by Claire Aitchison

A while ago I was involved in running a writing retreat for mid to early career researchers. The bulk of participants were on the ‘hard’ side of the softer sciences – (I know, I know, what foolishness to attempt such categorization – but, to move on…) the group consisted mainly of business academics, natural scientists and a smattering of health and education researchers.

The retreat format was highly structured.  Over the week participants were instructed on the various stages of a typical science-based research journal article format; Abstract,-> Introduction-> Methods-> Results-> Discussion. The facilitators provided input about what should be presented in each of the article segments and then participants worked on their own papers constructing those segments. Peer review was scheduled for each day.

My job was to provide writing support (but that’s another story). Because I wasn’t the principal facilitator I found myself with time to work on my own article about doctoral students’ struggles with writing.  For peer review I was allocated a mid career scholar and supervisor of higher degree students, from one of these harder sciences.  When it came time to discuss our work I was taken aback by my partner’s views. His comments were strident, even aggressive.  His concern was not about my writing, but my topic. Firstly he couldn’t see the value in writing about (doctoral) writing. Secondly, in his opinion, if a doctoral student couldn’t write they shouldn’t be enrolled in the first place, and if it was discovered post-enrolment that they couldn’t write, or struggled to write, they should be failed out as quickly as possible. He could see no justification in spending money or effort supporting higher degree researchers who couldn’t write – no matter what other skills they had.

This event has stayed with me, and I play it out again from time to time, rehearsing the arguments I could/should have made. About whose responsibility it is to develop researcher writing, about how and where university traditions and structures may fail students on this account, about how multiple alternative entry pathways to doctoral studies may account for different skill sets, about the different priorities, interests and skills of supervisors vis a vis writing, about how different disciplines (and individuals) value and practice writing, and so on and so on. (Anthony Paré and colleagues have written on some of these themes)  But perhaps more than anything, I think this story illustrates a view of writing that sees it as being something unitary, homogenous and disconnected – disconnected from the research, disconnected from learning (knowledge and meaning making), disconnected from the learner (who is becoming a certain kind of scholar).

So, arising from this incident I am prompted to ask, how do we (better) position ourselves and our work in the academy?  What can an attention to writing add to the experiences of doctoral researchers (and their supervisors)? Why does it matter? Whose job is it to advocate for and develop research writing in the academy? How do we reconcile our beliefs about writing and writing work in the face of attitudes such as I’ve described? And, please tell us if you know of other resources on this topic.