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This wonderful contribution comes from Dr Juliet Lum who is a Lecturer in Higher Degree Research Learning Skills at Macquarie University in Sydney, where she runs and organises courses, seminars and resources for research candidates across campus, and manages MQ’s new team of fabulous HDR Learning Advisors.     ???????????????????????????????

Recently when shopping for a baby’s beanie I chose one that had on its tag ‘OSFM’. After a while I figured out the acronym: One Size Fits Most. I like that: a clothing line that produces an item in only one size, but acknowledges that some bodies are ‘non-standard’. We know you’re out there, but tough luck: no beanie for you!

I have to admit, though, that a lot of the training our uni has been offering PhD students belongs in the OSFM category. Take doctoral writing groups, for instance.

No doubt you’ve heard of doctoral writing groups: you may run them at your uni, have read about them (e.g. Ferguson 2009 and Aitchison 2010), or be a member of one as a doctoral student yourself. Basically it’s a small group of PhD students who get together regularly to give feedback on each other’s drafts. Writing groups have lots of benefits: not only do students get advice on how they can improve their writing, but they gain skills and confidence as reviewers, and become members of an academic community working with other researchers.

But what if you’re enrolled in an Australian university and you live in Germany? Or you’re holding down a full-time job, or onto a full-time baby, and you do your PhD in the wee hours? What if you prefer to work at home in your pyjamas? Then the OSFM doctoral writing group probably won’t fit you because it’s run on campus during business hours (and requires a ‘public’ dress code). Do you just have to remain a big-headed hatless baby all winter?

My research partner, Olga Kozar, empathises with off-campus students having been a distance student herself. Olga suggested we try running writing groups for off-campus PhD students using online tools like Skype. Great idea, Olga! But how would these groups work? Olga and I pondered these things, and then got our hands dirty trying out some options.

We set up three different types of groups: an ‘autonomous’ group, which ran itself using our toolkit as a guide; a ‘hand-held’ group, which Olga ran; and a ‘weaned’ group, which I ran for a few sessions before letting it run itself. We grouped the students roughly by discipline.

So, what happened?

Well, the autonomous group had to deal with three incompatible time-zones because two of the students lived overseas. We feared they might give up because they wouldn’t be able to find a mutually convenient time to meet, or perhaps they’d resort to asynchronous communication like email. But no! The group decided to meet online in real time at 8am on Saturday Sydney time, which is dawn in China and almost midnight on Friday in the UK: this level of dedication bowls me over!

On the other hand, our hand-held group – which we assumed would be the easiest to keep going – almost conked out after a few weeks. First of all, there wasn’t a time to meet via Skype that suited everyone. So the group met only via email and the interaction was sluggish. Membership waned because of different levels of commitment, seemingly different needs and a reluctance to share drafts. Why didn’t the group run as smoothly as the other two? Certainly, the rapport was lower than that of the other groups. The members also happened to be science researchers who spend much of their day working in the lab or seeing patients. Perhaps certain types of scientists need a certain type of writing group that our model didn’t cater well for? Even our tailored-to-fit writing groups couldn’t quite clothe them snugly.

My weaned group met by Skype in full technicolour video every second Thursday, and, I must say, there was little difference between this group and face-to-face groups I’ve run; in fact, I noticed more engagement and investment by these geographically dispersed members than I’ve seen in many on-campus groups. Yes, these students loved receiving a range of honest feedback on their drafts and finding themselves able to say something valuable about another’s writing. But, importantly, they also relished the opportunity just to chat with a bunch of PhD colleagues on a regular basis.

So, what sort of writing group would I recommend for off-campus PhD students?

Well, it seems to me that writing groups that meet online in real time are more fun, deliver more benefits and are more likely to keep going than those that just communicate asynchronously.

But don’t be fooled: groups may need to try on a few different sizes from the online writing group clothes rack, as the real-time online writing group is itself only an OSFM, not an OSFA. Local and distance-based PhD candidates study off-campus for a variety of reasons, and synchronising schedules for real time meetings may turn out to be impossible.

What about you? Have you ever run or been in a writing group with people you may never meet in person? How did you make it work? And if you’re a PhD student who’s rarely on campus: how have you overcome the tyranny of distance or incompatible schedules in order to access training and connect meaningfully with others?

References

Aitchison, C. (2010). Learning together to publish: Writing group pedagogies for doctoral publishing. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (Eds.). Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond (pp. 83-100). London: Routledge

Aitchison, C. & Guerin, C. (eds) (2014) Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Practice and Theory, Abingdon: Routledge.

Ferguson, T. (2009). The ‘Write’ Skills and More: A Thesis Writing Group for Doctoral Students. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(2), 285-297. doi: 10.1080/03098260902734968

Kozar, O. & Lum, J. (2013), Factors likely to impact the effectiveness of research writing groups for off-campus doctoral students, Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 7(2) 132-149

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