The Red Mountain Writing Project Scholarly Writing Retreat for University Faculty
By: Tonya Perry
Date: June 1, 2012
Summary: Building upon their expertise in supporting K–12 teachers as writers in the invitational summer institute, the Red Mountain Writing Project offers a writing retreat for University of Alabama at Birmingham faculty to support their scholarly writing across a range of academic disciplines.
RMWP Director and UAB Assistant
Professor Tonya Perry (left)
The scene is familiar. Three writers gather in comfortable chairs in a sunny corner of the library to share drafts of their writing: a study of media literacy, an inquiry into disaster preparedness among families of high needs students, a piece on effective mentoring practices. Such moments are at the heart of the NWP invitational summer institute (ISI) experience at sites across the country. But this is not a scene from an ISI and this is not a group of K–12 teachers. These writers are university faculty—from anthropology, sociology, and educational leadership—sharing drafts of their work in progress as participants in the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Scholarly Writing Retreat sponsored by the university's Red Mountain Writing Project.
Two years ago, the Red Mountain Writing Project (RMWP) enjoyed its status as a respected and integral program of the School of Education and the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). The deans of both schools supported the work of RMWP and valued the role that the site played in extending the mission of the university to serve the professional development needs of the larger K–12 community in the Birmingham area. Building leadership capacity, reputation, and momentum over its six-year history, RMWP continued to develop programs and extend its services to area teachers and schools.
Despite the site's success, however, when Alabama was faced with difficult economic decisions, the university was forced to review its financial support of all programs, including the Red Mountain Writing Project.
Listening for Opportunity
The University of Alabama at Birmingham, like many universities, is an institution in transition, particularly in the College of Arts and Sciences. Over the past few years, the economy, among other factors including enrollment and retention, forced a consolidation of four schools within the university into one large entity: the College of Arts and Sciences. This transition put support for the Red Mountain Writing Project at risk. With a new interim dean, we found ourselves in a position of having to reconfirm our value as a university program.
During her first address to the faculty, the new College of Arts and Sciences interim dean outlined her goals. Two in particular struck home: to leverage the university's investment in its programs by increasing the number of cross-discipline initiatives, and to increase the scholarly production of faculty. As co-directors, listening and thinking about the future of RMWP, Bruce McComiskey and I recognized in the dean's goals a new opportunity for our work. Until that moment we had been focused on the role of the Red Mountain Writing Project as a K–12 professional resource. After the dean's address, we understood the site's untapped potential as a K–16 resource.
The dean's goals and RMWP's mission to support writers and writing pointed to a potential new partnership. Immediately after the dean's address, we arranged a meeting with her to explore how the Writing Project could support the scholarly writing of UAB College of Arts and Sciences faculty. During this meeting, we shared the mission of the National Writing Project and the model of our work as a site. While the dean expressed interest, she also asked several questions:
- What exactly is the National Writing Project (NWP) and how does it impact higher education?
- How is it possible that a physicist can write with a theatre professor?
- How will you structure a program so that everyone who participates can be successful?
- How much would such a program cost?
- How will the college benefit from this investment?
- How will you measure progress and report on your work?
In response, we developed a proposed budget, a schedule, and a rationale reflecting what we know about effective writing instruction. We shared the NWP Professional Writing Retreat Handbook (PDF), a resource developed specifically to support scholarly writing, as well as writing strategies that transcend specific content area knowledge (e.g., peer collaboration, peer revision, and structured time for writing and sharing). Finally, we outlined the potential benefits to the new College of Arts and Sciences in the cross-disciplinary understandings and collaborations—transcending departments and fields of study—that could come from faculty writing together.
The First UAB-RMWP College of Arts and Sciences Scholarly Writing Retreat
A week later, the dean emailed her approval of an initial budget of $2,500 to support a four-day writing retreat for College of Arts and Sciences faculty. The goals of the Scholarly Writing Retreat (SWR) were the following:
- to engage faculty scholars in a dialogue about the challenges and successes of academic writing for publication;
- to encourage the academic writing of faculty through the allocation of time, resources, and support;
- to support a writing community that would provide opportunities for university faculty to write and share scholarly work across disciplines.
Fourteen faculty of different ranks and disciplines submitted electronic registrations (see "SWR Registration Form") describing their scholarly work and writing goals for the retreat.
Supporting a Scholarly Writing Community
Modeled after the rhythms of the RMWP invitational summer institute (see "SWR Flyer and Schedule" PDF), each day of the SWR began with writers gathering for a discussion prompted by a selection from Writing for Scholarly Publication by Anne Sigismund Huff. The text was selected because it approaches scholarly writing from a broad, non-discipline-specific perspective. Facilitated by RMWP co-director and SWR coordinator, Bruce McComiskey, these opening discussions yielded powerful ideas about the value of writing communities, effective writing routines and disciplines, and promising publishing strategies.
After the opening discussion, faculty writers set personal writing goals for the day before retreating to their favored writing spaces in the library, the university café, or campus offices. Individual goals changed daily based on the morning discussion and feedback on prior drafts from colleagues. For example, if a writer was drafting a piece for a particular journal, he or she might take time to read exemplar texts before reshaping the piece. The group reassembled for lunch to debrief about their progress, then reconvened at 3:00 P.M. in writing circles to share drafts. Each author shared a question or focus area for team members to pay attention to in the writing. With a copy of the piece of writing in each person's hand and/or with a member reading aloud, team members responded to address the concerns of each writer.
Each day repeated this schedule of goal-setting, writing, sharing, and response. At the end of the fourth day, participants reflected on, shared, and celebrated the writing they had produced during the course of the retreat.
What Faculty Writers Valued Most
Based on participants' final reflections, the first Scholarly Writing Retreat was a success (see "SWR Evaluation Form" PDF). Faculty valued access to an intellectual community to share their writing. Many happily reported progress on professional pieces long dormant before the retreat. Specifically, the faculty writers identified four areas of greatest importance and impact: writing strategies, time management, accountability, and the support of a writing community.
The retreat surrounded me with a group of enthusiastic scholars and helped break down the isolation that comes with scholarly writing.
Writing Strategies: Participants noted that they learned valuable writing strategies from their reading and from each other. In particular, they valued learning more about formatting book proposals; creating a clear thesis; reorganizing, revising, and resubmitting pieces of writing; reading exemplar texts; and instituting a discipline of "Library Days," regular reading days to stay current in the field. "I took an article that was nothing but hunch and hypothesis," said one, "and now I have about 2,500 words on paper and a clear direction/thesis."
Time Management: Faculty writers valued having dedicated time devoted to writing. Because of the pressing daily demands of teaching, committee meetings, grant writing, and student advising, university faculty noted that they often place their own scholarship at the bottom of the list. Having dedicated time and making the commitment to write daily forced the participants to revisit their schedules and prioritize their writing. One noted, "I was able to re-focus on my scholarly work and make progress on a project that I had been avoiding for two years."
Accountability: While university faculty appreciate the autonomy that comes with a career in academia, SWR participants valued the discipline of daily writing and accountability to have something to share at the end of the day. Participants said that positive collegial pressure forced them to write daily: "I would never have buckled down had I not had the inspiration and accountability."
Writing in Community: Membership in a writing community offered previously isolated scholars access to a supportive circle of writing colleagues who encouraged each other and offered valuable feedback from multi-disciplinary perspectives. Participants reported that their writing colleagues kept them focused and motivated: "The retreat surrounded me with a group of enthusiastic scholars and helped break down the isolation that comes with scholarly writing."
The Future of the Scholarly Writing Retreat
Based on the follow-up report after the first SWR in 2010, detailing participants' fields of study and the focus and progress of their work (see "SWR Faculty Participant Projects" PDF), the Scholarly Writing Retreat secured funding for 2011. In the year following the first retreat, 90% of faculty participants reported continuing work on the manuscript or article, over 50% had articles accepted into journals, and several book proposals and manuscripts are in development. But while several writing groups continued to meet after the retreat, faculty regretted that academic schedules eventually crowded them out. With that in mind, and with our funding secured for a third year, we are considering the following ways to improve the Scholarly Writing Retreat and continue to support UAB faculty writing:
- extending the SWR to include support for year-round faculty working groups;
- offering a second, off-campus, fee-based writing retreat option for participants;
- offering additional seminars, throughout the academic year, in conjunction with the UAB Professional Development Office, to support faculty scholarly writing.
Based on the NWP model of writing in community and enacted at UAB through the work of the Red Mountain Writing Project, the Scholarly Writing Retreat achieved the dean's vision to sponsor an innovative, cost-effective program to support faculty scholarly writing and collaboration across academic disciplines.