QPR meeting – Adelaide, South Australia


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On the first day of the 11th Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) conference in Adelaide, South Australia this week, we held the first official meeting of the Doctoral Writing SIG. Some of our readers might remember that the impetus for the DoctoralWriting group arose at the end of the 2012 QPR conference when Claire Aitchison suggested that a special interest group (SIG) on doctoral writing would be welcome. Following that call, we established this blog as a first step towards building a community with shared interests in this area. How special it was, finally, for our community to meet in person this week.

The Doctoral Writing Special Interest Group – Conference Round Up

We began by reviewing what we’d done so far on the blog site – and luckily, the meeting gave the blog the tick of approval and confirmed that it was a valued resource (phew!). The QPR SIG members also agreed that it would be useful to establish an email list to enable a different way of connecting this conference community. It was suggested that the SIG meet for a day before or after the main conference to share our latest thinking, research and experiments relating to doctoral writing. To this end, a group of doughty academic and doctoral student volunteers rolled themselves together into a steering committee to ensure that this happens at the next QPR Conference in 2016. They were enthusiastically applauded—the method of election by self-selection seemed to suit the way this SIG will achieve its aims. It was also felt that we needed someone to oversee the SIG more generally, and Claire has graciously agreed to take on this task.

Web 2.0 and Social Media: Options for Supporting Doctoral Writing

We also spent some time exploring the ways in which social media and Web 2.0 technologies are being used by others in doctoral writing. Some of our members reported on their success using webinars or badge calls, others use software to talk or work collegially on writing, for giving and talking about feedback on writing—seems there is exciting potential there and those amongst us with the skills to lead us technologically.

Our discussion of how SIG members are using Web 2.0 technologies focussed on tools such as Skype for conversations between students, and between students and supervisors. One group reported using Skype to allow remote students to join a face-to-face classroom session, other use it for writing groups and to facilitate research days for students at remote locations. Tools like Facebook were being used by members to facilitate peer support, often outside the structures created/endorsed by university administration. Still others described how they contributed to online magazines and blogs to join in conversations in their areas.

Other groups discussed the software they were using (e.g. Research Master, Attlassian) to share documents with students and supervisors, which they had found particularly useful for time-poor students and supervisors. Such programs can alert others to when drafts have been submitted, to track and record revisions, and to notify members when others have (or haven’t!) opened the documents to read. Similarly, templates for meeting notes can be used to track decisions and actions taken.

While there was extensive and innovative use of the available tools (especially the freeware), discussions did also register that not everyone involved in doctoral education was comfortable using these technologies. There are many who embrace what the group described as the ‘anarchic, feral’ possibilities afforded by Web 2.0 technologies, but there are others who bemoan the time they find themselves expending on learning these newer technologies.

The Doctoralwriting Blog

Our Doctoralwriting blog will continue under the helm of the current editors as a separate entity functioning alongside the SIG. We will continue to encourage guests to contribute blogs to the site, and to write reviews and share details of useful resources.

It seems like an interest in doctoral writing really does bring out a desire for a sense of community—we want to feel like we’ll be coming home to each other at the QPR conferences of the future. There is a healthy sense of something growing, growing more solidly than just our shared interest in writing.


Starting again: picking up the pieces after an extended break from writing


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by Cally Guerin

It is not unusual for doctoral candidature to be disrupted for extended periods over the three or more years that these projects usually take. Candidates take a leave of absence for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes this is because of very positive, planned life changes such as maternity or parenting leave, or good short-term job opportunities arise. Other times the interruption can be for more difficult reasons of illness or injury, carer responsibilities for elderly relatives, or pressing financial need pushes candidates into paid work for awhile.

But when those events have run their course, the task of starting again on the writing needs to be addressed. For some, the chance to get back to their writing is an eagerly awaited moment, and they are filled with new energy to kickstart the project. For others, though, it is a very daunting prospect that is approached with great anxiety.

I think part of what must be remembered here is that not only has the momentum of the project been disrupted, but also the emerging researcher identity has been disrupted. We know that the writing of the thesis is closely linked to developing doctoral identities (Lee & Boud 2003; Aitchison & Lee 2006; Kamler & Thomson 2006). For those who have taken a break from that identity and are now trying to return, there are pressing questions to face: How does my identity as a new parent fit with my identity as a scholar? As a cancer survivor, will I have the energy required to complete this intense writing phase? After a major accident that involved head injuries, am I still the kind of person whose concentration span is sufficient to do rigorous, scholarly research? Now that I am a bereaved widow instead of a carer for my terminally ill husband, will the writing fill up that aching gap of grief or will it be too isolating when what I really need is human warmth? It’s important not to underestimate how confronting these questions might be, nor how far beneath the surface they might lurk, stalling progress but not consciously acknowledged.

Disruption to candidature doesn’t have to be an entirely negative experience, however. Starting again after a break can be regarded as a chance to re-assess the project and its direction with fresh eyes, and maybe even make significant changes to improve the final product.

When I was a PhD student many years ago (in the days when people relied on hardcopy from typewriters rather than electronic copies stored in cloud technology), a student at my university lost the single copy of his almost finished thesis when his home was burnt down in a terrible bushfire. Traumatic as this was, the student courageously started again, rewrote the thesis, and ended up with an excellent, medal-winning thesis that was published to great acclaim. The story went that, in the process of starting again, he was able to reassess his approach to the work and rewrite the thesis based on the digested, synthesised knowledge that had developed over the entire candidature. Of course, I would never wish such trauma on anyone, but the salutary lesson here is that a bit of distance from the project can bring unexpected improvements to the writing.

So when talking to students who are coming back to doctoral writing after an extended interruption, what advice can we offer? The obvious starting point would be to read the last version of any existing chapters, go through the notes collected while reading the literature, and establish where the project is actually up to (as opposed to hazy memories that may be more or less optimistic about how much had been achieved previously). With that done, it is possible to make an overall, big-picture plan of what remains to be done, in what order, and in what timeframe. Then I’d recommend breaking the work up into manageable, bite-sized tasks rather than thinking of it as the monumental undertaking of ‘writing up’ the entire thesis. It’s also a useful strategy to start by doing the easy bits first, as it is always encouraging to see something ticked off the list of jobs and some progress registered.

Have you started again after an extended break as a doctoral student? Or as the supervisor advising a student? As a writing advisor? How did you go about it? What advice can you offer to those faced with similar circumstances?

Aitchison, C., & Lee, A. (2006) Research writing: Problems and pedagogies. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3): 265-278.

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. New York and London: Routledge.

Lee, A., & Boud, D. (2003). Writing groups, change and academic identity: Research development as local practice. Studies in Higher Education, 28(2), 187-200.

Writing retreats aka binge writing: pros and cons



By Susan Carter

I am at a desk overlooking trees soaking up misty rain. This post represents a spasm of procrastination from the article that I’m writing on what is for me a new area of research interest.

Beside me I have an ambitious stack of reading for the week; I need to get my head round recent literature. In front of me, the laptop, currently showing my resurrected Endnote library—somehow I have lost a more recent version so need to move on and recreate. Around me, other women academics are also writing, including a couple of them finishing their PhD theses, and a couple who are newly graduated and now pumping out articles to meet their post-doc grants’ mandates.

It’s the third day of one of Barbara Grant’s writing retreats for academic women. I have read five articles and skimmed two journals—two books and another five journals sit waiting. I have also written 3,749 words, a bit boring and disjointed, but first draft material certainly enough sitting in a document. I know that by the end of a fairly blissful week I will have accomplished a draft of an article to fine tune later, and may have almost caught up with this batch of reading.

Robert Boice (1987), who is foundational in research on research writing, suggests that what he calls ‘binge writing,’ in days given just to writing, actually handicaps academic writers, because it encourages procrastination. He recommends instead making space for short bursts daily. I have to say that writing briefly and daily is how I usually meet my own publication deadlines. It works for me. It also means avoiding fetishizing writing or making it like a sacred ritual requiring trappings, place, silence, atmosphere…. Instead, I find it helpful to see it as part of the ordinary pattern of each day.

Boice has been influential: other academics supporting dissertation writing propose sustained daily short bursts of writing to produce what Joan Bolker describes as the dissertation written in 15 minutes per day. Alison Miller (2007), for example, produced a blog post citing Bolker and endorsing ‘the 15 minute rule.’ But there are many approaches to productivity, and it is maybe best to work across all of them.

So what do writing retreats give participants? The writing retreat offers a dimension I do not get in short snatches at my office desk. It’s the business-class luxury approach. Most conspicuously, it offers a quiet space allowing real thinking. This is the oasis that I keep ahead of me through all the times I write at a desk cluttered with folders relating to committee work, teaching work, reviewing work. I’m always able to write at my desk, but I cannot immerse myself in the same level of thinking. At the retreat, there is just a desk, my reading and laptop and no other demands.

And there is the social dimension of writing with others. Having others around working and obviously deep in thought is somehow energising, as though we mutually thrive on each other’s absorption in their writing. Inger Mewburn’s ‘shut up and write’ taps into the energy of critical mass, an energy that is somehow prompted by writers working together in a shared congenial space.  The tapping of fingers on other people’s keyboards motivates Inger.

Encouraging doctoral students to write daily makes sense; if there are sometimes writing retreats established for them, they are likely to find clarity of thinking, energy from others—and likely to shift their writing forwards. Do you have experience or thoughts about writing retreats?

Boice, R. (1987) A Program for Facilitating Scholarly Writing, Higher Education Research and Development, 6:1, 9-20.

Bolker, J. (1998). Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day : a guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis. New York: Henry Holt

Grant, B. M. (2006). Writing in the company of other women:exceeding the boundaries, Studies in Higher Education, 31: 4, 483–495.

Research writing outside the box


By Susan Carter

It is so exhilarating to come across research that pushes the boundaries. Human ingenuity is alive, fresh and daring in such work. I say ‘daring’ because, in every boundary stretching instance I know of, there are always some risks and costs. ‘Pioneer’ is something of a cliché, but researchers who step into the unknown are pioneers in the most red-blooded, riskiest sense.

I want to use three examples of pioneering theses.

Example 1: Recently, and prompting this post, the tale of the comic book thesis circulated on the IDERN network. It’s worth reading for two reasons. Firstly, anyone working with theory is likely to be wowed by how cleverly theory is shown visually in comic strip format; this is a staggeringly stylish and advanced representation. Secondly, the article describing it spells out some of the tensions involved in doctoral innovation that I am thinking about here in terms of how it relates to doctoral writing.

Example 2: At my own institution, one of my favourite theses is A.K.L. Poulsen’s (2009) Another way with words: language as twentieth-century art practice. Structured like a medieval commonplace or day book, it has twenty-six chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each of these chapter heading words is theoretical: as with a commonplace book, what looks simple is designed as a pleasurably deep-level exegesis. It is an exquisite demonstration of expertise.

Example 3: In New Zealand, I’m aware of two theses coming through on the use of Māori language in Education. One is written in English. One is, unusually and excitingly, written in Māori, in te reo. Because New Zealand education is governed by the Treaty of Waitangi, we have an option to use Māori language in many situations, including in education. Whether to take this up is a decision bristling with political positionality.

But if you choose to walk the political talk and talk in te reo, the reality is that your audience shrinks immediately. Other indigenous scholars won’t have access to your ideas. On the up side, your leadership within your own community may be firmly established, and you may be able to make real changes to how New Zealanders perceive education.

My instinctive reaction to pioneers is to applaud. Innovators are heroic figures. They make the world a more promisingly complex, puzzlingly rich place as they engineer rules, and change configurations. I join others who suggest that examiners need to be open to frameworks other than those they already know and use, and welcoming of people who expand the boxes we work within.

Secondly, though, I worry whether doctoral students will be strong enough to survive the risks of pioneering. Sometimes it is hard to find examiners for their work who will be as flexible as the work itself. Will institutions welcome the new graduate as a leader or appoint someone a little more central, a little less risky? Does the student have the psychological stamina to forge a new path forward? And, perhaps most importantly, are their writing skills sophisticated enough for the execution of stunningly innovative ideas?

I know some academics are clear that they will only supervise theses  within their own methodologies, where they feel comfortable that they have the expertise to guide them. And I know some others who relish working with pioneer innovators who want to takes risks and push the boundaries.

I’d be interested to hear whether others have strategies for identifying how you best guide and produce research outside the box. And please let us know of any other examples of pushing those boundaries!

Widening vocabulary in academic writing? Or wider reader access?



By Susan Carter

Here is a sticky dilemma for thesis writers: do you develop a wider vocabulary so that your academic prose gains precision and richness, or do you keep your vocabulary tightly reigned in so that it is easy for all to read?

This is a no-brainer for me: I very much like collecting and fingering interesting words. I come out of English literature studies, and now in Higher Education I sometimes still gratify my satisfaction at pulling out some of my favourites for my academic prose.

For a while I was entranced by the look of ‘chthonic’ and managed to slip in a reference to chthonic experience in almost everything I wrote. Doing a PhD is a chthonic experience, for example (there may be scope for an article showing how like Dante’s Inferno the doctoral progression can be). Scholarship lets you manoeuvre through a language rich in words with evocative histories. I feel that building a quirky stock-of-trade lexicon lets me texture my prose voice.

So I am happy when I find new words I can consider using. The latest novel I am reading, Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally Weird has already given me three new words and I am not yet a quarter of the way through: one character is ‘racine’ (acting as a root cause) yet always ‘widdershins’ (out of kilter with everyone else, going against the flow, and unlucky) and another is unlikeably ‘thrawn’ (twisted, bent). A colleague gave me the word ‘precariate’ – and in the context that ‘increasingly, academics in humanities are joining the new precariate.’ Nicely put as a call to their defence—but could this comment be a warning that word-obsessive academics are an endangered species?

The plot thickens….

Another academic colleague discussing her publication ‘work in progress’ recently described having to pare back her lexicon because the journal felt readers whose first language is not English would find her wide word range too hard. She had to stay within common or garden language. Fair enough, she thought; it is an international journal.

This thought stumps me with real problem. Equal access is great. Those who produce academic writing in a language other than their mother-tongue are valiant and add so much by widening academic discourses for those locked in the English they were born into. I want to be considerate of these adventurous readers who maneouvre through wider linguistic terrain. But this raises the spectre of language being clipped for smoothness: how much can you cut away before it becomes too thin?

Partly, theoretical contructs govern. Those who strive for objectivity bat aside individuation of language, swatting language vagrancy down. I’ve come across several doctoral students who sternly purge even the harmless (and more precise) range of words for ‘says’ or ‘said’. They have claimed that their supervisors advise them to uniformly use ‘suggests’ and avoid straying into anything that might be construed as opinionated.

Although I appreciate supervisors’ fear  that students will show questionable evaluation, in the end you have to show critical evaluation. Whether you say Brown (2013) ‘argues that,’ or ‘shows that’ or ‘found that’ or ‘claims that’ signals your own evaluation of what it was that Brown was on about. And be alerted that ‘claims’ has pejorative connotations….

But word choice is also about the academic identity under construction in every act of thesis-writing.

It seems to me that if you are someone who supports doctoral students with writing across campus, you could stay alert to the discipline with its underpinning epistemological preference while fostering students as they find their own voice, including when this involves a wider, more textured use of language.

Some scholars, both students and academics, prefer to keep their vocabulary closely straight-jacketed. Then the criteria for word choice is simply a matter of clarity at its baldest. Doctoral writers then could consider during revision whether critical evaluation needed to be more visible.

I know I am heading towards the rogue end of the spectrum in my own keenness for little-used but intriguing words. I almost expect to be reprimmanded by reviewers and made to trim my sails. I almost expect in my own article revision to be obliged to remove words that are red rags to the reviewing bulls.

Somewhere, though, is there a happy medium? Or is it always a balancing act? Do you have an opinion on this?

When writing a PhD dissertation in English is “like knitting a sweater without knowing whether there is enough yarn”


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By Tine Wirenfeldt Jensen, Gitte Wichmann-Hansen and Stacey Cozart, Aarhus University, Denmark.

The globalization of higher education can sometimes be a very abstract concept, a term we keep repeating without it having any real implications for our personal lives in academia. But one aspect of this trend towards globalization does involve one of the most personal areas of all – our language and thereby our very identities. More and more doctoral students are writing their dissertations (as monographs or journal articles) in English – the language of globalization. In Denmark as well as in other Scandinavian countries, this development is often not thought of as an issue: after all, Danish doctoral students generally have such excellent oral skills in English that some are perceived as being bilingual. And when doctoral students interact with their international – non-native English-speaking – peers, their own belief in their superior skills in English is confirmed. But what happens when they take on the task of writing a dissertation in academic English? Does having excellent oral communication skills necessarily mean that writing a dissertation in a foreign language, in a genre that is new to them, is smooth sailing? And if they do encounter difficulties, how are they able to frame and experience these difficulties as doctoral students?

We looked into this question as part of a two-year multi-institutional research seminar focusing on critical transitions in writing in higher education. Our case study focused on the writing experiences and challenges of PhD students at the faculty of Arts at Aarhus University, Denmark. It shows that writing a dissertation in English is, in fact, not without difficulties for PhD students. Even though lots of the students writing in English confidently rate their writing skills as very good or good, almost half state that they do have concerns about writing their dissertation in English.

We asked the students to complete the sentence “Writing in English is like…/Writing in Danish is like…”. Their answers point to the difficulties and insecurities experienced in connection with writing in English. This student answer is an incisive example: While writing in Danish is like “playing a grand piano based on 30 years’ experience”, writing in English is like “beating on a little tin xylophone without any guidance. In the dark.”

Other examples of metaphor pairs for writing in Danish and English are: Writing in Danish is like “…driving on a freeway while my supervisor occasionally tells me to switch to the academic lane”, while writing in English is like “…driving on a freeway with holes in the asphalt”. Writing in Danish is like “…shaping clay”, while writing in English is like “…knitting a sweater without knowing whether there is enough yarn”. Just like the majority of the students’ metaphor pairs, these examples underline the students’ difficulties transitioning from Danish to English, in particular their sense of alienation, inadequacy and lack of creativity in connection with writing in English.

In order to handle these issues, the doctoral students need to be able to assume an identity as “language learner”, but the structural framework of the doctoral programs does not offer a legitimate space for them to do so. There are no mandatory courses in academic English, no formal or informal assessments of students’ writing skills in English, nor any frameworks for discussing students’ writing issues or concerns about writing in English in the doctoral supervision context. No institutional space is made available for discussing these quite complex issues, and if the students want to do so, they must carve out this space individually.

What the institution is communicating to the PhD student who pictures writing in English as ”knitting a sweater without knowing whether there is enough yarn” is that there should be enough yarn – that doctoral students are simply expected to have the ability to write a dissertation in English with little or no support. And – in a sense – that if this is not the case, the students’ “doctoral student” identity is somewhat flawed.

What is striking is how unfounded this expectation is. More than two thirds of the students in our study who stated that they are writing their dissertation in English had never attended a course in academic English, and one third had virtually no experience of writing academic texts in English when they began their PhD studies.

The consequence of these implicit expectations is that the students are very much left to themselves – left to decide what language to write their dissertation in, to assess their own language skills, to seek out courses and other kinds of support on their own. And they are also left alone with the task of negotiating the impact on their self-perception when faced with difficulties writing a dissertation in English – this context can’t allow them to legitimately occupy the space of being a doctoral student and an advanced language learner at the same time.

Importantly, the difficulties these students experience are not the result of a personal shortcoming but of an institutional blind spot toward the idea that even the nearly bilingual Danish PhD students may only be beginning to develop their English academic writing skills. Our study has made it clear to us that understanding the role played by the different identities available to young scholars is crucial. We as institutions, researchers, supervisors and language teachers must work towards making it legitimate for students to assume the identities of advanced language learner and doctoral student at the same time – without the one identity undermining the other.

We would be very interested to hear about similar dilemmas in other contexts.

All three of our guest authors this week work at Aarhus University in Denmark. They are educational developers within Higher Education, and have extensive experience working with students’ writing processes, text feedback, and doctoral supervision. Together they compose a research team on Doctoral Writing. Tine is a part-time lecturer and PhD student at the Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media in the Faculty of Arts. Gitte is an associate professor and research manager at the Center for Teaching and Learning, School of Business and Social Sciences. Stacey is a senior consultant with the Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media at the Faculty of Arts.

Writing feedback from generic learning advisors compared to supervisors


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By Susan Carter

I was talking to a doctoral student nearing the final stages of her thesis. She identifies as an older PhD student. She wished that her supervisors would stay focused on the thesis project rather than on the relationship and practice of supervision itself. Yes, they were both wonderful, but she wished that they would just make clear practical suggestions about writing—as I had just done from a generic advisor position, causing her evident relief and a mini-breakthrough.

She also suggested that mature students were maybe more interested in just getting the job done to their own satisfaction rather than beating metaphoric bushes–for example, the thickets of theory that might harbour other possible writing directions. Yet she suspected that supervisors saw it as good teaching to beat those bushes and send students chasing after the ideas that might emerge.

Her comments, her satisfaction with my focus on her writing, and our talk together about supervisors and how they work made me think about the differences between supervisory feedback on writing and feedback from others outside the supervision team. I’m proofing a book on generic doctoral support (i.e., not supervision) that has two chapters on support with writing.

Are there clear delineations between the levels (content, clarity, grammar, punctuation, style, structure etc.) on which supervisors give writing feedback compared to that from learning advisors? Or is it just a matter of the serendipity of who the supervisor and learning advisor are, how much time and interest they have in writing per se? And should we avoid interference in the happenstance of where support comes from?

Supervisors vary in their availability, and some very diligent supervisors simply lack the skills to talk clearly and constructively about writing (Paré, 2011). Learning advisors on the other hand are experts in writing at almost all levels, and talk that talk really well, but they may lack the discipline expertise that would let them work efficiently (Strauss, forthcoming), although it can be a great advantage too, in prompting students to explain things more clearly (Laurs, forthcoming).

My hunch is that you will have a stack of anecdotal evidence around this complex topic. Learning advisor support may be available but ignored by students who link using it with identifying themselves as not good enough, with generic learning support based on the deficit model.

That is a pity, because learning advisor support has much to offer that supplements supervisory support. Different learning cultures will mean different expectations (Wu, 2013), sometimes troublingly so (Fovotation, 2013)–a unsettlement that insiders often are unable to see, which makes it also isolating. Clusters of doctoral students who find structure or style problematic, or who happen to be grappling with the literature review, will benefit from working with others at the same point in the writing process. For that reason, support outside of supervision becomes an important scaffolding to student learning.

Sometimes learning support might provide encouragement and advice on the surface level with writing before it goes to the supervisor to doctoral students whose first language is not English, so that supervisors may then be able to view the content more clearly and comment more usefully (Carter, 2009). But sometimes it will be the supervisor who despairingly sends the student to a learning advisor after considerable frustrations. Supervisor frustration also leads to comments that demoralise students and cause them to lose confidence—and I believe that loss of confidence is a huge handicap. I find self-confidence to be important for my own writing (and actually almost everything else). It’s definitely a bad brain day when I lose it.

So often the borderlands between supervisory and learning advisorly feedback on writing are traversed by people who are having difficult times with writing. Yet some institutions don’t allow learning advisors to work closely with research students, and their limited availability bodes ill for those students who need more than a supervisor’s advice. In other instances, learning advisor engagement with doctoral writing means that they influence the thesis significantly, usually with resulting improvement in clarity.

Having worked as both supervisor and learning advisor, and having heard many anecdotes, I have my own ideas about this, but wonder what yours are. And the student who launched this conversation also asked whether discipline affected feedback on writing: I wonder if what I have to say is situated very squarely in learning to research under the qualitative banner?? Q.  Do the hierarchies that exist within science/ medicine paradigms expose differences of other kinds?

Carter, S. (2009). ‘Volunteer support of English as an additional language (EAL) doctoral students,’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies 4: 13–25.

Fotovatian, S. (2013). ‘Three constructs of institutional identity amongst international students in Australia,’ Teaching in Higher Education 17(5): 577–588.

Laurs, D. (forthcoming). ‘One-to-one generic support, in Developing Generic Support for Doctoral Students, pp 29-33eds. Carter, S. and Laurs, D. Oxon: Routledge.

Pare, A. (2011).‘Speaking of writing: supervisory feedback and the dissertation’ in L. McAlpine and C. Amundsen (eds) Doctoral Education: Research-Based Strategies for Doctoral Students, Supervisors and Administrators, Dordrecht: Springer, 59–74.

Strauss, P. (in press). ‘”I don’t think we’re seen as a nuisance” – the positioning of postgraduate Learning Advisors in New Zealand universities.’ TEXT Journal of Writing and Writing Courses.

Wu, S. (2013). ‘Filling the pot or lighting the fire: cultural variations in conceptions of pedagogy,’ Teaching in Higher Education 7(4): 387–895.

Supervisory Feedback: Revising the writer and the writing


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This post comes from Prof Anthony Paré of McGill University, Canada, where he studies academic and professional writing. His recent research has focussed on doctoral writing, in particular the role of supervision in the writing process. 

When supervisors provide feedback to doctoral students on their writing, what are they doing? In what voice do they speak, and for what purpose? Do they speak as teachers? Editors? External examiners? The generic reader? As Claire Aitchison noted in an earlier blog on this topic, writers can ask for a certain type of reading, and thus a certain type of reader. She also pointed out that there are prescribed reading roles, such as PhD examiner, that lead to particular kinds of reading and feedback. But what role do supervisors play as they read and respond to doctoral student writing, and what do they hope to achieve with their feedback?

What has become obvious in my studies of supervision is the central role that the advisor’s feedback plays in the development of the thesis. Moreover, it’s clear that supervisors are as intent on revising the writer as they are on revising the text (Paré, Starke-Meyerring, & McAlpine, 2009 and 2011). That is, supervisory feedback is designed to locate the doctoral student in the disciplinary community, and thus to shape a “rhetorical subject”: a person capable of joining the discipline’s ongoing conversation. When supervisors tell students to soften claims, cite sources, provide examples, or otherwise alter texts, their intention isn’t merely to change what’s on the page, it’s also to change the writer.

Although this formation of the rhetorical subject is not necessarily sinister, it does deserve careful reflection. The text is not some sort of disembodied, independent utterance; it’s an extension or expression of the writer. We are what we think, and our texts are the visible trace of our views on the world. Feedback that recommends new ways of expressing something, alternative perspectives on topics, or expanded explanations of theory are not mere surface or cosmetic suggestions; they are invitations to think differently, to look at the world with new eyes. Even copyediting directives are instructions on how to be a particular kind of person: a person who punctuates, formats, spells, cites, and expresses themselves in a certain, approved style. As Janet Giltrow (2003) puts it, “Style constitutes a position in the world, and shared methods for thinking about it. Without access to scholarly ways of speaking, student writers cannot occupy scholarly positions, or use scholarly methods for producing statements, or speak to academic interests” (10).

Much of what supervisors are saying to doctoral students in the data I have collected consists of feedback that helps students position themselves within their disciplinary communities. From those positions, students acknowledge, challenge, confirm, agree with, and otherwise locate themselves, or—and this is the point—create themselves as participants in their communities. This dynamic confirms Kamler and Thomson’s (2006) claim that “the supervisor embodies and mediates institutional and disciplinary cultures, conditions and conventions” (144). By reading and responding as an insider—as a member of the disciplinary community to which the student aspires—the supervisor acts as a culture broker by easing the student’s transition into the particularities of their shared scholarly world.

Clearly, the supervisor is well-positioned to act as a surrogate for the community itself. But other readers can speak from a similar perspective. The trick is to help students see that critical feedback isn’t just about adherence to style guides or compliance with superficial forms of discursive etiquette; it’s about the position of the writer in a living dialogue. When we suggest changes to a text, we aren’t just asking students to say things differently, we’re asking them to be different. We’re asking them to take a stance, to speak their minds, to side with and against others, to claim an identity as a participating member of their community. Comments thus framed—as insights into a disciplinary conversation rather than as adherence to regulations—are likely to have far greater purchase. They are more likely to help students understand how their voice can contribute to the discipline’s ongoing debate.

Giltrow, J. (2002). Academic writing: Writing and reading across the disciplines. 3rd ed. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Kamler, B. & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.

Paré, A., Starke-Meyerring, D., & McAlpine, L. (2011). Knowledge and identity work in the supervision of doctoral student writing: Shaping rhetorical subjects. In Writing in knowledge societies. D. Starke-Meyerring, A. Paré, M. Horne, N. Artemeva, & L. Yousoubova (Eds.). Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press. Available at http://wac.colostate.edu/books/winks/

Paré, A., Starke-Meyerring, D., & McAlpine, L. (2009). The dissertation as multi-genre: Many readers, many readings. In Genre in a changing world. C. Bazerman, A. Bonini, and D. Figueiredo (Eds.). Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press. Available at http://wac.colostate.edu/books/genre/

Feedback on writing: Not getting what you need?


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By Claire Aitchison

As I go to post this blog, I realise it’s Valentine’s Day – perhaps in this blog you’ll pick up some hints for improving your relationship with those who read your writing…

Most writers acknowledge the benefits of having a reading audience of one kind or another. Certainly those who see academic writing as social practice are acutely aware of the importance of readers for the doing of writing – and for its reception.

But not all readers are equal, nor is all feedback. Consider for a minute the difference between the kind of response you would expect from these different readers: a friendly academic colleague, a research supervisor/adviser, an examiner, a writing buddy or writing group peer, an anonymous scholarly reviewer, a spouse.  Each of these comprises different power relations, whereby roles, identities and expectations are modified according to relationships and socially mediated practices associated with not only the written text, but also the context in which the reading takes place.

Sometimes feedback practices, roles and procedures are explicit, perhaps even regulated. For example, the work of a PhD examiner occurs within a framework whereby the reader is instructed to make particular judgements (typically about the contribution to knowledge, knowledge of the field, research expertise and so on). Their interaction with the text has a pre-determined purpose that is independent of both the writer and the reader.  Similarly, on submitting a manuscript to a journal or a grant application to a funding body, the writer submits themselves and their writing to a feedback process defined by pre-existing ‘rules’ over which they have very little control.  In both these instances, presumably, the writer sends well-prepared, mature work for feedback.  Feedback is more summative (ie at the completion of the task) than formative (during the development of the text).  The reader’s role is mostly gatekeeper, examiner; rarely helper, teacher, mentor.  (Of course in practice, it isn’t necessarily so clear-cut).

By contrast, when we receive feedback from people known to us, we’re perhaps able to have some influence on the process, the ‘rules’ are likely to be more flexible and the intention is developmental rather than summative. (Although perhaps not – I have heard doctoral students say their harshest critic is their spouse, parent or child!) In such relatively informal situations, a common understanding of the purposes or practices of feedback can’t be assumed.

Feedback will differ not only according to the context, but also according to the skills and knowledge of the reader themselves; comments from one’s neighbour are likely to be quite different from those of a disciplinary colleague. In doctoral study, supervisors are generally designated feedback-givers but that doesn’t preclude students seeking other, additional reviewers of their writing. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have one reader who is sufficiently skilled to meet all our needs – someone who can give feedback on the big stuff (the quality of the ideas, the argument, knowledge of the field and so on), as well as critique sentence level issues.

You (mostly) get what you ask for. Hardly a revelation; and yet I am often surprised by how passive some writers are about the whole feedback cycle. The response you can expect from soliciting open, undirected feedback (eg What you think of this?) is anyone’s guess.  There are times when this kind of impressionistic feedback is just what we want, but undirected requests, especially in combination with limited information about the manuscript, can be unhelpful for the author and frustrating for the reviewer.

There is much to be gained from directing feedback, especially at particular points in the process of constructing a manuscript, and especially for novice writers. Being an active feedback seeker means coming to know our own writerly habits, strengths and needs – and learning how these change over time. Being a pro-active feedback seeker sharpens our awareness of audience because it makes us write for, and seek a response from, a particular person.

Feedback will also vary according to the writing submitted. Often a first draft has unclear ideas and imperfect grammar and punctuation. Typically such early writing benefits most from feedback on the evolving ideas. In the absence of specific guidance, however, the reader may focus on sentence level matters, again causing frustration for both parties.

In writing groups we’ve established a practice whereby authors are expected to provide three pieces of information to guide their reviewers: 1. an indication of the maturity of the writing (eg first, middle or final draft); 2. the nature of the text (eg part of a chapter, introduction to a journal article etc); 3. the kind of feedback being sought (eg flow, argument, use of evidence, etc).

It’s not always easy or possible, but some students have reported benefitting from incorporating these kinds of informational and agentic strategies for directing feedback when working with their supervisors.

You may also enjoy this blog by Cassily Charles on the Thesis Whisperer about the student-supervisor feedback cycle. Or you may be able to recommend other blogs or personal practices you have found improve the chances of getting useful feedback.

Doing feedback: from zeal to anguish


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Associate Professor Sara Cotterall  completed her doctorate in the field of doctoral education in 2011 after a 25 year academic career teaching and researching language education.  One of the publications from her PhD was the fabulous article ‘More than just a brain: Emotions and the doctoral experience’. She revisits some of those themes – albeit from a different perspective – in this blog she’s scribed for us.

Sara dedicates this post to David Hall, “my generous and witty PhD supervisor, who passed away February 3, 2014 in Sydney, Australia.”

“It’s hard for me too!” – I think, whenever I hear doctoral candidates angsting about their supervisors’ feedback.  I find it infinitely more difficult to give feedback on doctoral researchers’ work than it ever was to receive.  Why? Because I am acutely aware of the power of the feedback to disappoint, discourage or depress the recipient.

Feedback stirs up a range of emotions.  Many doctoral students tell horror stories about their supervisors’ feedback practices.  They complain that feedback is late, contradictory, difficult to understand or discouraging. Take the supervisor who repeatedly told a PhD candidate that what he had written was ‘bullshit’ and that he shouldn’t come back until he had ‘an original idea’.  With feedback on doctoral writing, the stakes are high, time is short and emotions are raw. However, PhD researchers seldom reveal those emotions to their supervisors (Cotterall, 2013); instead they share them elsewhere.

Emotions that have been held in check tend to spill over when PhD candidates congregate — feelings of anxiety, resentment, impatience, discouragement, dissatisfaction — but rarely feelings of joy. Sadly, the more positive emotions seem to be quarantined until submission day. During my days as a PhD student our monthly seminars were followed by a shared student lunch where the real issues bothering people always got an airing.  Like the time a colleague from China told me she’d been waiting three months for her supervisor to return her draft chapter and wondered if such a delay was normal.  When I offered to draft a respectful email for her to send her supervisor, she refused, explaining that she didn’t want to jeopardize her chances of getting a recommendation letter from him.

But PhD candidates are not the only ones to experience emotions during the feedback process. When I’m giving feedback on my doctoral researchers’ writing, I agonize over the words I use, producing several drafts and modifying my comments until the last minute. I know how much the wrong word can sting.  This is particularly the case when working with researchers whose first language is not English where nuances of meaning can be ‘lost in translation’. I worry that my feedback will discourage, yet I also want to provide guidance that will help make their next draft communicate better.  At other times I have to check my disappointment when I see that suggestions made previously have not been acted on and the draft remains weak.

Some comments, such as one about the importance of ‘metatext’ (Paltridge & Starfield, 2007) that I wrote on a student’s chapter draft recently, need explaining and the written document is not the most efficient site for that.  The same is true of my observation that a student was depending too heavily on her sources in her literature review without showing how the other ‘voices’ in her text are those of “guests” she has invited to her research “dinner party” (Kamler &  Thomson, 2006).  These kinds of ideas need to be explained, illustrated and discussed. But time constraints mean this doesn’t always happen.

Given these tensions, I can’t help feeling that everything would be simpler if written feedback could be replaced with oral sessions where supervisor and candidate sit side by side working with the text (where supervisor and student are located in the same city).  This would foreground the supervisor’s mentor, teacher and helper roles and downplay their role as gatekeeper.  I suspect that good supervisors (the type who publish on the pedagogy of supervision and contribute to blogs like this) adopt such feedback practices routinely, but there are many who don’t.

Face-to-face feedback has enormous potential, if only the practical issues could be resolved. Given the long-term nature of the relationship between doctoral supervisor and doctoral researcher, I believe it can afford to be more honest.  This means that if it is necessary to comment negatively on something the student has written, the feedback is more likely to be viewed as helpful.

So can the practical problems be solved?  The most efficient way for me to work with a student’s (often lengthy) text would be for the candidate to be physically present while I was reading the draft, so that instead of having to commit my comments to paper, I could talk them through as I went. But since I do most of this kind of reading at home in the evening after work, this is not practicable. What’s more, few doctoral researchers would wish to sit there while their supervisor worked through their draft in real time.

What do others think?  Could/do face-to-face feedback sessions offer a richer environment for talking formatively about text?  Might this diffuse some of the sting of receiving written feedback on drafts?  If so, how could such sessions be set up?  And what other options are available? 


Cotterall, S. (2013). More than just a brain: Emotions and the doctoral experience. Higher Education Research & Development, 32(2), 174-187.

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.

Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. London: Routledge.


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