Writing in company at home

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a writing retreat at home with former colleagues and current co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks.

We are finalising a journal article on time pressures for PhD candidates and early career academics. The retreat immersed us in writing away from the interruptions of the office. Planning and writing was interspersed with conversation, food and laughter. (This off the shelf vegan cheesecake was a hit).

Much as I would love a lengthy writing retreat in an exotic locale—I dream of attending one of Helen Sword’s—writing from home appeals to the frugal hedonist in me.

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Collaborative writing was not the norm in my first discipline (Cultural Studies) but is common in Education. Indeed, many of my colleagues in Higher Education have few publications as a single author. The change of discipline and shift to co-authoring has proved fruitful for my research output.

My academic positions to date have been teaching and learning or administration focussed, so research has typically constituted 20% of my workload. Until this year, I was part-time (three days a week from 2010-2017 and four days a week in 2018). Twenty percent of a part-time job does not allow a lot of time for research!

I recently updated my count of co-authors. Since graduating from my PhD in 2010, I have published 25 book chapters, journal articles and conference papers. I was sole author on just 6 of these, and have written with a grand total of 28 different people (often more than once). I am not including chapters and articles currently in press (one of which has seven authors!)

The benefits of writing in company go far beyond increased publication outputs.

I have learned a lot from co-authors—working with theory, research methodologies, the craft of writing and academic publication processes. Colleagues and I have written about the friendship and intimacy that develops through writing together. Above all, collaborative writing has been a lot of fun!

The experience is captured in Laurel Johnson, Sonia Roitman, Ann Morgan and Jason MacLeod’s (2017) article ‘Challenging the productivity mantra: academic writing with spirit in place’. The location of their writing group in members’ homes in a particular suburb of Brisbane is noteworthy:

Most members live in the area. They have chosen to live in this community due to its affordability but also its diversity and difference compared to the balance of the city. The suburb provides cultural safety for some members. The suburb is not the usual residential address for the city’s academics. The site is stigmatised and it is distant from the city’s universities. The choice to reside and meet here illustrates a point of difference for the writing group membership compared to other academic writing groups …

The move away from the place of work to home for meetings changed the quality and function of the group. The writing group members began to share more of themselves and their lives. The group membership expanded to include local residents (such as creative writers and community and ethnic leaders). The membership diversified … As well as challenging typical academic writing styles, group members came to know each other as friendships formed, bonded around place, interests, identity and shared concerns and values.

The emphasis on place and home has added a spiritual dimension:

The value of a diverse and mixed academic and non-academic membership, a shared commitment to social justice, the relational and democratic processes of the group and the importance of place (off campus in a socially disadvantaged suburb in the city) work together to engender a humanistic spirituality in the group. The value … to its members transcends the expected material benefits of increased writing production, a regular writing habit and consistent writing review. The non-material benefits of a shared community of practice, the renewal of ideas and affirmation of shared humanistic values, connection and empathy with others and permission to flourish as writers and people, bring spirit to the group.

I can only aspire to writing with spirit in place. But Lilia, Vanessa and I have made a start—reading Derrida, eating soup, looking at trees out the window and writing together.

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Staying in place

I taught my first tutorial at my current university eighteen years ago. In academia, there’s something shameful in admitting you’ve stayed in one university. Being deeply rooted is an anathema in higher education. I have been on the receiving end of this advice many times: if you want to succeed/ thrive/ stay employed, you must move/ be mobile/ remain unfettered.

The precarity of employment in higher education makes moving a necessary choice for many. (Although I disagree with the framing, this piece from Stylish Academic includes questions to evaluate your mobility: Am I healthy enough to live a mobile academic life? Do I enjoy living alone for long stretches of time? Can I live without pets?) Staying in one place may well mean re-evaluating your ideas about success in academia. It is not always the comfortable choice but, in my experience, rarely means staying still. I have had countless jobs in the one university: tutor, research assistant, project manager, lecturer, teaching fellow, and now associate dean. I started working in the coffee shop as an undergraduate!

On the weekend, I attended a beautiful memorial service for a colleague, Linda Kerr, who recently died, too early, after living with cancer for many years. Linda was strongly connected to Macquarie University and the National Tertiary Education union. She called the union the soul of the university. She had planned the memorial herself, which ended with fireworks overlooking the water at Clarkes Point Reserve, Woolwich. The photos below were taken by Nikki Balnave. Along with family and friends, our colleague Cathy Rytmeister spoke about Linda’s commitment and generosity.

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I’ve been thinking about our connections to places, people, and universities in particular, since Linda’s memorial.

Last year, I missed a meeting of the Sydney-based informal higher education scholars network on ‘Making place in higher education research’ hosted by Geidre Kligyte and Jan MacLean at the University of Technology. They defined place as being about ‘a space that has been made meaningful’ and shared Ilaria Vanni Accarigi’s website on Place-based Methodologies:

We can think of place with art and cultural critic Lucy Lippard as ‘latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there (Lippard 1997, p. 7).

This has also been a prompt to catch up with some reading I set myself, including a call for a ‘placeful’ university (Nørgård and Bengtsen, 2016):

Rather than considering the university as physical architectural spatiality (concrete) or imagined articulated space (concept), it might be fruitful to approach the university as place, considering the ways people may dwell within institutional settings, bringing values, concerns and forms of engagement of a broader societal character into the academic context, and vice versa.

Vanni Accarigi’s extended definition of place is worth pondering. I love geographer Doreen Massey’s term ‘throwntogetherness’ (the way in which different elements, human, non-human, social, environmental, cultural and political come together to define a here and now) to think about the experiences of being a part of a university.

Here and now, I take a moment to remember Linda, and look out the window while eating lunch—sumac orange chicken, chickpeas in tomato sauce and couscous—before walking through the drizzle to a meeting.

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