Over a weekend last December, I was invited to join some of the faculty in the School of Social and Cultural Studies (SACS) for a writing retreat, one hour north of Wellington. We were scheduled to stay in a big house (i.e. we would all have our own rooms) and it was on the waterfront (i.e. loads of potential for fresh air and long walks). I, of course, said yes. Having just returned from the American Anthropological Association conference in Minneapolis and fieldwork in India, it was just the sort of expansive space I needed to get back into the mode of writing.
While I was excited, I was also a bit anxious, as I knew I had to make some serious progress on a writing deadline and also wondered how I would cope with 48+ hours of non-stop proximity to my colleagues. As an ethnographer, researcher, and teacher, I interact with people constantly. But, once I don my writing hat, I instinctually revert in some sense to a solitary being. Consigning this bit of anxiety to the back burner, I excitedly embraced this opportunity to travel, talk, learn, read, and write with my colleagues.
When I was asked to write this blog, I wondered if I should write about the fantastic work that was done: the igniting of ideas, the negotiations of polite and then friendly banter, the clash and development of intellectual thoughts, the organizational issues for the coming year and term, or just my personal experience of the writing retreat. However, long ingrained habits as an anthropologist have trained me to look for patterns of behavior amongst the people I choose to spend time with (i.e. participant observation) and examine what these generate. What emerged clearly, in spending time with this bunch of scholars, was their generosity: in cooking and eating of food, towards their colleagues, and above all, in sharing their ideas.
The study of food (its preparation, presentation, and consumption) has afforded anthropologists ample study opportunities and also within this group of scholars, a chance to really share of themselves. The meals, while simple (i.e. quick to prepare so we had ample time to write) were warm and comforting for a rainy evening and refreshing on the warm afternoon. If somebody prepared the food, the dishes were cleared away and cleaned by another. The egalitarian distribution of labour was always rewarded by a walk to the local deli for a bag of lollies for some and/or ice cream for the other. The trek to the local store was undertaken barefoot, in order to claim belonging and assimilation simultaneously.
These short walks opened up smaller conversations that led to longer, warmer, more vivid discussions as the evenings wound down and writing was put away for the day. While some of us were relatively new to getting to know each other, it didn’t take long for the initial polite banter to give way to robust, jovial, and lively conversations; yoga achievements on the floor; or stories of kids and kittens. As the evenings wound down, the day of sun, sand, writing, and perhaps some of the wine, allowed us to share generously our pasts, our histories, and our journeys as individuals and scholars. To share of ourselves this generously, while just a conversation on one hand, was symbolic of a larger bonding ritual. This felt like a ritual of friendship where sharing forms the basis of a trust.
This trust was also visible in the ways everybody shared their ideas with each other. A scholar is to a large degree her or his ideas, and sometimes the territorial claiming of ideas leads to a particular level of distrust and animosity. However, within this group the ethos of generosity through their sharing of selves and food was visible even in the way ideas were developed. Between writing sessions, people floated their ideas and the way they were conceptualizing particular projects, and others would chime in helpfully with ways to develop the argument or readings to assist with a particular framing.
The group dynamics, established in these rituals, spilled over and influenced our ideas and writing. This overall generosity leaked into our work, as some finished off pending projects and others started ones that had been sitting on the shelf waiting to be lovingly dusted off and re-examined. As anthropologists, we always thank our respondents for sharing their everyday lives with us. I think it is also fair to thank and acknowledge our colleagues who offer so generously in slower moments like these, when we/they aren’t running from administrative meetings to lectures, from tutorials to student meetings, from almost never-ending emails to pending service tasks. This is what writing retreats ought to do: allow us to share of ourselves and write scholarship that is hopefully generously generative for future works and scholars.
Nayantara Sheoran Appleton is a Lecturer who has recently joined the cultural anthropology program at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research interests include: feminist medical anthropology; Science and Technology Studies (STS); reproductive and contraceptive justice; medical health policy and politics; media and medicine; everyday ethics in medical spaces, critical theories, and anthropological research methodologies. She is co-chair of the Science and Medicine in South Asia (SMSA) – a Society of Medical Anthropology (SMA) special interest group (SIG).