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By Claire Aitchison

You write, I correct, you fix and return

Mostly, supervisors expect doctoral students to write somewhere else, away from them, and then send the written work back so they can then give feedback. Typically, the next step involves the supervisor and student coming together to discuss the supervisor’s feedback. These discussions may involve the student asking for clarification, the supervisor elaborating on their critique, occasionally students and supervisor will debate the feedback and perhaps renegotiate what needs to be done next. And mostly meetings will end with a list of tasks for the student to take away and do—again, on their own—before returning to the cycle yet again. This practice requires the student to be able, and motivated, to get on with the writing between sessions.

This model which sees writing as a series of attempts and corrections carried out by the student in isolation and/or under instruction, raises philosophical questions.  Thinking of writing as simply a mechanism to hold information presupposes a ‘truth’ that needs to be exemplified in the text. It also infers that the primary challenge for student and supervisor is to focus on accuracy of expression: writing is regarded as a skills-based activity, and the job of the student is therefore to develop mastery of academic expression (commonly in English). This view reduces language and writing to a transmission function, denuding it of the rich transformational properties that are inherent in sociocultural practice-oriented perceptions of language and writing.

Sometimes a focus on the writing can feel like a safe (and quicker) option for the supervisor – it is easier to comment on sentence level shortcoming than bigger picture concepts, errors of logic, faulty arguments, unclear thinking, inaccurate analyses and so on.  And sometimes sentence level issues can obscure those bigger concerns, and thus demand greater attention from the supervisor. However, supervisor feedback that focusses only, or largely, on the accuracy of writing delivers a far poorer learning experience for both; it can fail to develop the candidate’s thinking and personal engagement.

There are many resources for doctoral students on the skills of language and written expression. We regularly post blogs on the tricky and intriguing aspects of English language expression, on the peculiarities of writing research and the forms and structures of different research genres. (Flick through the third category on our blog Grammar, Voice and Style to see the enormous range of posts on crafting writing.) There are also many good references that explore a richer view of writing, such as its role for meaning-making, how writing practices develop disciplinary and authentic scholarly voices, how writing can be the vehicle for transformative learning. Many of our posts attend to the social practices that deliver these kinds of writerly experiences and benefits—see for example contributions under Identity and Writing Practices.

The risks of writing and fixing alone

The typical feedback cycle described above where students write and correct in isolation is common because it is a pragmatic and manageable process that brings supervisor and student together to monitor the research project — and it mostly progresses writing.

But there are times when this cycle breaks down. The student may have left the supervision meeting with a clear notion of what they should do next, but then when they sat down to do the work, they found they weren’t really sure what was needed, or how to do it. Sometimes the impediment is simply that they can’t get motivated, they can’t seem to get on and do the writing. I think we’ve all been there; that de-energised state, that lack of engagement, that feeling of disconnect.

When the feedback cycle isn’t working

Firstly, I think we need to be alert to preventative practices – we have written many posts about writing routines.  Making writing a habitual component of doctoral candidature can reduce the likelihood of this kind of paralysis. When writing is normalised as routine, doing it becomes a low-stakes activity because it is a familiar and consistent and thus a comforting connection to the PhD. But of course, it’s rarely as simple as that! 

And there’s an old method that we sometimes forget — and that is simply to sit with the student and work together on what needs to be done. Kamler and Thomson (2014) write about the power of writing together with the doctoral student in their book Helping Doctoral Students Write.

Working in collaboration is a powerful pedagogy because it involves modelling, authentic practice, and, when done with empathy, it is a nurturing pedagogy. The pedagogical distance (Westberry and Franken 2015) between saying and doing what needs to be done—is immediate. At the computer, together, the supervisor and student can discuss and incorporate contextual aspects otherwise left unspoken. Together they can take turns at the driver’s seat — swapping roles at the keyboard, jumping out to find a reference, stopping to talk, discussing, refining and improving the text. This practice makes the skills and processes of writing transparent. The student comes to see first-hand the messiness of working with text, how ideas don’t easily and immediately become clear, but instead are clarified through the actions of writing, thinking, talking correcting and rewriting. Working together builds confidence and skills.

Other social writing practices mirror these benefits. Peer writing groups (perhaps facilitated by the supervisors, an institutional learning advisor or writing teacher, doctoral student-facilitated groups, or even writing buddies); formal ‘training’ or writing sessions provided by central units may incorporate facilitated co-editing and feedback sessions; writing retreats, bootcamps and intensives offer the possibilities of these kinds of writing collaborations.

Why writing together works

Writing together works because learning is contextualised and socially mediated, it is vibrant at the point of doing rather than separated into discrete pods of individual trial and error – where the student is sent off alone to ‘correct’ what’s seen as problematic.

It’s about demonstrating how things work and co-constructing a negotiated outcome. Getting one’s hands dirty together on the page on the screen. Sharing the keyboard, in the moment, giving and carrying out suggestions, trialling how words can work — and together in the moment, modifying, accepting, rejecting versions and reinterpretations.

Why we don’t do it more often

Writing with one’s doctoral student is time-intensive. And sometimes it can seem like too much hard work: it isn’t always joyful, but in my experience, it is always illuminating. We get to develop our relationship and discover each other’s writerly strengths and fears.

There are no absolute certainties in our writing lives, no foolproof formulas for avoiding occasional instability and moments of languish, however the role of the supervisor is to establish healthy and sustainable writing practices that are the antithesis to disjointed and risky writing habits. Writing together occasionally is another tool for our kit.

Please feel free to share other practices you favour.

References:

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. (2nd ed.). Oxon: Routledge.

Westberry N., & Franken, M. (2015) Pedagogical distance: explaining misalignment in student-driven online learning activities using Activity Theory, Teaching in Higher Education, 20:3, 300-312, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2014.1002393

(Photo by Claire Aitchison)