Writer’s bloc

writers group

Rodrigo Lazo, above, was the guest speaker at the recent U See I Write: UCI Faculty Writing Retreat. Photos by Han Parker

“Nice community” built from U See I Write faculty writing retreat

You couldn’t hear a pen drop as the lilting sound of fingers tap-tap-tapping laptop keys filled a packed-to-capacity room within the UC Irvine Continuing Education complex on Jan. 27. The occasion was the Winter Quarter’s all-day U See I Write: UCI Faculty Writing Retreat, which proved to be a great time to be encouraged by campus leaders, bond with fellow scholars and just plain have several hours to yourself to complete – or, at least, put a sizable dent in – nagging academic writing projects.

For the past seven years, the retreat has been presented by the Office of Inclusive Excellence thanks to former Faculty Success Program coaches and alumni Ilona Yim, professor and interim chair of psychological science, and Elizabeth van Es, professor of education.

“When we started it, I was working as a writing coach for the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, where we learned best practices on good writing habits and being productive and protecting your writing time from all these other effects,” Yim explains.

She and Es were brainstorming about bringing the writing tips they learned to other UCI faculty members when they came up with the idea of a biannual retreat, which was first held at Hotel Laguna in Laguna Beach in 2016.

“We just started it and didn't really think it would grow into something so big,” says Yim, who recalled crowds of about 20 people in the program’s early years. “Today, this is the biggest event we’ve ever had. We had 40 people. We have had 170 faculty total come through the program so far.”

Presented three times annually – during the Fall, Winter and Spring quarters – the retreats are now coordinated by Yim, Nina Bandelj, Chancellor’s Professor of sociology, and Olga Razorenova, associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry.

Before a midday lunch break, Yim introduced a guest speaker to the group, Rodrigo Lazo, interim vice chancellor for equity, diversity & inclusion, director of the UCI ADVANCE Program and English professor. To testify to the importance of U See I Write, Lazo brought up his own struggles to complete his second book, The Latino Nineteenth Century (NYU Press, 2016).

“There was a moment, circa 2013-2014, when I just started to get to that point where I really needed to be promoted to full professor, and my second book was not getting done,” he confided. “And what I did at that point was that I signed up for the Faculty Success Program, run by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. And that program was so helpful, partly because it worked out this model that changed my writing life in some ways.”

That strategy involved writing a half hour each day as opposed to awaiting the arrival (if it ever came) of a huge chunk of time to sit in front of the keyboard. Lazo says he also found it valuable meeting in small groups with other academics from different disciplines and parts of the country, because he could be completely honest without fear of informing someone from his department that he was struggling.

Lazo carried the “collective writing” experience over to UCI, where he for years participated in a three-member group with colleagues in the history and anthropology departments. “It was just an opportunity to share work, have somebody offer you some feedback, but also to keep you on a deadline because you have to present to your writing group,” he said.

Yim says that besides the retreats, the program hosts monthly sessions for smaller cohorts. She credits support from Lazo’s office and 170 faculty throughout the campus with helping U See I Write grow – and diversify. She noted the majority of participants are women, and many of those are junior faculty.

“I think it may be because women have more childcare responsibilities, more caring responsibilities for a lot of different things,” Yim said outside the retreat room. “It’s difficult to protect that time if you have so many other things to do.”  

That applies to retreat participant Liz Chrastil, who read an email about a similar faculty writing group at UC Santa Barbara, wondered if such a program existed at UCI and then discovered U See I Write.

During a retreat break, the assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior said she found it heavenly “sitting around this whole day and all I have to do is write as opposed to a little half hour here and there. I wish I could find a program where I write all day, all the time.”

Chrastil coming from the School of Biological Sciences corroborated something Yim said about retreat-goers gathering “from every corner of our campus. This event alone has faculty from 11 schools represented, and our participants typically come back for more. Of those who are here today, more than half have been to a previous retreat.”

She believes she has helped build “a nice community,” adding, “I think everybody stays together because it’s more than just a writing group. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m not alone in this protecting of my time.’ There are all these people who are sort of in the same boat. It’s a certain type of faculty, not your average but more so the high in demand.”

U See I Write has been funded by the Office of Inclusive Excellence and a by an Advancing Faculty Diversity Grant from the UC Office of the President.

Interested in joining? Contact Ilona Yim (ilona.yim@uci.edu), Nina Bandelj (nbandelj@uci.edu) or Olga Razorenova (olgar@uci.edu). 
— Matt Coker