Report: PESGB Writing Retreat

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Author :
Caroline Wilson

Story:

An Academic Writing Retreat

Caroline Wilson

I arrived at Madingley Hall for the start of the PESGB Writing Retreat, held in early September, accompanied by my parents. We could not but reflect on the memory of them delivering me to university in Scotland almost exactly twenty-eight years previously. In fact, the circularity of this experience was to lead me into quite a profound reflection upon those last decades, my love affair with the life of the mind, and my relationship with academia.

PESGB had sent out a call for eight participants to join an academic writing retreat, stating its desire to offer support to people working in the academic world, some way into their careers, who might not be receiving many insitutional resources to aid them in their research. As a part-time lecturer at Duoda, the Women’s Research Centre at the University of Barcelona, which, due to the draconian cuts in Spain in the last few years, practically exists on a shoestring these days, this is certainly the case for me. Also, since the reshaping of the MA programmes and my return to Scotland three years ago, my role has become almost entirely an online one.

This has meant that the connections made with the PESGB, its intellectual openness, the sheer friendliness of its members, and its very supportive stance to someone such as myself, thinking and doing education as something of an outsider, have been, and are, invaluable. So I sent in an application, with a proposal to look at a text writtenby a nineteenth-century Scottish woman, Marion Reid – a figure seemingly forgotten in that century’s history of developments in women’s struggle to be educated and considered as political subjects in their own right - and to compare it with a Spanish woman’s work at a similar point in time.

One of the things that the two-day retreat brought home to me was that I may have taken on too broad a topic. I saw that I needed to refine the perspective from which to look at these texts in order to bring forth an article for publication, which had been the aim of my proposal. This, in itself, was an invaluable realisation that, without the intense focus of the retreat, might have taken some time to sink in.

Near the beginning of the time there, the eight of us had a discussion, led by our very able co-ordinator, as to what kind of support we might like from each other, if any. It had been made very clear that the starting point of the retreat was that, apart from sharing meal-times (very pleasant affairs and made even more so by the friendliness of the staff at Madingley), we were free to use the time as we felt best. Obviously we were all there with very different projects at different stages, but as we went round the group, each of us articulated something of how we aimed to use the time there, and all of us, I seem to recollect, indicated that we would value the chance to explain our ideas to the others, both with the aim of receiving any supportive feedback and just appreciating the chance to put our work into words in a non-threatening environment.

Given that we were coming from some quite different areas of practice and research, it was not so much a question of giving specialised feedback as creating a nurturing atmosphere for one another. At the same time, it was clear that this time was short and precious, and as the hours passed, each of us retreated more and more to our own spaces, trying to find the balance between reappearing for meal times and other social moments, and using our time to the maximum in order to go deeper into our own work.

Certainly for myself, this experience provided quite an insight into the extent to which my own writing and research nowadays is conditioned by other commitments: teaching, other related work, family needs, belonging to a community. When I arrived at my university hall of residence those twenty-eight years ago, to begin a degree in a higher education context that has changed considerably since then, I had to learn how to allow myself the luxury (even then, it seemed such) of reading, thinking, writing; allowing myself to sink into and accept an environment that actively sought to nurture me in the use of my mind and learning how to express it.

This time round, ensconced in my room, all I needed within reach (I think I was not alone in observing the temptation to attend to external demands and communications via my internet connection, and the need to be quite strict with myself as to how often I looked at e-mail), I could only marvel at the freedom of those first student days, and my relative inability, not so much as to appreciate them, as to use them really well, given their relative lack of external demands compared to now.

Learning how to live, work, and be with others, of course, is one of life’s richest lessons and journeys, and I would have no desire to return to that nineteen year-old self. Indeed, finding that balance between using one’s mind freely and well (something no woman could necessarily take for granted until even relatively recent times, and still cannot in many cultural contexts) and being in the world with others seems to me to be one of the most important things we can aspire to, for ourselves, and for those we teach.

What was quite fascinating about how this retreat evolved was the way in which, as perhaps each one of us responded to this rather unusual and special opportunity to return to a richer balance and became less and less social, we used the time that we did share together, after dinner, for example, to listen to one another quite carefully, and, I dare to say, with some tenderness, something which led to some very valuable exchanges and perhaps deepening of thinking. This led me to wonder about nurture in the usual academic context; about whether this is often absent in the pressurised lives of so many aspects of a modern-day academic life. If it is the case that this nurture tends to be conspicuous by its absence, how can or do we aspire to nurture those that we teach, in whatever circumstances?

So thank you, PESGB, for giving me that time, that possibility to remember and reinforce a discipline and habits that seem to easily slide in the face of a busy life. But not only this, thank you for the reminder and evidence once more that we think in relationship, and that the quality of those relationships and what they seek to do (or not do), are not incidental to the work that we do and the lives that we lead, but rather quite central to our abilities to do them well.

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