Tag: graduate student writing

A Week of Community and Hospitality at the Dissertation Writing Retreat

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

This May, for the tenth time, we held our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. Over the ten years we have held these Retreats, we have worked with doctoral student writers from every college in the University – more than 150 writers during that decade. The Retreat offers writers time and structure to focus on writing their dissertations and daily writing consultations to get feedback on their writing. In addition, each day there are morning and afternoon check-in meetings to set goals for the day and talk about accomplishments and daily small group discussions at lunchtime about writing issues such as structuring a dissertation, time management, and editing and citation issues. Again, this year, the Retreat took place online. (If you want a blast from the past, here is a blog post from that first Retreat in 2012).

The Dissertation Writing Retreat is a busy time – and a lot of work – on our end, but it is also reliably one of the highlights of our year. It’s always exciting to see the writers who attend both make progress on their writing. Yet, just as important, is the ways in which writers develop and refine their writing processes and their approaches to navigating the complexities of audience, genre, and authorial position necessary to write an effective dissertation. At the same time, our writing consultants, who are all doctoral students themselves, always talk about the things they learn during the Retreat about writing and new approaches to teaching writing. In this way, the Dissertation Writing Retreat is a vivid example of the ethic and theory of “hospitality” that we work from in the University Writing Center. Based on the work by Richard and Janis Haswell, hospitality as an approach to education draws from traditional conceptions of hospitality in which a guest and host are both understood to bring value to an encounter and in which reciprocity is a cultural norm. During the Retreat, we always hear how both the writers and consultants learn from each other and, even in just a week, for a supportive community of writers.

Here, in their own words, is a sense of how some of the writers and consultants benefited from the Retreat

First the writers:

Charlotte Asmuth, English. I got so much out of the Dissertation Writing Retreat! I was surprised at how much work I could accomplish in just one week. I came into the week with some writing anxiety and concerns about how to organize particular sections of two chapters. As I worked on my writing and talked with my consultant and other participants in small groups, I learned that I wasn’t alone and I also picked up some strategies for managing my writing time that really helped. In one week, I learned more about my writing process and what will help me write than I’ve learned in several years. For example, outlining and then writing in chunks helps me––as does closing my email, turning my phone off, and writing down concerns as they arise so that I can come back to them later (instead of trying to solve them right away). I’m leaving the week with a great set of strategies to maintain momentum on my dissertation and I’m going to stay in touch with several participants, too.

Doroty Sato, Social Work. The Dissertation Writing Retreat 2021 gave me the resources to continue improving my writing skills. Beyond that, it gave me confidence that I am on the right track. There are so many factors playing a role in this process, so struggling with academic writing is okay. It is not a shame. The Writing Center Team and my colleagues in the group did such an excellent job offering advice and listening to our concerns without judgment. I felt comfortable and included. At the end of the week, my takeaway is that academic writing could be painful sometimes (or most of the time 🙂), but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant.

Eric Shoemaker, Humanities. At the beginning stages of my dissertation writing process, it was important to me to sit down and strategize my own writing processes and procedures. The dissertation writing retreat and my consultant helped me figure out what works for me and what doesn’t and helped me to value all of the work that I do for my project, not just the page count. This was a very valuable and enjoyable experience!

And our consultants:

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing: The 2021 dissertation writing retreat was, among many things, a period of reflection, especially for the writers I had the opportunity to work with. The writers’ reflection during the week-long writing retreat encouraged them, both of whom have been stuck at some point in their writing due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, to feel more motivated to get back into their dissertation work. Through their reflective efforts as well as conversations during the retreat, these writers could identify what they have done well so far and where/what seems not to be going right. Likewise, as shared by both writers, the retreat has inculcated in them a habit of the mind necessary to create and stay committed to a consistent writing schedule as they continue to write from home

Megen Boyett: This is the third time I’ve worked the Dissertation Writing Retreat. Every year, I find it so rewarding to help a dissertation take shape even just for a week. The deep, sustained focus on the individual writer’s project and process seems to be such an effective way to start the summer writing “semester.” Just like last year, I started the week unsure whether I had useful advice for bio-engineers. Once again, I quickly found that while disciplinary differences are real, the principles for shaping long-term projects and organizing clear writing are consistent.

Nicole Dugan, Assistant Director for the Virtual Writing Center. I completed my first year at the UWC by working as a consultant during the 2018 DWR, and now I’ve come full circle, ending my time at the UWC with this year’s retreat. Working with writers is always so rewarding, and dissertation writers are no different. They bring such passion and excitement to their work, and it’s easy to quickly immerse yourself in the environment of camaraderie and growth built by the leadership and participants of this retreat. The last two years I have been focused on my work with writers in my courses and writing centers, and I haven’t found much inspiration or time for my own writing. After this week, I feel recharged and ready to revisit research projects and creative writing with new momentum and vision. I’m grateful for the community of this retreat, and I am particularly thankful to my two writers whose projects are such intriguing and necessary works that offer new insights and avenues for change in their fields. It was a privilege working with them both, and I can’t wait to see where they take their work moving forward.  

THANKS FOR ALL WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLE

It is important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat – Cassie Book, our Associate Director, organized and oversaw the Retreat this year. Also central to carrying out the Retreat were Amber Yocum, our Administrative Associate, and Assistant Directors Edward English, Olalekan Adepoju, and Nicole Dugan. Our other consultants were Megan Boyett, Aubrie Cox, Cooper Day, and Liz Soule. And thanks to Dean Paul DeMarco, of the Graduate School, for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

Writing Time, Feedback, and Momentum: The Dissertation Writing Retreat – 2016

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

The sound of people thinking. That’s what you would have heard had you come to the University Writing Center this past week. With fourteen UofL Ph.D. students focused on  writing their dissertations. I swear that, given the intensity with which they were working, you could hear them thinking. This year marks our fifth annual spring Dissertation Writing Retreat. During the week, the schedule was the same: Writing in the morning, a short workshop and discussion on some area of20160525_104409

Dissertation Writing Retreat writers hard at work

research writing at noon (How to Write and Effective Literature Review, How to Revise and Respond to Committee Members’ Comments, How to Turn Dissertations into Publications, How to Keep Writing) , and the individual appointments with University Writing Consultants in the afternoon (and more writing…). The writers who took part in this year’s Retreat worked with a dedication and commitment that was inspiring. They came from eight different disciplines at the University: Anatomical Sciences and Neurobiology, Education, Engineering, Rhetoric and Composition, Humanities, Psychology, Public Health, and Sociology. The best way to get a sense of the experience of the Retreat and its impact on the writers who took part, however, is to hear from the participants and consultants themselves.

Participants

Amanda Pocratsky, Anatomical Sciences and Neurobiology: It’s hard to synthesize in few words how much this retreat has transformed my dissertation writing experience. As a graduate student in the biomedical sciences, I was initially concerned about how effective this retreat would for me. These concerns proved unfounded. In the span of one short week, I’ve written my dissertation abstract and a complete first chapter. I will leave here with over half my dissertation completed, a well-defined outline of my discussion, and incredible momentum to push through the final stages. Moreover, the writing skills I’ve cultivated from this experience will effectively translate throughout my scholastic career. I strongly encourage students to apply and come prepared to succeed.

Yvette Szabo, Clinical Psychology: The Dissertation Writing Retreat has been invaluable to my dissertation progress! I am still collecting data for my dissertation, so I was able to

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Meghan, Rene, and Yvette hold a group consultation

use this protected time to write and edit large parts of my Introduction, Method and then outline my results and discussion. Overall, I doubled the length of my dissertation and received feedback on all sections.  Typically, I shift between many roles as a graduate student, so having the quiet space to work (relatively unplugged) was necessary and much appreciated. And working with the same consultant all week allowed me to talk through presenting ideas for my complex study as well as receive feedback on organization and parallel structure. Thank you for a wonderful experience!

René Bayley-Veloso, Clinical Psychology: I would highly recommend that any graduate student who is working on their dissertation attend the Dissertation Writing Retreat. I have made substantial progress on my dissertation in a very short amount of time. The retreat also helped me organize my thoughts and questions, which allowed me to have a necessary and productive meeting with one of my committee members.  I have learned quite a bit about my own personal writing process through this experience, and will be utilizing this knowledge to maintain momentum moving forward.

Jamila Kareem, Rhetoric and Composition: The 2016 Dissertation Writing Retreat has not only been the most productive time I’ve spent on my dissertation, but it has been the most valuable. The structure of the Retreat worked well, because it allowed me to prioritize my writing and get the most crucial aspects finished while I had guaranteed feedback. The Retreat helped me develop a more structured process to stay on track and to feel rewarded when I do. I’ve had a process that has worked pretty well, but the staff at the Retreat gave

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Dilan and Layne work together

me strategies to build upon it and work smarter. And it’s free! Just look for professional dissertation help around the Internet—prices are crazy! I would recommend the Dissertation Writing Retreat to every doctoral student whether they are having trouble getting started or almost done. The feedback, time, and structure you receive are invaluable.

Abby Burns, Epidemiology and Population Health: The Dissertation Writing Retreat provided an encouraging environment to work quietly alongside other students who all have the same ultimate goal – completing their dissertation and graduating.  It helped hold me accountable, but more importantly helped me build momentum that I hope I can run with in the following weeks/months.

Denise Watkins, Humanities: As someone who is married, a mother, and works full-time, the benefits of this retreat can’t be adequately explained. I was able to steal away from all other responsibilities and make significant progress. In one week’s time, my outlook towards my dissertation has changed from an insurmountable “where will I ever find the time?” project to a feasible, doable task.

Heidi Williams, Sociology: The Dissertation Writing Retreat provides supportive, focused writing time, as well as workshops and advice that help participants approach and manage their work. Working with a writing consultant helped me realize I was fixating on a problem, rather than making progress in an attainable way. I learned how to breakdown my writing into manageable, daily tasks that led to tangible results – an exercise that I could not put into motion myself.

Consultants:

Laura Tetreault, Assistant Director: In my conversations during the Dissertation Writing Retreat, either with the writers I was working with or the other consultants and writing center staff, we often circled back to one idea: writing is hard. (And interesting, and fun, and exciting, but also hard a lot of the time.) As a Rhetoric and Composition PhD candidate

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Laura Tetreault leads a workshop discussion on turning dissertations into publications

and Assistant Director of the Writing Center, people sometimes I expect that I have this whole writing thing figured out, but the reality is that I became interested in writing teaching and writing center work because I also find writing to be really difficult a lot of the time. But instead of finding this discouraging, I actually find it comforting that most writers express at some point how difficult writing can be for them. The common experience of struggling with writing helps to diminish the inner critic that many grad students have in our heads. I can tell that critic: hey, it’s not me; writing is just hard sometimes. And it gets a lot easier for me when I can find a sense of community in the struggle.

Amy McCleese Nichols, Assistant Director: Watching writers work on their dissertations this week has reminded me why I love one-on-one writing conferences. It’s been great to talk through ideas and text with writers who have differing processes. For some, it seemed like the chance to talk through small sections of writing/thinking gave them better language to describe their overall argument and intervention by the end of the week. For others, designing study frameworks and making targeted edits to various sections of text

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Rose and Amy discuss Rose’s dissertation

helped them accomplish larger goals. Working the retreat has also given me a better sense of what it might look like to write my own dissertation in the future; this is definitely an event I’d like to return to as a participant next year.

Layne Gordon: As a soon-to-be second year PhD student, I was so inspired this week by the progress of the writers I was working with! At the end of each meeting, we took a couple of minutes to set some writing goals for the next day. Although sometimes those goals had to shift or be adjusted (writing requires so much flexibility!), the writers always made progress and pushed themselves to get as much done as they could. While I got to learn a lot about their respective topics, I also learned a lot about the dissertation writing process itself and the importance of just not stopping.

Brittany Kelley: I learn so much when working with others on their dissertations, especially when it comes to the writing process. This year, I learned that it’s important to create a hierarchy of goals for your dissertation. The highest/most important goal is getting words on the page. The next highest/most important goal should be your well being. After you’ve got words on the page, remember to rest. See friends. Exercise. Eat well. Most importantly, be kind to yourself. You deserve it. Always.

Ashley Ludewig: I have always enjoyed working with students of all levels on their writing projects and this week’s retreat was no different.  But, even though I participated in the retreat as a tutor, this week was also really helpful for me as someone who is also writing my dissertation.  Talking with other writers as they thought through some of the most complicated parts of their projects and reflected on their writing processes reminded me to be more accepting of my own writing process and helped me see why I was feeling stuck in my own work.  Now, instead of beating myself up over a lack of progress, I feel prepared to re-think my priorities for the next few weeks and make a plan that will actually work!

Meghan Hancock: This year at the diss retreat I was reminded of the importance of setting aside concrete time to write in a space without distractions. It seemed like many students most valued the amount of quiet work time that the retreat provided them with, and in my last consultation, we talked about how to create those kinds of spaces after leaving the retreat as well as how to continue to block out time in schedules just for writing. Though I always encourage others to maximize their productivity in these ways, I don’t always practice what I preach. Being able to see the amazing work ethic that students at the diss retreat had this year has inspired me to try harder to follow my own writing advice and to set aside more routinely scheduled quiet times for me to work on my own dissertation.

Thanks…..

It’s also important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat – Cassie Book, our Associate Director, and Robin Blackett, our Administrative Assistant, and Assistant Directors Stephen Cohen, Amy Nichols, and Laura Tetreault. Thanks also to the fantastic consultants (themselves Ph.D. students) who do the most important work of the week in working with the writers: Layne Gordon, Meghan Hancock, Brittany Kelley, and Ashley Ludewig. And thanks to Dean Beth Boehm, of the School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

See you next year!!!!!!