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Robert B. (Rob) Desjardins, PhD, is the graduate writing advisor at the Student Success Centre, University of Alberta (Canada). Here he explains his insights into how best to help doctoral writers learn about research writing.

By Robert B. Desjardins

Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a new manual for students struggling to craft theses and dissertations. The working title – still in the “playful conceit” stage – is The Incomplete Guide to Thesis-Writing.

Why “incomplete”? It’s a riff on the dangers of authorial hubris, and on the need for writing advice that helps students to start their critical work, rather than promising an easy path to the end. It’s also a tribute to the pedagogical value of the question – a speech act that sets writers on an unpredictable path, making them responsible to define and then contend with the rhetorical problems that a major writing project presents.

The best questions, as we know, tackle these problems head-on: “How can I frame my project in an engaging way?” “How should I structure my chapters?” “How can I connect my ideas fluidly and foreground my analytical voice?”. They call for planning and modelling, for close analyses of texts and thoughtful engagement with disciplinary conventions.

This is work that each writer must do for herself. We writing guides can help her, of course; but it’s no use pretending that we have all the answers. Too much about each writing situation – the intellectual contours of the study, the expectations of readers, the languages and genres considered licit in the field, the writer’s own style and, as the Old English poet had it in Caedmon’s Hymn, her modgeþanc, her way of thinking – is variable. And too much about rhetoric is integral to content; it’s the student’s own intellectual property, which she has the right to develop and finesse by herself.

This, I want to suggest, is the Achilles’ heel of some “complete” thesis-writing manuals. Books that rely on fixed lists of suggestions and “step-by-step” directions tend to foreclose on the dialogic encounter between the writer and her text. They offer the illusion of comprehensiveness to students who may be doubly frustrated, finding that their square-peg projects don’t fit into circular templates – and fearing that they are, as a consequence, doing something “wrong.”

What’s true for writing manuals, in my view, is true for writing workshops. I struggled for a few years to develop thesis-writing courses that provided concrete strategies and tips for writers across the disciplines. While I believed (and still maintain) that people from different fields, at different stages of completion, with different kinds of expertise, have a lot to gain by sharing their thesis-writing journey with each other, the pedagogy involved in the interaction turned out to be…a bit tricky.

The problem, in my case, was the temptation to rely on the same kind of magisterial “expertise” as some manuals do. I began by offering standard advice rooted in the parameters of the standard thesis – traditional format, five chapters, monographic. But as I worked with students in individual consultations and learned how varied their needs were, I began to understand the limitations of those general suggestions. My teacher’s integrity went into overdrive, prompting me to issue more and more caveats during my lessons: writers who found this or that principle inapplicable, I said, should look to exemplars from their field for specific guidance.

And then I started thinking about the questions they could ask of those texts and the steps they could take to analyze them effectively. And then – teacher’s integrity again – I set out to demonstrate how the process works, asking them to find and share excerpts from sample theses written by other scholars – theses with research questions similar to theirs, written for similar audiences, crafted within similar genres.

We talked about those exemplars, thickly and in depth…and I ran out of time for my lectures. That was perfectly okay, because our wandering discussions turned out to be more nuanced and exciting, and far more relevant to the students’ needs. They focused on flexible analytical strategies rather than context-specific solutions. And when I contributed a few suggestions on how to read other people’s writing effectively – techniques like the “reverse outline,” for which I’m indebted to my supervisor Stephen – the students let loose with all the brilliance and insight that is always latent in a room full of scholars.

They knew so much; I learned so much. Indeed, it turned out that my best contributions were more avuncular than magisterial. They focused on process: the ways that I as an academic writer go about analyzing texts; common aspects of the writing experience, and how to approach them intellectually and emotionally; the benefits of discovering, in the work of other authors, a brilliant solution to a rhetorical problem that is bedeviling us.

Letting the quality of those interactions guide me, I reframed my thesis-writing workshops. I now offer two series of classes: one, called Getting Started on Your Thesis, brings together writers from across the disciplines to deal with challenges we all share (things like deciding on an appropriate thesis format, introducing the reader to a research problem, and connecting sections together through the use of transitions). The second, A Thesis-Writer’s Workshop, sets up discipline-specific working groups to offer advice and support to students writing chapter drafts.

In both cases we use exemplars extensively – as conversation-starters, as strategy-forgers, as debate-precipitators. I have started to organize my favorite strategies into a series of steps for working effectively with other people’s writing. These include:

  • determining what the writer needs to know;
  • developing effective questions (about disciplinary conventions, rhetorical strategies, textual clarity, and other pressing matters) to ask of the exemplar;
  • preparing to test the questions (my opportunity to offer students a veteran’s advice on the analytical process); and
  • reading critically, individually and as a group, to test the questions.

These innovations are paying clear dividends to students. I am still in the process of developing them into a set of personal best practices; should readers be interested in learning more, I would be happy to share details on each of the steps. More important, I am keen to hear the perspectives of other writing guides on these principles in general, and on their own approaches.

Let’s talk about thesis-writing instruction that’s incomplete. Deliberately incomplete.