to support and mentor academic staff who are writing their fellowship applications. Some useful ideas for organising writing retreats for students can be found on the QMUL Thinking Writing website. Writing retreats have some similarities with Shut up and Write groups. The Thesis Whisperer offers suggestions on setting up these.

There is also lots of good advice available on the Inside Higher Ed website. Various options are described here including traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups (where you have to answer to people regularly about your writing), online writing groups, writing coaches etc. An important point made here is that we all need to work out what our actual needs are in relation to writing first.

Write Inquiry offers a toolbox of ideas to help writing and useful links and is intended for staff and students in HE who want to set up collaborative writing communities.

You could try an academic writing meet up – or set one up

The Writing Cafe at Plymouth University sounds great. It offers students the chance to come and talk to learning developers and writing mentors about their writing. It also puts on writing events.

So there are quite a few examples out there. I’m looking into organising something around writing communities with students and will update this blog with my progress during the next academic year.

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On (not) finding time to write

As someone who teaches on academic and research skills training programmes for postgraduate students, I spend a lot of my time advising students on strategies for writing – including getting started with writing, keeping going with writing, fitting short bursts of writing into a busy schedule, prioritising writing and so on. Some of these are strategies which I have made use of myself and I have found them to be helpful e.g. the Pomodoro Technique and I have commented on these before. Unfortunately, the reality is that I find it extremely difficult to make time for writing that isn’t a 100% compulsory part of my job. In other words, I’m not that great at following my own advice. The writing that I absolutely have to do like project and evaluation reports for funding bodies gets done. It’s the other stuff like completing a paper for a journal or writing a project proposal (useful and interesting but not totally necessary) that I find hard to fit in. Sometimes I am too busy with more urgent tasks, other times I get distracted by incoming emails or people coming to talk to me. Writing requires focused attention and if it’s late in the day, I can be too tired to concentrate. Yet when I get down to it, I really enjoy writing and always have ever since I was a primary school kid. I have come to the conclusion that for me, the best piece of advice I have come across is to allocate time to writing from Silva’s book How to write a lot: A practical guide to academic writing and it only works if the time I allocate is in the morning before I begin to look at emails. So that is what I have started trying to do – allocating a short period of time to writing several mornings each week. I plan to try and update this blog with my progress.

Running a writing retreat for students

Recently, I ran a 2 hour writing retreat for Masters students as part of the SOAS Writing Week. The idea for it came from a similar event organised for part-time PhD students by my colleague, Yenn Lee. The retreat was aimed at providing a space for focused writing (similar to the Pomodoro technique) which is a time management method for writing. At the beginning of the session, I asked students to set a writing goal for the session. The retreat was structured around 25 minute sessions of writing interspersed each time with 10 minute breaks and a final plenary. The presence of peers is meant to provide support for the writing process. I had brought along a few creative writing exercises for any students who might experience difficulty getting started. I was expecting students to bring laptops to the session but they did not and everyone wrote using notebooks and pens. I also joined in so that I could share with them how the writing was for me. We used the 10 minute breaks for them to feed back about the experience of writing in silence like this and to chat about writing generally before beginning with another 25 minute session of writing.

The retreat was very well-received. Students seemed to really appreciate being in a position where they could spend time writing without any interruptions. Several reported that the experience of writing without props (internet, research papers etc.) in front of them had been particularly helpful and that it was an opportunity for them to develop their own thoughts about their reading material (without launching into descriptions about the material). The presence of other peers and being able to talk about it in the breaks was also really valued. For myself, I was quite surprised by how long 25 minutes to write seemed to be and how much writing I could do in this time. It struck me that I normally either interrupt myself or get interrupted when writing after just a few minutes. Anyway, I’ll definitely be running more of these sessions. Plenty of good advice on how to organise a writing retreat can be found here.

Reflections on Storyville: exploring narratives of teaching and learning

This last week I spent two days at the Higher Education Academy’s Arts & Humanities Conference, Storyville: exploring narratives of teaching and learning in a rather damp and murky Brighton.

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I was presenting a paper with my colleague, Kate Borthwick on a research study that we carried out recently which looked at language teacher professional development. Below are a few highlights of sessions I attended:

1              The tall tales we tell about teaching (Vicky Gunn, University of Glasgow)

Vicky used her background as a medievalist to examine how collective memories about teaching and learning are made. For me, most interesting was how Vicky encouraged us to think about how we bring our memories to our teaching. She also talked about some recent research with humanities academics who have reported themselves to be very suspicious of the HE buzzword concepts of entrepreneurialism, work-related learning and global citizenship.

2              Write here Write now (Jac Cattaneo, Northbrook College and University of Chichester)

This workshop introduced a project which set out to encourage Art, Design and Media Studies students to engage with academic writing through the use of creative writing practices. After the preliminaries, Jac got us all writing using a series of visual prompts – in one example we drew a map to represent a childhood place of personal significance and another one of a place in the here and now. We were then asked to do a piece of free writing and to link the two maps. This was a really enjoyable and thought-provoking session. I could imagine using some of the ideas here in professional development workshops for teachers.

3              Narratives of the future self: a narrative method for researching language learners’ self-concepts (Angela Goddard & Alistair Henry, West University, Sweden)

Angela and Alistair reported on a language learning motivation study in Sweden. This was of particular interest to me as motivation is my main research area. They used a narrative approach to investigate students’ L2 identities at key transition points in an English-mediated university programme (using the concepts of possible and future selves). This is a longitudinal study so they will have more to report as it develops.

4              The OpenLIVES OER oral history experience: rebalancing methodologies, values and identities in Arts & Humanities in HE (Antonio Martinez-Arboleda, University of Leeds)

The OpenLIVES Project collected the oral histories of people who left Spain during the Civil War. Antonio described how the materials gathered during OpenLIVES were developed into a student module at the University of Leeds and how the skills developed by the students during the module form part of an ‘empowerability’ rather than ‘employability’ agenda. All the OpenLIVES materials are openly available in the Humbox

5              Student-led peer mentoring (Gabriele Neher, University of Nottingham)

Gabriele described an initiative at Nottingham where students are invited to apply (through a formal application process) to become mentors to new students. It’s an opt-in scheme for mentees and project activities involve extensive use of social media. The scheme has helped to bridge the transition gap for incoming students.

Other useful presentations included Students as partners: sharing stories (Jenny Lewin, University of Worcester), Academic staff perceptions of I.T. in the Humanities (Pritpal Sembi, University of Wolverhampton) and Pioneers on the frontiers of learning? A narrative inquiry approach to new pedagogical practices using technology in Arts and Humanities learning and teaching (Rosemary Stott, Ravensbourne, Sarah Cousins, University of Bedfordshire & Dounia Bissar, University of Essex)

Overall, an enjoyable couple of days although I would have liked to have seen a greater languages presence on the conference programme.

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