For years, George Washington University Assistant Professor of Writing and Anthropology Kylie Quave has wanted to write about her white whale—well, her mummified bird. Well, it’s not actually a bird. Quave’s scans revealed that the bundle of cloth wrapping and feathers, presumed to be a macaw mummy from a stash of pre-Columbian artifacts in Peru, in fact contained a mishmash of material, including maize cobs and shell fragments, but no avian bones at all. The analysis is potentially fascinating, but Quave’s packed schedule hasn’t allowed her time to turn her work into a formal piece.
That’s one reason Quave was one of more than 70 GW faculty members from all 10 schools to attend a three-day writing retreat on the Mount Vernon Campus this week, the second such workshop sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR) and the University Writing Program (UWP).
“Sitting down in one place and having someone take care of your meals for you and also give you a little bit of structure to do the metacognitive work of writing is much more than I'm able to do for myself working in isolation at home or in my office,” Quave said.
Major writing projects demand uninterrupted time, dedicated space and, as a bonus, communal motivation—none of which is necessarily available to faculty members trying to juggle teaching, grading, research and family or other personal obligations. For adjunct and part-time faculty, who may be balancing an additional full-time job, these resources are even scarcer.
Events like this retreat are therefore a key step in the evolution of a robust “writing culture” at GW, Provost Christopher Alan Bracey said Monday afternoon when briefly addressing attendees in a quiet, sunny Post Hall writing room.
“We are now part of the AAU [Association of American Universities], which means we’re no longer aspiring to be an elite research and scholarly community—we are expected to demonstrate that we already have arrived,” Bracey said. “That means developing a culture like this, where we have retreats and workshops and opportunities to share ideas and bounce them off each other.”
Vice Provost for Research Pamela Norris pointed out that interest in the retreat was so high that organizers had to close registration, demonstrating the enormous faculty appeal of such programs. “We look forward to continuing this partnership and continuing to host events such as this,” Norris said. “Developing a ritual for writing on a consistent basis—if you can learn that skill, your scholarship is so positively impacted.”
The program provides meals, an intention-setting structure, short one-on-one consultations with UWP staff, writing space and, most of all, what faculty facilitator Danika Myers calls “butt-in-chair time”: “Blocks of time where you have that social pressure of other people in the room who are focused and working, and the dog isn't asking to go out and your TA isn't asking you about a lesson plan. You’re just writing.”
This structure provides both accountability and community. During breaks, writers have an opportunity to share their work, try out new ideas and use their colleagues’ enthusiasm as a springboard, said Myers, a teaching assistant professor of writing who participated in the first retreat last summer. It’s an opportunity for longstanding passion projects, like Quave’s, to take center stage.
“At the summer retreat I talked to a bunch of people I've never talked to before, I learned about research happening in parts of the university that I've never learned about before, and I felt like that was just a very typical experience—people were just excited,” Myers said. “I think programs like this have the potential to become an important community-building component of the university.”
Passion projects aside, several participants said they appreciated the opportunity to address practical concerns and meet necessary deadlines. Joel Lewis, an associate professor of mathematics in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), had a grant application to complete by the end of the month. Michelle Kelsey-Mitchell, an adjunct professor of exercise and nutrition sciences in the Milken Institute School of Public Health, took the opportunity to work on her dissertation—because she’s also a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development.
Wendy Riemann, an adjunct professor in CCAS’ Department of Organizational Sciences & Communication, is a repeat attendee who saw results almost immediately after attending the first retreat. Not only did she finish writing a significant chunk of an article on social support surrounding broken marriage engagements—an article now in review with an editor—but she also connected with a fellow attendee who encouraged her to submit her research to a conference. Her application was accepted, and she’ll present this spring at a session on “ugly love.”
“Coming here last May created two huge wins for me that wouldn't have happened otherwise,” Riemann said, and laughed. “If I had this every day, I would be the queen of productive writing.”