By Cally Guerin
One of the ongoing challenges for doctoral writers is the confusion (and frustration) that arises when supervisors seem to change their opinions about what the writing needs. It can look like supervisors contradict themselves if they offer feedback on writing, and then later advise something different. Why does this happen? We need to consider how, just as the writing develops, the feedback itself also develops over time. I think there are several reasons that supervisors’ feedback can change.
Firstly, the interpretation of the data analysis or the focus of discussion usually emerges gradually over time. Doctoral writing is a recursive process (Paré 2011) largely because it is not a simple, straight forward report on facts. Rather, writing at this level is run through with abstraction and theorisation. Slowly the author works through versions of the writing to find the meaning of this research. Sometimes, what seems appropriate and viable as an interpretation is no longer quite so convincing later when sitting alongside other elements of the research. New emphases appear along the way, and the project can subtly shift direction, rendering previous feedback redundant. Just as we think of the writing developing, perhaps supervisors should think of their feedback also developing in response to increasing detail and complexity.
Secondly, the writer’s identity as a disciplinary researcher also emerges over time as the project proceeds (Castello, Inesta & Corcelles, 2013). While still in the process of getting to know a new student and developing a working relationship, many supervisors will play it fairly safe by not being overly critical. Feedback is presented using the ‘sandwich’ technique, bracketing suggestions for improvement with praise for what has already been achieved in the writing. But as the supervisor builds a better sense of the student’s intellectual capacity, and of how the student responds to criticism, they may see how this writer can be pushed further into more complex thinking than originally imagined. If the student displays the potential to take on more risk and creativity, the writing that might have been regarded as adequate in the early stages now receives more stringent feedback.
Closely related to this developing relationship between supervisor and student is the aim to avoid overwhelming the student with too much feedback. It can be very discouraging to receive extremely detailed feedback on every aspect of writing first up – content, organisation, argument, voice, grammar, sentence structure, etc., etc. I’d encourage supervisors to focus on just one or two elements at any given time. For example, early drafts may benefit from feedback that engages with the big picture elements such as content and overall structure of the argument; later on, as the draft firms up, it might be more useful to drill down to the precise wording of the argument and to focus on sentence structure. (After all, it seems a waste of effort to spend time on detailed editing of a section that is not going to be included in the final version of the thesis – unless, of course, the purpose is to help train the student’s skills in being able to edit their own work.) So, it’s not just a matter of reading through the text once, telling the student how to improve it, and leaving it at that – further drafts will each elicit new responses and feedback.
And finally, as a supervisor has more time to reflect on the project and get to know its nuances, some of their original impressions of the writing may be reconsidered. The supervisor may well come up with new or better ideas. Finding a workable structure for extended writing is a creative act, often requiring several attempts before settling on a workable form. And, of course, there’s always more than one way to present a writing project – several solutions might be equally adequate, none are necessarily perfect. Today, one solution might feel more desirable; tomorrow, another approach might be slightly preferable; but overall, it’s quite possible that both are sufficient for the task. Supervisors will need to see how various options play out before being able to determine which is the best. Supervisors might find it useful to talk directly with students about this process as part of the feedback.
And it is worth reminding students sometimes that supervisors are not superhuman! Frustrating as it can be from a student’s perspective, supervisors are learning about the research project in parallel with the student. The feedback is developing while the writing is developing.