Lesson One: Structure. Since the beginning of June I have been spending many week days in this room located in the university’s swing-space colloquially referenced as “the old community college” or “that building … down the hill” “over the highway” and “across from the transitway”. It’s a building in transition – an environmentally fraught 60’s institution with multiple ‘wings’ in the process of being re-habilitated due to an acute campus-wide space shortage. This summer one classroom in wing “B” has been transformed into a faculty writing room, 5 days a week, 8 hours a day (or more if you’re inclined). Accomodates up to 15 people at a time. Averages 3-7 depending on the day. Open to all profs across all departments, faculties and schools at this mid-sized research university.
Entry comes with your faculty ID swipe card. Every prof who works here brings their personalized version of “office-in-a-backpack” each day – laptop and accessories, papers and reference books, home-made lunch, coffee mug or water bottle – and sets up shop. I have been one of a few ‘regulars’. The purpose of this writing room is simple – a shared space where faculty can come to write in the company of others – leaving all other distractions back in their offices and homes. To write first drafts or to complete revisions of grant proposals, book chapters or whatever else that will count towards our survival. Once a week for 1.5 hours, some of us are also participating in an intense 12-step program of academic writing, in an adjacent classroom. We check-in, share successes and frustrations, we vent and return to our writing tables.
This classroom is the academic’s version of a bomb shelter or the survivalist’s hidden retreat. It was set up by the coordinator of the university’s academic support centre one May morning and is now known only to our motley herd of like-minded scholars. It will disappear just as quickly in a few weeks, never having existed except to those of us who passed some longer summer days here.
Lesson Two: Agencies. We come from many disciplines – music, law, film, political studies, health sciences, education, philosophy, communication, criminology, information, and on. We are profs at all career stages (yes, really) – we represent several ‘normal’ distribution curves. More assistants than associates or full profs, more women than men, nicely sprinkled across these imaginary statistical lines. I am tempted to draw for you my version of our character portraits as any real fiction writer would provide their readers. But this isn’t fiction; a respect for sharing professional vulnerabilities inheres in our we-ness. Suffice it to say these new-to-me colleagues and friends make me smile; in bigger and smaller ways they help me see how we are all very much in this game.
Lesson Three: Knowing. This loosely connected motley herd is like-minded in one particular way – we know (feel, experience, embody) for ourselves, some benefit of academic-style writing in the company of our colleagues. During our earliest days of shared lunch breaks (at the rare picnic table sitting under a scrawny and all-but-dead tree), one of us would inevitably ask the scientist’s basic question? Why? Why do we keep coming to this room to write? But after a while the answer stopped mattering; it stopped hanging around the water cooler or the lunch table. The question has been answered in the doing. ‘Just because’. ‘Just is.’ This is the beauty of practice.
Here’s what I can say I know. I gain a very particular energy from sharing this space in this doing way with my colleagues. An energy that spillsover with knowing and learning. I could tell you more about how this spillover sharing has evolved but that’s for another occasion and another genre.
Lesson Four: Materiality. Perhaps the most important question our department chairs and university administrators should be asking is how do we benefit? Where’s the evidence? What research products can be ‘certified’, ‘counted’ or ‘posted’ beyond this classroom in our scholarly communities and among peers? How am I a better scholar? In truth, and at a minimum, I can point to work completed. I could even do a “show and tell”. For the bean counters, I could provide some statistics. Some very good work in fact. In the making and doing, alone and yet together in this classroom, these products are part of something creative and certainly something beyond words, that is becoming my (and ours) expert practice.
When I close my eyes, my version of summer school 2012 goes like this = hot, sweaty, hard chairs and hard work (counting and re-counting tweets), lots of black humour, belly laughs and bring-your-own lunches, commiserating and recognizing each other’s major and very minor accomplishments. Endless days of some kind of summer fun. Thanks peeps (you know who you are)!
Lesson Five: Repeat.