Our guest bloggers this week are Nonia Williams and Zoë Jones, Learning Enhancement Tutors at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. They share a passion for using a creative and innovative approach in their work. They offer one-to-one tutorials and workshops for students of all levels of study, including postgraduate researchers. Their workshops cover a range of topics: researching, planning, drafting and editing written work, referencing and other aspects of academic study. They also facilitate PhD writers’ retreats. Here they talk about the playful strategies they use in their workshops with doctoral writers.
by Nonia Williams and Zoë Jones
It can feel risky to encourage doctoral students to try innovative, creative and playful strategies to enhance their writing. Yet, in our tutorials and workshops this is exactly what we do, with activities such as yoga and meditation; playing with LEGO©; drawing and discussing pictures and shapes; inviting students to take a walk with us or each other (see Jones and Williams, 2018, for more information about the detail of these activities). But why do we consider such activities to be ‘risky’ – for our students as well as ourselves? And why might it be worth taking these risks?
Photo: Nonia encouraging workshop participants to explore how yoga might enhance their writing processes (Photo: Zoë Jones)
Even just coming along to one of our tutorials or workshops can feel risky for doctoral students, because seeking support involves admitting that you’re not quite sure about what you’re doing. Those who do come often arrive feeling negative about their writing; they may be stuck or blocked, or in a state of uncertainty. Badenhorst (2018) points out that exposing writing to supervisors and peer reviewers can increase the volume of students’ inner critical voices and exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Given these pressures and emotions, asking doctoral students to engage in something new and supposedly ‘fun’ might seem somewhat foolhardy. Not only do they encounter us outside of their usual learning environment, but the creative and innovative strategies that we use engage students in behaviours unusual in the ‘serious’ business of academia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this can lead to resistance: their time is both precious and scarce, why should they try out something new that might not work? Where is the evidence that it will work?
Trying out new strategies can be unsettling for us too: we may well not have met the students before, might not know their ‘likes or loaths’ (Haas, 2014), or their specific needs in terms of writing. We are not usually subject-specialist experts, and this can make it challenging to convince graduate writers to participate in our creative activities. We can feel anxious that these students, who might be looking for quick-fix solutions to their writing problems, won’t see the value in activities that often focus on process, and which don’t necessarily lead to immediate gains or rapid text production.
Yet in our experience, trying new strategies is certainly a risk well worth taking. Thomson (2016: para. 10) expounds the value of developing a ‘repertoire of writing strategies’ to ensure progress with doctoral writing, while Murray (2015) insists that more needs to be done to lay helpful writing processes bare for thesis writers. In addition, positive emotions have been shown to enhance cognitive processes (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005).
With these ideas in mind, we produce mounds of LEGO© bricks and invite workshop participants to warm up their fingers by building towers, before moving on to build something that represents the structure of their theses. The sight of the bricks usually lightens the mood and encourages students to begin thinking and talking about how they are planning to structure their work. Since we have introduced this kind of activity into our Professional and Personal Development workshops for postgraduate researchers, it has been notable how even relatively quiet and serious groups of students appear to relax and become engaged. Students respond well to encouragement not to ask too many questions about the activity, but instead to ‘think’ with their fingers. They go on to explain their models to partners, and then present their ‘work’ to the whole group, responding to questions about what they have produced. This means they have several opportunities to articulate their ideas about the research they will write about, clarifying their thinking and, perhaps, eventually their writing.
So, while playing around with LEGO© might initially seem irrelevant for doctoral writing, if such activities increase a student’s range of strategies, enhance cognition, and enable students to reconnect positively to their topic, they might well also help to ‘free up’ and invigorate the writing process. In spite of all the apprehension that risk-taking can bring, it can, and often does, pay off. Many students (although by no means all) have been surprised by how helpful trying new and different approaches to writing can be, how this can enable them to take back control after feeling stuck or blocked, and move on. In turn, for us such risks are worth taking because of the value of trying something new to ‘shake up’ our own thinking about writing. Trying new things has been recognised as having intrinsic value for wider well-being (Aked et al., 2008), so it seems reasonable that trying new approaches to teaching writing, as well as to writing itself, could have similarly positive effects on us as practitioners as well as on our students.
Aked, J., Marks, N., Cordon, C. & Thompson, S. (2008). Five ways to wellbeing. London: New Economics Foundation. Retrieved from New Economics Foundation website: http://neweconomics.org/2008/10/five-ways-to-wellbeing-the-evidence/
Badenhorst, C.M. (2018). Emotions, play and graduate student writing. Canadian Journal for Discourse Studies and Writing/Rédactologie, 28, 103-126. Retrieved from http://journals.sfu.ca/cjsdw/index.php/cjsdw
Fredrickson, B.L. & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19 (3), 313- 312.
Haas, S. (2014). Writer development made accessible! Brookes eJournal of Learning and Teaching, 6(2). Retrieved from http://bejlt.brookes.ac.uk/shortarticle/writer-development-made-accessible/ .
Jones, Z. & Williams, N. (2018). “I am done with toys!” The benefits, joys and risks of creativity and innovation in graduate writing support. Canadian Journal for Studies in Discourse and Writing, 28, 149- 172. Retrieved from: http://journals.sfu.ca/cjsdw/index.php/cjsdw/article/view/602/668.
Murray, R. (2015). Writing in social spaces: A social processes approach to academic writing. London: Routledge.
Thomson, P. (2016, September 1). Academic writing — no one best way [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://patthomson.net/2016/09/01/academic-writing-no-one-best-way/.