2019 has been another busy year for DoctoralWriting, just as it has been for our readers around the world. Recently we passed the 15,000 followers mark. We’ve published another 35 posts this year, with the following guest bloggers based in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa contributing to the conversation – thank you all! Continue reading
It seems hard to believe we are coming to the end of our 6th year of the Doctoral Writing blog. From a small idea sparked at the Quality in Post Graduate Research (QPR) Conference in Adelaide, Australia, in April 2012, the blog has grown to having over 13,000 followers. We know many people who began reading the blog as doctoral students who now, as graduates and supervisors, recommend the blog to colleagues and new doctoral students. How time flies!
The blog represents an amazing community of doctoral writers and their supporters: supervisors, academic developers, academic language and writing developers, and increasingly we are being supported and connected to other communities via university library and graduate research websites. Continue reading
By Cally Guerin
It’s all over so quickly! The biennial Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) conference was held in sunny Adelaide, South Australia, last week. As the longest running and biggest conference on doctoral education in the world, QPR gathers together people who are concerned with both the big picture of where research training is heading and the details of how we get where we want to be. The conference keeps growing, and this year we had lots of current PhD candidates in attendance as well as seasoned academics and researchers. The conference website has details about the range of presenters and abstracts. Continue reading
Cassily Charles is the Academic Literacy, Learning & Numeracy Coordinator for Postgraduates at Charles Sturt University (CSU) where she runs programs to support academic writing, primarily for higher degree research candidates. CSU is a rural university in Australia and web conferencing is a routine part of Cassily’s work with doctoral students. Here she tells how the technology enables the work she does.
This is a short show-and-tell post for writing development practitioners (and research writers) about tools you can use to be ‘all in the room together’ online, no matter where you are.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Metropolitan/single campus universities may have less need, but regional and multi-campus universities in Australia tend to find working together online a pretty normal way of doing business – because we have no alternative. At Charles Sturt University more than half our research candidates are off-campus, compared to less than 10% at most metropolitan universities. We also have more than a dozen campuses (depending on how you count them). Some of these are relatively small, so even if research candidates are officially ‘on-campus’, they may still be far away from peers and people like me whose job it is to help them develop their academic writing.
So I use web conferencing tools – mainly Adobe Connect and Skype – for the synchronous writing support programs for research candidates at CSU. These include
- workshops on writing topics (and recordings which people can play later)
- multiple weekly ‘Shut Up & Write’
- individual consultations
- weekly peer writing circles (see also Dr Juliet Lum’s post on her online writing groups at Macquarie University)
- and monthly online + face-to-face bootcamps for CSU research writers. (Earlier this year we also piloted a joint thesis writing bootcamp, which was hosted simultaneously online by CSU and face-to-face by ANU, using the thesis bootcamp model which Dr Peta Freestone and colleagues developed for Melbourne Uni, and which Dr Inger Mewburn at ANU writes about here).
We also use these tools to enable people to participate synchronously online in special events, like DocFest, a professional development forum for research candidates and supervisors, and the Three Minute Thesis.
For some of these events, we’re all online. Sometimes some of us are together in a meeting room or convention centre, while others are in their lab, home office or on the train using a smart phone.
This one is a workshop. Everyone is online, but only the facilitators are sharing their webcams. The participants are communicating by voice, and also by typed chat with each other and the facilitators:
This one is a bootcamp, where some people are in the physical meeting room and others are online (visible on the projector screen). We also use Skype for this kind of arrangement, usually when there are just one or two folks online, and no need to share slides or a timer on the screen.
I mainly use Adobe Connect, for which my university now has an institutional licence. When I arrived at CSU in 2012 and began to develop a program of online workshops, the Research Office was using a Citrix web conferencing tool for workshops (GoToTraining) and CSU was using Wimba (now owned by Blackboard) within its LMS for coursework students. While these had their individual problems and conveniences, I lobbied strongly for Adobe Connect mainly because it could do break-out rooms for group discussion, which I felt were essential for writing workshops. I haven’t kept up with how these or the other alternatives have progressed since then.
When people ask about doing writing support online like this, part of me can’t see what all the fuss is about J. That is, these tools are pretty easy to use, adaptable, and relatively undramatic – especially if you work in a context where there’s a history of working synchronously online and over distances. Also, the tools by themselves don’t necessarily imply great innovation in writing support practices. In fact, it’s possible to more or less replicate a lot of familiar types of face-to-face programs (like writing workshops and individual appointments) by looking at drafts together on a shared screen, providing downloadable handouts, writing on a whiteboard and talking by voice or typed chat.
On the other hand, I can see some reasons why it’s worth making a small fuss. Firstly, because these tools, when students have independent access to them, can enable quite a flowering of autonomous peer learning and community building. For example, at my university, research candidates from diverse disciplines and far-flung locations have got to know each other through writing groups, workshops and bootcamps. Over time (and through necessity), I’ve asked regulars to assist with coordinating and hosting various kinds of writing groups and bootcamps. Now there is a good community of research writers who confidently use these tools and facilitation techniques for themselves and others by hosting regular weekly ‘Shut Up & Write’ meetings (to which newcomers are welcomed) and by running their own ‘free range’ bootcamps, without the need for me or other staff to facilitate.
Another reason why it’s worth making a small fuss is that there are some things which practitioners need time to think about when moving from face-to-face to synchronous online modes. One example I’ve noticed is that even very experienced teachers and facilitators seem to be drawn into very teacher-centred approaches when they start working online in real time – e.g., feeling pressure to talk continuously like a sage-on-the-stage, clicking through slides. This can be a response to difficulties interacting with online participants, particularly when unable to see their faces or hear their voices. However, this is effectively navigated with some tactics for engaging online participants and boosting the real-time feedback and interaction. I’m developing a workshop on these concerns, plus topics like equipment, the physical room layout, co-hosting and engaging online and face-to-face groups. After that, it really is just like having another room to meet in and do great things together with writing.
Perhaps you’ve had experiences with web conferencing you’d like to share?
This wonderful contribution comes from Dr Juliet Lum who is a Lecturer in Higher Degree Research Learning Skills at Macquarie University in Sydney, where she runs and organises courses, seminars and resources for research candidates across campus, and manages MQ’s new team of fabulous HDR Learning Advisors.
Recently when shopping for a baby’s beanie I chose one that had on its tag ‘OSFM’. After a while I figured out the acronym: One Size Fits Most. I like that: a clothing line that produces an item in only one size, but acknowledges that some bodies are ‘non-standard’. We know you’re out there, but tough luck: no beanie for you!
I have to admit, though, that a lot of the training our uni has been offering PhD students belongs in the OSFM category. Take doctoral writing groups, for instance.
No doubt you’ve heard of doctoral writing groups: you may run them at your uni, have read about them (e.g. Ferguson 2009 and Aitchison 2010), or be a member of one as a doctoral student yourself. Basically it’s a small group of PhD students who get together regularly to give feedback on each other’s drafts. Writing groups have lots of benefits: not only do students get advice on how they can improve their writing, but they gain skills and confidence as reviewers, and become members of an academic community working with other researchers.
But what if you’re enrolled in an Australian university and you live in Germany? Or you’re holding down a full-time job, or onto a full-time baby, and you do your PhD in the wee hours? What if you prefer to work at home in your pyjamas? Then the OSFM doctoral writing group probably won’t fit you because it’s run on campus during business hours (and requires a ‘public’ dress code). Do you just have to remain a big-headed hatless baby all winter?
My research partner, Olga Kozar, empathises with off-campus students having been a distance student herself. Olga suggested we try running writing groups for off-campus PhD students using online tools like Skype. Great idea, Olga! But how would these groups work? Olga and I pondered these things, and then got our hands dirty trying out some options.
We set up three different types of groups: an ‘autonomous’ group, which ran itself using our toolkit as a guide; a ‘hand-held’ group, which Olga ran; and a ‘weaned’ group, which I ran for a few sessions before letting it run itself. We grouped the students roughly by discipline.
So, what happened?
Well, the autonomous group had to deal with three incompatible time-zones because two of the students lived overseas. We feared they might give up because they wouldn’t be able to find a mutually convenient time to meet, or perhaps they’d resort to asynchronous communication like email. But no! The group decided to meet online in real time at 8am on Saturday Sydney time, which is dawn in China and almost midnight on Friday in the UK: this level of dedication bowls me over!
On the other hand, our hand-held group – which we assumed would be the easiest to keep going – almost conked out after a few weeks. First of all, there wasn’t a time to meet via Skype that suited everyone. So the group met only via email and the interaction was sluggish. Membership waned because of different levels of commitment, seemingly different needs and a reluctance to share drafts. Why didn’t the group run as smoothly as the other two? Certainly, the rapport was lower than that of the other groups. The members also happened to be science researchers who spend much of their day working in the lab or seeing patients. Perhaps certain types of scientists need a certain type of writing group that our model didn’t cater well for? Even our tailored-to-fit writing groups couldn’t quite clothe them snugly.
My weaned group met by Skype in full technicolour video every second Thursday, and, I must say, there was little difference between this group and face-to-face groups I’ve run; in fact, I noticed more engagement and investment by these geographically dispersed members than I’ve seen in many on-campus groups. Yes, these students loved receiving a range of honest feedback on their drafts and finding themselves able to say something valuable about another’s writing. But, importantly, they also relished the opportunity just to chat with a bunch of PhD colleagues on a regular basis.
So, what sort of writing group would I recommend for off-campus PhD students?
Well, it seems to me that writing groups that meet online in real time are more fun, deliver more benefits and are more likely to keep going than those that just communicate asynchronously.
But don’t be fooled: groups may need to try on a few different sizes from the online writing group clothes rack, as the real-time online writing group is itself only an OSFM, not an OSFA. Local and distance-based PhD candidates study off-campus for a variety of reasons, and synchronising schedules for real time meetings may turn out to be impossible.
What about you? Have you ever run or been in a writing group with people you may never meet in person? How did you make it work? And if you’re a PhD student who’s rarely on campus: how have you overcome the tyranny of distance or incompatible schedules in order to access training and connect meaningfully with others?
Aitchison, C. (2010). Learning together to publish: Writing group pedagogies for doctoral publishing. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (Eds.). Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond (pp. 83-100). London: Routledge
Aitchison, C. & Guerin, C. (eds) (2014) Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Practice and Theory, Abingdon: Routledge.
Ferguson, T. (2009). The ‘Write’ Skills and More: A Thesis Writing Group for Doctoral Students. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(2), 285-297. doi: 10.1080/03098260902734968
Kozar, O. & Lum, J. (2013), Factors likely to impact the effectiveness of research writing groups for off-campus doctoral students, Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 7(2) 132-149
By Claire Aitchison
I am watching the curious look inquisitively at this small group of people sitting outside in the sun tapping away at their keyboards. It’s hard to tell those who are intentionally part of our new ‘Shut up and write!’ from those who just happened, accidently, to lob here today. There’s the usual café sounds: orders being given and names being called out, cutlery clattering, cups meeting saucers and spoons. Some people look askance, others quickly soften their voices and look away – as if they have walked in on someone in prayer.
It’s 9.15am and people continue to join us. We are now eight definites and four fringe-dwellers: perhaps the outliers are hedging their bets; not sure enough yet to sit with us.
At the break we talk. Everyone is a doctoral student and immediately there’s an exchange about thesis topics, stage of candidature, software programs, the recent Boot Camp and other group writing opportunities on campus. Everyone wants to make writing normal business. Everyone needs to build writing into their lives so they can get their PhD done.
Then we settle down again to write. Together. In silence. It’s magic.
We have written before about group writing for doctoral scholars and academics including online writing groups, retreats and so on. In this blog I aim to give an overview of the group writing opportunities that I’m aware of – and to invite readers to tell us about others.
WRITING MARATHONS are productivity-focussed events that usually involve measuring output (eg word counts) against time. Some examples include:
AcWriMo is perhaps the most widely known and popular. Started in 2011 by Charlotte Frost, AcWriMo is an annual online month-long ‘write-a-thon’ fashioned after the successful NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Writers participate via the host – PhD2Published; they determine their own writing goals and are supported by tonnes of social media including dedicated posts, twitter feeds and participant exchanges. You can read here about Cally’s experience with a more localised AcWriMo.
Boot camps work on a similar principle, except that those that I know of bring people together in the same physical space; they are mostly facilitated and very often centrally provisioned by University Grad schools or Writing Centres. Like AcrWriMo, participants set personal writing targets which they aim to meet in a set period of time, such as 2 or 3 days. This blog on the Thesis Whisperer gives a great account of how a Boot Camp works.
OTHER SOCIAL WRITING
‘Shut up and write!’ is a mini writing sprint, rather than a marathon, that usually runs over an hour on a regular basis (eg weekly) in a convivial place. This kind of writing event is popular with doctoral scholars and academics because it’s a relaxed arrangement without hard rules or long term commitment. Participants simply turn up and get on with their writing, in the company of others, for two lots of 25 minute bursts with a five minute break in the middle.
‘Meetup’ writing groups. ‘Meetup’ is a global social networking phenomenon and recently, when invited by a friend to accompany her, I discovered yet another vibrant social writing avenue. Her group meets weekly at a pub in central Sydney where participants write, eat and drink together for 2 hours under the ‘cone of silence’. Thereafter, people mix and socialise as they see fit. I was amazed to discover that these writers included professionals of all kinds, scriptwriters, bloggers – and doctoral students.
Writing retreats are another kind of extended writing together opportunity favoured by doctoral scholars and academics alike. Whether they are highly structured (as described by Rowena Murray) or more organic (see Barbara Grant’s Guide), there’s growing evidence of the value of being able to retreat from the everyday demands and routines of academic life, to spaces entirely dedicated to writing. Susan has written about the pros and cons of writing retreats.
Writing buddies and intimate circles of productivity Finally I’d like to include a plug for the common, but undervalued, practice of hiding oneself away with a colleague/s to write. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent weekends away with doctoral scholars in which we have shared writing, cooking, walking and talking. Pat Thomson’s recent blogs on working with her co-author Barbara Kamler describes the joy (and productivity) of this kind of companionship.
But back at the University of New South Wales’ ‘Shut up and write!’ I overhear a passer-by say (I’m not kidding, I promise!): ‘This is really good. I saw the Research Office advertising … I want to do it – but I don’t have time’.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? – ‘Shut up and write!’ and these other group writing activities are booming because they work especially for those who don’t have time. The popularity of writing in groups is evident everywhere – so if you haven’t already; get yourself into some kind of group writing activity and you will reap the rewards.
And we’d love to know about your own group writing adventures.
Aitchison, C., & Guerin, C. (Eds.). (2014). Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Practice and Theory. London: Routledge. http://www.tandf.net/books/details/9780415834742/
Grant, B. . (2008). Academic writing retreats: a facilitator’s guide. Sydney: Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australia (HERDSA).
Grant, B., & Knowles, S. (2000). Flights of imagination: Academic women be(com)ing writers. International Journal for Academic Development, 5(1), 6 – 9
Grant, B. M. (2006). Writing in the company of other women: exceeding the boundaries. Studies in Higher Education, 31(4), 483-495. DOI: 10.1080/03075070600800624 http://www.leadershipscolaire.uottawa.ca/documents/Grantonwritingretreats.pdf