Escaping the Desk: Reflections on a Walking Seminar along Hadrian’s Wall

Nic Hilton is a first-year PhD candidate at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge studying growth and maturation in the novels of Patrick Ness. No major disasters befell her on the walk…which makes a change.

Vera Veldhuizen is a second-year PhD at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge, researching empathy, ethics, and justice in children’s war literature. Her current coping mechanisms are cooking and baking, cats, rowing, and hard-earned scoops.

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Running to the Hills to Escape the Desk

The thought of walking away from your desk can be a terrifying experience for any academic. The guilt of not being near your beloved computer, disconnected from the internet and, worst of all, not being able to just quickly check that one reference to make sure your thinking was clear, can leave you comatose with fear. How can I leave? I didn’t hit my word count yet! I know that I’ve not read enough articles. I simply cannot leave right now. I should be writing! Yes, the thought of running away from your desk can be painful. Very. Painful. But in that process of cutting the invisible academic desk strings there lies liberation. Moving away from the space that confines you is a way of opening up your own research, and whilst that is scary it is something that we as academics need to embrace. It seems glaringly obvious when you think about it: if you’re feeling stifled and restricted then it will inevitably show in your writing.

The same four walls, the blank screen, the pile of ever growing books and journals – they are not going to go away, and yet staying there is just as painful as leaving. So when the CRCLC decided to go to Hadrian’s Wall, it presented us with a simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating opportunity to switch up our perspectives on our research and grab some fresh air while doing it. We were going to blow the cobwebs away and take time to breathe whilst engaging in free academic talk. We were making the decision to look after our wellbeing, and in turn, our research.

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Creative and Academic Writing

While academic writing is our jam, when you are still looking at a blank page it can cause untold spiralling. So where do you start?

First, we changed our environment and our expectations of what we thought ‘work’ should look like. Every walking day of the trip had a theme proposed by a different scholar, who would then host a seminar at the end of that day’s walk linked to their respective research interests and expertise. For instance, Nic’s theme was “Time” (which we wittily renamed to “In the Nic of Time”), which not only links well to her own work on maturation and time as a social construct, but is a concept that is also central to most children’s literature research. The idea behind this format was not only to allow Nic to explore her own work through discussion, but also to hear how others would apply the same theories and ideas in their own research. By engaging with one another, our perspectives began to shift and that shift is important. The shackles drop and the research becomes fresh and inviting again. As we were at the wall, the boundaries that we had previously found stifling were expanding. The blank page doesn’t feel as scary as it used to, even if it has not yet been defeated.

Secondly, we turned seminar tasks on their head, finding more ways that we as intrepid explorers of the wall could free our writing. The seminar was not limited to challenging walks and academic conversation: a central part of each seminar was a creative writing task.IMG_4878 copy
Although as academics we are by definition also writers, that does not mean that we are comfortable or skilled at creative writing as well. At first, we were both quite nervous about the creative writing element of the walking seminar – especially because we had to read our writing out loud to everyone else! However, this exercise was arguably the most fruitful and exciting element of the whole experience.

Creative writing can be equal parts scary and fun. Being put on the spot amongst your brilliant peers, having to write something, anything, quickly and out of nowhere and then having to read it out loud is a challenge. If, like us, you are not quite comfortable with creative writing, it might feel like you’re going to present something very silly and that makes no sense at all. Yet it is because it was terrifying that it was so exciting to immediately notice the effects it can have not only on your academic writing, but on your thinking as well. Doing these types of tasks, forcing you to think about something seemingly random and to just write is quite liberating, in two distinctive ways. Firstly, it forces you to think differently about your writing and your ideas than you would in an academic context. As academics and PhD students we have a tendency to get extremely focused on one single thing, which can be limiting for our work and even lead to getting incredibly and frustratingly stuck. The skill of being able to put ideas together is key to both creative and academic writing, and stringing ideas together on the spot is a great way to train that skill and gain confidence while doing it. Secondly, by producing something on the spot this type of task also helps to show you that you can write.

Since we’ve been back home we’ve found it easier to tackle the blank page. At some (or even many) points during the PhD, or any form of academic writing, you will probably hit a wall and feel unable to write a single word. Staring at the empty screen is par for the course and can, at times, feel like its slowly sucking out your soul. On the spot writing, however, be it academic, or creative, fills that empty screen by forcing words onto it. Even though you will probably have to redraft or even delete what you just wrote, it breaks the writer’s block, proving to you that yes, you can write. Discussing your research in a new environment with your colleagues frees your mind and opens up different paths for your approach, showing that you do actually know what you are talking about, and yes, you can write.

 

7 comments

  1. Really interesting post on changing your perspective and how helpful it can be. I really find value in “just writing” as well, both creatively and academically. Both your PhDs sound really interesting as well!

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  2. An excellent idea! Think most people would benefit from getting out and about. Think the value of going out for a ramble is underrated, whether your blocked or not!

    Like

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