Monique Dufour, a collegiate assistant professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, shares a mantra when she works with faculty members wrestling with their academic writing: Make progress over time, time after time.

For TeKisha Rice, a first-year assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, that advice was a revelation. As one of 22 faculty members who attended a three-day faculty writing retreat sponsored by the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, Rice had hoped to binge write her way to completion on two almost-there manuscripts. “But what I really took out of the retreat was what it looks like to make progress on a regular basis," she said.

At the event, held at the Inn at Virginia Tech in January, each day’s schedule incorporated both long blocks of time to write and mini-workshops on how to do it effectively during a busy semester. “Our goal is to teach them some things that will seed their practice and pay off in their process once the retreat is over,” said Dufour, a professional writing coach who’s led faculty writing workshops at Duke. For instance:

  • Write in short bursts. At the retreat, writers used the Pomodoro Technique of 25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break. Setting a clear task for each session kept productivity high.
  • Park on the down slope. Writers ended each session by noting the specific task they would do next time eased the friction of getting started again.
  • Develop a sustainable practice. Dufour taught faculty how to incorporate writing into their work lives throughout their careers, rather than wait for a perfectly free day or a semester on sabbatical. 

Rice especially valued a 30-minute one-on-one coaching session with Dufour. She’d gotten stuck trying to craft an introduction to an article. Dufour helped her identify the structures used by recent articles in her target journal and outline her own version. They also talked about how psychological barriers like imposter syndrome might be keeping Rice from the finish line. “I kind of joke with people and say, ‘I don't think I need therapy, I need a writing coach,’” Rice said with a laugh.

For some faculty members, simply writing among a community of fellow writers has a magical quality. “A lot of academics are introverts,” Dufour said. “Alone together is kind of our thing.” At the retreat, faculty discovered that while writing requires concentration, it doesn’t require isolation. Over a few days, the “alone together” of writing eventually yielded to the “together together” of trading recommendations for coffee shops and pet sitters. 

Communal writing is a form of peer mentorship, believes Rachel Gabriele, assistant provost for faculty initiatives and policies, whose team in the Office of Faculty Affairs organized the writing retreat. “You're getting together with people who work in the same field as you, and you're sharing this experience, and you're collectively helping each other and supporting each other,” she said. “That sounds like mentorship to me.”

Four years ago, Gabriele noticed that faculty members were meeting in ad hoc writing groups in coffee shops around Blacksburg as a way to schedule and thus protect time for an activity that otherwise might go on the back burner. “Faculty, more than anything, ask for more time,” Gabriele said. “I can't give them time. But what I can do is create a bubble of protection for them so that they can have that space.” To help more people carve out time for academic writing, Gabriele’s team organized the first faculty writing retreat in 2018.

Since then, they’ve sponsored regular writing retreats, as well as grants for transdisciplinary faculty writing groups. The grant program was developed in response to the results of the 2020 COACHE Survey of Faculty Job Satisfaction, which showed a desire among faculty members for more support for associate professors. “We're actually trying to build our programs from what we're hearing from faculty,” Gabriele said. 

After being energized by the techniques he learned at the January writing retreat, Luis E. Escobar, an assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, immediately organized a writing group for graduate students in his lab. They were from Colombia, Bangladesh, Brazil, and Guatemala, and like him, they had to do their academic writing in English as a second language. “I realized that many of them were struggling to understand, ‘OK, how should I improve my writing?’”

In their new writing group, Escobar uses the Pomodoro Technique from the retreat to time short writing sessions. During the breaks, students ask each other for help. “Beyond being a writing group, I think that there's going to be a kind of support group,” he said.

The next faculty writing retreat will be held in-person March 7 and 8 and virtually March 9.  Go to the Faculty Development website to learn more about upcoming faculty writing retreats or grants for faculty writing groups

Written by Melody Warnick