The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Generous scholarship: a vision for academic life

by Ruth McQuirter Scott, Dragana Martinovic, Snežana Obradović-Ratković and Michelle K McGinn

The life of a scholar is often portrayed in popular culture as one of lonely struggle and pressure. It starts at the postgraduate level, when students work to meet the expectations of their programs and supervisors, jumping one hurdle after another until they complete their studies. If they are fortunate enough to land an increasingly rare full-time academic position, they discover a new set of expectations to fulfill. In application and renewal processes, most universities favour single-authored publications in tier-one journals, along with a research record that shows how the scholar is carving out a unique niche in their respective field. This portrayal of academic life is supported by studies that report pressure to publish, competition, isolation, and managerial influences on academic work (eg Castro-Ceacero and Ion, 2018; Dakka and Wade, 2019; Kyvik and Aksnes, 2015; McCarthy and Dragouni, 2020).

We believe there is a better way of living as academics, one that nurtures the strengths of colleagues and leads to mutual growth for novice and seasoned scholars.

Our group of four academics from two Canadian universities has been collaborating as writers for over 10 years. We represent a variety of roles in academia: professors, a research officer, and a university senior administrator. Since 2007 (until interrupted by the pandemic), we have facilitated residential academic writing retreats, bringing together new and experienced academics, postgraduate students, and outside experts for a week-long writing experience in a rural setting.

At our first writing retreat, we were introduced to the term “generous scholarship” as proposed by Constance Russell (2006). We were intrigued and excited by this term, which we felt captured a central component of the writing retreat and resonated with our approach to scholarly life. Sally Stewart Knowles, a retreat co-facilitator from Australia, was also inspired by the conversation at that 2007 retreat to argue that residential writing retreats foster generous scholarship (Knowles, 2017). Although neither Russell (2006) nor Knowles (2017) provides a clear definition of generous scholarship, we continued to be enticed by the term’s potential. This emerging concept seemed to suggest an intentional, collegial approach to scholarly endeavours that departs from the market-driven, individualistic view of scholarship so commonly present in academia.

To understand what generous scholarship could mean, we systematically examined these and other publications in which “generosity” was mentioned in the context of academia and elicited five key principles that characterize generous scholarship: social praxis, reciprocity, generous mindedness, generous heartedness, and agency.

To illustrate these five principles of generous scholarship, we use the example of our residential academic writing retreats. We provide a short overview of our writing retreat structure, define the five principles, and discuss the ways in which retreat participants enact these principles.

Writing Retreat Structure

Inspired by Barbara Grant’s (2008) model of residential academic writing retreats, our retreats consist of five days dedicated to individual writing projects, workshops, work-in-progress groups, and one-on-one consultations with shared meals and informal gatherings in a natural environment. Although most of the days are spent writing, we carve out time for discussions, reviewing each other’s work, and socializing. Accountability and on-site collegial support are embedded in the retreat structure, which promotes writing process and productivity, fosters learning with and from others, and builds a community (McGinn et al, 2019; Ratković et al, 2019).

Principles of Generous Scholarship

The five working principles frame generous scholarship as intentional, reflective, and collegial academic praxis.

Social praxis. Generous scholarship emerges within collaborative and collegial communities of scholarly practice. Our writing retreats enable participants to live and work together in a shared space. A sense of community is built through scheduled work-in-progress groups and workshops as well as meals, informal conversations, and walks in nature. Many new connections, relationships, and collaborative research and writing teams are established as people meet colleagues at various career stages and from different disciplines, departments, and institutions.

Reciprocity. Interrelations within generous scholarship are based on reciprocity through peer-to-peer learning and non-hierarchical mentoring. A key component of our writing retreats is the work-in-progress groups that meet each evening to present and respond to written work. The groups are mixed in terms of fields of expertise, academic roles, and career stages to provide multiple perspectives and rich discussions. When a writer’s work is being featured, another participant acts as a note taker, enabling the writer to focus on comments and suggestions from the others. Participants take turns over subsequent evenings, with each participant serving as writer, contributor, and note taker. The participatory and interactive workshops provide further evidence of reciprocity in action as participants exchange ideas, knowledge, and experiences.

Generous mindedness. Generous scholarship involves acknowledging other people’s situations or perspectives and committing cognitive resources to advance those individuals and their scholarly work. The workshops during our writing retreats foster generous mindedness as workshop facilitators and participants draw from their varied backgrounds and disciplines to inspire and inform each other’s academic practice. During work-in progress groups, writers are asked what type of feedback they wish to receive. Readers are asked to focus on specific aspects of the draft, or to respond to the overall piece. This practice helps readers to focus their responses and to make their feedback meaningful.

Generous heartedness. Generous scholarship requires empathy and emotional support for others. Generous heartedness has been a key feature of our writing retreats. We are open to adapting workshop content and the retreat structure to the needs of participants, and are flexible in expectations (eg participants spend parts of each day in ways that they deem most useful: reading, resting, or taking walks in nature). Emphasis is placed upon the importance of careful listening and attending to the emotional needs of writers as they share unfinished work during work-in-progress groups. A generous spirit is also fostered among participants through communal meals, informal walks, and evening activities.

Agency. Generous scholarship involves deliberately choosing and taking action to contribute to the scholarly community, the field, and society. It demands consciously embracing and modelling all the principles of generous scholarship. As organisers, we use our agency to structure and facilitate the writing retreats. We also engage as writers and participate in all workshops and work-in-progress groups. Many retreat participants demonstrate their commitment to generous scholarship by returning year after year to this community of scholars. Participants often report creating their own writing groups and retreats. Some have published scholarly work about writing retreats (Winters et al, 2019).


We acknowledge that following the principles of generous scholarship may challenge institutional structures that reward individualistic, competitive approaches; it can be difficult to navigate the logistical and human factors inherent in building a community of scholars. Our own writing retreats face an annual financial challenge, as we must repeatedly convince internal funding providers of their value. However, we are determined to overcome such barriers to enact and enable generous scholarship, and we look forward to returning to our residential writing retreats when pandemic restrictions allow. We have also found that following the principles of generous scholarship enhances, rather than undermines, academic productivity and personal satisfaction (Ratković et al, 2019). Furthermore, we are encouraged by the structures recently built into academia that might provide opportunities and spaces for enacting generous scholarship, such as open-access publishing and knowledge mobilization.

We invite you to consider generous scholarship in your own academic life and to share with SRHE blog readers examples of generous scholarship already present in your practice.

Ruth McQuirter Scott is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, Ontario, Canada, where she is Assistant Director of Teacher Education and teaches Junior/Intermediate Language Arts. Ruth’s research interests are in the effective infusion of technology in education. Connect via or on Twitter @wordstudy

Dragana Martinovic is a Professor at University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and a Fields Institute Fellow. In her research, Dragana explores knowledge for teaching mathematics, ways in which technology can assist in teaching and learning of mathematics, and epistemologies of STEM disciplines in relation to teacher and K–12 education. Connect via

Snežana Obradović-Ratković is Research Officer and Instructor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, Ontario, Canada. Her research interests include migration, indigeneity, and reconciliation; transnational teacher education; research education; decolonizing arts-based methodologies; mindfulness and well-being in higher education; academic writing and publishing; and generous scholarship. Connect via

Michelle K McGinn is Associate Vice-President Research and Professor of Education at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. Her primary interests include research collaboration, researcher development, scholarly writing, and ethics in academic practice. She is a co-investigator for Academic Researchers in Challenging Times. Connect via Twitter @dr_mkmcginn or


Grant, B (2008) Academic writing retreats: A facilitator’s guide. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia

Knowles, SS (2017) ‘Communities practising generous scholarship: Cultures of collegiality in academic writing retreats’ in McDonald, J and Cater-Steel, A (eds), Implementing communities of practice in higher education (pp 53–80) Springer

McGinn, MK, Ratković, S, Martinovic, D, and McQuirter Scott, R (2019) ‘Creating and sustaining a community of academic writing practice: The multi-university residential academic writing retreat model’ in Simmons, N and Singh, A (eds) Critical collaborative communities: Academic writing partnerships, groups, and retreats (pp 136–148) Brill/Sense

Winters, K-L, Wiebe, N, and Saudelli, MG (2019) ‘Writing about writing: Collaborative writing and photographic analyses from an academic writing retreat’ in Simmons, N and Singh, A (eds), Critical collaborative communities: Academic writing partnerships, groups, and retreats (pp 149–168) Brill/Sense.


We acknowledge Jeanne Adèle Kentel for first introducing us to Russell’s (2006) use of the term “generous scholarship.” We extend our thanks to the many colleagues who have practised generous scholarship alongside us during the writing retreats and in other academic spaces. Details about our analysis process and an elaborated discussion of the principles of generous scholarship are presented in a paper currently under review for publication. Authorship of this blog and the associated paper has been shared equally.

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Exploring notions of ‘good’ academic leadership in challenging times

by Alan Floyd

Due to the nature of academic work it is accepted that leaders cannot be effective without the support of their departmental colleagues. Consequently, academic leadership is seen as more of a collective responsibility. Arguably, ‘distributing’ and sharing leadership is even more important in universities than in other organisations as academics are well educated, largely autonomous, and trained to be highly critical, so are more likely to oppose and challenge traditional leadership models and behaviours and may need a subtler form of leadership than other occupational groups. This perceived shift in leadership power, moving from people in formal positions to the whole academic body, is important for universities as it has been shown that the leadership activity of academics outside formal leadership roles can be very influential in effecting organizational change. Such a power shift may also allow academics to discuss and decide on leadership issues in a more collegial manner, a practice more in line with the shared value systems of the academy. But what are academics’ expressed notions of ‘good’ leadership within this context?  This blog explores these issues by drawing on data from research that has explored more flexible ‘distributed’ and ‘collaborative’ models of leadership, crucially focusing on data from both leaders and the led (see Floyd, 2019; Floyd and Fung, 2017; Floyd and Fung, 2018).

From this work, it appears that academics construct ‘good’ leadership predominantly in terms of understanding and supporting others, empathy, the ability both to act with integrity and as a role model, and the willingness to engage in genuine dialogue.  Academics apparently want to see in their leaders all of these personal qualities and knowledge and understanding of the whole ecosystem of higher education and the ability to make tough decisions to make that successful when needed.

The data suggest that academics understand the need for strong academic leadership in the current higher education landscape and there is a lot of empathy for the complexities of leadership practice in these turbulent times. In addition, academics are clear that individuals cannot just ‘plough their own furrow’ without considering the overall needs of the department or institution overall. Thus, academic leadership was seen as being a collective act (Bolden et al, 2009). Shared understandings of good academic leadership included words like ‘respect’, ‘feeling valued’, ‘fairness’, ‘being realistic’, and being ‘open’ and ‘communicative’. In relation to distributed leadership practice then, it seems that academics are happy to work with leaders in achieving shared institutional goals as long as they perceive the decisions taken to be in the best interests of the group, that all people involved (those whose roles are teaching-focused as well as those who are research-focused) are treated fairly and with respect, and that leaders show effective communicate skills and engage in genuine dialogue with academics rather than just transmitting information.

In their personal accounts about the characteristics of ‘good’ academic leadership, some leaders stress the importance of having the right set of skills, while others emphasize a set of underpinning values. There is some difference in emphasis between those whose roles are predominantly focused on research and those whose main focus is student education, but interviewees typically construct a sense of needing to respect both research and teaching as vital strands of academic practice. Most also see academic leadership as necessarily negotiating the sometimes-differing needs of the institution itself and the individuals being led.

There were many similarities in our findings between the two groups. For example, from the leaders’ point of view, good academic leadership was characterised by holding ‘shared underpinning values’, ‘good listening and communication skills’, being ‘understanding’, ‘supportive’, and ‘even handed’, and ‘human’ in their relationships with academic staff.  There also appeared to be a shared understanding from both groups of the need and difficulty in ‘balancing’ institutional and individual needs.

One key theme that emerged from our data was the perceived need for appropriate career support from leaders in relation to academics’ chosen career paths. This finding suggests that the focus of development training and support activities for academics who take on leadership roles may need to be widened from traditional activities (for example, linked to managing conflict and finance) to include more discussions on individual staff development needs. Such a finding reflects the move towards more portfolio based careers for academics, with career development responsibility seemingly shifting from the institution to the individual (Floyd, 2012), and an accompanying shift in associated developmental needs for academic leaders (Floyd, 2016). More fundamentally, it also suggests the need for academic work, including research and education, to be seen as a scholarly whole (Fung, 2016), and for university leadership to be seen as a special form of academic endeavour directed at strengthening the synergies between these different areas – for the good of both the individuals themselves and their institutions. The tensions between what is deemed good for the individuals (both leaders and those who are led) and what is good for the institution lie at the heart of the challenge, and our data suggest that all parties appreciate explicit discussion about these tensions, so that shared solutions and indeed shared values and goals can be developed.


The research on which this blog is based was funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and undertaken with Professor Dilly Fung. I gratefully acknowledge their support. Interpretations and errors remain my own.

SRHE member Alan Floyd is Professor of Education at the University of Reading where he is also the EdD Programme Director.


Bolden, R, Petrov, G and Gosling, J (2009) ‘Distributed leadership in higher education: rhetoric and reality’ Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 37(2): 257-277

Floyd, A (2012) ”Turning points’: the personal and professional circumstances that lead academics to become middle managers’ Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 40(2): 272-284

Floyd, A (2016) ‘Supporting academic middle managers in higher education: do we care?’ Higher Education Policy, 29(2): 167-183

Floyd, A (2019) ‘Investigating the PDR process in a UK university: continuing professional development or performativity?’ Professional Development in Education, 1-15

Floyd, A, and Fung, D (2017) ‘Focusing the kaleidoscope: exploring distributed leadership in an English university’ Studies in Higher Education, 42(8): 1488-1503

Floyd, A, and Fung, D (2018) ‘Stories of leading and being led: developing collaborative relationships in an English research-intensive university’ in Gornall, L, Thomas, B and Sweetman, L (eds), Exploring consensual leadership in higher education London: Bloomsbury Academic

Fung, D (2016) ‘Strength-based scholarship and good education: the scholarship circle’ Innovations in Education and Teaching International 54(2): 101-110

Ian Mc Nay

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Lessons for HE leaders from recent events

By Ian McNay

This is a longer piece than usual, an essay on leadership in HE, triggered by reflections on recent events and the lessons they offer. Turbulence in political leadership has been rife in the last six months from Italy to Gambia and New Zealand; UK and USA; the Labour Party, the Conservatives, UKIP; even the Open University. Which bridges to the first of five lessons to be drawn for HE leaders.

Lesson 1: listen to those you lead

If not, they will leave you – you risk losing their support, as in the OU, their loyalty, their commitment, even their compliance. Alternative leaders will spring up. I had hoped that the discourse about ‘disconnected’ might shift after the referendum vote. That showed that it was not the underclass who had disconnected from reality, but the political class whose bubble had floated off in to some cloud cuckoo land far from the reality of ‘others’ in those parts of Britain similar to my roots, on Teesside. It could have been Ashington, Scunthorpe, Motherwell, the Welsh valleys – alien places the perceivedly posh politicians do not go to and of which they have no understanding. But, after the shock wore off, the liberal elite, with its high proportion of graduates, returned to blaming the disenchanted – Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ – for their ignorance or even lack of gratitude for what the EU/Obama had done for them. As with the rust belt in the USA, the view was that, to quote Shirley Maclaine in Sweet Charity, ‘there’s got to be something better than this’. Or even, ‘it can’t get any worse, and voting to continue means more of the same old, same old, which has done nothing for us’. So, change, any change, was seen as worth the risk, even if its proponents were lying clowns. What does that say about their views of the incumbent leaders? Continue reading