By Claire Aitchison
I confess I am not a big fan of that very contemporary convention: the bronzed and buffed, body beautiful. I feel the same about the writing of doctoral students during their candidature. In a world where we have unlimited capacity to ensure a polished product – let me explain my aversion.
I like a bit of the unconventional, the not yet perfect; I am drawn to the possibilities left open in the small imperfections of a bespoke doctoral writer (or body for that matter!). I’ve always been suspicious of perfection: it seems so closed, so artificial, so final – and so un-human. More plastic, than real. Indicative of misplaced priorities: style over substance perhaps?
But neither do I like the truly rough and ready, disorganised and chaotic product. If there was a way of measuring this, my preference would be to only very occasionally receive those truly messy first drafts; the versions that are only 5-10% near where they need to be. If the writing is too raw and too difficult to follow, then it’s unlikely to be worth the pain of persisting.
What I’m advocating is that doctoral writers are allowed, even encouraged, to submit texts to supervisors that are acceptably imperfect.
For most of the time I think it’s beneficial for students and supervisors to work on relatively mature – but not yet perfect – drafts. Depending on the confidence/competence of the students (and other things being equal) I think there’s value in students submitting writing that is at least 80% there. That is, while still ‘work-in-progress’ status, the writing is reasonably presentable; the thinking reasonably progressed.
I rail strongly against doctoral students submitting airbrushed writing to their supervisors as a regular practice throughout their candidature. But finding the middle ground isn’t easy – and of course, things change during candidature and according to the task at hand. However, when we give our students permission to hand in ‘less than perfect’ stuff we are signalling expectations for creativity and risk-taking now, and for change and improvement to come later. We’re also more likely to quell the kind of debilitating fear of failure that sees students continuously delay handing over their work until they’ve finished perfecting it.
For most of the journey of doctoral candidature, writing is best regarded as a vehicle for meaning making. So the focus should be on getting closer and closer to the best iteration of the emerging ideas/ the thinking. Initially there will be bumps and lumps, sloppy bits, ugly bits that don’t work – it is an imperfect process. Much is learned by trial and error, trying new ways of writing and testing out alternative scholarly identities, shapes for the thesis, styles of argument, the building of the case and experimenting with voice. Getting feedback on those courageous adventures can only happen when there is a tolerance for imperfection and a recognition of its value.
If writing is valued in this way, then the emphasis is to improve our capacity to help it to do its job, rather than to create ‘perfect’ prose simply for its own sake.
So how can supervisors allow for and encourage imperfection without overwhelming themselves with excessively difficult-to-read texts – or worse, still – without sending the wrong message about what’s required of doctoral writing? I think it is useful to encourage students to find alternative appropriate spaces for those early drafts. Some supervisors encourage their students to form small writing groups or buddy partnerships for this purpose. And writing groups that are entirely independent of the supervisory relationship can be safe spaces for imperfect risk-taking writing. Supervisors can help lower the stakes and demystify the notion of perfection by showing students their own early and middle stage drafts, and how these move forward toward and beyond the 80% mark. Kamler and Thomson provide some good examples of these kinds of collaborative practices.
The submission of the thesis for examination is another issue. These days, the majority of theses pass through some kind of makeover salon and arrive to the examiner bronzed and buffed to within an inch of their lives. So be it.
I’m not advocating we condone sloppy, half-baked submissions that are poorly edited or presented. But I am calling for a moment’s reflection – a caution against the trend I’ve witnessed for excessively highly polished, flashily presented productions. While I do believe the work a student submits for examination should be the best they can make it, I am saddened by the knowledge that the work we are asked to examine may be so polished, as to mask the real efforts and capabilities of the candidate.
You may have some other ideas about strategies for allowing/ harnessing imperfect writing. You may have some thoughts about the complexities of doing this and especially of how we may best move students along from pretty rough and ready, almost impossible to read submissions, to the preferable ‘80% ready’ submission. You may also have thoughts regarding the quality of submission to the examiner.
Kamler, B, & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. (2nd ed.). Oxon: Routledge.