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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/