From Leeds to Bilbao as LITE hosts international writing retreat

The Basque city of Bilbao in northern Spain provided the venue for LITE’s first International Collaborative Writing Retreat (ICWR). Co-organiser, Dr Kelvin Tapley writes for SEB about his experience.

From having the idea at last year’s ISSoTL in Bergen, Norway, it was seven months in the organising and attracted attendees from four continents and 10 countries from around the world.

I left Birmingham on a wet rainy Monday in June and along with the 31 participants and my fellow co-organisers, Dr Aysha Divan, and Dr Jenny Rivas Perez, we converged on a wet and overcast Bilbao ready to take part in the Institute’s inaugural ICWR.


Within the participants were six keen group facilitators from Leeds each with a vested interest in one of the six topics.

I had in my mind that this activity was about:

  • Building Capacity – to support & develop staff in advancing their Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SoTL) skills;
  • Networking / Establishing a Community of Practice – potentially helping staff develop international networks;
  • Enabling the sharing of a diversity of views on important SoTL topics – bringing people from different backgrounds and different disciplines together for shared learning and wider dissemination; and,
  • Visibility / Reputation Building – it would be a great route for LITE and the University to become more visible within the SoTL community, plus potentially build our international reputation further.

This retreat would not have happened, nor run as smoothly, if it was not for the support of colleagues from The University of the Basque Country, who were hosting EuroSoTL 2019, especially Dr Mirari Ayerbe and it was great to meet a couple of them, Olaia and Viki.

Who, as well as assisting us locally, especially on the morning of the first day to help get everything in place for the start, were also participants.


There were a few issues to deal with, including a few logistical matters  – out of our control – at the start and during the course of the retreat, but as a team I believe we dealt with it all well.

Then, as if by magic, everyone arrived and the energy and excitement in the room crescendoed as people got to know each other.

After a short ‘break’, as we outlined the work ahead, the groups fully immersed themselves in the tasks to do. Sharing their expertise and educational interests, before embarking on some divergent thinking and brainstorming of ideas – with the aid of a “thinking about ideas toolkit”.

It was fascinating to observe the group dynamics.

All groups contained an interdisciplinary mix of people and had people with different personal characteristics.

Some gelled really quickly with a shared sharp focus, whilst others meandered around for some time as they explored ideas and gained insights into new perspectives from others.

As the end to the more formal part of the first day arrived, some groups were still so engrossed in the experience that they stayed on for a while.


The second day was to be a packed one. Further post-it notes and rearranging, expanding, contracting, changing and agreeing on ideas took place.

I could sense the groups becoming more cohesive. There were now fewer questions being asked and I began to feel more and more of an outsider; this was great – the groups were now really getting on with getting to the crux of their work and refining their plans to get the work done, with task allocations.

I was asked by several participants “are you pleased with how the retreat is going” or “has gone”? I found this a bit strange. I turned it back on them – it was about them – were they pleased with their progress or how it had gone?


To help us get some insight into the perceptions of the participants we designed an evaluation form, which included an option for them to give us an anonymous quote about their experience.

Here’s a fairly representative selection:

“The group writing retreat was a highly engaging and enjoyable event. We found common ground and a great collaborative ethos quickly, helping us to overcome the challenges of creative thinking in a group of six. By the end we had a coherent idea and the energy and enthusiasm to take it to the next stage.”

“This retreat provided a dynamic, fast-paced environment where we could focus purely on the project with like-minded colleagues; a truly rewarding experience.”

“An incredibly stimulating and enjoyable experience with lots of learning. The chance to work collaboratively with international colleagues was really valuable and a very supportive and fun atmosphere was created by the team to enable this to be really productive.”

So, it appears that this ICWR has delivered, and, is delivering, on the desired outcomes, especially for those involved, although time will tell as the groups progress further with their papers and we evaluate the impacts that are generated.

At the EuroSoTL19 conference that followed, where we presented some of our Collaborative Writing Retreat work, there was good interest shown – maybe we should offer our services to others!?

I have already been asked by several people about future opportunities to participate in a LITE ICWR.

With that in mind, I have been in touch with one of the organisers for EuroSoTL 2021 and put down a marker, so watch this space – although I wonder, will it also be raining in Manchester in June 2021?