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By Lawrence Zhang and Susan Carter

Professor Lawrence Zhang is a much sought after supervisor at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, who takes a large number of mainly Chinese doctoral students through to successful completion and employment following that. One comment of his on a student’s oral presentation seemed so helpful and of use to many other students that it triggered this post.

The oral presentation was for the committee who were reviewing at the end of the provisional first year. They worked within the discipline but not within the particular field.

Reviewing the candidate’s PowerPoint, Lawrence wrote in an email:

You have listed all the authors, and this is not as good as what research has been done. Can you list all the challenges that are pointed out by these scholars instead of just name-listing? Your purpose of citing these authors and critically appraising their work is to argue for the validity of your study, especially showing any possible research gap that you intend to fill. In a way, that will be how you will be regarded as making contributions to the existing literature. It is not only about the presentation per se, but instead it is really about the Introduction of the thesis where you have to really spend time presenting your argument systematically and coherently on the basis of what you have briefly reviewed about “the state-of-the-art” in the field on this particular topic or subject. It is not about piling up all the names to impress your reader or your audience, who are more keen to know what these authors have done in terms of how that relates to what you will be doing.

Now, in a presentation, there is not much time to extrapolate on the literature. However, a list of authors names for an audience who hasn’t read their work, and an audience who are critically evaluating whether the doctorate should proceed, does not tell the listeners anything they need to know. Instead it reveals a presenter anxious to show her own awareness of the literature rather than anxious that her audience really follows it and sees how her planned project will contribute to filling a gap.

I frequently make the point in supervision meetings that consideration for audience should always be a prime concern when revising writing. A good starting point for revision is to begin with reader needs. For the Provisional Year Review, our institution’s 12-month review that takes students through from provisional status to fully registered, reader’s needs are best met when facts are turned into a story that an outsider can follow.

One huge challenge with doctoral writing is remembering what the reader doesn’t know. With the literature review, keeping audience need in mind takes you some way towards ‘demonstrating critical analysis.’ (The other way to demonstrate this is ensuring that literature is linked to the doctoral work.)

We have probably made this point before on this blog, but Lawrence has performed the empowering magic of giving specific concrete advice on how to put emphasis on what is important in writing. A literature review that simply lists authors is not adequate. Even one that brackets authors into schools or periods, with references, is not as strong as summarising the key findings or arguments of the authors and building these into a story.

Lawrence then provided an example of literature built into the authors’ argument:

That is, it helps our students to notice this aspect of writing that requires them to adopt a particular identity or persona for a given situation (in this case, thesis writing). In their influential paper on mature EAL writers, Hirvela and Belcher (2001, p. 89) take up Ede’s (1992) concept of the “situational voice”, investigating how writers adopt different voices for different texts and purposes, much as they might put on different outfits for different occasions. A related metaphor is employed by Ivanic and Camps (2001, p. 21), who posit that the choices of “voice types” available in academic writing are pre-determined by the “disciplinary discourse communities they are entering, like second-hand clothes waiting to be selected and given new life when worn by someone new”. Academic writing, then, can be understood as an act not only of putting on different outfits to suit particular occasions, but also of choosing that outfit from a selection of second-hand clothes that have been worn by academics before us. (Guerin & Picard, 2012)

His example is a great one for many reasons; you may well want to check the article out. I’ll be using this example in my next doctoral group workshop as doing so fills more than one purpose: it is a model that demonstrates how to incorporate quotation into the doctoral argument, and one suggesting how to use concordances to experiment with voice. That is one of the challenges that some in the doctoral group identified as difficult. Let us know if you also find the Guerin and Picard (2012) article useful–I always like extended metaphors that normalise academic writing within real life practices….


Guerin, C. and Picard, M. (2012). Try it on: voice, concordancing and text-matching in doctoral writing. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 8(2): 34-45.