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CAREER ADVICE

Writing in the company of others

The University of Ottawa's writing days offer a social environment in which professors can focus on their research.

By FRANÇOISE MOREAU-JOHNSON | DEC 05 2012

The idea is simple and inexpensive, using the advice given in the film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, he will come.” Reserve a room, preferably one with a lot of natural light, make it welcoming by arranging the tables in groups with access to an electrical outlet, and offer refreshments (or even a meal). The professors arrive with their laptops and their materials, settle in – and write. It’s magical. The energy in the room is nearly palpable.

In academia, a lot of time can be spent on teaching and administration, particularly during the school year. Research is often put aside in favour of “simpler” tasks that engender instant feedback. Research is a long-term process: collecting data, analyzing it, compiling documents, writing the first draft, writing the second (and the third, etc.), submitting the article, and then waiting.

For many professors, it’s difficult to find the time to write. The Centre for Academic Leadership (CAL) at the University of Ottawa organizes writing workshops that encourage professors to prioritize research during the semester, as well as during reading week and the summer.

Five-day retreat

Inspired by the article “Writing in the company of other women: Exceeding the boundaries” (Barbara Grant, 2006, Studies in Higher Education, vol. 31 no. 4), Rhonda Pyper, professor at the Telfer School of Management, decided to replicate this practice and organized the “Women who write” retreat during reading week in October, 2010. The centre supported this five-day residential retreat for 12 professors, a retreat that would become the first success of the “Writing in the Company of Others” initiative.

During the February 2011 reading week, in addition to a residential retreat that attracted 10 professors, 22 professors participated in a three-day mini-retreat held on campus. In May of that year, two more residential retreats were organized for 16 professors, and those were followed by a group writing day for 28 newbies in June to celebrate the end of the academic year. The latter format was so popular that one-day summer sessions were quickly organized, and monthly sessions were added to the 2011–2012 calendar year.

Women majority

As of last June, the CAL has offered a total of 79 writing days, attracting more than 110 professors (for a total of 831 participant days). While the University of Ottawa did not mirror Barbara Grant’s approach by offering these activities exclusively to women professors, women do seem to particularly appreciate them, accounting for 75 percent of enrolments and 90 percent of the participant days tally. Along with the summer writing days, 32 other sessions are planned for the 2012–2013 calendar year.

Professors need a stimulating and social environment to enliven the task of writing and to meet publishing schedules. These events allow participants to step out of their daily routines and “force” them to concentrate on an important facet of their professional success. Group writing, as a socially supportive phenomenon, creates the necessary stimulation and allows for more intense concentration on the act of writing.

By registering for one or several sessions, professors commit to devoting time to writing. Although difficult, setting aside one to five days for research is possible. To prepare for each day, professors must establish writing objectives, must have read and collected the necessary material and must be productive during the day. The writing days offer the discipline many professors need in an environment that provides a lot of freedom and flexibility. The initiative is innovative, thanks to the unique atmosphere that reigns and allows professors to concentrate on their publishing objectives.

Social motivation

Positive feedback from participants and survey results demonstrate that the social phenomenon created by the presence of colleagues sharing the task of writing has a direct effect on motivation. This activity has a significant impact on research productivity and job satisfaction. In addition, the networking tends to break down structural faculty barriers and makes room for knowledge mobilization. These workshops motivate participants to publish more and give them a sense of commitment and loyalty towards their institution. The sessions favour an increase in professional knowledge-sharing, encourage professors to help each other and allow for the acquisition of practical skills.

Françoise Moreau-Johnson is the coordinator of the Centre for Academic Leadership at the University of Ottawa.

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  1. Viola Polomeno / December 5, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Hello:

    I have benefitted from this service as an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. It is well organized, the room is comfortable, the food is great, but it is sharing the experience with others that is so special. For example, at lunchtime, each person shares where she or he comes from (teaching unit) and what she or he is writing. Very stimulating. Just knowing that these writing days are available and can be scheduled are very much appreciated. I highly encourage other universities to implement such a service.

    Viola Polomeno, R.N., Ph.D.

    Associate Professor-School of Nursing

  2. Mary Cavanagh / December 5, 2012 at 11:48 am

    I also have benefited from these writing days, retreats and ongoing community. As a non-tenured assistant professor, I also hear, collect, and process much more informal wisdom during the social moments and round-table sharing.

    Mary Cavanagh

    School of Information Studies

    University of Ottawa

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