This fall I participated in a writing retreat with 11 other colleagues which entailed taking 5 days away, and lodging ourselves at a modest hotel in a small Quebec town, with our own bedrooms, a shared ‘writing’ room overlooking the river, 3 very good meals each day and easy access to a walking path or an indoor pool when the inevitable daily bout of writer’s cramp set in.
In my continuing interest in sociality, shared agency and “doing together”(see earlier postcards), I have been reflecting on how the ‘table’ became such an important form for our group, as the table literally “became” the material expression, function and shape of our practices and identities as women and scholars. Our relations with various forms of the ‘table’ make sense and meaning of the power, productivity, energy and collectivity that formed during these 5 days. Let me explain.
We shared one large writing room, the size of a small banquet hall, with high ceilings, windows, and wall lights to create atmosphere. Each of us had our own round writing table (3 metres in diameter) not too far apart from each other and following the perimeter of the room, plus our own swivel arm chair and study lamp. Our writing tables became our public addresses and our writing partners for the week, distinctively identified by each person’s particular arrangement of writerly tools, props, and talismans.
On my table were my laptop, ear buds, mouse, notebook, pens, a couple of toothpicks, and one 10 page pre-print all of which moved around me each day in my particular writer’s dance which alternated between stubborn procrastination and absolute focus and determination. I spent 12-14 hours each day at this table staring, writing, building a paper.
Each day at 12:30 and at 6:30 p.m. punctually, we paused and left our writing tables to assemble together at ‘our’ collective dining table instead and each occasion in a different, random seating arrangement. Over the week each meal became a more familiar gathering, identified by varied pitches of social and professional talk and laughter among women of different ages and life stages and in our two ‘official’ languages. By evening, a few glasses of wine concluded with a roundtable ‘check-in’ where each of us reported on our progress during the day.
These ’round-tables’ were classic occasions for “women’s ways of knowing” (Belenky, Clinchy & Goldberger, 1997) and particularly the woman-as- academic’s emotional and intellectual balancing acts of managing teaching, writing, politics and domesticity.
A table that came to overflow with laughter, advice, clarification, emotion, debate, references, and note-taking for further follow-up. A table materializing my identity as a new academic in sharp contrast to the official nameplate on my office door. I could see myself around the table, and I believe that my colleagues could also see themselves in my participation.
The final table which organized this writing retreat and which even further strengthens my shared identity as a researcher and academic is that ‘table’ which can order and organize almost any research publication or journal article, and scholarly impact. The story was recounted of how a tenured professor applying for promotion to full professor had an extraordinary impact on his research domain based on the citation frequencies of one publication in particular. And when asked to explain the popularity of this publication, his colleagues repeatedly noted how it was really only the summarizing analytic ‘table’ afterall which was being cited. Just the table.
The key to academic success. One excellent table could make all the difference. And so, each evening, at our daily round-table sharing, the question was frequently posed, “Is there or will there be … a summarizing ‘table’ for your work?”
So you see, the table has become a unique (among some of us) material and immaterial object of identity and ongoing desire –> a process, a mediator, a device, a tool, a discourse, an organizing aesthetic and a collective performance.
‘To table’ is to know, to share, to learn, to act together (and to wit, to laugh).
Credits and thanks to writer-scholar Rhonda Pyper, Telfer School of Management, for her leadership in introducing “women who write” retreats at the University of Ottawa and to Françoise Moreau-Johnson and the Centre for Academic Leadership for ongoing program coordination and financial support.