Dissertation Boot Camps, Write-Ins, and Writing Retreats
Reprinted from the Council of Graduate Schools, GradEdge
For several decades there has been general agreement that graduate students are more successful when they have supportive and effective mentoring. Yet over the past decade or so, the increasing expectations for teaching and student engagement, research, publishing, securing research funding, and engaging in university service have made it difficult for faculty to provide consistent and effective mentoring to all graduate students in their programs. As a result, mentoring accessibility and effectiveness can be highly variable across individual faculty and programs.
Given the evidence that good mentors can have a critical impact on students’ confidence, competence, degree completion, and career, there’s an irony in that, at the point that students may feel the most anxiety and pressure to complete their degree, they receive (or perceive) the message, “Now go away and write. Contact me when you have a chapter (or two or all of them) ready for me to read. Good luck with that.” Whatever sense of community that new student orientation events, coursework with one’s entering cohort, or qualifying exam success and entering the ABD club have engendered, the independence expected of most students, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, at the thesis and dissertation stage only increases the stress and isolation reported by graduate students when they begin to write their thesis or dissertation.
Cornell is one of many graduate schools that have begun to address the need for writing support, advice, and peer mentoring at this critical stage through Dissertation, Thesis and Proposal Writing Boot Camps.1 Our events are designed to be “inward-focused” boot camps, versus “outward-focused” boot camps (Simpson, 2013). The former are part of a more comprehensive effort to provide writing support across programs using multiple approaches; the latter often “lack strategic planning and explicit discussion of program goals with students and university stakeholders” (p. 2). Lee and Golde (2013) from Stanford University have also described this model as “Writing Process” as opposed to “Just Write” events. In the former, students consider their writing process, identify and use effective strategies, and overcome the challenges in conversation with fellow boot campers, facilitators, and writing consultants. The latter, “Just Write” events, support students’ writing productivity by providing space, food, and structured time. At Cornell our goals include helping students to
- identify and use strategies that increase writing productivity and lead to successful, timely degree completion;
- reflect on their individual writing process and habits resulting in an individualized strategic plan for writing that includes daily goals, interim deadlines, target completion date as well as effective strategies for managing time, work, self, and advisor;
- create an ongoing peer writing support community so that students continue their productive and successful writing post-Boot Camp.
For each boot camp we accept applications and invite up to 60 students to attend. To allow as many students as possible to participate, we have overlapping groups, with staggered start dates and times, of 10 to 15 students. For example, we start a dissertation group on Friday morning, another dissertation group on Friday afternoon, a thesis group on Monday morning, and a proposal writing group on Monday afternoon. All groups come together only at lunch and include guest speakers; popular topics include wellness and work-life balance, data and information management, and the graduate school’s thesis submission process.
We provide writing space, breakfast and lunch, appointments with writing and statistical consultants, mid-week neck massages (by a therapist, not a dean) as well as a Stress-Free Zone (with crafts, handweights, and exercise bands). An essential component that establishes the foundation of what happens at boot camp and beyond is the introduction/orientation that occurs on the first day. Students introduce themselves with a two-minute synopsis of their research and the stage and status of their writing. Following introductions, students share their writing goals for the week as well as any challenges at this point in their writing and degree completion. The facilitator suggests strategies for overcoming these obstacles that often delay or stop students’ productivity and progress. (Their participant handbook includes a list of 30 such strategies, titled “The Boot Camp Way.”) It’s not unusual at this first meeting for students to offer their own experiences and strategies to their peers. This supportive community-building continues in daily goal-setting and check-in meetings (20 to 60 minutes). By the third day students decide if they want to have their team meeting without the facilitator.
From both formal assessment and anecdotal information, we knew that boot camps are effective. Students report that, although the advice and encouragement, guest speakers, and the non-stop food buffet are appreciated, the most valuable part of boot camp is being part of an ongoing writing support following boot camp. Indeed, following the first boot camp (both at Columbia and Cornell), we began to schedule Write-In events for students to return and write together as a group. (As word spread, we opened the write-ins to all graduate students who wanted a quiet writing space, not just those who had participated in boot camp.) At Cornell, our write-ins occur every morning, Monday through Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. in our graduate student center. (We host a once-a-month “Re-Boot” for boot camp alums for both writing and outcome data-gathering purposes.)
Our boot camps have been replicated in Cornell’s disciplinary graduate programs (and some include both student and faculty writers). A new model we are piloting this semester during spring break may be even more easily replicated by departments; the Writing Retreat includes up to 10 groups (of five students each) that will be student-facilitated.
What the Deans Learned at Boot Camp
We have discovered a number of outcomes, both planned and unanticipated, about Boot Camp.
- Students appreciate the diversity of disciplines in their groups for several reasons. One rule of boot camp is, “What happens at boot camp stays at boot camp!” We promise confidentiality, and students speak candidly about their struggles and fears. They also are surprised at how many of their own experiences and struggles are shared by other students, even in different disciplines. We frequently hear, “I didn’t know anyone else had my problem.” The writing pairs and small groups that continue maintain this multidisciplinary composition both for the support and the relative anonymity that non-departmental peers provide. Stage diversity is also beneficial. Students beginning their writing learn from experienced peers. More experienced peers discover they have advice to share, which serves as a confidence-booster for them.
- Boot camp taught us the value of communal writing space for graduate students. The Write-In quiet space (Boot Camp rules apply) with coffee (and occasionally food) allows students whose work schedules or family commitments don’t permit them to attend a week-long event to join a peer writing community. For these come-and-go sessions, students sign in with their name and writing goals. When they depart, they indicate how long they wrote and whether they accomplished their goals; this creates accountability and underscores students’ commitment to their writing and degree completion.
Whether sponsored by the graduate school, Writing Center, or in collaboration with multiple campus partners, boot camp by any name using any model can be effective in promoting degree completion and helping students to develop a peer writing community. We at Cornell encourage others to develop, and share with the expanding boot camp community, your institution-specific model for writing support and peer community building.
By Jan Allen, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, Graduate School, Cornell University
For a copy of Cornell’s Boot Camp Guide (with participant handbook, application, assessment survey and information about additional Graduate Schools’ Boot Camp models), email Jan.Allen@cornell.edu.
Lee, S., & Golde, C. (2013). Completing the dissertation and beyond: Writing centers and dissertation boot camps. Writing Lab Newsletter, 37(7-8), 1-6.
Simpson, S. (2013). Building for sustainability: Dissertation boot camp as a nexus of graduate writing support. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 10(2).
1Cornell’s model is an expanded version of Dissertation and Proposal Writing Boot Camps for doctoral students at Columbia University (2009-2012) where the author was Associate Dean for PhD Programs (2005-2012).