Reflections at the close of La Trobe Academic Writing Month 2020

Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash 

In his wonderful book, Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters, sociologist Les Back reflects on changes and continuities to academic life. A book about 'academic time', the rhythms of the academic year are observed and recorded in rich detail. Back tracks different seasons: autumn, spring and summer, as well as (Northern hemisphere) patterns, where April's conference season gives way to June's exam season.

At La Trobe, and for researchers around the world, Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo for short) is an event that returns every November. Each cycle of AcWriMo is another chance to learn more about academic writing and celebrate the work of academic writers. And participants in AcWriMo identify, commit to, and work toward a series of writing goals that they have made especially for the month.

In this post, the organisers of this year’s Academic Writing Month program – Tseen Khoo, Jeanette Fyffe, Dan Bendrups, and Jamie Burford (RED team) and Lynda Chapple (Learning Hub) – have taken a moment to reflect on our highlights from #LTUAcWriMo 2020.

The very existence of #LTUAcWriMo in a year that has made little sense (Jeanette Fyffe)

AcWriMo has been running at La Trobe in various forms since 2013 and over the years it has changed and developed in response to a range of influences. There has been talk about ‘disruption’ in lots of sectors for years now but never have I got close to imagining the complete global disruption that 2020 has brought. So trying to imagine how to maintain the vibe of AcWriMo this year was an interesting conundrum for us in the RED team. The focus for AcWriMo has often been around increasing/enhancing/challenging the self to write productively (in whatever way is meaningful for participants) but this year ‘productivity’ was not the vibe we were after. 

In our programming we tried to create spaces for nourishing, reflecting, stimulating and simply reconnecting with writing and our writerly selves.  So often across the month we heard about the writing mojo that disappeared for people and it was great to be able to provide so many different avenues into academic writing and thinking about academic writing together.  The insight, collegiality, generosity, and thoughtful encouragement that flowed between participants, panelists and facilitators, originating in loungerooms, kitchen tables, home offices and shady verandas through the bizarre scrambler that is ZOOM and out into other loungerooms, offices, and backyards again makes me reflect on the privilege and joy I have working with the La Trobe Researcher community. 

My event highlight was our Opening Ceremony: Lessons from writing my thesis: Reflections from the other side where Prof Chris Pakes, Dr Kirsty Macfarlane and almost doctor Lilli Krikheli shared their insights and reflections on the thesis writing process.  Their delightful discussion revealed that despite the likelihood of most of us writing more than one (or two if you are greedy) doctoral theses is pretty slim the lessons you learn about writing, about motivation, about resilience, about posture, about time management, and about how important support is, last forever and are applicable no matter what the future brings.

Hearing directly from editors about their important work (Tseen Khoo)

There was much to love about #LTUAcWriMo this year, and one of the things I liked best was the editors' panel in the third week! Is it unseemly to pick as a highlight an event I organised? Perhaps! I'll forge on regardless! I so enjoyed hearing from current editors about their work and how they approached the role. It reminded me anew of how diverse the editorial and publishing models are for scholarly journals, and the levels of support (or not) available to our colleagues who take up these positions. The thrum of sentiment about guiding emerging researchers and nourishing their disciplines was clear and heartening in an academic environment that can feel hyper-competitive and transactional. Being an editor can be hard work, but the satisfaction and knowledge gained is extremely valuable for a career. 

Talking about how to put the thesis together (Dan Bendrups)

For me, the highlight of #LTUAcWriMo 2020 has been the opportunity to explore how we go about putting a thesis together. We talked about this in a range of workshops with topics such as ‘how to structure your thesis’ and ‘including publications in your thesis’. An observation from these discussions is that it’s important for graduate researchers to develop real clarity about their structuring choices: lots of different options are available, the key is to be able to explain your choices clearly to others, and show them why your choices were good ones. In other words, to develop independent judgement so that you can interpret the rules and guidelines, rather than just following them because they are there. Who knows, maybe your innovative approach to how you include publications will become a model for others in the future.

Retreating from home (Jamie Burford)

2020 has been a demanding year for our academic writers. Many of us have experienced significant disruptions to our routines and habits, and some of us might be experiencing big feelings about writing projects that remain unfinished.

One of the questions that we had as we were planning for the program this year was what to do with the writing retreats that we typically hold during AcWriMo. These are popular events which form the backbone of our AcWriMo celebrations. My experience of these events has been joyful, as researchers gather and activate their writer selves for days on end.

As an organiser, I watch the folks who arrive with steely focus, the ones who weren’t quite sure about writing in the company of others but who’ll give it a go, and I watch the creative types who bring in a stack of books and occupy a corner and a beanbag. This is the joy of the retreat as people exercise and experiment with different writer selves. Then there’s the social aspect - it’s always fun to trial everyone’s home baking, and during lunchtimes we usually sit outside chatting about the breakthroughs we have had or where the blocks might be.

Last year, with the leadership of colleagues from across La Trobe, we were able to hold academic writing retreats on every campus throughout the month of November, and I was lucky enough to spend some time with Bendigo writers too.

However, 2020 necessitated a re-think. It meant grappling with some difficult questions: What does it mean to retreat into writing from a corner of your bedroom or your kitchen table? How can we retreat if we aren’t able to get away from normal life and be taken care of, to refresh our spirits through a change in space?

This year we experimented with holding our academic writing retreat online. Much like we would with the Bundoora retreat, we had separate zoom rooms for our people to write in: The pomodoro room (where writing/break times are announced), The Quiet Room (shhhhhh – mute button always stays on), The Chill Room (where anything goes!). We also had some breakout rooms in case anyone needed a critical friend to debrief with. In addition to this, we created an online version of our ‘wall of achievement’ where colleagues posted their wins, whether these were fresh outputs or ways of being that they are trying to cultivate. And best of all, this year we were able to write with La Trobe colleagues from across Australia and around the world.  

While it was different to be retreating from my bedroom this year and I missed the home baking, the retreat was still my highlight. Thank you to all our writers for being the glue which holds our community together.

Here's to cloth bound monographs! (Lynda Chapple)

I love Academic Writing Month! So much going on, so many great ideas, so much enthusiasm about our intellectual endeavours. The RED team have done a fantastic job this year to pull together such a varied and stimulating programme, wholly online for the first time. My only disappointment was that I couldn’t get to every session on my list. Of the many thought-provoking activities and discussions, my favourite was the panel chaired by Clare Wright on transforming your thesis into a book. Here’s to cloth bound monographs!

It was also inspiring to see so many familiar faces (and many new ones) in seminars. This year I had to opportunity to try out a couple of new workshop ideas, so was excited by the interest and enthusiasm of participants – you’ve all given me much to think about for future activities. Keep up the writing and see you all in the new year.