By Cally Guerin
Last week a student came to me in tears, distraught at what she felt was a very unfair assessment of her writing ability after her supervisor had decided her English was not up to scratch. She is from an Asian background, and was born and educated in Australia. While English might not be her first language or ‘mother tongue’, she is certainly not using English as an Additional Language (EAL), as the current terminology has it. (It used to be English as a Second Language, ESL, and may be moving on to English as an International Language, EIL – all of which depends on the context and perhaps the current fashions in the field.) Our universities have plenty of ‘Generation 1.5’ PhD students like her who work and think in more than one language.
Putting the labels aside, the young woman is also typical of many students who have come through the Australian school system, and is a reasonably competent writer with room for improvement – which is what one might say of at least 90% of PhD students. As academic developers we see lots of students who can write grammatically correct sentences (at least most of the time), can more or less communicate their ideas, but don’t produce particularly elegant prose. My assessment of this student’s work was that her writing fell into this category, rather than being about her language background. And perhaps she does, therefore, need some guidance in developing the academic literacies necessary for doctoral writing.
The situation has several perspectives. How can students respond to supervisors who seem to be very harsh on their writing, imposing their own personal preferences and calling it ‘an English language issue’? Most students are sharply aware of the power supervisors have over them; nonetheless, it can be frustrating to feel you have to impersonate your supervisor’s style. How do supervisors judge ethically when to insist that writing should be altered, and when they should back off and accept that it is not their own writing and doesn’t need to be in their voice? And where should thesis examiners draw the line concerning style, voice and accuracy? (Or, for that matter, journal reviewers who seem to have very specific ideas about what is ‘correct’ – but that is another story!). Is it necessary to set the highest standards right from the start? Could that be too discouraging for students, or does it prepare them for what lies ahead in the academic world? Where does reasonable academic rigour end and pettiness – that could even be construed as racist – begin?
My own experience working as an academic editor has been useful in encouraging me to think carefully about the difference between something that is incorrect, and something that is simply a matter of style. I do think that supervisors have a responsibility to help students learn the specific writing conventions of their individual disciplines, and I readily acknowledge that certain vocabulary can have vastly different connotations in particular areas. Nevertheless, it’s also important to notice what is actually right in someone’s writing, what is being achieved, what is a surface issue and what is genuinely problematic.
And feedback needs to be specific to be useful. To label all writing issues as ‘English language problems’ seems to me to be particularly unhelpful in developing writing skills for doctoral students. Many students take time to learn the disciplinary vocabulary of a new field and the accompanying conventions of research communication in their area. The language of the discipline itself can be very foreign for researchers grappling with the details of unfamiliar sub-disciplines, regardless of their own language background! Acquiring academic literacy often requires specific training at all levels of education.
Are you a Generation 1.5 doctoral student, a learning advisor who recognizes this story as a familiar one, or a supervisor of such students? How has this played out in your experience? Is it common to misunderstand these aspects of academic writing? I’d love to hear your stories about how students in similar situations have negotiated expectations about language and writing in the academic setting, how they have developed the required academic literacies, what strategies have proved useful, and what the pitfalls might be.