By Susan Carter

I had the privilege of attending the ICERI conference this year, a large international conference attended by mostly Europeans, but with most parts of the world represented. Perhaps influenced by the recent theatre of the American elections, approaches to education at this conference seemed to emphasise education’s political and social benefits, its potential to be an antidote to powerbrokers by merit of the changes that it makes to individual lives. This potential seems relevant to, and maybe even an inspiring reminder for, doctoral writing, a process that transforms many of our lives.

Plenary Ann Cotton, founder and president of Camfed, a not-for-profit institution in the UK tackling poverty and inequality, described her work increasing rates of female participation in education in sub-Saharan Africa, and fostering women as ‘agents of change’. She initially saw funders’ failure to notice the people they wanted to help; her own approach was to go into settlements, bring in people from the communities to participate in decision-making and work alongside them. Ben Nelson, Minerva, USA, also a plenary, cautioned that even in meritocratic institutions, education remains in the hands of the elite, because middle- and upper-class parents can afford to pay for private tutors and to send their children to the best schools. Nelson called for radical change towards inclusivity. Inclusivity and equity were themes that I took away with me, and again, these aspirations seem relevant to doctoral writing and its support because for many doctoral students, the doctorate allows them to break barriers.

Bob Ives (University of Nevada, Reno, USA) introduced extensive international research into plagiarism and cheating by mentioning political figures stripped of questionably fraudulent degrees. The research team he was reporting from found some discrepancies in the extent of cheating across different countries. Nattavee Utakrit and P. Sukmak (King Mongkut’s University of Technology North Bangkok) had investigated various websites and described how to recognise fraudulent on-line degrees for sale from the obvious telltale signs: the phone numbers are fake, and these universities don’t have a legitimate institutional website. Those of us attending were interested in how many people get sprung so that their careers suddenly end up in tatters.

Simon Bell (Coventry University, UK) described an intriguing way to work with undergraduate writing: finding that students write more easily once they have found an argument, he gives a ‘join the dots’ exercise to show that writing is not a ‘discrete activity’ but is ‘a product of an argument that is born out of connections.’ His exercise is to give three images and ask students to give one word for each image, and then one word that links them. Doctoral candidates could well benefit from such a task and from others that require you to make a logical narrative from disconnected items.

The relationship between writing and practice was considered in several papers. M. Pinheiro, M. Dionísio and R. Vasconcelos (University of Minho, Portugal) reported on the views of Engineering students regarding academic literacy as an impediment to learning. They were focusing on the gap between text and what happens in the classroom. On the other hand, C. Wastal (University of California San Diego, USA) discussed the ways that a first-year writing program incorporated climate change and sustainability to engage students with the challenges facing the human race now. Thus Wastal and colleagues try to use the student need for literacy skills as a lure to encourage them to think about bigger social issues. H. Germano (Instituto Politécnico de Setúbal – Escola Superior de Saúde, Portugal) and J. Gronita (Instituto Politécnico de Setúbal (Portugal) described how generic skills can be taught through curriculum units premised on experience and reflection. Here the approach was to overtly link practice with thinking and writing.

Gender equity was a stream that interested me. Ignatios Vakalis (California Polytechnic and State University, USA) reported on a successful multipronged approach to increasing the ratio of female students in Computer Science and Software Engineering.

Perhaps the most exciting paper for my interests was by Holly Anthony and Martha Howard (Tennessee Tech University, USA) on why doctoral women who considered dropping out persisted. Their research questions sought to find out what experiences lead women doctoral students to question themselves and their abilities, what motivates women to persist in doctoral programs and how they manage to persist. Amongst their recommendations was that institutions need to recognize that the doctorate experience is different for women.

They highlighted that the doctorate experience is different for women.  I’ve written on difference for women with two colleagues, one a counseller, and was keen to hear the other side of the additional challenges: how women manage to complete.

My conference paper with co-author Deborah Laurs reported on research investigating how participant doctoral students [80] felt when they submitted writing to supervisors for the first time and got feedback. Unsurprisingly, experiences were fraught with uncertainty as to what to expect, and were intensely emotional. The paper pointed out the need for clarity about writing expectations early in supervision, the ideal of concrete feedback that enables progress and the need for diplomacy. A woman at the end commented that we were being too soft on our students. She said: ‘In my country, we just say things are bad if they are bad. That is how it is.’ At this conference I was aware of the difference in academic cultures around the world. I’m curious as to how readers feel about blunt feedback: in my experience, it can be counter-productive.

I began the conference aware that it felt both unusual and uncomfortable to know none of the others there. It made me aware that I tend to choose conferences where I will have the additional benefit of meeting with collaborators and intellectual mates. I left aware of the potential for cross-national stimulation and connections, having exchanged email addresses with others to follow up shared interests. I welcome comments from others who attended ICERI, another chance to network internationally.