Rowena Murray is a Professor of Education, Director of Research, in the School of Education at the University of the West of Scotland. She is an internationally recognised expert and author on academic writing and on running writing retreats. In this conversation she talks about the writing retreats for both the importance of learning behaviours around how to write, and for the value of the academic friendships that arise from such writing groups. She also talks about the challenges of being a woman professor dealing with unremitting criticism and undermining, and in having to fight for academic writing as a legitimate research topic in its own right. And she gives very practical advice for creating the support you need to deal with this and how to care for yourself in the process.
“When you give smart people dedicated writing time, it is astonishing how much they do. Immediately.”
“They know that a rough draft is called rough draft for a reason. But they still hesitate to write … they have the perfectionism and then they have the procrastination.”
“It’s a different set of relationships [developed at writing retreats] that are collegial and positive and sympathetic and intellectual as well.”
“As a woman professor, the undermining, the bullying, the pressure, the unremitting criticism has intensified throughout my career.”
01:30 Rowena’s background, learning about writing and starting writing retreats and workshops
08:00 Teaching writing as being about behavior change, how writing retreats help, creating the retreat environment, and the importance of the social aspects
18:15 Practical strategies and SMART goal setting for writing
34:05 The personal/career challenges finding a place in the academic infrastructure, the long path to becoming a professor of academic writing, and the importance of her writing group as support
46:00 Why there are more women at writing retreats
49:00 Discriminations faced by female professors, and advice to younger women
58:25 Rowena’s various self-care
1:02:00 Final thoughts on the importance of special intellectual friendships
And in more detail, she talks about (times approximate) …
01:30 Rowena introduces herself as working at Uni of the West of Scotland, a wider access college, and talks about her first degree at Uni of Glasgow in Scottish language and literature, and then going to Pennsylvania to do volleyball coaching where she also did a PhD in English at Penn State.
05:02 Rowena discusses how she came to be fascinated by writing, through learning to teach about writing, and reflecting on her own experiences. When she came back to Scotland she decided to start teaching thesis writing courses in the mid 80s. From doing these courses for around 10 years she wrote the content for the ‘How to write a thesis’ book. And it kept growing as people recognised there was a need for it. Hesitates to use the word ‘need’, everyone loves them, but has been told by someone they hope there comes a day when people won’t ‘need’ a writing course. But they miss the broader context in which writing retreats are essential, for those who choose to go. It is a haven, a behaviour change model, it’s a network. Mostly women who choose to go. Not a sense about ‘needing’ but about the environment that doesn’t allow us to write in the ways we really want to.
8:00 What’s driving this need? It’s about individuals not being sure how to fit writing in their personal lives. Also a need because we don’t learn how to write, how to construct arguments, or the behaviours for managing writing and other complex tasks. There are specific output targets in people’s plans, but the quality writing time is not in the plan, and knowing that it will be protected.
09:12 When you give smart people dedicated writing time, it is astonishing how much they do, immediately. Partly because someone is there to say start now, stop now, take a break. Insisting on the break. How quickly write in that context is fascinating. Which tells you how important the environment is. And how much less stressful it is. People talk about it as ‘positive pressure’.
10:15 She had said it wasn’t possible to transfer writing retreat environment to campus environments but now thinks it is possible if they replicate the dedicated writing time, away from the phone, internet etc, having coffee on tap, then they can do this on campuses, in their homes, in cottages. Need the level of concentration for the writing. Both space and other people are crucial. People often say “why can I do this so well when I’m in the writing retreat and I can’t do this at home?” May be that they are learning to change behaviours. Or may need to write with other people in a different space to hold them to the change. What the literature says about behaviour change. And it does work. Having said that, Lucy Hinnie has developed remote retreats with twitter threads, using Rowena’s material, and sending out tweets to structure the time. So that is early days and shows it can work that way without physically being in the same room, using a virtual group, and holding each other to the time, which does seem to be a key part of it.
13:50 When in a retreat and everyone else is typing, can smell coffee, would say they would normally stop then. But they keep writing and work through what might have been a stop or a block and surprise themselves by getting it done. So specific changes and benefits from sticking to the timing. Rowena is also listening out for distracting noises and will tell someone if they are stamping their feet while listening to music on their headphones, or will ask the person mowing the grass to move somewhere else.
15:47 But the social thing is key, it is the haven and it’s a different set of relationships that are collegial and positive and sympathetic and intellectual as well. Lots of exchanges about research methods and ways that people are supporting each other eg in the breaks or out on the walks. Time for activity important in the writing process. And in the evenings. Have evenings off. Which is surprising for people who think they should be writing for 10 hours a day. And she says no, should be resting. Obvious. But again giving people permission.
18:15 So lots of behaviour change about the process of writing. Is there also input about structure of writing? Yes. And sometimes will read people’s stuff as well. Encourages people in the last 7-8 months of thesis writing to do a 750 word thesis summary, set at the end of the introduction, paragraph for every chapter (in 4th edition of her book). So will suggest these things in the break, and look at it, then give feedback and they can work on it in the next session. Once they get this summary it is sorted (after looking at it 20 times). Doesn’t take a lot of time as a supervisor but such an important task. Tries not to read a 5-10K chapter at retreat. So there are retreat-specific things she can suggest for a next session. A lot of them are in the books.
20:50 Another behaviour that is useful is goal setting. Smart people are good at setting SMART goals eg for marking scripts. But not so much with writing. So 80K words, how many words for literature review, so decide on specific goal, think about how many words, and how you will produce in the first 90 minutes. Have a verb for the text. “the purpose of X is to…”. Intellectual work in deciding on the structure and microstructure, goals, subgoals and subsubgoals, and designing the writing for the time you have, and then monitoring how you achieve this. So learning to set realistic subgoals. Motivation there as well. Goal setting, monitoring how well you are achieving the goals, and developing self-efficacy, the belief that you can achieve your writing goals. In contrast Rowena talks about the dark side, just carrying on, not getting done 45 things to do, guilt fuelling anxiety. But did it to yourself. Use goal setting principles with writing as you do with other stuff.
23:40 Different writing styles? All can benefit from specific writing goals, structure of writing arguments. Everyone is different but the retreats/workshops provide a framework and within that, what everyone does can be quite individual. Benefits from planning and setting goals and academic writers can do this more than we do. Intellectual decisions. About targeting, style.
26:35 Getting better at estimating, learning process. Been doing a writing retreat just about every month. Has to watch herself. Blasting out a chapter. Recognising after reviewer feedback that it wasn’t good. Need to also watch the fluency. Learned behaviour. And gives an intellectual life around writing in universities, something we are craving, exposed by writing that is done at the retreats. Reflects on this regularly, why is she not more of an activist and she realizes she is, but more like a resistance movement, providing immediate change and help, getting people through rather than standing at the front line and blasting away. Finds committee work and standing up giving big talks, writing up big reports, meaningless work for her. But she can do this more immediate work, achieving stuff with her own writing and helping people get through. And that’s part of intellectual work as well, as a PhD supervisor, that is what you are doing.
30:39 A myth we know this all already. But when start talking about writing, which happens rarely on campus, it can also be seen as a weakness as well. And when talk about publications, can get your wings clipped as well. The exchange of knowledge of what your paper was about would be useful. The exchange of knowledge of the process of writing, never going to talk about that in these academic settings. There are structures, processes, activities to learn around writing. At a workshop last week, talking about perfectionism. Know that a rough draft is called rough draft for a reason. But they still hesitate to write that first sentence, or to write the second sentence because the first one is not perfect. PhD students and academic and researchers. So they hesitate to write, they have the perfectionism and then they have the procrastination. So there is an existing paradigm that is quite dysfunctional and stressful for people, that we need an alternative to.
34:05 How to hang onto this as something she is committed to in the current climate? In the beginning committed to bringing some of that knowledge to the UK. Clearly no department in the UK wants to teach these courses. So must have helped hundreds of people get their PhDs that other people took credit for. Happy to do that. Started writing books but was told books didn’t count so did that in her own time – so very clear conscience about keeping the royalties. So certain frustrations about it not finding a place in the infrastructure and Rowena not getting credit for all the outputs she was helping people do. But as began to get research funding and journal articles, became established in field of academic writing and now has a peer group. But just last year had someone quite senior sit back quizzically and ask “so you do academic writing about academic writing”. Just said “yes”. What can you do? That person’s mind is closed to this being a field in itself. But have to be fluid in finding a job. Jumping areas. Complex, tricky. Have to be flexible. Fortunate to have got to where she is in this field, as a professor of academic writing. Was asked in her interview what her international reputation was in and she just said “academic writing” without elaboration, sounding defensive. They either look at the CV and see that or they don’t. For her that was quite a turning point. Not sure where that came from. Doesn’t have as much fear of that perspective anymore. Such an important intellectual task. If they don’t get it, what can you do.
39:20 What kept her going up to the point of getting that comfort? Was very challenging, felt held back in terms of promotion. Applied and knocked back for a number of promotions. What kept her going was playing competitive volleyball, had to concentrate on the match and it took her mind off what was going on at work. Currently writing about this in a book on women professors and facing these barriers. What she is writing about is how she set up the first writing group, the first in an academic setting, and that kept her going because she was doing the job of helping people write, writing her own publications, and was working with like-minded people cutting across agendas of departments. Writing groups have been a haven for her as well. Doesn’t know what she would have done without that sort of social support throughout her career. More about having alternative space whether it was sport or writing groups or whatever. Looking back, she started the group because if was supporting her, but also doing her job and that fended off some of the criticism.
43:40 Getting grants and papers doing what she wanted to do? Intellectual curiosity of interrogating that this works and getting evidence. So that was the bridge but still an ambivalence about it, conscious of providing counters in somebody else’s game but also about improving her game in a sense in understanding more about what is happening at writing retreats. Gives example of containment theory paper, and then writing about her role in creating the container. A learning process for her about retreats and her role in retreats, and the sensitive stuff she is doing. Actively protecting the space, in a number of senses, because threatened by other people’s understanding of how writing gets done.
46:00 Why mostly women? Always observed and discussed. Almost always women not just at her retreats but also others’ retreats, unless built into a course or a departmental group where the head came along and other men came as well. The theory about why only women is that it is called writing retreat which can sound touchy feely and you might be exposed in that environment, and should call it bootcamp to attract more men. But she isn’t going to do this. Knows there are others like Inger Mewburn, one of her heroes, she calls some of her things bootcamp. But Rowena won’t be doing that. Thinking of advertising a men’s only one. Other theories are that it is a more discursive collaborative model even though most people sit and write on their own. Also run by women. Just did some research on this by talking to women and sent a paper into a journal a few months ago. What she found is that the writing retreats are a space away from all the other demands of so many different kinds of women in their work lives and personal lives. Getting away from both are really important. And getting away from discriminatory settings is really important.
49:00 Ways she is still discriminated against? As a woman professor, the undermining, the bullying, the pressure, the unremitting criticism has intensified throughout her career and that is in different universities and settings. Not about her as a person and has talked with enough senior women and men and knows that this happens in other places as well. Tries to warn younger colleagues that this might not go away when are promoted. An intensified undermining and bullying. Knows men who became professors had a much more positive experience with celebrations etc but knows women who have experienced none of that – experience instead of others leaving you out of things, deciding things without consulting you, and gradually diminishing the role over a number of years. Almost like there is playbook. Discrimination at all levels, borne out by statistics of men and women at all levels. Strategies eg working on women’s confidence and networking all well and good, but if we’re not working on the infrastructure, the people making the decisions, not sure we are going to fix it. Men and women who don’t have the right behaviours to get that to top level … but she doesn’t want to be at this level or be the minority in the room. Has done all this. But doesn’t want to do that, doesn’t thrive on it. Doesn’t want to be the person in the room representing her gender, sexuality. But can help women and men who want to write and get on with each other.
53:45 Advice to younger women? She talks about her own experiences and the intensification of the unremitting undermining. To make them aware, not to say it will happen. Advice is to get themselves into groups like this. That will get them through. “If you try to get through your academic career in this discriminated position, yourself, I think this can break you.” You can then internalise it and think it is just about you and so you need the group to help process all that stuff and this group might need to be outside of the department as everyone competing there. Rowena built this support through creating writing groups for herself. So the writing groups are about much more than just the writing. In the course of talking about writing, you’ll inevitably talk about other stuff. The key is not to let that talk interfere with the writing.
56:55 How to get good people into senior leadership to make larger changes? There are young men and women who have the capacity to go into leadership positions. But would say get some way of protecting, having an intellectual peer network and doing the work together, not just a support network. So encouraging them to get some kind of insurance policy against the competitive stuff.
58:25 Self care? Stays active fit. Wears her fitbit. Mixture of training and exercise, all thought out. Also does nothing sometimes. After a retreat, exhausted. So will read fiction or see a film or something completely different. A great believer in not working in the evenings and at weekends. Keeps clear boundaries. Doesn’t ever talk about work much at home. Spending a lot of time with friends. Village community, altruistic stuff, raising money for the hospice. Now 0.5 half time professor and half time business. Was suggested by line manager that she does the retreats for her university. Has to monitor the finances of all that. Gets a sense of self-sufficiency. Meets lots of new people at retreats. Eating well. Hydrating well. And banter so it doesn’t get too heavy.
1:02:00 Final thoughts? Relationships have been super important. Special intellectual friendships you develop because you have been at writing retreats. Acknowledge the importance of academic friendships and conversations like this. See that there are some things we can do to make it better. Putting a protective barrier around these friendships. That’s what life should be about, it’s about these intellectual exchanges, the connections you make through initially maybe a brain thing and then you get to know each other as people and think that is a win win win. So just acknowledge academic friendships. Retreats give two days to build the friendships a bit more.
Writing retreats: http://www.anchorage-education.co.uk
Rowena’s many great books on academic writing: http://www.anchorage-education.co.uk/books-rowena-murray/
Including: ‘How to Write a Thesis’: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Write-Thesis-Open-Study-Skills/dp/0335244289
Lucy Hinnie: http://www.lucyrhinnie.co.uk
Lucy’s #remoteretreat: http://www.lucyrhinnie.co.uk/remoteretreat.html
Inger Mewburn: https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/mewburn-i
Article about Inger’s thesis bootcamp - https://thesiswhisperer.com/2015/01/16/how-to-write-10000-words-a-day/