By Simon-Peter Telford, Lyndal Hordacre Kobayashi, Chloe Cannell, Morgan Chilvers, Jenn Ngo, and Dr Amelia Walker
During the turbulent beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic, with threats of extreme global consequences hanging over each word read, each key pressed, those of us early in our careers found a melancholy and perhaps a distaste towards research and work. It was hard to stay the course when the course seemed to be falling out from underneath. Our group provided inspiration and enthusiasm for continuing our work. Coming together to share passions, research interests and to communicate our individual experiences refreshed and recommitted us. With higher degree research often having long-term goals, the group gave a sense of progression and achievement month-to-month (Simon-Peter Telford).
The above words, from one member of our collective, reflect benefits we all gained through 2020 participation in the Critically Creative Reading and Writing Collective (CCRWC): a reading group foregrounding arts-based inquiry. While 2020’s upheavals made these benefits especially evident, they also apply beyond 2020, given longstanding recognition of academia’s complex health and wellbeing challenges (Loissel et al. 2019).
This article shares the CCRWC’s benefits with others who may wish to initiate similar communities in other settings. Following an overview of our group design, we present individual reflections regarding how CCRWC participation has benefitted us. We write as six early-career researchers including five higher degree by research candidates and one PhD-qualified staff member. All of us research in and through arts-based fields and practices, particularly writing and visual art.
Formation of the CCRWC stemmed from our shared desires to explore theories and texts relevant for creative arts research. In late 2019, we decided to form a reading group, but sought a format and processes conducive to arts research processes – which frequently entail thinking not only about, but with and through arts practices (Webb 2010). Informed by co-research projects in which some members previously participated (Cannell et al. 2020), we decided that, atop standard processes of selecting a monthly set text to read and discuss, each of our meetings should incorporate a creative prompt or constraint-based challenge for responding creatively via writing, drawing, or other artistic processes. Responding via art-making unlocks poetic, visual, symbolic and creative modes of cognition, thus opening textual interpretations unlikely to arise via standard reading (Webb 2010). Insights gleaned via this strategy expand scope for reading group dialogues, providing access to deeper complexities.
Initially, we planned to run our reading groups face-to-face, but when COVID-19 lockdown was announced, we were forced—as countless groups and organisations around the world were—to use video-conferencing (Zoom). Although we all prefer face-to-face connection, online meetings proved invaluable for wellbeing through challenging times, as our individual reflection statements indicate:
Meetings were a space where I could socialise with other arts academics doing research, which was something I didn’t do much during lockdown. I gained tips on productivity and improving my mental health (Jenn Ngo).
Through CCRWC Zooms, I recognised challenges I faced as shared with others. I benefitted from hearing their strategies for managing things (Amelia Walker).
Overwhelmed by a sense I had “more time” working from home, I was unsure how to prioritise productivity. The group reminded me to follow threads I might otherwise have neglected, to keep practicing creative writing, and to value creative research processes as opposed to stressing over outcomes (Chloe Cannell).
Cannell’s points about potentially-neglected “threads” reflects benefits that persisted both through and after lockdown, when we began meeting face-to-face:
My research gained new theoretical directions, enriched by collaborative discussions. CCRWC participation benefitted my well-being by facilitating vital connections between my peers, my creative interests and my PhD research (Lyndal Hordacre Kobayashi).
Following meetings, I became more productive, as the group broadened my knowledge about creative writing theories and also creative texts relevant to my craft (Morgan Chilvers).
Meetings provided readings, ideas and theories I would not have considered otherwise. This furthered my research, as I was able to make connections between set texts others chose and my own project (Jenn Ngo).
The CCRWC continues strong into 2021: we have more members and now run two groups – one face-to-face, and an online one for researchers with restrictions to physical attendance.
The CCRWC is based on Kaurna country. We pay respect to Kaurna elders, past and present, and too all First Nations people. Upon the lands presently known as “Australia”, sovereignty was never ceded. This always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.
Cannell, C, Spasovska, E, Gou, Y, Nilsson, A, Clarkson, R, Di Niro, C, Levy N & Walker, A 2020, ‘Doing collective biography differently by incorporating methods of narrative inquiry, poetic inquiry and performance studies into the analysis of writings-as-data’, TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses, Special Issue #59, accessed 15th May 2021, http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue59/Cannell_et_al.pdf
Loissel, E, Deathridge, J, King, S, Pérez Valle, H, & Rodgers, P 2019, ‘Mental Health in Academia: How can the scientific community support researchers with mental health issues?’, eLife Collection, October 23rd 2019, accessed 15th May 2021, https://elifesciences.org/collections/ad8125f3/mental-health-in-academia
Webb, J 2010, ‘“Good to think with”: words, knowing and doing’, Strange Bedfellows: Refereed Conference Papers of the 15th Annual Conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, accessed 15th May 2021, http://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/theaawp/pages/85/attachments/original/1385080534/Webb_0.pdf?1385080534
Simon-Peter Telford is a writer, playwright, poet and PhD Candidate in Creative Writing through the University of South Australia. His work explores Anthropocene writing and existentialist literature. He also works on the book reviews team for TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses. To read more of Simon’s work, visit www.simonpetertelford.wordpress.com
Lyndal Hordacre Kobayashi is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at Uni SA, Research Centre for Languages and Cultures. Her research looks at the concept of ‘language/s’ from the perspective of monolingual Australians who use English as a single language. Having lived and worked as a visual artist in Europe and Japan for many years, Lyndal applies a novel methodology where experiential arts-based processes are workshopped to engage participants visually with their lived experiences with language/s. She hopes to demonstrate the potential and relevance of heralding new knowledge by stepping into a sphere of creative activity, mystery and discovery.
Chloe Cannell is a creative writing PhD candidate researching the representation LGBTQIA+ characters in contemporary young adult fiction. Her research writing has been published in TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses and Writing From Below. From 2018 to 2020 she worked on the organizing committee for the South Australian Gender, Sex and Sexualities Postgraduate and ECR Conference.
Jennifer Ngo is an artist and writer who is currently completing her Honours in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Australia.
Morgan Chilvers completed her Honours in English and Creative Writing in 2020 through the University of South Australia, for a thesis involving queer writing and re-writing Greek mythology. She is currently undertaking a Masters in Education.
Amelia Walker completed her PhD in 2016 for a thesis on creative writing’s value in contemporary universities. She is the author of four poetry collections and three books on teaching poetry in school settings (in Macmillan’s All You Need to Teach series). From 2018-2019, she served on the board of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP) as secretary. Amelia currently lectures at the University of South Australia. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com