disrupting the passive approach to learning doctoral writing pt2

This post follows on from part 1 which was a plea to supervisors to actively promote development in writing from early on in the PhD. 

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAY-AAAAJDI4M2VkMDFjLTNjNjAtNGRlNy1hNTgwLTEzMjE5ZmYxZWJiOA.jpgThis post is for supervisors wondering what they can actually do in the early stages of the doctorate to get their PhD’ers to learn research writing. It offers a curation of ‘in practice’ ideas that supervisors can use to frame and cultivate a gradual development of writing, drawn together form the recent, and very readable, blogosphere literature.

There are also existing and very comprehensive book resources on this topic. You can’t go far wrong with this book by Pat Thomson & Barbara Kamler, or this book edited by Susan Carter & Deborah Laurs which has brought together all-of-the-truth on research writing from all the people who really know.

I want to note too, that have had responses to my blog part 1, from supervisors who strongly disagree with me and feel that a final ‘writing up period’ is the right thing to do, because it affords a PhD researcher months in which to focus on their writing in real depth. I understand this point of view, especially coming from people who (as they said themselves) long for the luxury of time to think and write. It’s easy to look back and wish for what we no longer have. And hey, for lots of folk ‘writing up’ works fine. I don’t disagree…except when I do, because…

I lead the Thesis Mentoring programme for the University of Sheffield and have paired up over 400 PhD researchers who struggle with immersive ‘writing up’. They feel immersed. As in, like they’re drowning.

The Thesis Mentoring programme is not a source of advice on writing, or support for developing the content of the thesis. It offers a confidential relationship in which PhD researchers can work on their emotional relationship with writing, and with their PhD project, helping them to better think, and to plan, and to face up to what needs doing. It’s unfettered by the ‘agenda’ of the mentor, who, by their neutrality, offers what a supervisor can’t. In this way it’s complementary to what you provide in supervision.

A very quick content analysis of the total 566 applications for thesis mentoring revealed that just over 70% of applications contain one or more of these words: anxiety, stress, panic, upset, or worry. It’s worth saying explicitly that my own research across different research-intensive universities in the last few years, a huge literature base, Twitter (#AcWri), and common sense, tells me this isn’t just a Sheffield issue. So what’s going on for these people who don’t thrive when working in this way? They tell me that:

  • Having very little variety in your day to day life can be bad for motivation, especially when the task is hard and draining, and at times when it’s not going well. Researchers have described how their whole sense of self-worth can become linked to how their writing is going. Especially as…
  • There’s no easy way to know if you’re doing a ‘good job’. There are no grades in doctoral writing, and when PhD researchers hear ‘it’s fine’ they find it difficult to know if fine means ‘just good enough’ or if fine means ‘entirely without problems’. Absent, contradictory, or ambiguous feedback is commonly received by this group. Multiply the problems by the number of supervisors commenting on various drafts. And…
  • We aren’t very good in academia at recognising the value of the all rounder — myths persist around how ‘serious researchers’ give up their hobbies and interests to dedicate time to the PhD. Fear of being shamed and blamed leads researchers to work harder, and harder but not smarter. In some uber-competitive research environments, taking a break or holiday, or not putting in a ridiculous 80h week can get you labelled as a ‘slacker’. People forget to take care of themselves, and end up burning out. And…
  • They’re frightened of you, their supervisor. Or intimidated by you, your authority, your style, your behaviour, and they no longer trust you. We don’t disclose things we’re worried about, to people we don’t trust. Isolation can start as a self-preservation mechanism, and become a habit of avoidance in itself.

The high stakes of the doctorate, the intense interpersonal relationships, the length of the project with relatively few milestones, the uncertainty around progress, standards, how to act on feedback, and being ‘good enough’ set up the ideal conditions for procrastination (paralysis). In their words…

“I spent ages not really sure what was meant to be happening with my thesis, and I should have said something sooner but I was too embarrassed.”

“If I could go back, I would have started writing earlier. Particularly in mapping out chapters and making a template for my writing based on ongoing figures so I could establish where there clear gaps that needed filling. Setting aside writing days/afternoons would have helped this.”

“I should have begun the writing up phase a lot sooner and also made sure that I did not ‘get stuck’ on (obsessed with) trying to make an idea or task work at the expense of making time to progress the writing.”

“I look back and I kick myself for my poor use of small pieces of time. I should have plotted my data sooner, should have written my methods sooner, should have worked to a plan”

As their supervisor, you are the one with both the influence and the discipline-knowledge to help researchers understand the rules and the undertaking early enough that they can do something about it. To develop good writing habits, they need your permission and approval to be in place, and they need you to suggest things they can’t themselves come up, with because they don’t know what the possibilities are… You play a role in helping PhD researchers to think through their approach to writing, and in endorsing their plans for writing.

Blog posts sharing ideas of how to help doctoral researchers develop early writing are compiled below with links to original sources where you can read further:

Critique or criticism: “While critical review is a core element of supervision, it can be a fine balance between ensuring a good review and being too critical.” by Prof. Lynne Parkinson

Writing trouble: “Three pieces of bad feedback and some suggestions for how to do it better” by Dr Inger Mewburn

Reverse outlining: “Regardless of whether or not you create an outline before you write, creating one after you have written a first draft can be invaluable. A reverse outline will reveal the structure—and thus the structural problems—of a text.” by Dr Rachel Cayley

Managing feedback on writing in team supervision: “how to handle the feedback from two or more supervisors who may not always completely agree on what the writing needs.” by Dr Cally Guerin

De-mystifying doctoral writing“I see the process of academic writing development, now that I work as a doctoral supervisor, as demystifying the ‘discourse of transparency’ that often informs discussions around academic writing whenever anyone transitions into doctoral writing.” by Dr Amanda French

Getting students started with writing: “For many, the biggest blocker to writing…is actually realising it’s time to get on and getting started with writing. The second is managing writing as a piecemeal process that fits around other work — nudging several projects, or several strands of a project forward at once.” by Dr Kay Guccione

Make the hidden work visible – writing tasks that academics do that we don’t talk about: “could supervisors and the academy be doing more to assist new scholars acquire the capacity to helpfully, fairly and equitably review the work of their peers?” by Dr Sue Starfield

Shake up your thinking, and your routine: “In facing the reality of busy life as a busy academic and thesis students… we can create more time to write if we try four strategies” by Dr Evonne Miller

Encouraging robust scholars: “How can we encourage students to critically give and receive?” by Dr Steve Hutchinson

Don’t try to write classy: “concern about PhDers adopting “classy” academic writing early on” by Prof. Pat Thompson

Encouraging openness: “What can we do as supervisors to enlighten and guide our early career researchers and improve the productivity of our research groups?” by Dr Rachel Cowen

De-mystifying doctoral writing: “I see the process of academic writing development, now that I work as a doctoral supervisor, as demystifying the ‘discourse of transparency’ that often informs discussions around academic writing whenever anyone transitions into doctoral writing.” by Dr Amanda French

As always your comments and discussion are welcome.

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