Slow reading at a writing retreat

I spent the beginning of this week on a 24 hour retreat with my PhD student, colleague and friend Lilia Mantai. We left our children with their fathers (this deserves a special thanks from me as it coincided with our wedding anniversary) and went to Billabong Retreat. I adored every minute of it. Please note that this post is not sponsored in any way. We paid for the retreat with research funds that I won as a lucky door prize at an early career network Christmas in July event. Yes, I am lucky and privileged.

Image result for billabong retreat

Image result for billabong retreat

Image result for billabong retreat

We practised yoga and meditation. We ate beautiful food. We slept deeply. We read. And we wrote. We are co-authoring a paper on doctoral students and early career academics’ experiences of time pressure. No doubt I will post on that in the future.

Here are some highlights from my contemplative reading on time pressure in academia.

I enjoyed Ylijoki and Mäntylä’s (2003) Conflicting Time Perspectives in Academic Work. They articulate four categories of academic time:

  • scheduled time (the accelerating pace of work)
  • timeless time (transcending time through immersion in work)
  • contracted time (short-term employment with limited future prospects) and
  • personal time (one’s temporality and the role of work in it).

Like many academics, I have few opportunities for timeless time  – or flow, hailed as the secret to happiness – and the retreat offered some moments of this.

In another paper I read, Time is not enough, MacLeod, Steckley and Murray (2012) suggest that writing retreats are effective because they offer ‘containment’ in which writing becomes the primary task and is not contaminated by other activities. This is similar to Murray’s (2012) point in It’s Not a Hobby about academic writing requiring disengagement from other tasks.

I found Sparkes’ (2007) heartful account of research auditing and psychological breakdown immersive and affective reading:

He felt guilty about the lack of concentrated time he could give any of his PhD students. He felt guilty about hastily skim reading their drafts of chapters and embryonic analyses. He felt guilty that he could not keep up with the reading he needed to do to push their ideas forward and support their thinking … He hated this feeling being associated with an aspect of the job he loved. But, even in this domain, the manic pressures of saturated time, the sheer busy-ness … thwarted his desire to be the kind of supervisor he wanted to be and the kind of supervisor his doctoral students had the right to expect him to be.

And I was saddened to read this quote from one of Acker and Feuerverger’s (1996) research participants, a self-described perfectionist who ‘works really hard’:

In order to get the dissertation done, I got up at 3:00 in the morning, every morning … And when I was on sabbatical I wrote the outline for the book … I got up at 4:00 in the morning every morning to work on that.

I heard something similar from a woman at a conference earlier this year. I can’t imagine doing this. And what does this teach our students?

In No Time to Think, Menzies and Newson (2007) ask a similar question, and wonder about the negative impacts of time compression (and reliance on online technologies) on academics’ bodies, thinking and social connections:

There is a danger that the sense of rootedness in anything embodied and physical will become that much weaker. Accordingly, the social habits, the temporal practices and social rhythms associated with embodied reflection, memory and dialogue may wither as well.

What I particularly liked about this retreat was the combination of physical and mental activity. This is not the first time I have been on a writing retreat – colleagues and I have written about the intimacy of a writing retreat for women – but the scheduled yoga and meditation sessions (three in the 24 hours we were there) were a writing retreat first for me, and something I would like to repeat. I read quite a few other papers, some of which I will post on in future in relation to the notion of the ideal academic worker and university workloads.

9 thoughts on “Slow reading at a writing retreat

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  4. I really enjoyed this post. I was reading ‘The Slow Professor’ last year and was so struck by its basic insights I put a reading from it into a Masters course I teach on. I was surprised to see how much these students (who are at honours equivalent level) responded to this material – how much the issue of time pressure permeates their experience of the research process. That week we also talked about mindfulness and joy in writing, and the senses of time these involve.

    It’s great to this issue being openly addressed. Excited to read your research!


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