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by Claire Aitchison

When is a piece of work ready to submit for supervisor feedback? How much and how often can we expect students to submit writing for feedback? What are reasonable expectations for turnaround of writing and feedback?

I wrote this post a while ago when overseas; it explores some of these questions.

I know my doctoral student is waiting for me to send her my feedback on a chapter, and I feel guilty because this won’t happen for at least another week. Thankfully she has two supervisors so she has already been able to get feedback from one of us. However this situation led me to think more generally about student-supervisor feedback practices.

Surprisingly the topic came up at a recent ‘Shut up and Write’ when students began talking about handing in work to their supervisors.

The exchange went something like this:

One student, who was very near the end of his candidature, said he was sending his writing to his supervisor each day. Everyone was surprised.

‘What, every day?’ we exclaimed!

‘Yes – he doesn’t have to read it’, Phil said defensively. ‘But I like to get it off my plate. Sending it to him means it is done and I can move on. I’ve only got 3 weeks before they want the whole chapter finished!’

Another asked ‘How long will you have to wait until you get the chapter back?

The answer: ‘That depends on how much I bug them’

I asked the group what, when, and how often, they send work to their supervisors.

One student said his supervisor only accepted complete chapters. Another said she only sent small bits of writing – between 4-12 pages at a time – because her supervisor ‘doesn’t have time to read more than that.’ One student said her supervisor insisted on high quality ‘publication-ready’ work, which she disliked doing, because, she said, she spent so much time perfecting the chapters that feedback cycles were too infrequent. Another student said that she sends smaller bits of writing regularly because she needs to know that she’s on the right track and avoid ‘wasting time’. Another student was agog – she said she regularly waited 3-4 months before getting feedback on her work.

Everyone sent work electronically and most received back ‘Track Changed’ versions, although the few social science and humanities people said they got their work returned as hard copy with handwritten feedback.

Another student said she was deliberately not handing in work even though her supervisor expected fortnightly submissions. She explained that originally this regime had worked for her, but then she found sometimes she simply hadn’t progressed things sufficiently and she was writing ‘anything really’ in order to comply with the fortnightly imperative. This compliance in turn created other problems – she was having to respond to feedback on work she wasn’t even wedded to, thus distracting her from moving forward. The same piece of writing was going backwards and forwards, round and round. Her solution? – She had ‘gone to ground’ simply getting on with her own work and not sending it to him.

I believe in the regular submission of text – but this anecdote painted another side to the story; producing text simply because it is expected may not always be productive…. It also showed how students sometimes subvert even the best-intentioned practices in order to get what works for them.

It reminded me too, of how, as a doctoral student, I – wisely or otherwise – had taken control of feedback arrangements. In the final months of my candidature, I had had to change supervisors, and by then I had very strong views about what the thesis should look like, and (I thought I knew) what I was doing. I used the ‘deliver only completed chapter’ method as a deliberate strategy to undermine the chances of my supervisors telling me they preferred something different. I only handed it over when I was ready. (Apologies to you, you know who you are …)

Back at the café, the conversation continued as near-completers discussed supervisor turnaround times for reading the whole thesis. There seemed to be a common expectation that supervisors might need up to three months, depending on how many recent revisions there had been – and according to the time of the year. The Christmas break, the beginning of a new academic year and grant writing periods, were recognised as particularly slow times for doctoral writers awaiting feedback.

Often what goes on in the supervisory relationship is a closed and private affair, but this sharing of experiences opened that space and helped the students – and me – have a better understanding of others’ practices and of what is reasonable. The conversation that day was animated and everyone seemed to enjoy sharing real-life examples of complex interpersonal negotiations and manoeuvrings over writing and feedback. Their stories showed how even supposedly ‘good practices’ can come undone as individual workloads and personal commitments impinge on availability and productivity.

One thing that struck me was how the more mature students seemed to have an intimate knowledge of their supervisors’ likes and dislikes, and a very real appreciation of how they could work in with the competing demands on their supervisors’ availability. There was a sense of mutual respect and consideration which stands in contrast to much of the literature that reports on student and supervisor frustrations vis-a-vis feedback on doctoral writing (Cadman & Cargill 2007; Caffarella & Barnett 2000; Can & Walker 2011; Carless et al. 2011; Paré et al. 2009).

What can we take from these discussions? Well, as usual, it points again to the importance of early conversations about the key aspects of feedback cycles: frequency; turnaround times the nature, quality and quantity of text to be submitted; the kind of feedback required, the mode of delivery and the necessity for timely reassessment of practices. The conversations also highlighted the interpersonal and procedural aspects of this very human activity and the agency of students to make – or manipulate – systems to maximise the benefits from supervisory feedback.

There’s a growing literature on feedback on doctoral writing, please feel free to alert us to any of resources you’ve found useful – and, of course, we’d be happy to hear of your own experiences and practices.

References:

Cadman, K. and Cargill, M. (2007) ‘Providing quality advice on candidates’ writing’, in C. Denholm and T. Evans (eds), Supervising Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Effective Supervision in Australia and New Zealand, Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: ACER Press.

Caffarella, R. S. and Barnett, B. G. (2000) ‘Teaching doctoral students to become scholarly writers: The importance of giving and receiving critiques’, Studies in Higher Education, 25, 39–54.

Can, G. and Walker, A. (2011) ‘A model for doctoral students’ perceptions and attitudes toward written feedback for academic writing’, Research in Higher Education, 52(5): 508–536.

Carless, D., Salter, D., Yang, M. and Lam, J. (2011) ‘Developing sustainable feedback practices’, Studies in Higher Education, 36(4): 395–407.

Paré, A., Starke-Meyerring, D. and McAlpine, L. (2009) ‘The dissertation as multi-genre: many readers, many readings’, in C. Bazerman, A. Bonini and D. Figueiredo (eds), Genre in a Changing World, Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlour Press.

 

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