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SMARTlab Skelligs PhD Writers Retreat

SMARTlab Skelligs is a regional research satellite of the SMARTlab Research Institute @ UCD and part of a global network of research hubs connected through a commitment to Inclusive Design. SMARTlab promotes user-driven, transdisciplinary research, leveraging Creative Technology Innovations for social change. As with all the SMARTlab satellites, SMARTlab Skelligs has its own research focus on place-based STEAM education and sustainable creative placemaking, focused on building rural and indigenous home-grown resilient futures.

As the principal town on the Iveragh Peninsula and a Gaeltacht Service Town Cahersiveen is the perfect place to host a regional research satellite. Located on the Fertha River, on the slopes of Benatee, referenced in the Sigerson Clifford poem, The Boys of Barr na Sraide as the town that climbs the mountain. South Kerry has been at the centre of technology and innovation since the 1800s with the Valentia Cable Station, this history with the mix of natural and cultural heritage offers opportunities to integrate long-standing local expertise and knowledge with 21st-century tools in sustainable ways.

In Feb 2023, we hosted SMARTlab researchers and global thinkers – including those from the local community, leading the way with their Ph.D. studies to Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry. For three decades SMARTlab has run an award-winning practice-based Ph.D. programme and delivered high-impact research, development, and innovation programmes and projects. The SMARTlab writers retreats are designed to support our Ph.D. students no matter what stage of the process they are at. As a retreat, it is not a seminar, conference or summit. It is a chance to escape from schedules, meetings, committees, deadlines. . . and to breathe, walk, return to the land, look out to sea, and refresh the mind.

Therefore the retreat is a mix of structured sessions, reflection and focused time to write, with many of the Ph.D. candidates working in high-pressure or complex professional roles, dedicated writing time can be hard to schedule. Individual writing goals are set at the start of the retreat and the retreat is designed to encourage candidates to focus on their goals and progress the written aspect of their PhD. Although the SMARTlab PhD is a practice-based PhD candidates still have to write a thesis, as well as the design of new bespoke tools, methods, and approaches through socially based research models. Through writing, sharing, and reflecting on their writing as the retreat, attendees also return from the retreat with a refocussed attention to bringing their ideas, ideas that matter into reality through their research. This is also supported by the buddy system, set up on registration giving every candidate, personal support, a feedback mechanism, and an accountability partner. Completing a Ph.D. requires dedication and determination - having a buddy on the journey is invaluable.

What's in a Retreat?

The week began with a visit to the Iveragh Ballroom the future home of SMARTlab Skelligs, a research, development, and innovation hub that will host local and global researchers. The Ballroom will support embedded research, building a local place-based research ecosystem to contribute to social environmental, and economic resilience by addressing research questions and challenges specific to local and rural contexts. Using place-based approaches and research methods means the research develops situated outcomes that can be transferred and scaled as well as encouraging localised innovation.

SMARTlab Kerry retreat, Feb 2023

The rest of the day was in the library with a number of structured activities to start the writing process including disruptive creative methods to address any blocks or difficulties those on retreat may be struggling with. The day ended with a fantastic dinner at Quinlan and Cookes Townhouse BnB and restaurant.

The Sunday brunch session - The Way of the Writing Ninja, delivered by Dr. Anita McKeown, is broadly structured around the themes of knowledge time and enthusiasm. Within each theme, practical exercises are used to convey the concepts and of course, are applied to the candidates' own concerns to keep them writing.

  • Knowledge: plan what you are going to write about before you write it e.g. LATCH literature review and managing your literature, and using it in your writing

  • Time: Time-management and productivity tools to write and evaluate what you have written e.g. annotating papers and note-taking methods, workflow tools e.g. scrivener, zotero, endnote

  • Enthusiasm: Tips to get started e.g. using 750 words and structured writing exercises working the paragraph, 5-paragraph themed sections

Images, SMARTlab cohort, Feb.2023

The candidates then spend the remainder of the day working on their own writing using some of the tools and completing the exercises from the morning session, rounded of with a visit to The Oratory Pizza and Wine Bar.

Monday's session opened with exercises to encourage writing and help get over writing blocks with the candidates then undertaking focused writing based on their own research and key objectives they have set themselves do the retreat. Candidates come with either writing they want to complete e.g. methodology chapter, literature review, or aspects they have been struggling with, which they can work through with the supervisors in attendance or others in the cohort. Some pair up as buddies for the retreat and agree to support each other by listening to each other's writing and troubleshooting if necessary.

The retreats always have 'treats' and social events, exploring the local area and learning more about the localised culture, while still giving the attendees focused writing time and deadlines, encouraging them to set goals daily that are manageable, achievable and move them towards their retreat deadlines. After the writing activities on Monday, the group headed off to Derrynane beach, hosted by local Ph.D. candidate Vinny Hyland. This was rounded off by dinner and a night of music at the Blind Piper, Caherdaniel.

Images, SMARTlab cohort, Feb.2023

Tuesday's session focused on the cohort completing any of the writing / goals they have set for themselves with a focused training session in the afternoon - using social media for research. Increasingly there is a need for research to be more accessible, this does not mean dumbing down the research merely presenting it in ways that are easier to engage with. This is particularly important for younger people as well as the majority of society. Conferences are too expensive and have a format and tone, which is not inviting to non-academics, academic books are very expensive and often only carried by university libraries, and many journals require institutional access accounts.

Many of the cohort use social media, in their personal and professional lives, yet have often not considered social media for research. With the move more toward citizens' engagement in a world of alternative facts and deep fakes, reliable engaging content is even more critical. Collapsing the barriers between the academy and the rest of the world is an important piece of disseminating research. It does not stop researchers from contributing to journals or writing books in fact it offers multiple avenues to reach new audiences.

Reaching new audiences in ways that they will engage was the focus of the Tuesday training session, led by social media consultant Lyn Mutch of Noodlehorse Media. The cohort had been asked to think about aspects of their research that they would like to use to create three social media outputs - Instagram, Tik Tok and either LinkedIn or Facebook. After a basic crash course in social media production, the cohort focused on creating their outputs with support from Lyn. Throughout the session, a discussion around the pros and cons of social media as well as ethical / best practices and upcoming trends provided a lively backdrop.

The final event of the retreat was a visit to the Portmagee Distillery, a whiskey-tasting and VR experience co-owned by Bold Puppy founder and Director and CoDesRes team member, James Murphy. The cohort enjoyed the Spirit of the Sea tour, including a 360 immersive experience in the Portmagee Domes aboard a real-life restored Seine Boat, and even whiskey tasting.

Images, SMARTlab cohort, Feb.2023

The next retreat will be in July, wrapped around the SMARTlab Summer Seminar, our summer intensive for the SMARTlab Ph.D cohort. For more info contact 

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