“A Life-Changing Experience”: Some Reflections on the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp

By Chris Earle, Kevin Mullen, Rebecca Couch Steffy, and Nancy Linh Karls

Chris Earle is a Ph.D. candidate in Composition and Rhetoric at UW-Madison, where he also serves as the Assistant Director of the Writing Center. Kevin Mullen completed his doctorate in Literary Studies at UW-Madison and currently teaches writing with the UW Odyssey Project. Rebecca Couch Steffy is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at UW-Madison and has been a Writing Center instructor since 2011. Nancy Linh Karls is a member of the UW-Madison Writing Center’s permanent staff and its Science Writing Specialist; she also coordinates the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps and directs the community-based Madison Writing Assistance program. Together, Chris, Kevin, Rebecca, and Nancy have co-taught the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps several times, including the most recent camp in January 2015.

During the first week of the new year, and one of the coldest weeks of this winter so far, 19 graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison huddled together on the upper floors of the Helen C. White building around a common purpose—to escape both the isolation and the constant distractions that come with writing a dissertation so that they could dedicate an entire week to making significant progress on their work. By moving the solitary act of writing into a space shared by other people going through the same process, these students began to bond and find inspiration through their shared goals and the collective sounds of fingertips striking keyboards.

A collaboration between the UW-Madison Graduate School and the UW-Madison Writing Center, the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps are based on a deceptively simple concept, but one that has proven time and time again to be powerfully effective—that by gathering dissertators in one place and providing plenty of writing support, they can make extraordinary progress on their projects. Now in their fifth year, the camps are taught by senior instructors from the Writing Center and are intended to assist dissertators at a key time in their degree programs. During each camp, participants benefit from extensive, structured writing time; one-to-one consultations with Writing Center instructors; workshops on a variety of writing topics; and a unique opportunity to engage in a community of fellowship and support with other graduate students across the disciplines. Funding is provided by the Mellon Foundation and by the UW-Madison Graduate School, and participation is competitive, with UW-Madison dissertators from all divisions eligible to apply and a maximum of 20 dissertators accepted into each camp.

Dissertation camp participants can choose to write in a variety of work spaces

Dissertation camp participants, or “campers,” could choose to work in a variety of spaces

Since 2011, 11 Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps have been offered, and approximately 220 graduate student writers have participated in the experience. Most of these camps have been weeklong (Monday through Friday) camps; three-week and six-week camps have also been offered. Currently, three weeklong camps are offered each year:  two camps in the summer and a third camp in early January, during the university’s semester break. The primary goals for each camp remain the same: to support dissertators with their chapter writing, to accelerate their time to degree completion, and to help them learn strategies they can apply to current and future scholarly writing projects.

Each cohort of campers is unique. This January, we had 19 graduate students with a broad range of disciplinary expertise. Their home programs and departments included Spanish, Neuroscience, Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, Dairy Science, Hebrew and Semitic Studies, Sociology, History, and Human Ecology, among others. Some participants took time off from full time jobs in teaching or university administration to commit to the camp experience and jump start a remaining chapter of their dissertation. Others traveled to UW-Madison for the week, from Milwaukee, Stevens Point, and even out of state. The weeklong format for the camp has proven to be a sweet spot for distance graduate students who want to reconnect with campus and pick up steam for the home stretch of these long, marathon projects. No matter what their long term goals, the graduate students who participate in these camps are all deeply committed to finishing their dissertations and engaging their writing processes more intentionally.

To provide a sense of the range of dissertators who participate and what they take from the camp experience, we asked four dissertators to consider the following questions regarding their time at the most recent Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp:

  •  Where are you in terms of completing your project and what are your plans for after you finish?
  •  Leading up to the camp, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in the dissertation writing process so far?
  •  What were your expectations before the camp? How has your experience differed from those expectations? What surprised you the most?
  •  What strategies did you learn throughout the week that you think you will use in the future?
  •  What was one conversation that really stood out to you this week (either with another camper, one of the instructors, or something that came out of one of the workshops)?

Here’s who they are and what they had to say. . . .

Lisa Victoria Hoon, Ph.D. Candidate in Curriculum and Instruction

Lisa’s research focuses on how designing reflective nonanthropocentric narrative projects intersected with digital storytelling can support both pre-service teachers and middle schoolers in rethinking what it means to be human. Lisa is currently writing the first two chapters of her dissertation.

She shares, “My most challenging circumstances around dissertation writing [prior to the camp] were isolation and finding the time to write consistently with expert feedback. My expectations were to finish my proposal. The reality of the camp was that the intellectual venue supported me in delving deeper into my research frameworks with more understanding. Therefore I worked more around the proposal but focused more clearly on the first two chapters’ aesthetics.”

A diss camper works on his latest chapter in the Writing Center Commons

A camper works on his latest chapter in the Writing Center Commons

Lisa found several of the approaches and strategies presented during camp to be especially valuable, including “how to write in a focused manner, how to move through procrastination, and how to shape my writing style with a metacognitive awareness.”

She adds, “I realized that other writers were struggling with juggling families, work, and isolation and that this program presented a clearing for moving through assumed obstacles. As Alice Walker notes in her text In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, ‘I survive because of my children, not in spite of them.'”

Keisha Watson, Ph.D. Candidate in English/Literary Studies

Keisha’s project establishes a connection between African American long poems of the nineteenth century—a remarkably undervalued and neglected body of poetry—and the exciting modern and contemporary black longer poetry recently garnering some critical attention. Keisha writes, “I explore how the often radical surface differences between nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American long poems often obscure what has remained consistent in the poetry over time. In order to examine this consistent quality, I employ George Kent’s notion of ‘exile rhythms’ as a primary metaphor. As my emphasis on exile tensions in black poetry suggests, I am interested in the various ways in which black long poems articulate and authorize a uniquely black and thoroughly American ‘tale of the tribe,’ a tale often centering on (African) American subjectivity, the re-membering of history, and the ideas of freedom and home.” Keisha has completed a chapter of her dissertation and has partially drafted two additional chapters.

In terms of challenges to her writing, Keisha shares, “My biggest problem has been isolation. I live in Philadelphia and have taught in local colleges, but as an adjunct I am not truly part of those institutions. When I left Madison, I did not understand how much my writing was nourished by academic dialogue. I also struggled with the size and scope of my dissertation.” Although Keisha wasn’t sure what to expect from the camp, she notes, “I’d hoped to make some connections with other dissertators and to learn strategies for producing more pages.”

She reports that by the end of the camp, “I was surprised by how much I can produce when I make writing a daily, true priority. The workshops were more helpful than I thought they would be, and I was blown away by the generosity of the Writing Center staff . . . I had a conversation with Kevin, one of the camp instructors, that changed my approach to the project. He used a building metaphor that helped me reconceptualize the chapter I was drafting.”

Campers help buoy one another's spirits during yet another marathon writing session

Overlooking a snow-covered Lake Mendota, campers help buoy one another’s spirits during yet another marathon writing session

Keisha continues, “The most important ideas I took away from the camp is that writing must be a priority in order to finish a dissertation. (I know this seems obvious, but at the camp I was encouraged to take a look at how I actually allocate my time.) Equally important is practicing the writing process that I preach to my students.”

She also is quick to acknowledge the significant role the other participants played in her experience: “My fellow dissertators were a constant source of inspiration and encouragement and continue to be. They have sent me essays related to my project, and today I will have an online writing session with a dissertator I met at the camp.”

Lindsay Wrighton, Ph.D. Candidate in Cellular and Molecular Pathology

Lindsay conducts research in the Attie Lab, which studies the dichotomy between obesity and type 2 diabetes. Specifically, Lindsay studies the role of synaptotagmins in insulin secretion. She is within six months of finishing and defending her dissertation, and she plans to work as a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company.

Lindsay writes, “In science, we’re expected to publish chapters of our thesis as peer reviewed articles, so the idea of finishing data chapters was not really a worry, but writing my literature review was a daunting task that was so overwhelming I didn’t know where to begin.” She continues, “I actually wasn’t sure what to expect before camp. The idea of isolated writing time seemed wonderful, but I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to write for 6 hours a day. But because everyone was there to write, the atmosphere was very conducive to writing. If I got up to get some water or coffee, I felt I needed to hurry back because everyone else was writing and I was missing out on valuable writing time! I think the change in location was also a factor in productive writing. As a senior graduate student in my lab, people ask me questions all day long, and it was nice to have uninterrupted time to focus.”

Similar to other camp participants, Lindsay reported a heightened awareness of her own writing habits and discusses how she was able to gain practice in maximizing her personal strengths:

A Writing Center instructor and a diss camper meet to discuss his project

A Writing Center instructor and a camper meet in a one-to-one consultation to discuss his project

“I learned that I am definitely a morning writer. The ideas and sentences just flowed in the morning. I found that in the afternoon I wasn’t able to formulate ideas and coherent structure, but that it was fine to correct grammar and insert citations. Since the writing camp, I have taken to reading and writing most mornings and have found it to be very productive!”

She concludes, “There were many conversations that were helpful and informative throughout the week, but I think the number one thing I took away from all the conversations was that I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by writing a dissertation.  And that in itself was immensely helpful.”

Sophia Friedson-Ridenour, Ph.D. Candidate in Educational Policy Studies

Sophia is writing her dissertation on the recent push in Ghana to increase educational access, and how, in the process of democratization, education—and educators—come to be seen as integral to state development. Drawing on 12 months of ethnographic research in Ghana, she explores the narratives that educators and administrators tell in order to make sense of their work and, as Sophia explains, to connect education to the promise of “increased individual and social welfare, economic growth, poverty reduction, and a more democratic political system.” Sophia is hoping to complete her dissertation this summer, with the hope of having enough time to take a vacation and to engage in collaborative research and writing projects.

Sophia shares, “Before dissertation writing camp I spent well over a year mulling over my data and was really struggling to figure out what parts of the story belonged, what parts didn’t, and why. I was having trouble getting traction on how each of the pieces of my dissertation fit together into a larger cohesive story. It’s been hard for me to find time in my everyday life to dig into my dissertation day after day. When I’m juggling work, and life, and everything else that pops up in a day, when I get frustrated with writing it’s easy for me to just call it a day and turn my attention to something else. More than anything, dissertation writing camp gave me the gift of time and space to let myself just be with my own writing process, get frustrated, but stick with it.”

She continues, “I felt like the camp would be a good way to propel myself into a more serious and rigorous writing practice. I was a little worried that there would be lots of structured activities and we would spend a lot of time sharing work, giving feedback, and not really writing. I was SO excited when I realized that almost all day everyday was dedicated to just writing. It was nice to set goals at the beginning of the day together, check in at the end of the day, but pretty much have the bulk of the day just be about writing. I think that’s what a lot of us need at this stage, just time and a supportive space to write. I think I was most surprised by how good it felt to work from 9:00 to 3:30 every day and then set work aside and feel like no matter what, I’d really gotten something done. The consistency felt amazing.”

As a result of her work throughout the week, Sophia finds, “I learned what times of day I write best . . . the morning! I realized that consistency in developing a daily writing practice is really important to me. It was also really great to write side by side with other people without necessarily sharing work, or talking, or anything. Just being with other people doing the same thing helped me stay focused when I got antsy and wanted to call it a day. I also really got a taste of how good it feels to put work aside when you’re done after a solid day and kick back and enjoy the company of a good friend. Letting myself be done with work every afternoon made it much easier to come back to writing the next morning. I felt fresh and was excited to get going.”

She also recalls one of the conversations that especially stood out to her during camp: “I was explaining what I thought my dissertation was about to Chris, one of the writing instructors, and I thought I was making no sense. At the end of it he looked up and said something like, ‘that really makes sense to me.’ I almost fell out of my chair. It was then that I realized that maybe I wasn’t as clueless about what I was doing as it felt like I was. That was a good feeling. Since camp I’ve been more apt to talk through ideas with family, friends, and colleagues.”

Campers celebrate their week of hard work with a graduation ceremony and pizza party

On the final day of camp, campers reflect on their experiences and celebrate their accomplishments with a graduation ceremony (and pizza party!)

More than a few have called the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp experience “life-changing,” and one of our most recent participants deemed it “hands-down, dare I say, the single best experience of my entire graduate career.”

These participants, along with over 200 other camp alumni, have noted how valuable they’ve found these camps, and in so many crucial ways: managing a major scholarly project, conceptualizing and organizing their ideas, setting achievable writing goals, discussing their work with others, seeking and incorporating feedback, revising for clarity and style, and remaining motivated over the long haul. And we’re thrilled to see them go on to become stronger, more efficient, and more effective writers along their journey to the Ph.D.—one sentence, one paragraph, and one page at a time.


Please note:  online applications will soon be available for our Summer 2015 camps at http://grad.wisc.edu/pd/dissertation/bootcamp. If you would like additional information about the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps, please contact Nancy Linh Karls of the UW-Madison Writing Center at nkarls@wisc.edu or Eileen Callahan of the UW-Madison Graduate School at eileen.callahan@wisc.edu. Thanks for your interest!

11 thoughts on ““A Life-Changing Experience”: Some Reflections on the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp

  1. It is so wonderful to read this account of your most recent camp and the testimonies of those who participated. The Writing Center @ K-State is going to host its first camp this May, and it was similar testimonies from previous participants of the camp that helped us toward articulating a need for the camp and receiving funding. Thank you for your continual inspiration and guidance and for creating this written, distributable record of the camp.

  2. As a camper in this dissertation camp I thought it was a great experience.
    The best point of dissertation camp was it is timing, it gave me a good momentum after the winter break.
    I started my lit review in the camp and with pursuing the momentum that I built in that week I was able to finish my lit review in a month.
    Thanks everybody for this great experience!
    Good luck fellow campers!

  3. I participated in the Summer 2014 Diss Camp. It was the first time I felt I confident I would actually finish. My thoughts became more clear and I had a plan for how to write my diss. That empowerment is priceless and I credit overcoming that hurdle to Diss Camp. In addition, I met some amazing people. We continue to meet and/or encourage one another in person and online in a Facebook group we set up. This camaraderie keeps me both motivated and accountable. I’m really glad I participated in Diss Camp, and consider it a major turning point in my graduate career, particularly after reaching dissertator/candidate status.

  4. I participated in the winter 2014 camp, and it was extremely helpful. At the time I was in my 8th year, living in another state, and working a full-time job. After writing camp, I was no longer in a downward spiral of guilt caused by not meeting the impossible expectations I was setting for my progress, and I successfully defended in May 2014. I highly recommend dissertation writing camp to anyone who is ABD and struggling to make progress.

  5. It makes me so happy to read this post! As someone who participated in a Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp a few years ago, it’s great to hear how grad students are still finding it so useful, and to think back on what a difference the camp made to me. I’ve since finished my dissertation, and I know that many of the strategies I learned at the camp were instrumental in helping me finish such a huge project. I think that what makes this experience so extraordinary is the sense of community that a lot of people talked about – the knowledge that even though writing can feel so isolating, other people are having the same struggles. Thanks Chris, Kevin, Rebecca, and Nancy for such a wonderful post!

  6. Chris, Kevin, Rebecca, and Nancy—Thanks for this wonderful read! It’s incredibly insightful and instructive to hear dissertators reflect on their writing processes and how this past January’s session helped them come together and work through sticking points in their work. I look forward to being able to participate in similar retreats in my own program down the proverbial road!

    Logan Middleton
    Former UW-Madison Writing Fellow

  7. Thanks for featuring participants’ voices! The comments helped me see that isolation can be negative (pre-diss camp: I had to try to write alone) and positive (isolated, or dedicated, time to write with others but without distraction).

    Just curious, would it be possible to structure the camp into a multi-year setup that would allow for some participants to return and continue their progress while helping newcomers? I realize space is limited, but I imagine such a setup leading to semi-autonomous writing groups in the disciplines that could be sustained beyond a summer (and outside HC White Hall) and perhaps even across generations of PhD students.

    Congrats to all participants and to those who keep making this invaluable experience possible.

    David Stock
    Writing Center Coordinator, BYU

  8. Thanks for this excellent recap of dissertation writing camp! This article provides a very accurate summary of the writing camp experience. When I participated in the camp in 2013, I was completely amazed at how much I got done in just one week. I wrote a complete chapter from start to finish and left the camp with the momentum I needed to finish my dissertation. Thanks for this excellent program and for all the support the Writing Center provides throughout the year.

  9. Thanks for this great post! As a participant in this camp, I too found it very helpful. What I found most helpful was the way we were encouraged to think about our writing processes, which is to say that the camp is about more than putting words to paper. I think my approach to writing chapters is going to be better as a result. Of course, I also have to say that the Writing Center staff who ran this are great–friendly, supportive, and knowledgeable!

  10. The top point of dissertation camp was it can be timing, that’s gave me a fantastic momentum after the winter separate. I started my lit review inside camp and with pursuing the momentum I was able to finish my lit review in a very month. Thanks for this specific great experience.
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  11. Pingback: “Something Magical in Meeting with a Group of Like-Minded People”: Graduate Writing Groups in the Writing Center | Another Word

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