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Today’s guest bloggers, Ana María Benton and Ian Brailsford, write to us from New Zealand. Ana María Benton holds a doctoral degree in education and is a language learning adviser within English Language Enrichment  (Libraries and Learning Services: Te Tumu Herenga) at the University of Auckland. She has long worked with university students and is passionate about language planning, second language education, and language revitalization. Ian Brailsford is an assistant with the University of Auckland’s Specials Collections (Libraries and Learning Services: Te Tumu Herenga) and was previously employed as a postgraduate learning adviser working primarily with doctoral candidates. Here they explain the identity work involved in writing the citation that is read out at New Zealand graduation ceremonies for PhD candidates.

By Drs Ana Maria Benton Zavala and Ian Brailsford

Introduction

This blog post describes the final piece of doctoral writing for a recently awarded PhD: the brief citation read out at graduation. Conventional wisdom is that the thesis abstract is the final (and possibly hardest) piece of writing. At our University, the official guidelines stipulate that abstracts be no more than 350 words. This equates to approximately three to four years’ full-time doctoral study honed down to three to four paragraphs. Good advice on writing the abstract is out there; this post attempts the same for a citation.

But apart from the abstract that accompanies the written thesis document, there is one more task: writing the script to be read aloud during capping. We present the experience of Ana Maria who had to write her citation (no more than 60 words) before her graduation this May and Ian who used to teach doctoral writing workshops and now works in the University of Auckland’s Special Collections, where he’s grown interested in the graduation citation documents. What we offer here is advice on how to write a citation (or similar synopsis or summary). We suggest that thinking ahead about this short piece of writing makes for a lively workshop activity for current doctoral candidates and, lastly, we speculate how these archived graduation citations might form the basis of a doctoral writing research project.

Ana Maria’s story

Sixty words; that was the limit with a specific instruction from the graduation office requiring it to be in plain English for a general audience. How would I manage to communicate the struggles of my four challenging, hardworking doctoral years with a few words? How would I convey to the graduation audience and to my own family in Mexico, connected via Internet to the ceremony, the significance of my contribution to knowledge in my field in three or four sentences? I thought writing the abstract had been challenging; I had spent hours polishing those precious lines and I managed to be satisfied with what my abstract conveyed about the layers of complexity in my work and the use of languages there. Still, how would I manage with even fewer words?

I had been at two other graduations before, and I knew that a good citation for a doctoral degree prior to the graduand’s walk across the stage was essential. It could give the audience a glimpse of the magnitude of the effort, or it could just have them nodding sympathetically thinking, ‘oh, sure, somebody had to do that…’. I wanted my citation to have an impact, and I wanted to listen to it and feel proud! So I devoted myself to the task and attempted several versions, playing with the words here and there.

Ana Maria looked at the work of an indigenous bilingual school, for language and culture revitalization.

I then read the words aloud, thinking about the rhythm and the sound. I finally came up with two versions, one emphasised an aspect of my research and the other included an interesting nuance.

Citation version 1

Ana Maria examined the holistic work of an indigenous bilingual school, and their inclusion of indigenous language and culture in the curriculum. She identified three central elements within a complex interaction that have a positive effect on students’ indigenous identity and their school performance. She maintains this interaction illuminates a way to support indigenous bilingual schools in Mexico, and elsewhere.

Still, perhaps, it would be clearer if it read as follows:

Citation version 2

Ana Maria looked at the holistic work of a community-based indigenous bilingual school, for language and culture revitalization. She identified three central elements in a complex interaction that have an impact on students’ indigenous identity and school performance. She maintains that the combined effect of this interaction can illuminate a way to support indigenous bilingual schools in Mexico, and elsewhere.

Would this communicate better? But, then, I would have to omit the school’s curriculum. In any case, after numerous attempts, I had to leave the versions as above. It was not possible to do more. I sent them to my supervisor and waited patiently for him to select the winning version, as he had to approve it.

Some minutes later, there it was: a pristine collection of words that would constitute my citation. My supervisor managed to combine the two versions into a beautiful, powerful, sound piece of writing; I was ecstatic. This was the version I heard prior to my walk on the stage. I felt empowered and small at the same time. I was so proud and, yet, there was so much to learn! Days later, I looked at the citation for my thesis and read it again.

Citation

Ana Maria examined the holistic work of an indigenous bilingual school in Mexico, and their inclusion of indigenous language and culture as central to the curriculum. She identified three central elements within a complex interaction that clearly had a positive effect on students’ indigenous identity and subsequent academic performance. She maintains that the combined effect of this interaction can illuminate a way to support indigenous bilingual schools in Mexico, and elsewhere.

I looked at it intently and then a smile crossed my face, there were seventy-one words there, and it had been alright! I thanked God for that final tiny miracle. It was finally over, and it had all been fine.

Conclusion

Ana Maria’s narrative shows the benefits of taking the opportunity seriously. It also reveals the importance of getting the supervisor’s second opinion to help craft the final version. While the responsibility for writing the citation should lie with the candidate (it is their big day after all), supervisors have quality control expertise.

It strikes us that drafting a citation in a workshop setting is a great ice-breaking or free-writing activity. There’s an element of what sports coaches call visualisation – crossing the finishing line – combined with explaining the what, why, how and ‘so what’ of a thesis topic in three or four sentences in simple language to one’s peers.

Moreover, the historic collections of these doctoral citations in university libraries could make for a novel research topic. The University of Auckland’s Special Collections holds examples of these graduation citations (and accompanying biographical information) for the period 1971 to 2013. Researchers wanting to explore the ways doctoral theses and successful doctoral candidates are presented to the outside world are encouraged to consider them as a valuable data source. How do other candidates write their researcher identity into existence for a non-academic audience?