By Susan Carter
During my own doctorate, I was troubled by voice and identity. As an undergraduate, I aspired to sounding like an academic; at doctoral level, it felt important to sound like myself. This post picks over some of the purposes of having doctoral students read their work aloud.
Most of us who support doctoral students with writing will repeat this handy bit of revision advice: ‘read the sentence out loud and you’ll hear when it is too long, or when the syntax is a bit skewy.’ It is the case that the process of voicing written prose will bring to light what’s going wrong in a way that helps revision.
Another ‘talking cure’ (to bounce of early psychoanalysis terminology) entails students talking through their research while someone writes down what they are hearing and asks questions when they don’t understand. Fairly commonly, students just can’t capture what is important in their research in their writing but can find it when they are talking to another human who probes them. I think it because authors expect that readers will see what’s important without them needing actual sentences spelling it out, whereas they often don’t.
We can advise, ‘remember your audience’s needs’, but with the talking cure, the audience (think ‘reader’) has become real. Their needs are real. The researcher is no longer groping round in thickets of big words but is back helping another human to grab hold of the significance of their work.
Again, quite commonly we all as writers find it hard to actually spell out a clear articulation of what our research means or why it matters. Being able to do so in simple language is hugely empowering—if we can help doctoral students to do it, we make their survival as researchers a lot more likely.
Usually, then, as a supervisor I’ll ask students to read their writing aloud for the reasons of enabling authorial clarity and to foster thinking by asking questions when I suspect that there is more to be said. But in this post, I also want to speculate more on the relationship between voice and identity.
The term ‘voice’ is used for the sense of authorial individuality captured in written prose. It is often hard to achieve, because on one hand it must demonstrate that the writer is aware of genre and discipline expectations, and on the other, that the writer has engaged with any contentions in their field and have positioned themselves defensibly in relation to them.
Claire Aitchison has posted on using voice recognition software that writes what you say so that you capture an embodied and voiced version of your thoughts. Claire finds that she likes the spoken-aloud version of her own writing better than the one produced by her fingers on the keyboard. There’s something going on with that.
I’m speculating that this is due to her sounding more like herself, like the Claire who talks in all kinds of situations, and in quite different roles with a range of people (observing many different genres). Maybe talking aloud serves another purpose: staying more true to the self that you are holistically, both in and out of academia.
Are others attracted by the possibility of developing a holistic voice that captures an author as they would be recognized by their friends and family outside of academia? Those people we live our lives with don’t hear us talking in abstract theory. I want to suggest that talking also lets you hear when you are using theory in a way that is true or untrue to the ordinary talk of your background. For some of us, this alignment factor feels important, and /or it may be important because we are writing from a theoretical position, as a woman using feminist theory, say, or an indigenous author using post-colonial theory for the purpose of ‘decolonising’ (Smith 2012).
When I wrote my PhD, I was mature, with life and work behind me that gave me a self who was known by friends, neighbours, previous work mates and family. I wanted to become an academic, but I didn’t want to sound pompous. Pomposity can seem a real risk for doctoral writing. Ok, there is nothing ‘natural’ about written text, so that the idea of an authentic voice is naive, but the textual construct of academic persona, I felt, should be bear some recognition of the embodied writer.
In my case, I couldn’t chase after the feminist theory that attracted me to the extent that it wasn’t true to who I was, in this case, happily married to a bloke. I can’t remember the sentence, but I do remember reading one of my sentences aloud and recognizing I just could not use it. It was a well-written, theoretically-interesting academic sentence that took some ideas I believed in to their logical conclusion, but I would feel an idiot reading it to some of my mates. My own life as I had lived it wasn’t predicated on theory.
The sentence had to go, and I had to find a way to be sharp in academic terms, but within the scope of who I was as a whole person. This tangle with theory and voice induced one of those mini-identity crises that accompanies education learning that is transformative. And I think that often doctoral students who are in the process of transition but have not actually found themselves an academic voice struggle with pulling their ordinary-world self into alignment with their academic voice. Perhaps that is what feels uncomfortable.prompts in the process of teaching and learning.
So I’m suggesting here another use for asking doctoral students to read their writing aloud. It can be empowering for doctoral writers who want to build an authorial voice that speaks their holistic self into being within academia.
Does your experience tell you that doctoral students commonly grapple with a comfortable good-fit academic voice?