Academic Reading Retreats: What are we retreating from?

Angela Rhead & Chris Little


Using Lave and Wenger’s (1991) community of practice model, we hope to share data from our research on Keele’s ‘Academic Reading Retreats’ (Rhead, 2019) to explore what our community of academic practitioners are retreating from and to.

Individual interviews with peripheral and critically engaged practitioners, ranging from third year undergraduates through postgraduate and doctoral students to early career and established academics, were conducted after reading retreats. The reflective questions generated rich data with several emerging themes that confirm the notion that academic enquiry is intrinsically unsettling (Barnett, 2007), but also suggest that our curriculum approach may be adding to poor mental well being for all in the community: Anxiety regarding a lack of time and space to focus on reading and its impact on the quality of enquiry mirrored across the range of participants; undergraduate and postgraduate students additionally express anxiety about their role in the academic community, fear of being an inauthentic student, of one’s peripheral participation being seen as ‘illegitimate’.

The interviews also offer useful data about what might create (and sustain once created) a ‘healthy’ curriculum. Academic reading retreats create a temporary community and partnerships between participants that support a healthy approach to enquiry. Again, students and staff identified similar aspects that contributed to this positive learning event, including democracy, honesty and mutual support. The data supports the notion that “Learning is in the relationships between people” (McDermott in Murphy 1999:17).

With increasing student numbers, a reduction in dialogic student contact time and increasing demands on academic staff across the sector, our data suggest a need to rethink the standard curriculum model; a need to embrace students as partners in authentic disciplinary enquiry; and a need to consider how to sustain healthy academic practices for staff and students alike.