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Handbook for Digital Storytelling – Digital Commonwealth

As part of the Digital Commmonwealth team we have been working on producing a resource which helps people develop digital storytelling skills.

The handbook is intended for use by the participants of the project, as well as anyone who has an interest in using digital media literacy skills for storytelling. It contains themes and examples of work created during the project, and suggested exercises to help develop digital storytelling skills which can be used for any context, not just the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

The handbook is structured around exploring a theme (in this case the Commonwealth) and then ideas for using blogging, audio, social media and video for digital storytelling.

Each section contains:
● An overview of the aims and learning for each skill
● An introduction to the skill
● Suggestions for how to use this skill for digital storytelling
● Examples of the skill in action (from Digital Commonwealth projects)

You can find out more about the Handbook on the Digital Commonwealth website – where you can download it as a .pdf or as an apple ibook.

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5 Lessons I learned from teaching Digital Literacies in Scottish Schools

Through my role as project coordinator for the Digital Commonwealth, I’ve had to spend a lot of time this year behind my laptop, coordinating, making sure that the right people are in the right location learning the right things from the right people.

Working alongside the project’s education coordinator Alison McCandlish, the project developed a Scotland wide digital literacy programme that was to be delivered across all local authorities, to transition learners between p6, p7, s1 and s2 level – as well as a community media and creative voices element for adult learners to explore digital technology through creative practice.

That was the vision anyway – those who work in education, local government, digital, community learning, literacy training will understand that experiences when working across different contexts, sectors, authorities will vary tremendously, but when it works and factors comes together then it can be incredibly rewarding for those taking part.

Although my role has been mainly project management, recruitment and advocacy, due to the sheer scale off project like this, I actually managed to get out and deliver some of our sessions as a trainer in a couple of local authorities. Meaning that I would actually have to experience using the resources we had developed, tested and discussed in the office in an actual real life classroom with real life learners. As well as getting the chance to teach young people, rather than adults – a good opportunity to learn some new tricks in classroom management.

No pressure eh?

Anyway (being an Ayrshire lass) when I was offered Rothesay Primary on the Isle of Bute as my first school to deliver training to, I was on that 8am ferry as fast as a commonwealth games related athletic pun. I got to deliver 2 sessions to the primary 7s on blogging and audio recording.

Post games, I’ve been working with Our Lady of the Missions Primary down the road in Giffnock – and both these experiences made me think that I should write up some quick reflections on delivering digital literacy training in schools – from the chalkface, as they say.

So here we go, 5 lessons from my experience as a frontline trainer on the project…

1) Communicating Expectations

Managing expectations of all the people involved, the learners, the teacher, the trainer and the overall aims of the specific project that the workshops were addressing is probably the most important factor of ensuring the that the workshop and the contents produced at the workshops were a success.

As the workshops each focused on a different element of digital storytelling (blogging, audio, video and social media) each week had to have a distinct flavour, but at the same time had to work towards a final “product” that had hopefully been defined by the school in their application to take part in the project.

“Digital” can mean all things to all folk, so one person’s expectation of a blogging 101 session could vary vastly from producing content, web development or even building websites from scratch. How you do it, well, that could vary, but if you don’t have anything to talk about it is going to be difficult to write – no matter what technology you use. Trying to write a blog post from scratch is no different from trying to start an essay, write an email or begin a novel.

That why our commonwealth themes were important, they tied things together, they allowed us to explore ideas conceptually before having an attempt at writing down experiences. A blank page is scary no matter how scary you are, so much of the workshop was about getting people to think about what is possible, not just the art of sitting on a computer learning a new tool for word publishing.

We tried to avoid that at all costs, but that where expectations come in – I learned that you need to be super clear about the purpose of the workshop, the role of the technology in sessions (ie we will be doing things that are not on computers, in fact practice is more important than the tech you are using) and gaining access to it.

Which takes me to my second lesson…

2) Technology

When we began this project in October last year, a few people asked us at the launch event if we would be giving away tech to those participating. Judging by the range of equipment that the schools and community groups we were working with already had, many projects do come with a capital spend for technology for the activity, often leaving behind the legacy of some kit to carry on using later.

The problem is that this can often be a block in continuation of digital literacy projects. If we focus too much on the kit that we desire, without thinking about why we desire it, there is every chance that when a project concludes, that kit will sit at the back of the cupboard unused – with nobody around to take responsibility for its advocacy.

The ethos of our project was to encourage people to use what they already have. This is great in theory – as it allows for the groups in questions to conduct a mini-tech audit and activity reflect on what they have, dig it out and try using it again – BUT – it does make it challenging when delivering consistency.

Every local authority we visited had different set of tools to work with – when I went to Rothesay, I was greeted to a roomful of primary 7s who each had a wifi enabled laptop in front of them – where as in other schools, we did a fantastic job at planning blog posts using mini whiteboards, paper and pens and easispeak recorders – even if we couldn’t access certain social media sites. It just depended on what the school had access to, how the comfortable the teachers felt using the equipment and how much access to websites they had in the classroom.

Which takes me to my next part…

3) Flexibility

Delivering workshops of this nature, as an external project – across multiple local authority areas – is going to be challenging at the best of times, however, the most important factor of delivery was the ability to be flexible and be open to work collectively with the teacher(s) to ensure that the content that the learners make can actually happen.

We’ve all been there -walked into a room with a workshop plan, ready to take on a well prepared 3 hour session to a roomful of eager participants – only to find out that the entire internet is blocked and the projector doesn’t work. It’s not the end of the world.

For me, the heart of the Digital Commonwealth project was in teaching skills that allow to make your engagement with tech better. We prepared exercises in interview skills, all which can be done without a single piece of technology – we developed ‘paper tweets’ using post-it notes that allowed for the learners to talk about social media without having to be all over social media and developed scripts and storyboards for film and audio production. Flexibility was key – and having 4 sessions to develop a product meant that we could work closely with the teachers to ensure that we could find a solution around some of the more sticky technical challenges.

Which relies heavily on point number 4…

4) Relationships

The success in the workshops was all in the planning and communications with those involved. In some cases there were nearly 5-6 people involved in getting the workshops up and running in each area; local authority people, teachers, head teachers, cultural leads, legacy people. This involves a lot of phone-calls, emails and multiple cups of tea. What we must remember is that what we are developing and piloting here is new ways to understanding digital literacy in this context. When I started this job, it was a lot to get my head round in terms of communicating it to key stakeholders and participants – and now we are 2 months post games, it can become too easy to rest on hindsight, it was a long slog to convince people to work with us, but those who did, did so with great enthusiasm. Relationships are such an important factor – and I certainly hope that over the coming months that we continue to build on these connections to build and improve strategies around being able to teach digital literacies in these varying contexts.

Finally…

5) Empowerment (through demystifying risk)

This is possibly my most radical learning outcome from my experience as a trainer. Equipping and supporting those on the frontline with the language required to challenge and shape some of the existing practices associated with digital media in the classroom. I’m an ‘outsider’, I exist on the fringes of a lot of different things. I’m not a teacher – my role was to deliver this project, but my ‘outsiderness’ allows me to met with many people, share best practice, recommend techniques and strategies for overcoming blocks, matching up people across conventional work networks and be able to share this with the people I encounter.

That’s why I’m writing this blog post – I wanted to share these thoughts with you. Pass it on, add to it, but most importantly continue the dialogue around digital literacies. Like most things in the last few weeks, the more we talk to each other about these challenges and opportunities, the more confident other people feel about telling their stories within this context – and the more risk can be demystified.

With this in mind, does anybody have anything they wish to add or feel like I missed?

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Research Seminar

Presentation (w @kierandhamilton): Morally High, Is Twitter being used as an online space to challenge dominant socio-political discourse around drug-use?

In my last post about writing goals, I said my February goal was to work on a paper with Kieran (who has just started a PhD in Alcohol and Drug Studies at UWS). Last Thursday, we were invited to present the work-in-progress at the UWS School of Education/Creative and Cultural Industries Research Showcase at the CCA in Glasgow. We are working towards a completed paper that has been accepted at the Leisure Studies conference that is hosted at UWS Paisley in July. I’m also on the organising committee for that.

This was a piece of research we had been discussing in the gap between me decided the future plans of my PhD and restarting, so it was nice to actually produce an outcome from that time away from my own research – and get to focus on some of the larger questions regarding social media ethics and public data using a subject such as perceptions of drug users and how people use social media as a socio-political device. We should have the full paper completed by July to be included in the proceeds. Slides and Abstracts are below.

Hamilton, K. & Jones, J. (2014) Morally high: Is Twitter being used as an online space to challenge dominant socio-political discourse around drug-use? 

Background: Current socio-political discourse around drug use delineates illegal drugs as “malevolent forces”, which “pathological” individuals succumb to as a result of moral or mental weakness (Tupper 2012). Drug users are designated as “outsiders” (Cohen 1956) with the result being that drug users are stigmatised as “disgusting” and “dirty” individuals (Tupper 2012) who pose a threat to the dominant normative values of society (Taylor2008). Although there is current debate around the “normalisation” of drug use within society, where it is argued that drug use has become an accepted leisure activity for “ordinary” people (Blackman 2004), the utilisation of simplistic and sensationalist portrayals of drug users by the news media elite has acted to reinforce negative stereotypes of drug users (Critcher 2003), contributing to issues of stigmatisation and consequently social exclusion and health-related problems (Taylor 2008, Butt, Paterson & McGuinness 2008). Emerging participatory transformations in digital communications, such as the ability to self publish through social media, blogs and virtual communities developed through online discussion forums, provide potential for the public to challenge existing socio-political discourse (Hands 2011), particularly around drug use and drug policy (Wax 2002).

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to assess the extent to which Twitter users utilised Twitter as an online space to either challenge or reproduce dominant socio-political discourse in response to the channel 4 documentary “Legally High”, which featured several individuals who use novel “legal” substances, as well as illegal substances.

Method: An algorithm was used to capture tweets which were published in response to the documentary “Legally High”, identified through the use of the hashtag “#LegallyHigh”. Discourse analysis will then performed on these tweets to assess the extent to which dominant discourse around drug use and users is either reproduced or challenged.

References:

Blackman, S. (2004) Chilling Out: The Cultural Politics of Substance Consumption, Youth and Drug Policy. Berkshire: Open University Press.
Butt, G. Paterson, B, L. Mcguinness, L, K. (2008) Living with the Stigma of Hepatitis C. Western Journal of Nursing Research, Vol: 30 (2), pp. 204-221.
Cohen, A. (1956) Delinquent Boys: The Subculture of the Gang. London: Collier-Macmillan.
Critcher, C. (2003) Moral Panics and the Media. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Haas, T. (2005) From ‘‘Public Journalism’’ to the ‘‘Public’s Journalism’’? Rhetoric and Reality in the Discourse on Weblogs.  Journalism Studies, Vol: 6 (3), pp. 387-396.
Hands, J. (2011) @ is for Activism: Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture. London: Pluto Press.
Taylor, S. (2008) Outside the Outsiders: Media Representations of Drug Use. Probation Journal, Vol: 55 (4), pp. 369-388.
Tupper, K, W. (2012) Psychoactive Substances and the English Language: “Drugs”, Discourse and Public Policy. Contemporary Drug Problems, Vol: 39, pp. 461-492.
Wax, P, M. (2002) Just a Click Away: Recreational Drug Websites on the Internet. Paediatrics, Vol: 109 (6), pp. 1-4.

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Outcomes of Writing Retreat Number 2: Returning to the Ethics Form

I’m writing this blog post during the final 30 minutes of my second writers’ retreat. It has been great to be able to return to the retreat so soon after the last one in November. This time Kieran was able to join me (who is 2 weeks into his PhD, after spending the first 3 months of his enrolment completing him MSc research), which was good as it meant we didn’t ‘miss out’ on the weekend but also managed to get a lot done individually – more so if we had a working weekend at home.

My first retreat resulted in me writing over 13500 words as part of my PhD that I hadn’t touched since I began my year out. It was a pretty emotional experience for me as I was never sure if I would be able to return to it, let along to contribute to it. Over the course of 2 and a half days, I managed to turn my little piles of half written notes and false-start chapters into a format and structure in Scrivener that looked like something that could resemble a PhD, sketch out a plan for restarting and begin to make notes on my methodology. It really did feel (like one other retreater called it… an enema of the brain) and after I felt I could at least make a start at finding a route to restart, followed by completion.

This time I had a number of smaller things that I do. A couple of abstracts, one related to a work project about Digital Commonwealth, another the opportunity to submit an abstract to the Leisure Studies conference where I am on the organising committee for. For that, I wanted to begin to use my PhD research again, rather that presenting on something new. I needed to update my work so it was suitable for that audience in 2014, not recycling presentations from the last time I properly worked on my PhD.

So, I thought it might be a good opportunity to begin that dreaded ethics form that I had been avoiding since long after I returned from Vancouver. Rowena gives us 5 mins at the start of the retreat to set short (by the end of the night), medium (by the end of Saturday) and long term (by the end of the retreat) writing goals using free writing, paying attention to how many words we can write in 5 minutes (325 words if you are wondering), then we discuss these goals with our neighbour. I mentioned that it would be good to start preparing an ethics form by the end of the retreat.

The reality is that I completed a full, complete draft of an ethics form. All 8072 words of it – before lunch time today. That includes a letter of invitation, participant information sheet, consent form and a set of interview questions. I have eligibility criteria for my interviewees, I have a procedure for how I will go about doing it, I even have the theoretical underpinning and managed to contextualise and find a way of supporting my ethnographic data that I collected during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games nearly 4 years ago. It is all there. At least in draft form. But the only way I can describe it is that I now possess the practical steps that I need in order to collect the right data and use a grounded theory (I only found out that I could do that in the pub on Thursday!) to develop an understanding of what actually happening during Vancouver 2010 with regards to blogging, citizen journalism and independent media.

I also have a new title for my PhD, the last time I posted after the retreat, I wasn’t too sure about the focus – did I want to use London 2012 data, did I want to focus more on digital storytelling? – so now I have decided to look at the following, ahem:

Hacking a Digital Legacy: Uncovering the Digital Storytellers of Vancouver’s “Social Media” Olympics

I’ve managed to elaborate on this more during the process of preparing an ethics form and the necessary materials that are required to approach an ethics committee in order to carry out the research. I’m still not registered back on the PhD officially, so I am unsure what the best way to take it forward can be at this stage. All I can hope at the moment is to use my ethics forms as a opportunity to focus the next steps of thesis, collect the relevant data and work towards getting it written it up.

So, retreat number 2 down, with 3 minutes to go – including this blog post & 3 documents I needed to finish for work on Friday, that’s my total number of words for the weekend now sitting at 10401 during 11 hours of dedicated writing that is possible during the retreat. This has definitely pushed me on in terms of hitting my writing goals for the end of the month &  when I’m pretty busy at work as 2014 kicks in properly.

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PhD writing

What I need to write about during January 2014

First post of 2014, a particularly important year for me as I’m working full time on a project with “Glasgow 2014″ in the job description. Eek. Secondly, 4 years after I initially collected my data from the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics (after a year out in 2013!) I am returning to my PhD (part time) to complete the write up and get it off my desk for good.

Just two more days (a weekend!) until I am back to work, readdressing my swelling inbox and trying not to think about just how many workshops, events and training days and materials I need to coordinate before the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. Until then, I am using my precious me time to set a-side some public writing goals to help me work through the PhD deadlines (evenings and weekends only) alongside preparation for writing retreats and days of focus.

I intend to do one of these posts every month, ticking of what I managed, what I intend to do next and how much I need to do until I have finished the bloody thesis.

A reminder of my PhD focus:

I updated my PhD abstract at the last writer’s retreat, I will probably have another bash at it by the end of the month but for those who need reminding, this is what the main focus on my PhD is about:

From Vancouver 2010 to Glasgow 2014: Major events as a catalyst for community-led media production

The thesis seeks to identify and evaluate the catalytic effect of mega events on community-led media generation and citizen journalism in host city and nation environments. Major events such as the Olympics and Commonwealth Games allow us to track the rise and maturity of new media platforms as institutions and organising committees adapt and react to profound changes to the media ecosystem where audiences become co-producers of the media experience. Since the growth and maturity of social media platforms and emergence of easier to access mobile and digital tools for networking and self-publication, granular narratives can emerge through alternative communication channels out-width established platforms such as newspapers, television and accredited broadcasters.

The thesis tracks these forms of independent or alternative narratives across 3 major events; the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, the Olympic Torch Relay for London 2012 and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and will demonstrate the catalytic effect of major events can have on independent/interactive/citizen-led forms of media. 

But having spent 8 hours reorganising my primary data for Vancouver 2010 (and the writing retreat was the first time I touched my PhD in a year – after 18 months intense work on the London 2012 Summer Olympics and now onto Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games). I might just still to one case study – this is a decision I need to make in the next few weeks, the xmas holidays have been brilliant for giving me some distance to actually think.

Anyway…

Personal Writing Tasks for January 2014: 

Ethics Form -> Methods Chapter:

My main focus this month is to draft a departmental ethics form for my PhD research. As it was an ethnography, I should have completed this before I went to Vancouver in 2010, however, this did not happen – and I don’t want to dwell (and I’m not sure this particular form existed or was even required when I started my PhD) – and instead I am looking to develop a strategy to complete a series of interviews with key participants who I encountered during my 6 weeks of Games time. I have collected most of my research diary, social media outputs (tweets, photos, blog posts, video) (which I guess I can call “live field notes” now, thanks by this fantastic blog post from Tricia Wang at Ethnography Matters), pdf archives from blogs and news sites, favourites and lists of videos and photographs and emails sent and received during the time I was in Vancouver – 1st of Feb to 7th of March 2010 – and inserted them into Evernote, with some basic tagging and notes to accompany them. This will form the basis of a timeline of activity, made up of media content, social media content and focused around my own experience during the Vancouver Games, with a particular focus on alternative media outlets and social media as a source for citizen generated news stories. Therefore, the interviews I will be requesting ethical approval for will be used to triangulate my primary data, giving people involved the opportunity to reflect on the experience, what were their motivations for becoming a citizen journalism and what came next?  I will be using the writer’s retreat I am attending on the 17th-19th Jan to work on this form and to develop my methods chapter some more.

#LegallyHigh

My second focus is to prepare an abstract for the Leisure Studies 2014 conference in July 2014 – which is being hosted at UWS (I’m on the organising committee). I’m working with Kieran (my partner – who is an alcohol and drugs policy researcher) to develop a paper on legal highs and mapping perceptions on social media. We collected the social data last year during a Channel 4 programme called “Legally High” and we are now about to begin the analysis. I will be coming from the methodological angle, particularly inspired by the ESRC Research Social Media Conference I had the privilege of speaking at last November. I’m into doing something with a relatively small data set, which isn’t attached to a mega event and allows me to explore some of those critical issues associated with Twitter research. The deadline for the abstract submission is at the end of the month so we’d like to have submitted pretty soon.

Work Writing Tasks for January 2014

As I blogged before Christmas, I have been working on developing educational resources for the Digital Commonwealth project, with a particular focus on how we can use Open Badges during the process. Amongst other things, my main writing task for work this month is to draft an outline for a Handbook of Digital Storytelling that focuses on social media, blogging, video and audio that our recruited trainers can use to help teach digital literacies skills to participants on the project. This needs to be outlined ahead of a Digital Storytelling Symposium that we are organising at the Big Lottery HQ on the 24th of January.

Phew.

Anyway, I’m sick as a dug and full of the cold from excessive chilling so I am going to enjoy my final two days off (after 16 full days off from work, first time since I left secondary school!) and then get cracking. Cheerio.

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The drive to the retreat

Writing Retreats; or how a trip to the mountains helped me restart my PhD.

Inspired by this call to action from Jessica on collecting the stories of mental health and PhD students, and the fact I am looking forward to working on ‘it’ through the enforced Christmas annual leave that working in a University insists I take (:-D),  I thought I would give an update on my progress of trying to get back on track with my own PhD.

For long time readers, I have been a PhD student (part time, self funded) since January 2009, starting at the University of Leicester and moving back to the University of the West of Scotland in October 2009 (full time, part-funded) – where I was an undergraduate at the previously named Paisley University between 2002-2005.

I am currently coming to the end of 12 months suspension – year out – as I had to deal with a combination of burn out, running out of funding and moving back to Glasgow to be closer to friends and family – and importantly the University where I am enrolled to complete my PhD.

Defining the problem:

My PhD journey, or my PhD story – in one word – has been a struggle. If it hasn’t been a struggle for finding cash to fund it, it is the struggle of receiving enough funding to pay your only your rent and topping it up with many other short term roles across the academic and related research industries. It’s the struggle of not feeling good enough, not being able to conform to some of the bizarre processes that some academics partake in, or the struggle to get my head round what the hell the Westminster government was doing to the Higher Education system. Struggle of course come with opportunity –  I have met so many people, learnt so much, done so much, dare say achieved so much in a short period of time that is 3 years of a PhD, but also blurred lines and distractions that are unavoidable when you are looking for the next series of work to pay the bills and make up the short fall on your stipend. It is getting wrapped up in projects that are relevant to your PhD  – mine is about the Olympics, so try and avoid the attention that gives you – wanted or otherwise – in a country which is hosting a Games during your final year of funding. Obligations, opportunities, blurred lines. It was hard – I sometimes wish I did it on something more desky.

Finding the space to write, the time to give your PhD more than a quick once over between project deadlines, marking, tutorials, travelling for work, is difficult. I would (and did – but cut them out) go into the details, but I don’t need to add to the body of blogging that states how much of an isolating, exhausting heavy-going experience writing up a PhD is. I know it can be done – and I know so many inspiring people who have managed to drag themselves from the brink of drop-out to completing and moving on with their life, doing even more amazing things in the process.

My year out of my PhD as allowed me to gain enough distance from the challenges I was facing when the funding dried up – and enough space to be able to write without guilt about how I felt about having to down tools on something I was defining my entire life on.

When I suspended my PhD, I lost a large chunk of my identity that I could always lean on with it. It was my certain, it was my base point. And I was definitely  not prepared for the polarised advise that came with the suspension, but I got/am getting through it – and probably about half way through June this year, I stopped feeling angry about the reactions, circumstances – or upset like I was a failure and let people down – and that should probably give it a by and move on with my life – but actually felt that it was indeed possible to carry on and get this document finished, submitted and move the hell on.

I know it can happen because I never thought I could be at this stage where I would be able to write a blog post about restarting the PhD. This time last year, if you mentioned the work ‘PhD’ or ‘Olympics’ – I would curl into a ball and rock back and forth, my closest friends would warn people to dare not utter those words unless you wanted to change the mood of the party to black. But despite those feelings, I know now that can see a way of finishing this – and much of it was overcoming that fear of opening the document after 18 months on the virtual shelf.

Restarting the writing process:

I have been working by stealth on finding ways to write and to carry on writing, even if I am technically in limbo officially- writing doesn’t need me to be enrolled for it to happen at this stage.

A few weekends ago, I went to a Writer’s Retreat in Aberfoyle, hosted by Prof. Rowena Murray who has recently joined UWS. I found out about the retreat through some other PhD students (mainly those, who are like me are members of staff too) – and it was one of many that happen all year round.

The format usually takes place over 2 days, where I took part in over 11 hours of group writing, chunked up between 1hr-2hr blocks of working in silence as a group, with 1/2 hour/meal breaks between them. At the start of the retreat we were asked to write a short, medium and long term goal for the weekend, and to discuss it with a partner about how you were going to achieve it – the shortest goal was for the Friday evening session itself (1hr 30 mins), which after a 2 hour drive after work from Glasgow to the remote village of Gartmore near Aberfoyle, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to open my laptop, let along write something relating to my PhD. I had let that document become a demon, something that I could avoid easily – if only for my own sanity, so asking myself to tackle after a day of project work was a scary prospect.

For my short term goal, I said that I would try and rewrite my PhD abstract and to produce a revised chapter outline based on some of the notes I had been leaving myself in Evernote since I started thinking about my PhD again. The thing that surprised me the most is that I managed to do this quite quickly, and it wasn’t as painful as I thought. I thought I might want to completely change my PhD focus and move it towards the work that I have been doing recently, but after a bit of work on it, I was relatively happy with the current approach and indeed, time away from it and distance away from a media-saturated world gripped with Olympic hysteria has definitely helped me with clarity.

I don’t/didn’t have an ethics form prepared for my research, which I should have done back in 2009, so I thought if I was to complete one for the purpose of restarting, it would be easier to start from scratch than retroactively fit to the data I have – but instead, I found myself sketching out the method chapter that I have always wanted to work on – and focusing my ethics on gaining interviews from key participants that I encountered through my ethnographic data from Vancouver games time and London pre-games activity. Therefore my medium goal (what I wished to achieve by end of Saturday evening) was to take all the pieces of writing that I had and to rewrite them in order to ensure I had reviewed my previous progress and to turn the muddled mess that was my head in July 2012 into a document that I can authentically call the bloody thesis.

The final goal (by the end of the retreat) was have a document I could show at my meeting with the head of department the following Monday, a timeline for completion and compiled next steps for the next stages of writing. By the time we stopped writing on Sunday afternoon, I had written over 13200 words in 2.5 days, and had time to go for a swim, have dinner and drinks with friends and eat a lot of different types of cake. Importantly, I had found a way to unstuck the stuck, the possibility to actually open the document and start writing again.

PhD writing

Not only did I have a document I could call a thesis, a plan and the confidence to start writing again, I had unwillingly began the methods chapter – began work towards correcting the massive problem of not having a ethics form (3 years in) and could see how it would be possible to turn what I had into a PhD. The writers’ retreat was exactly what I needed in order to begin seeing myself as a writer – and gave me a safe space with other people who are pursuing writing projects to work together and support each other through some of the isolating factors of dealing with a project of this nature.

I have booked another retreat for the 17th-19th of January, and although I accept that this can’t be the only way that I will be able to work on my PhD, the technical of chunking up your day to focus on writing does help, being able to work closely with other PhD students does help and finding a way to get over the feeling of failure that comes with suspension does help. With the Christmas holidays kicking in from the 20th December this year – and this being the first year where I haven’t had to find a project to work on over the break to ensure the pressure of spending and the lack of holiday pay/steady income doesn’t result in no money come February, I am going to use the next 2 weeks to try and push up the word count on that bloody thesis document and prepare for my next burst of retreat.

My next retreat aim is to get the ethics form, rewrite the methods chapter and pursue interview request for triangulating my data that I already have from both Olympiads. Finding those days where you can dedicate your mind totally is hard, at the moment work pressures are so much that I am finding it hard to find time to sleep and eat properly, but I know that these will pass soon as we move onto a new stage of the project – in the mean time, I am going to carry on when I can, pushing the PhD document forward. It’s not perfect – and I have a long way to go, but I’m in the strongest position that I’ve been with my PhD so far and if it means that I have to wait a little longer to re-enroll, at least I’m moving in a better direction now.

Recommended reading (from Rowena’s Retreat briefing):

Murray, R (2012) It’s not a hobby: Reconceptualizing the place of writing in academic work, Higher Education. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-012-9591-7.

MacLeod I, Steckley L & Murray R (2011) Time is not enough: Promoting strategic engagement with writing for publication, Studies in Higher Education, 37(5): 641-54.

Moore S, Murphy M & Murray R (2010) Increasing academic output and supporting equality of career opportunity in universities: Can writers’ retreats play a role?, Journal of Faculty Development, 24(3): 21-30.

Murray R (2011) Developing a community of research practice, British Educational Research Journal, 38(5): 783-800.

Murray R & Newton M (2009) Writing retreat as structured intervention: Margin or mainstream?, Higher Education Research and Development, 28(5): 527-39.

Murray R (2013) Writing for Academic Journals, 3rd edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.

Murray R & Moore S (2006) The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach.  Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.

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