Halleran Writing Retreat

Jump-Starting the Fellowship

Last week I officially inaugurated my year as a Halleran Dissertation Completion Fellow by participating in a week-long writing retreat. Over the course of five days, I wrote, learned about dissertation deadlines, and got to know my fellow cohorts. Let’s take a look!

My folder full of deadlines and other important information

About the Writing Retreat

Mandatory for all Halleran Fellows, the writing retreat comprises both individual working time and group workshops. Sarah Glosson, Director of the Arts & Sciences Graduate Center, organizes the retreat and supervises the Fellows throughout the year.

During work time, fellows concentrate on their dissertations while sharing space, their collective focus and energy hopefully fuelling one another. Workshops address topics like deadlines for dissertation defense and graduation, setting realistic goals for completion, and dissertation embargoes. The retreat also provides an opportunity to establish a sense of camaraderie and community among the fellows, which is important when undertaking what can be an isolating, lonely project.

Tucker Hall, the setting for this year’s writing retreat. James Monroe is the dead white man in front of the building.

Traditionally, the retreat takes place in the graduate lounge at Swem Library, but this year’s event was hybridized due to ongoing campus construction. On Monday, we worked over Zoom. For the rest of the week, we gathered at a specially-designated room in Tucker Hall, home to William & Mary’s English department.

Before the Writing Retreat: Anticipation and Apprehension

Before the retreat commenced, I needed to decide what to work on for the week. Since I work most efficiently in the morning, I set two different goals. Mornings I’d focus on the introduction, while I’d spend afternoons working on archival notes. To facilitate my writing, I spent the week before the retreat creating an outline that I’d use as scaffolding for my prose.

The sign may say do not disturb, but after years of working alone, would I really be able to concentrate again in a collective classroom space?

As the retreat grew closer, I became apprehensive. After years of working from home, I felt ambivalent about the prospect of spending a week in a classroom with other people. As someone with misophonia, I worried about eating and drinking sounds. I also didn’t like the idea of adjusting my schedule to match the retreat, as it started later than my usual working day. It sounds trivial, but when you’ve become accustomed to certain working habits, small adjustments can feel seismic.

All my apprehensions stemmed from change, which humans generally dislike. Yet I made an effort to keep an open mind as the workshop approached. I’d be working in a different space under a new schedule, but with the changes came new opportunities. I could learn new habits from my cohort. The change of scenery could shake off any complacency I might have developed over the past few years. Most importantly, I’d be getting out and talking to people, something I can always be better about.

At the Retreat: Working in Good Company

My apprehensions dissipated after the retreat commenced. Since we met virtually on Monday, my working routine didn’t change much. After the initial meeting at nine, we worked independently for the rest of the day, occasionally checking in on Zoom to see how everyone was doing. Although I was initially apprehensive about the classroom space, I worked just fine once I was there. Thanks to the noise-canceling headphones Brandon got me a few years ago, I had no trouble focusing in the shared space. It was admittedly a bit cold on the first day, but after that, I made a point of wearing layers.

My “office” during the writing retreat. The stickers on my laptop are from the Frothy Moon Brewhouse, where I was part of a pub trivia team this past winter.

Despite starting later than I would have liked, I was as productive as I would have been working from home under my normal schedule. My most successful days happened when the workshops took place in the afternoon rather than the morning, but I managed to get work done every day. By the end of the week, I had drafted a 31-page introduction, complete with citations. On the archival research side of things, I had gone through 148 photographs, more than the initial goal of 115 I had set for myself.

I also spent time interacting with my cohort. There are six of us, with four coming from American Studies, so I already knew several people. That made socializing easier, but it was also good to meet new colleagues. Most of us took our lunch at the same time so we could spend that hour talking together, whether about our projects, our pets, or anything else that was on our minds.

After the Retreat: A Writing Camaraderie

While I’m happy to resume my regular working routine, overall I benefitted from the workshop. Sarah facilitated a welcoming work environment, and the experience of sharing workspace bolstered my productivity while decreasing distractions. I checked my email far less often and was oblivious to any texts coming through. In many ways, the retreat was similar to my experiences with trains, another space where working in silence around other people increases my focus. In the future, I’ll be more mindful of my focus so I can recreate a similar, distraction-free concentration at home.

Through my cohort, I learned some new tips and habits that I can apply to my own practice. One person mentioned recording audio notes during her walks, something I might try given the significance of walking to my own thinking process. Someone else mentioned applying the Pomodoro technique to reading secondary sources, which I might try as I start reading new sources to fill in my chapter gaps.

You know you’re part of a special group when you all receive a YETI tumbler.

Most importantly, I’m grateful for the camaraderie that developed over the course of the week. We’re all working on different things, and are at different points in our projects, but we’ve all got the same goal, and that makes for a less isolating experience. Together, we’ll support one another as we attain that shared goal of completion.

So yes, the writing retreat interrupted my regular working schedule, but it was a welcome and needed one.

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