Writing for and in HPSR: The Joy of the Writing Retreat

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The previous edition of this blog reflected on the rewards and challenges of collective writing across academic disciplines, as a way of enriching one’s HPSR work and coping with the pressure to publish. Today, we focus on the organisation and benefits of writing retreats, one of CHESAI’s key strategies for stimulating collective writing.

Writing retreats are one of the backbone activities of academic practice. They provide academics with dedicated space to write, discuss, get to know each other, and reach out to colleagues, while making progress on those papers that are often pushed aside due to myriad assignments in the office.

For the past 4 years, CHESAI conducted retreats semi-annually around March/April and October/November. These retreats have been great spaces for in-depth networking, relationships building among team members, sharing experiences and making progress on papers or projects.

CHESAI has organised writing retreats for both small and large groups.

Large vs. small group retreats

CHESAI organised a big retreat for partners from India, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa on the specific theme of health systems governance. In addition, CHESAI organised semi-annual large retreats for its members from the universities of Cape Town and the Western Cape.

Each year an expert resident, usually from CHESAI’s external networks, was invited to join the retreat to share their experiences and current HPSR work. This provided additional learning space and opportunities for networks and collaborations outside the core CHESAI team. These networks have stimulated collaborative work with experts from around the world.

The advantage of a large group is that it is more open and involves lots of interaction with many colleagues whom you can learn from. The potential downside is that it impedes your personal writing space. It is therefore important to be aware of collective and individual spaces so you can benefit widely from such a retreat. You must carefully balance your individual commitments with the group’s discussion, meetings, workshops and social activities. This helps you to achieve your personal goals for the retreat, as well as those of the broader group.

CHESAI has also facilitated small group (or mini) retreats, which usually involve a team working on a particular topic or writing task such as theory of change, reflective practice, governance, or trust. For example, in June 2015 the thematic group on theory of change held a mini-retreat to analyse the results of a scoping review and in June 2016 a mini-retreat of the post-doctoral group focused on finalising a particular paper.

Although both forms of writing retreat require pre-planning, there is more flexibility in the small group retreats. Their advantage is that they help colleagues to make substantial progress on particular tasks they may have been struggling with as a team because they give people the space to collectively discuss issues and put their thoughts together without interruptions from broader group activities.

It is therefore very important to understand what you want to achieve with a retreat. If the purpose is a combination of gaining new insights, collaboration with multiple teams and individual writing, then the large group retreat is ideal. If you want significant focus on a specific issue, the small group, theme-specific approach is best.

 

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Why are writing retreats important for post-doctoral fellows?
The mini-retreat of the post-doctoral group enabled us to work together on a paper - Policy implementation gap: experiences from Ghana, Malawi and Botswana - that had been difficult to coordinate from the institutions in our various countries. We discussed and harmonised our ideas, worked through the comments received from senior colleagues, and also used the space to conceptualise another paper on the impact of political power on policy implementation.

For post-doctoral fellows, the large group retreats created opportunities to catch up with busy senior colleagues, as well as opportunities to learn about HPSR issues, global debates, theories, frameworks, concepts and projects from the group discussions and informal meetings. After achieving the group work objectives, the core aim of the retreats, we also had space for our individual writing.

The first time you experience a writing retreat is particularly interesting because of the mixed feelings of hope and apprehension resulting from your own inexperience and the anticipation that you will have to meet certain standards. You usually do not know exactly how to approach the writing retreat and somehow get over-worked and worried over what you want or are supposed to do. In extreme cases, you might feel pressured being amongst senior and experienced colleagues who seem to know what they are doing. With time, however, the writing retreat concept becomes clear and the space is better used.

To make the best of your time at a writing retreat, it is very important to have a clear agenda of what you want to achieve. You must have some pre-retreat preparation on the documents or projects you wish to work on and you must prioritise to enable you to focus. Planning to achieve too much creates stress and a sense of not having achieved your goals and planning for too little or not preparing may lead to less productivity, poorly balanced personal and group aims, or a wasted opportunity as you try to figure out what to do.

Why are writing retreats beneficial to the broader team?
Individuals get the chance to work on high-priority individual papers. Also, small thematic groups meet to work on the conceptualisation of papers, writing and updating each other on progress, thereby holding each other accountable by ensuring participation in the group’s activities, structured work and feedback to ensure all are in agreement about the task.

Of course, there are also lighter moments of social engagement that are important to refresh one’s mind. The informal spaces during tea, lunch and dinner breaks are also useful for discussions among colleagues and are powerful spaces for in-depth interactions, network and team building. Occasionally, social activities are organised to enable members to relax even against the backdrop of the intensive work. This is important for relationship building as well as creating trust because as colleagues share more, they get to know each other more deeply. In turn, these relationships reinforce professional and collective work as you understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, backgrounds, and experiences - all important for professional growth.

Martina Lembani and Gina Teddy

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