This book review is written by guest Susan Mowbray, Western Sydney University. The book seems highly pertinent to our community, so we thank Susan for alerting us to it with her detailed critique.
Supporting graduate student writers. Research, curriculum and program design. (2016). Edited by Steve Simpson, Nigel. A. Caplan, Michelle Cox & Talinn Phillips. Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press.
Supporting graduate student writers captured my attention as I have recently taken on a literacy support role with our Graduate Research School. The idea for the book was conceived at an invited colloquium on graduate writing support in 2014 and the result of the editors’ labours arrived via the University of Michigan Press in March this year. The book is organised in three parts. Part 1: What do we know/need to know? broadly covers supporting graduate research. Curriculum is dealt with in Part 2: Issues in graduate program and curriculum design. How to acclimatise students to the contemporary university is the focus of Part 3: Program profiles. Within the three parts, 14 chapters detail issues, concerns and/or initiatives in graduate education with 11 providing insights into North American contexts and the other three presenting perspectives from Canada, Sweden and Australia. The most striking aspect of the text for me is its explicit advocacy, and example of, cooperation and collaboration amongst members of the international graduate education community. Caplan and Cox are co-founders of the online Consortium of Graduate Education and this book exemplifies their commitment to actively sharing and building knowledge and engaging with members of the global doctoral education community. I found myself nodding in agreement with many points in each chapter and dog-earring multiple pages to return to later to think and read more about the information being shared.
Steve Simpson’s succinct introduction establishes the need for higher education institutions globally to actively, holistically and more effectively engage and support graduate students, particularly in writing and communicating. Caplan and Cox, in the first chapter of Part 1, present the findings to the online survey they developed to gain a snap-shot of the sector, effectively illustrating Simpson’s earlier observations. Their analysis of the 270 responses from 26 countries highlights shared global concerns about supporting graduate students, including fragmented levels of support and the nuanced needs of diverse student populations. These two chapters concisely and comprehensively identify the ambit of Supporting graduate student writers and set the scene for the following chapters. Rogers, Zawacki and Baker identify and critically explore mismatches between supervisors’ and graduate students’ expectations and assumptions. Aligning with the heading for the first part, they explicitly address ways to improve the experiences of graduate students and their supervisors. Curry continues the theme of mismatches and critically examines how views of graduate students as “native” or “non-native” English speakers (p.79) unproductively simplifies the complexities and nuances graduate students learn as they navigate different contexts to further develop their academic literacies. To conclude Part 1, Casanave reflectively examines a perennial topic in the graduate education literature: the supervisory relationship and the difficulties that can arise when struggles and issues – for both students and supervisors – remain invisible.
Given my new role, I was impatient to read Parts 2 and 3. In Part 2: Issues in graduate program and curriculum design, Mallett, Haan and Habib discuss working alongside international students and their approaches to actively scaffold the students’ language and writing development. They detail four practical pedagogical approaches that promote international graduate students’ engagement, progress and successful transition to graduate studies. Fairbanks and Dias similarly explore approaches to meet the needs of graduate students, both local and international. Observing the increasing internationalisation of graduate education, they highlight the need to also support local students in developing their writing and scholarly understandings. Their discussion is thus timely and practically informative, with a clear rationale for the evolution of their approach and accessible descriptions of the scaffolded tasks they employ to support all graduate students. Likewise, Phillips advocates for an integrated approach to support graduate students, one that recognises the specific pressures and demands of graduate study and that enables graduate students to meet individually with a regular, knowledgeable support person in a private space for over 50 minutes each session. This echoes calls made by graduate students in my own institution and emphasises Phillips’ point that graduate students have particular needs that should be met. Simpson, Ruecker, Carrejo, Flores and Gonzalez further explore the need to support graduate students, particularly local, under-represented graduate student populations such as Latino students in Texas and New Mexico. They detail how accessing grant funds for specific purposes/populations helped their universities support the progress of Latino graduate students through workshops, online and face-to-face tutoring, mentor programs and writing boot camps. These initiatives promoted student-led writing initiatives that helped to sustain the students’ progression. Sundstrom’s Cautionary tale clearly evokes some of the challenges and tensions staff can face in trying to effectively establish and support (graduate) writing within a contemporary higher education institution. For Sundstrom, these included meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student population, challenging faculty perceptions of writing support as deficit and navigating institutional budgetary constraints and restructures. At an institutional level, these issues certainly resonated with me!
Part 3, Program Profiles, details exemplary graduate support programs that have been developed and successfully implemented by five universities, two in America, and one each in Canada, Australia and Sweden, to support their local and/or international students. The detailed information on each program, its evolution, component parts, underpinning pedagogy and refinements, make this section an invaluable, practical and thought-provoking resource for anyone involved in supporting graduate students’ writing and progression. This section thus serves to highlight the benefits to graduate students, and the advantages to universities, of having an established, dedicated graduate support service that actively meets the needs of graduate students and engages with them to facilitate their progression and completion. This section also highlights, as Simpson observes in the conclusion, that “It is well worth our time to ensure that our [graduate] programs are theoretically and pedagogically sound and sustainable” (p.287).
In short, Supporting graduate student writers is topical, accessible, affordable, and timely (especially for me!). Its breadth and depth of information make it a useful and worthy addition to your library (link to recommended texts previous blog), both to dip into for new perspectives and ideas to refresh and inspire your approaches with students, and to read at length to provoke your thinking about future directions and new initiatives to more effectively support graduate students in their writing and academic progress.