What makes our writing ‘academic’?


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Our guest blogger this week, Julia Molinari, is an EAP (English for Academic Purposes) Tutor and PhD Researcher at the University of Nottingham in the UK. She is bilingual English/Italian and teaches academic writing to Home and International undergraduate and postgraduate students. Her PhD research focuses on ‘what makes writing academic’ and is supervised by the School of Education and the Department of Philosophy. She blogs at https://academicemergence.wordpress.com/ and tweets @serenissimaj and @EAPTutorJM.

By Julia Molinari

When you ask anyone this question—be they initiated or not—their answers will roughly cluster around the following features: its formality, linearity, clarity, lexical density, grammatical complexity, micro-macro structure (i.e., from paragraphs to whole-text organisation), intertextuality and citation, objectivity, meta-discursivity (Learnhigher; Bennett 2009; Bennett 2015, 6-8).

As someone who teaches academic writing to undergraduates and postgraduates with English as a first or additional language, I hear such answers all the time. And it’s clear why these beliefs persist. They persist because that is what we’ve all been taught.

But there are instances of academic writing that don’t tally with the above. Continue reading

Mental health, doctoral study and supervision: Can ‘troubles with writing’ mask other problems?



By Claire Aitchison

Corridor conversations often reflect problems more widely felt. Recently a friend, just back from dealing with a particularly difficult student-supervisor issue, revealed how concerned she was about the mental health of both parties. She had been called in to help because the student reportedly was having ‘trouble with her writing’.

For those of us who regularly work in the space between supervisor and student, being called in to help is likely to expose us to a disproportionate number of ‘troubles’. Whether identified by supervisors, research committees or students, I have come to expect a relatively predictable range of ‘troubles with writing’. These ‘troubles’ can often be sheeted back to the following:

  • unhelpful feedback (typically inconsistent, contradictory, incorrect, uninformative, inappropriately delivered);
  • neglect (typically little or no feedback, no formative feedback, feedback too late to be developmental);
  • student resistance to taking advice;
  • writers’ block.

As a literacy adviser and/or academic developer across different institutions over many years, I have also learned that such ‘writing troubles’ often coexist with intensified emotional states. Writing is a deeply personal and emotional activity – and doctoral writing is particularly fraught because the stakes are so high. For supervisors and students alike, much is riding on the ability to explain one’s work eloquently and to argue convincingly for significance. The research has to be sound, but so does the medium for conveying this good work: the writing.

But I am interested here in the co-existence of ‘writing problems’ and mental health. Continue reading

Framing your advice: What would your examiners think?


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By Clinton Golding

We are sure you will enjoy this fabulous guest post from Clinton Golding, Acting Head of the Higher Education Development Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Amongst other things, Clinton is a writer. He writes about such things as educational theory, cultivating thinking, and doctoral education. He has just started writing a blog (clintongolding.com), but he also teaches about writing, reads about writing, writes about writing and thinks by writing.


I stumbled across a useful trick for cultivating good writing for thesis students. If I frame my writing advice as ‘this will help you deal with your examiners’ then thesis students are more likely to act on the advice. My usual advice such as “make your sentences clear and succinct” had much less impact on thesis students, compared to advice like “the examiner will be confused if you write it like that.” Thesis students seem captivated by advice based on how their examiners will react to their thesis.

I liked this way of framing advice so much that I wrote two open-access articles about writing a thesis based on what examiners do. My first article was a systematic review of the literature that identified 11 things thesis examiners tend to do as they read a thesis. My second article developed advice for thesis students based on each of these 11 practices. Continue reading

How are we to understand plagiarism in doctoral writing?



By Claire Aitchison

It could be easy to think there is a ‘plague’ of cheating and plagiarism in education across all parts of the world implicating all levels of authority and scholarship, including doctoral study.

Putting aside the media thirst for scandal and the fact that some accusations may be politically motivated, stories of plagiarism and cheating in the attainment of PhD qualifications occur remarkably frequently. But how are we to interpret these scandalous stories? How widespread is doctoral plagiarism in reality? And how should we act/react as supervisors who value genuine scholarship, rigour and truthfulness in research and research writing? What are the losses from cheating and plagiarism, and who are the victims?

Plagiarism is a high voltage word – it conflates numerous historical, cultural, linguistic and behavioural properties into one big sin. To be accused of plagiarism in any country or context is a big deal that can carry severe penalties. For individuals personal and professional fallout is inevitable, irrespective of the facts (which may explain why these stories attract so much attention in the volatile world of politics). When plagiarism involves stealing from other doctoral theses, it is abundantly unfair to the original scholar and makes a mockery of their labours. There is also reputational damage to the institution. PhDs attained by unscrupulous means undermine the value of a doctorate for everyone involved in scholarly work and research.

Is it getting worse?

Continue reading

Writing groups, writing retreats, boot camps and other social writing events for doctoral writers – a call for posts

By Claire Aitchison

The editors of this blog have long been keen advocates for doctoral writers to come together to do, and share, their writing – whether that be in regular small writing groups, or in writing retreats, boot camps or the like. Over the years we’ve had numerous conversations about running and attending such groups and written here and elsewhere on the subject.

Not only have we frequently facilitated such groups, as academics and personally, we continue to be convinced of their benefits for getting writing done, for learning about writing and for developing valuable networks. In fact, Susan Carter and I first met back in 2011 when I was lucky enough to join her on her annual writing retreat. You can read about this wonderful week-long event that continues to be held in New Zealand biennially. In addition, Cally and I have written and presented about writing in groups.

Given our enthusiasm for these kinds of writing practices, it is curious that, to date, we have given them so little space in this blog. We’d like to make amends – and hence this post, which is also a call for blog proposals. Continue reading

Doctoral writing and supervisor feedback: What’s the game plan?


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By Susan Carter

Last week’s post and its comments provide an entry point to this one. Last week I drew on Peter Arthur’s thoughts on how to teach metacognition, which takes the teacher further than just teaching material, to teaching students how to manage their own learning. Reflection on this topic took me to the fact that, in practice, supervisors are learners too when it comes to the cycles of feedback and revision in doctoral writing. Continue reading