Strategic engagement: developing academic identities through writer’s retreat

Rowena Murray, I. MacLeod, L. Steckley

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


The subject of this paper is one aspect of developing academic identity, writing for scholarly publication. The background to this topic is not simply the pressure to publish but mixed messages about academic work: being an academic requires excellence in teaching, research and knowledge exchange, but the use of teaching-only contracts suggests otherwise. This creates confusion about the core business of higher education and tension between academic roles (Clegg, 2008). The development of academic identity in this context has been the subject of recent policy, commentary and research (Orme and Powell, 2008), and it is time to consider the development of the academic writer’s identity in the context of higher education’s strategic dissonance (Winter et al, 2000).

Focus of inquiry
The focus of this inquiry is an intervention designed to develop the scholarly writing aspect of academic identity, writer’s retreat. Specifically, this inquiry focused on a two-day residential retreat run off-campus. In the retreat’s structured programme of writing sessions, participants set writing goals. They all write together in the same room and give each other feedback on writing-in-progress. This study set out to explore the development of academic identities at writer’s retreat.

Research method
Forty academics who participated in one or more of six retreats between September 2005 and March 2006 were invited to take part in the study. Three did not reply. Two declined. Two had left the university. Thirty-minute semi-structured interviews were carried out with 27 participants (15 females, 12 males). As academic writers, their experience ranged from experienced (3) to novice (3), with the majority describing themselves as ‘less experienced’ (21). Interviews were transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were analysed by three researchers working independently and crosschecking coding. Ethical approval for the research was granted by the University of Strathclyde.

Theoretical framework
The paper uses psychodynamic theory (Menzies-Lyth, 1988) and socio-analysis, specifically theoretical models of containment (Ruch, 2007) and social defences against anxiety (Menzies-Lyth, 1988), to interpret and analyse the performance of academic identity and the barriers to producing scholarly writing. In the application of this theoretical approach we aim to promote interdisciplinary learning. In doing so, this study is one response to the accusation that research on higher education does not make sufficient use of theoretical frameworks in other disciplines.

The hypotheses to be tested through the analysis of the data were as follows:

• In the performance of the academic identity there would be evidence of competing and conflicting tasks where no task had overall primacy;

• Where this was evident the theory would predict that there would be evidence of anti-task activity, i.e. those tasks which prevent the primary task (scholarly writing) being achieved.

Research findings
The findings suggest that the difficulty of identifying primary task, in writing for publication, is related to a tendency towards anti-task, and this inhibits writing. This study shows that difficulties experienced by academics in writing for publication are not likely to be resolved by practical and technical approaches designed to improve writing skills. There must be a mechanism for supporting staff in defining the primary task, encouraging reflexivity in identifying anti-task tendencies and managing competing primary tasks through strategic engagement. We suggest explicit support at Departmental and Faculty level is central to the success of this approach.

The success of structured writer’s retreat in generating outputs can be explained through the function of containment, and the clarity of maintaining focus on the primary task of writing. Analysis of interviews shows the shift from ‘the organisation is telling me to do this’ to a collective, collegiate approach through holistic containment (Ruch, 2007). Unlike other types of retreat, structured retreat makes public the normally private act of writing. It makes visible the pausing, thinking, re-thinking, hesitations, anxiety, boredom, fatigue, excitement and pleasure of academic writing. It changes writing concepts and behaviours (e.g. former displacement activities become times to pause and refresh). Writer’s retreat is a transformative process through goal-setting, discussion of writing-in-progress and continuous peer review. By creating a form of holistic containment, the structure promotes these activities.

This study contributes to knowledge by showing that writer’s retreat is a transformative intervention in the sense that it raises unconscious processes to a conscious level. It enables strategic engagement with competing primary tasks, a new concept in the literature on academic writing. It adds to our hitherto limited understanding (Gardner, 2008) of how institutional and disciplinary contexts influence the formation of academic identity.

Clegg, S (2008) Academic identities under threat?, British Educational Research Journal, 34(3): 329-345.
Gardner, SK (2008) ‘“What’s too much and what’s too little?”: The process of becoming an independent researcher in doctoral education, Journal of Higher Education, 79(3): 326-350.
Menzies-Lyth, I (1988) Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays, Volume One. London: Free Association Books.
Orme, J and Powell, J (2007) Building research capacity in social work: Process and issues, British Journal of Social Work, 38: 988-1008.
Ruch, G (2007) Reflective practice in contemporary child-care social work: The role of containment, British Journal of Social Work, 37: 659-680.
Winter, R, Taylor, T and Sarros, J (2000) Trouble at mill: Quality of academic worklife issues within a comprehensive Australian university, Studies in Higher Education, 25(3): 279-294.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes
EventBritish Educational Research Association: Annual Conference 2009 - University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
Duration: 2 Sep 20095 Sep 2009


ConferenceBritish Educational Research Association
Abbreviated titleBERA 2009
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Academic engagement
  • Academic Writing
  • Academic practice


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