By Tine Wirenfeldt Jensen, Gitte Wichmann-Hansen and Stacey Cozart, Aarhus University, Denmark.
The globalization of higher education can sometimes be a very abstract concept, a term we keep repeating without it having any real implications for our personal lives in academia. But one aspect of this trend towards globalization does involve one of the most personal areas of all – our language and thereby our very identities. More and more doctoral students are writing their dissertations (as monographs or journal articles) in English – the language of globalization. In Denmark as well as in other Scandinavian countries, this development is often not thought of as an issue: after all, Danish doctoral students generally have such excellent oral skills in English that some are perceived as being bilingual. And when doctoral students interact with their international – non-native English-speaking – peers, their own belief in their superior skills in English is confirmed. But what happens when they take on the task of writing a dissertation in academic English? Does having excellent oral communication skills necessarily mean that writing a dissertation in a foreign language, in a genre that is new to them, is smooth sailing? And if they do encounter difficulties, how are they able to frame and experience these difficulties as doctoral students?
We looked into this question as part of a two-year multi-institutional research seminar focusing on critical transitions in writing in higher education. Our case study focused on the writing experiences and challenges of PhD students at the faculty of Arts at Aarhus University, Denmark. It shows that writing a dissertation in English is, in fact, not without difficulties for PhD students. Even though lots of the students writing in English confidently rate their writing skills as very good or good, almost half state that they do have concerns about writing their dissertation in English.
We asked the students to complete the sentence “Writing in English is like…/Writing in Danish is like…”. Their answers point to the difficulties and insecurities experienced in connection with writing in English. This student answer is an incisive example: While writing in Danish is like “playing a grand piano based on 30 years’ experience”, writing in English is like “beating on a little tin xylophone without any guidance. In the dark.”
Other examples of metaphor pairs for writing in Danish and English are: Writing in Danish is like “…driving on a freeway while my supervisor occasionally tells me to switch to the academic lane”, while writing in English is like “…driving on a freeway with holes in the asphalt”. Writing in Danish is like “…shaping clay”, while writing in English is like “…knitting a sweater without knowing whether there is enough yarn”. Just like the majority of the students’ metaphor pairs, these examples underline the students’ difficulties transitioning from Danish to English, in particular their sense of alienation, inadequacy and lack of creativity in connection with writing in English.
In order to handle these issues, the doctoral students need to be able to assume an identity as “language learner”, but the structural framework of the doctoral programs does not offer a legitimate space for them to do so. There are no mandatory courses in academic English, no formal or informal assessments of students’ writing skills in English, nor any frameworks for discussing students’ writing issues or concerns about writing in English in the doctoral supervision context. No institutional space is made available for discussing these quite complex issues, and if the students want to do so, they must carve out this space individually.
What the institution is communicating to the PhD student who pictures writing in English as ”knitting a sweater without knowing whether there is enough yarn” is that there should be enough yarn – that doctoral students are simply expected to have the ability to write a dissertation in English with little or no support. And – in a sense – that if this is not the case, the students’ “doctoral student” identity is somewhat flawed.
What is striking is how unfounded this expectation is. More than two thirds of the students in our study who stated that they are writing their dissertation in English had never attended a course in academic English, and one third had virtually no experience of writing academic texts in English when they began their PhD studies.
The consequence of these implicit expectations is that the students are very much left to themselves – left to decide what language to write their dissertation in, to assess their own language skills, to seek out courses and other kinds of support on their own. And they are also left alone with the task of negotiating the impact on their self-perception when faced with difficulties writing a dissertation in English – this context can’t allow them to legitimately occupy the space of being a doctoral student and an advanced language learner at the same time.
Importantly, the difficulties these students experience are not the result of a personal shortcoming but of an institutional blind spot toward the idea that even the nearly bilingual Danish PhD students may only be beginning to develop their English academic writing skills. Our study has made it clear to us that understanding the role played by the different identities available to young scholars is crucial. We as institutions, researchers, supervisors and language teachers must work towards making it legitimate for students to assume the identities of advanced language learner and doctoral student at the same time – without the one identity undermining the other.
We would be very interested to hear about similar dilemmas in other contexts.
All three of our guest authors this week work at Aarhus University in Denmark. They are educational developers within Higher Education, and have extensive experience working with students’ writing processes, text feedback, and doctoral supervision. Together they compose a research team on Doctoral Writing. Tine is a part-time lecturer and PhD student at the Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media in the Faculty of Arts. Gitte is an associate professor and research manager at the Center for Teaching and Learning, School of Business and Social Sciences. Stacey is a senior consultant with the Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media at the Faculty of Arts.