Thoughts on running retreats

From time to time, someone contacts us asking for our thoughts and experiences of running retreats. Here's what we've put together (based on questions from Claudia Kratochwil at the Vienna University of Economics and Business): 

What do I have to think about before I offer a retreat?

Consider how you hook people into the idea of retreats and how you promote the benefits to them.  Try to get support from senior management – retreats are valuable for staff development as well as tools for building a research culture; productivity (in other words getting writing done) is often a key motivator. To encourage participation share what staff typically talk about after they have been on retreats: reconnecting with their writing and themselves; their identities; the value of meeting people from other disciplines whom they would usually not meet; having a safe space to share writing experiences and disconnect from email and the web, and so on.

What would you say is really important relating to the logistics of holding a retreat?

Location is key. Being away from their normal environment helps people to focus; in addition to a good working space for writing (table space, enough power points, decent lighting, etc), it is helpful to have a breakout  space where pairs of people can go to talk. Thoughtful catering makes a big difference – fresh coffee and tea, biscuits, a good lunch – and having somewhere to share it together. Having these kinds of things taken care of gives participants the freedom to focus on writing. It doesn’t have to be expensive – it’s worth exploring what other venues your institution has or any charitable organisations who rent a room cheaply. You need to think about what the optimal number of participants would be in the space you have. The largest retreat we’ve run had about 18 participants; 12 is perhaps best, otherwise there is not enough opportunity for the reflection/conversations, which are a valuable part of the retreat.  

Any advice around diversity of participants, etc?

In our experience both staff and students enjoy meeting colleagues from disciplines other than their own and having the chance to feel part of a community wider than just their department. Retreats can help build communities irrespective of discipline.A diverse group does help participants get a kind of meta-awareness of disciplinary writing practices by comparing what is valued by other disciplines. However, with a group from just one department you have more chance of discussing continuation strategies, such as a regular weekly writing slot; staff groups like this may also decide to offer retreat experiences to students in their discipline, and students themselves sometimes go on to set up their own retreats for their departments. We’ve also found that even having staff and their PhD students has been fine - they value the time together, (mostly) respect boundaries and feel like they really belong. Having very experienced writers and inexperienced writers is good, as the conversations benefit all.

How important is structure for a successful retreat? 

Although there are other approaches to structure (i.e. much looser and freer) we feel our rigid timings work well and are very important; participants regularly comment on the paradoxical freedom they gain from being  constrained by timeframes. The conversations will inevitably carry on if they are left to, so pulling the focus back to writing is the facilitator’s main task. It's crucial for the facilitator to manage the time efficiently. It’s also worth encouraging teaching staff to try out the structured model with their students, or at least encourage students to break down their writing tasks into one hour chunks (with goals) to make writing more manageable.

Using exercises and managing the facilitation

We have a series of 3 minute writing exercises for focusing participants at the start of each writing session (found on this page). We also ask people to write a goal for each session – what they hope to achieve in the hour, what they are planning to do, etc. - and then share it with a partner or the group. This helps to raise an awareness of the thinking and writing processes, and creates a kind of accountability as people report back on whether they achieved their goals or not. Before the retreat, participants are asked to identify what they want to focus on during the retreat -  this gives them time to get some reading done and to come ready to write, which is crucial.

Participants usually require little encouragement to reflect on their writing - the challenge is more about containing the conversation. We tend to get people to talk briefly to the person with whom they shared their goal, inviting them to consider what worked or didn’t, and then the reflection is opened up to the whole group. There is often a lot of emotion connected to writing, so be prepared (people’s early bad experiences can resurface!) and for some there’s a lot of anxiety. It can be helpful to encourage people to change some of their practices, even if only to try something new for a day. We always stress that the participants will have a lot to offer each other, and that although we have suggestions and advice, much of the value of the retreats comes through the interaction of the participants and the experience of writing quietly, together. 

How can I aid the peer review process during a retreat?

We tend to do this quite lightly. Some people can be quite reluctant to offer their work up to peer review but we tend to think it’s a good idea and therefore strongly encourage participants to exchange writing.  Once they have done it, people really value the experience. To guide their reviewer, we usually suggest that the writer frames a focus or question for the reviewer to think about, so they don’t feel they need to comment on every aspect of the piece.. The difficulty is organising the space(s) so that it’s private enough and not too noisy (hence brief to access extra rooms/places, etc., can be helpful).

Can anyone successfully facilitate a retreat or do you need to be an experienced facilitator?

Although not completely essential, it is helpful to have had some experience of a retreat, either through being a participant in one or two retreats before running one, and/or doing the facilitation alongside someone who is more experienced. It takes practice to develop a light touch but it is certainly something that a person can get better at through experience. If this is the first time you are running a retreat, we would recommend keeping it really simple, not trying to do too much, and using the sample schedule and activities to guide you. The most important part is ensuring that participants have the retreat experience of goal setting, writing, reflection.