Barrie Olson, Dissertation Writing Retreat Consultant
Around this time last year, I wrote a post discussing both the success of the Writing Center’s first ever Dissertation Writing Retreat and the way that it helped me to re-envision writing center work. This year, as another Dissertation Writing Retreat is about to get underway, I find myself thinking about it in yet another new light because this year I’ll not only be a tutor but also a dissertation writer. In fact, I am writing this post as a well-deserved break after writing the first 1,800 words of my own dissertation. Yes, that’s right—1,800 hard-earned, mulled over, highly scrutinized words. Words that came after doing a classroom ethnography over the course of the spring semester, after transcribing over 27 hours of classroom discussions and interviews, after reading through thousands of pages of student papers and homework assignments. Honestly, in the grand scheme of everything I’ve read and looked at just to prepare for those 1,800 words, 1,800 suddenly feels pretty small and insignificant. The mounds of data—transcript notes, papers, and memos—makes me feel like this dissertation might never be written. Where do I start? How do I begin? Then again, in the face of those questions, 1,800 words suddenly feels like the accomplishment of the century.
But why the paragraph on my 1,800-word writing breakthrough? Because those 1,800 words have helped me to gain an even greater appreciation for the Dissertation Writing Retreat. Whereas last year I approached the dissertation knowing only what I’d heard from people who’d done it—that it was hard, that it was frustrating, that when it was over you couldn’t believe you were holding it in your hands—this year I feel like I get it a little bit more. I get why having several hours a day of uninterrupted time to write, surrounded by other people engaged in the same writing task, would be so helpful. I get why having someone else available to look at your 1,800 words that seem to make no sense and every sense at the same time would be valuable. Last year I understood the success of the Dissertation Writing Retreat as a tutor. This year, I am beginning to understand it better as a writer.
Admittedly, I am at the very early stages of dissertation writing. I know that I still have a great deal to learn about writing a dissertation—but that is what is so remarkable about the retreat. For a week, I will be surrounded by people at various stages, some just beginning like me, and others getting ready for the final signatures of their committee members. Each of these writers will have valuable strategies to share with me. What do they do when the data seems insurmountable? How do they overcome writer’s block? Obviously everyone is different and what works for one person may not work for somebody else, but exposure to varying strategies never hurts and too often, writing a dissertation feels like a solitary endeavor. The retreat makes it communal. Sure, I will have several hours of silence each day to type away to the sound of other people typing away. But I remember from last year the workshops, the quick snack breaks, extended lunch periods—all times when I can talk to other people about what they are doing and how they are doing it.
And while this is something I often do already (I am, after all, a writing center junkie who understands the value of frequent input on my writing), for the first time since I began my own research project, I’ll have people outside my field to converse with. I’ll gain valuable exposure to other ways of approaching research and writing, other ways of considering data and results. If my time in the writing center has taught me anything, it is that this kind of exposure is invaluable. I cannot predict the ways that this kind of exposure will broaden and even complicate my own thinking. I can only predict that it most certainly will. There is great power in moments like this, when methodologies and approaches collide. In my field, Rhetoric and Composition, some of our greatest breakthroughs have been the result of these moments—moments when we have “borrowed” methods from other fields, or applied outside theoretical frames and values to our own ideas. What better place to be exposed to that possibility then at the Dissertation Writing Retreat.
So it goes without saying that I’m excited for this next week. I hope to write, and write, and write some more. I hope to build, and change, and add to my 1,800 words. But I also hope to change my thinking, expand my strategies, and learn more about myself as a writer through the writing of my fellow dissertation retreaters. Who knows, it might even be fun…