Publishing is the sleeping beast that faculty at colleges like ours, a 5,000-student women’s college in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, have tiptoed around for years. Here, as in many institutions devoted to undergraduate teaching, professors could once amble undisturbed along the promotion path equipped only with pedagogical excellence. While some produced excellent scholarship, most didn’t worry much about producing articles or books to earn tenure.
But now when a school chooses to underplay scholarship, it undermines its own reputation for academic rigor. Fewer publishing scholars mean less prestige and lower national rankings—which, in our competitive marketplace, leads to worries about fewer students. So publishing has become increasingly central in the evaluation systems of even the most student-centered colleges, and faculty and administrators hunt for ways to encourage scholarly production without being punitive or shifting the institutional focus away from teaching.
Success in these efforts has been, not surprisingly, limited. Many have written, even in these pages, about how some undergraduate teaching institutions have embraced standards of scholarly merit equal to those of research universities. The results are predictable: assistant professors frantically work on their scholarship, passing up opportunities to cultivate teaching skills and failing to connect to the campus community. Meanwhile long-time professors, caught enforcing tenure requirements they never had to meet, begin to feel less comfortable in their home institutions. Other schools have aimed to resolve the issue with an exploitative two-tiered system of full-time faculty who are expected to publish and adjuncts whose only job it is to teach.
Neither of these options seemed workable to the faculty and administration of the College of St. Catherine. The largest women’s college in the United States (soon to be a university), “St. Kate’s” openly values excellence in teaching. A Catholic college founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, we are known for social justice work and community partnerships and for producing more than our share of women leaders in education, politics, business, and health care.
Faculty members at the college converse a lot about teaching, and we work hard at keeping our curriculum innovative and woman-centered. While scholarship has always been an expectation in our peer review process, and while we have always had nationally recognized scholars among us, the truth is that research and writing were generally considered somehow personal, even a bit self-indulgent. Scholarly success was rarely a part of our college conversations.
What follows is an account of how we began to transform our community—how we overcame a Midwestern institutional culture of reticence about scholarship and got people talking about it. But we also see this essay as a contribution to the larger conversations of our profession about how scholarship can serve positive purposes for institutions like ours—indeed, for most institutions of higher education beyond the research universities and privileged private colleges that have served as models for the rest of us.
In the program our college developed to encourage scholarship among faculty members who saw themselves primarily as teachers and practitioners, we see a strategy for successfully re-conceptualizing scholarly communities at other institutions. So we offer an instructive tale of our adventure—an account of how we, with trepidation, prodded the publishing beast and found out that she’s friendly and loves a good party.
Now in its ninth year, the College of St. Catherine’s Scholars’ Retreat has been the primary stimulus for change in our college’s culture. A five-day hiatus during which about twenty faculty and staff members work intensively on scholarly writing at a conference center, Scholars’ Retreat is where we blend hard work with recreation and collegiality. It is more writers’ retreat than boot camp, but it has elements of both.
Over the course of eight summers, nearly 70 faculty members, or close to 40 percent of our total faculty, have attended the retreat (many more than once). Combined with related programs, Scholars’ Retreat has involved about half of our faculty, at least eight staff members, and two deans—certainly a large enough group to instigate significant cultural change.
The impetus for Scholars’ Retreat was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 21, 2000) about a dissertation boot camp created to remove Ph.D. candidates from their everyday lives so they could develop the discipline to write and make commitments toward project completion. Our dean of professional studies, who oversees faculty development at St. Kate’s, saw the article and invited three English professors to think about it with her. How could we adapt something like this to our unique culture? Could it help our health-care faculty (our largest faculty cohort)—many of whom, because of shifting credential requirements in their fields, were back in school completing dissertations? Could professors in the liberal arts and sciences benefit? And, of course, could we begin one with very little money?
Briefly, a day at Scholars’ Retreat includes comfortable accommodations, recreational facilities, and good food. We devote two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon to “Sacred Writing Time,” when writing is the only activity option. A majority of the participants work together in a large room with personalized workspaces, laptop computers, a printer, and WiFi access. Each participant must meet one-on-one with a facilitator, available for consultations at designated times, at least once during the retreat. Just before lunch we hold small-group meetings, in which each of the three facilitators leads her group through 30-45 minutes of discussion and problem-solving.
Topics and activities change depending on the groups, which are generally divided by projects, never by disciplines. A nurse writing up the results of a clinical trial for a nursing journal will be in a group with a philosopher writing an article for a collection of academic essays. Participants working on book projects are together, and those writing dissertations generally constitute a group.
From the beginning we welcomed and deliberately accommodated a wide range of scholars from within the staff and faculty, including associate, baccalaureate, and graduate faculty from both our Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses. Over the years we have learned to encourage struggling scholars and reward (even pamper) consistent publishers. With constant encouragement from our deans, who invite their new faculty to attend, our participants now tend to divide evenly between seasoned retreat attendees and first-timers, which allows the returning scholars to serve as mentors and leaders for those who are just beginning. The facilitators are writers themselves—scholars who, like everyone else, work on their own projects during Sacred Writing Time.
We suspect the true secret to the success of the program is our evenings together. These meetings feature introductions and project descriptions, which lead to public work-in-progress readings. Retreat participants are required to read their writing aloud as others listen; the listeners then question, prod, and praise.
The revelation comes when the (reserved, Midwestern) readers officially (and usually painlessly) take center stage as scholars and discover that others find their work interesting. Then there’s no going back to hiding out in their offices. Afterwards, we drink wine, play charades, kvetch, and sometimes restructure the college from top to bottom long into the night. We’ve been known to throw a dance party if the participants are so inclined. In short, we play together.
Our primary goal in developing the retreats was to increase the scholarly output of our faculty. In the first three years alone, thirty participants tallied eight published articles and book chapters, five more submitted for publication, four completed dissertations, three books published, and two more are in progress. Participants also formulated a new interdisciplinary major, developed other new college programs, wrote grants, and came up with a myriad of new ideas for interdisciplinary projects. Recently, when the ten-member English Department hosted a reading by faculty who had published books in the last six months, three professors read, all from works they had significantly advanced during Scholars’ Retreats.
But as the retreats progressed and we reviewed our assessments, our goals expanded. We recognized that the goal of nurturing an institutional atmosphere conducive to scholarly work had become equally important to us and to the retreat participants. We now have an audacious goal to transform the culture at St. Kate’s: to make scholarly work, especially interdisciplinary scholarship, the foundation of relationships and the topic of conversations—and to publish a lot while doing it.
The promise is there. Scholars’ Retreat and other on-campus programs that have sprung from it have already affected our community. Our teaching load is fairly heavy (3-3) and heavily weighted in promotion criteria, so faculty members have found it difficult to prioritize scholarly work. This is, in fact, the obstacle to academic publication most frequently cited by our retreat participants. Yet our teaching load is also a large part of our self-definition; we pride ourselves on our teaching expertise and on our intensive advising.
Scholars’ Retreats have begun to expand that self-definition to include an increased sense of ourselves as scholars. Participant responses to our five-year evaluation survey, for example, included the following comments:
“The retreat rejuvenated me as a scholar.”
“It helped me commit to continuing scholarly work even after [my] sabbatical was over.”
“I became more committed to developing a scholarly plan for ongoing work.”
These remarks, made after the immediate afterglow of the retreat had dimmed, affirm that participants have begun to identify themselves as scholars and the college as a community of scholars.
As we assess the retreat’s effects today, we note that we share our scholarly work with one another more: discussions about the writing process can be heard in the cafeteria, the copy rooms, and the hallways, and they are full of shared vocabulary and in-jokes. Terms and concepts from the retreats now punctuate our conversations (“shitty first draft” from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird has become firmly entrenched in our culture). All who have attended the retreats now have a yellow caution sign for their office doors, proclaiming “Do Not Disturb: Scholar at Work,” so students, too, regularly encounter scholarship as part of the work of the college. We can’t overstate how bold it has
been for our faculty to use those signs, to claim space and time for scholarly work.
Equally important for transforming our work practices, participants have made connections across departments and degree programs. We have learned more about one another as scholars and as people. As one participant noted, “It was the first time I really met people from other departments, and I felt that I started to join into the academic community.” Another affirmed that she “developed positive relationships with colleagues.” And one retreat graduate wrote: “It has been the thing that has gotten me out of my office and away from my computer and introduced me to the community. I now know people from a lot of departments.”
Seeing faculty connect across disciplines as scholars and researchers and hearing them refer to one another’s published work in general conversations has been part of the change inspired by the retreat. All of us now know about sex-changing snails and how oven mitts are used in rehabilitative therapy, for instance. This, too, has been transformational for a college sometimes troubled by tensions between the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses and between the professional and health-care fields and the liberal arts and sciences.
How We Do It
The success of the College of St. Catherine Scholars’ Retreat is the result of strategic choices that enacted our values and reflected our community. Although emerging from our unique context, this brief list of how-to’s might offer help to other institutions on a quest for a more productive scholarly environment, especially one based on community-building rather than fear or competitiveness.
Because the campus of colleges like ours is often over-associated with teaching and service responsibilities, our summer retreats take place somewhere else. Our sites are close enough for convenience (and time efficiency) but far enough away to remove participants from the overwhelming details of their professional and everyday lives. Our current location has private rooms and lots of amenities, but we didn’t start out there. Anyone who attended “the hot year” in the Spartan (read: non-air-conditioned) facility will happily regale you with stories of their suffering there.
Although scholarly writing can be solitary, it never takes place in a vacuum. At the retreat, participants always have the option to write alone in their rooms or together in the large workroom. Far from distracting, this workroom has proven inspiring; it fairly teems with creative energy. As we adjusted our practices following yearly assessments, this community workspace was one of the elements that surprised us most with its success. Then we built on it because it worked.
At the same time, we learned that the small groups build relationships and foster interdisciplinary conversation; they also challenge scholars to articulate their ideas to educated people outside of their own fields. This combination of individual, small-group, and large-group activity situates scholarship in community, nurtures productivity, and provides support while allowing for individuality and autonomy.
A key function of the small groups is to help scholars set and realize goals. On the first day, participants describe the overall goal for their writing project to be accomplished by the end of the retreat. They then break that goal down into specific daily tasks—a number of words or pages or a time commitment, for example. We found that clarifying, declaring, and witnessing goals in the small groups helped scholars organize their writing projects and move them forward; it held them accountable to their colleagues.
At the end of the retreat, participants also set goals that help them continue to prioritize writing in their everyday lives and come up with strategies for creating accountability. Since working with a writing partner or group is particularly effective, we now have several writing groups meeting regularly on campus.
Sacred Writing Time
The core of the retreat is Sacred Writing Time, the time allotted for everyone—facilitators and participants—to work on scholarly projects. This work includes any part of the scholarly writing process: brainstorming, researching, number-crunching, data entry and assessment, drafting, or proofreading. Sacred Writing Time is dedicated to making progress on the project. Marking out specific “sacred” hours helps writers build strong productive habits that are transferable (with some determination) to our everyday schedules during the semester.
Our retreat is more than just allotted time and space to write. Even experienced scholars find that writing can be an emotional minefield. Knowledgeable facilitators help participants develop and advance writing projects by proposing and assigning short readings, leading discussions, assisting in goal setting, and responding to drafts.
Because facilitators play a crucial role in increasing scholarly productivity and building community, they must have writing expertise. St. Kate’s facilitators are English professors who know the community context and have all taught writing, written professionally (in different genres), and worked with writers individually and in small groups. Our tasks are to demystify the writing process, offer suggestions, troubleshoot logistical problems, and help scholars develop their work within a supportive community.
It ought to be noted, however, that we named our program “Scholars’ Retreat,” not “Writers’ Retreat.” This acknowledges and invites a range of scholarly activities such as reading, researching, or organizing files. More importantly, it reflects the broader purpose of building scholarly community, not just producing good writing.
St. Kate’s pays for the retreat’s room, board, supplies, and facilitator stipends. This offering of writing time and space underlines the administration’s support of scholarship and helps stimulate productivity. It’s a simple but very clear statement: We value this work enough to reward you for it.
But as anyone in academia knows, creating initiatives is less of a problem than sustaining them. Scholars’ Retreat is valued by our sponsoring dean, who constantly makes the case to fund it, and it continues because of her assertive and nurturing leadership. When all is said and done, it is the strong partnership between the dean and the facilitators that has been one of the key elements of our success.
Although a valuable resource for doctoral, pre-tenure, or pre-review faculty and staff, our retreat is not a top-down affair. No one compels attendance. Participants decide to apply and, if accepted, pay a small non-refundable fee. More ceremonial than anything else, this fee marks their investment in the retreat (and dissuades last-minute cancellations).
Echoing the values of our college community, the retreat sets writing and intellectual production alongside collegiality, conversation, and connection. Our scholars are encouraged to write at Sacred Writing Time, then to take breaks, relax, and play at other times. This balance helps inspire and revive participants, allowing them to pace
themselves, connect with others, and work more steadily and effectively.
The three facilitators enjoy coming up with inexpensive hospitality gifts of pens (like our fightin’ lightin’ writin’ frog), notebooks, pencil boxes, or tote bags. We choose shared readings about writing—short, inspiring pieces to help frame conversations. We conduct simple writing rituals, such as instant haiku or collaborative writing. And we host a closing ceremony with certificates of completion. When the retreat is over, we send a thank-you to each participant—a photo montage of images, both serious and silly, from the retreat. A part of the ethos, these special touches foster and sustain a community bond even after the participants have scattered.
Each year, the facilitators have conducted and reviewed participant evaluations, refining the retreat design based on feedback. After the fifth year, we followed up with a comprehensive survey to continue building on our successes. The results are given to the dean and used to build the case for ongoing funding. They have also helped us to recognize and clarify what the Scholars’ Retreat does for the college.
Because of our Catholic and feminist roots, faculty, staff, and students at the College of St. Catherine readily recognize the values of community, cooperation, and collegiality as characteristic of our culture. In developing a Scholars’ Retreat that would work for our college, we deliberately drew on this culture and tried to reflect it in our practices. We expect that other colleges and universities would do the same in adapting this program to their needs.
Early participants repeatedly requested that we recreate the supportive atmosphere of the retreat on campus, making it easier for them to continue the work begun over the summer. We developed several programs in response, with varying degrees of success. We established one afternoon a week as Sacred Writing Time in the faculty study of the library: “Writing Wednesdays,” when faculty meet to work on their scholarship in a common area. (One group that met there regularly during their sabbaticals called themselves “The Sabbatical Sisters.”) Small groups of faculty have formed their own scholars’ retreats, arranging hours or days away at coffee shops and cabins.
We now regularly set aside two weeks as On-Campus Scholars’ Weeks, one in January (at the beginning of our J-term, during which most faculty-members have a three-week hiatus from teaching) and one the first week in June. We use them to jump-start our scholarly work before breaks. During these times, by general agreement (and administrative fiat), no committee meetings are scheduled, and chairs and other faculty are encouraged not to ask participants to attend to anything but scholarship.
Faculty and staff interested in working in a common area meet in the library’s faculty study for Sacred Writing Time each morning and afternoon. Lunch is provided gratis, and writers emerge from everywhere to claim it. Topics related to scholarly writing are introduced as we eat. Regular retreat participants lead discussions on finding time for writing in a busy teaching schedule, overcoming writers’ block, forming writing groups, finding and working with a publisher for your book, and other related topics. We end with a celebratory wine-and-cheese reception hosted by our deans and the senior vice-president.
Our recent January Scholars’ Week was our biggest ever, with nearly 40 participants, and our faculty’s enthusiastic engagement in writing was evident. At our last June retreat, participants discussed how to make our scholarly work more public through writing for outside audiences. Scholars from many disciplines connected energetically over this shared goal. Again, the frequency and intensity of these conversations is new and vital to our community.
In short, Scholars’ Retreat has given our teaching-centered faculty a way around the publish-or-perish mentality; it has offered us a strategy to forestall the undermining of community cohesion and scholarly success that such an attitude often inspires. To pursue a metaphor, the College of St. Catherine has stopped tiptoeing around the publishing beast; now we enjoy her company, and we toe tap with her (appropriate, considering our president can be found tap dancing on MySpace).
And we think that you too can dance. We believe that our simple program can be replicated by other colleges and universities whose faculty is similarly focused on teaching—and with comparable, and now more predictable, results: helping self-identified teachers and practitioners see themselves as scholars, inserting scholarship into community conversations, generating interdisciplinary practices and projects, linking a diverse (even divided) faculty around shared habits and goals, building a college-wide sense of intellectual community and playful collegiality—and, of course, producing more scholarly publications.
Cecilia Konchar Farr is a professor of English and women’s studies, Joanne Cavallaro is chair of the English department and an associate professor of English, Gabrielle Civil is an associate professor of English, and Susan Cochrane is the dean of professional studies—all at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota.