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By Susan Carter

I was talking to a doctoral student nearing the final stages of her thesis. She identifies as an older PhD student. She wished that her supervisors would stay focused on the thesis project rather than on the relationship and practice of supervision itself. Yes, they were both wonderful, but she wished that they would just make clear practical suggestions about writing—as I had just done from a generic advisor position, causing her evident relief and a mini-breakthrough.

She also suggested that mature students were maybe more interested in just getting the job done to their own satisfaction rather than beating metaphoric bushes–for example, the thickets of theory that might harbour other possible writing directions. Yet she suspected that supervisors saw it as good teaching to beat those bushes and send students chasing after the ideas that might emerge.

Her comments, her satisfaction with my focus on her writing, and our talk together about supervisors and how they work made me think about the differences between supervisory feedback on writing and feedback from others outside the supervision team. I’m proofing a book on generic doctoral support (i.e., not supervision) that has two chapters on support with writing.

Are there clear delineations between the levels (content, clarity, grammar, punctuation, style, structure etc.) on which supervisors give writing feedback compared to that from learning advisors? Or is it just a matter of the serendipity of who the supervisor and learning advisor are, how much time and interest they have in writing per se? And should we avoid interference in the happenstance of where support comes from?

Supervisors vary in their availability, and some very diligent supervisors simply lack the skills to talk clearly and constructively about writing (Paré, 2011). Learning advisors on the other hand are experts in writing at almost all levels, and talk that talk really well, but they may lack the discipline expertise that would let them work efficiently (Strauss, forthcoming), although it can be a great advantage too, in prompting students to explain things more clearly (Laurs, forthcoming).

My hunch is that you will have a stack of anecdotal evidence around this complex topic. Learning advisor support may be available but ignored by students who link using it with identifying themselves as not good enough, with generic learning support based on the deficit model.

That is a pity, because learning advisor support has much to offer that supplements supervisory support. Different learning cultures will mean different expectations (Wu, 2013), sometimes troublingly so (Fovotation, 2013)–a unsettlement that insiders often are unable to see, which makes it also isolating. Clusters of doctoral students who find structure or style problematic, or who happen to be grappling with the literature review, will benefit from working with others at the same point in the writing process. For that reason, support outside of supervision becomes an important scaffolding to student learning.

Sometimes learning support might provide encouragement and advice on the surface level with writing before it goes to the supervisor to doctoral students whose first language is not English, so that supervisors may then be able to view the content more clearly and comment more usefully (Carter, 2009). But sometimes it will be the supervisor who despairingly sends the student to a learning advisor after considerable frustrations. Supervisor frustration also leads to comments that demoralise students and cause them to lose confidence—and I believe that loss of confidence is a huge handicap. I find self-confidence to be important for my own writing (and actually almost everything else). It’s definitely a bad brain day when I lose it.

So often the borderlands between supervisory and learning advisorly feedback on writing are traversed by people who are having difficult times with writing. Yet some institutions don’t allow learning advisors to work closely with research students, and their limited availability bodes ill for those students who need more than a supervisor’s advice. In other instances, learning advisor engagement with doctoral writing means that they influence the thesis significantly, usually with resulting improvement in clarity.

Having worked as both supervisor and learning advisor, and having heard many anecdotes, I have my own ideas about this, but wonder what yours are. And the student who launched this conversation also asked whether discipline affected feedback on writing: I wonder if what I have to say is situated very squarely in learning to research under the qualitative banner?? Q.  Do the hierarchies that exist within science/ medicine paradigms expose differences of other kinds?

Carter, S. (2009). ‘Volunteer support of English as an additional language (EAL) doctoral students,’ International Journal of Doctoral Studies 4: 13–25.

Fotovatian, S. (2013). ‘Three constructs of institutional identity amongst international students in Australia,’ Teaching in Higher Education 17(5): 577–588.

Laurs, D. (forthcoming). ‘One-to-one generic support, in Developing Generic Support for Doctoral Students, pp 29-33eds. Carter, S. and Laurs, D. Oxon: Routledge.

Pare, A. (2011).‘Speaking of writing: supervisory feedback and the dissertation’ in L. McAlpine and C. Amundsen (eds) Doctoral Education: Research-Based Strategies for Doctoral Students, Supervisors and Administrators, Dordrecht: Springer, 59–74.

Strauss, P. (in press). ‘”I don’t think we’re seen as a nuisance” – the positioning of postgraduate Learning Advisors in New Zealand universities.’ TEXT Journal of Writing and Writing Courses.

Wu, S. (2013). ‘Filling the pot or lighting the fire: cultural variations in conceptions of pedagogy,’ Teaching in Higher Education 7(4): 387–895.