One of the biggest problems that supervisors face, when dealing with the writing that doctoral researchers do, is how to be helpful. It’s often much easier to spot a problem than it is to know how to provide strategies that will assist the writer to change what they are doing.
The research that has been done into supervisor feedback and writing advice suggests that the least helpful thing for supervisors to do is simply give an instruction. As the University of Melbourne handbook Eleven practices of effective postgraduate supervision puts it:
The worst sort of feedback is that which … leaves students totally puzzled about what they should do next.
So writing directed feedback and advice such as… You need to link here… There needs to be more of you in here. …. You need a strong beginning…. all point to a problem. BUT these kinds of instructions, tips, advice and maxims do not offer any examples of what something better actually looks like. Nor do they offer the writer any resources that they might use to address the problem. And most importantly, there is no explanation about why not having these things is a problem and how/why it matters in the particular disciplinary community. So the recipient ends up knowing that they’ve got it wrong, they need to do something else, but they are absolutely unclear about what, or why, or how they might get there.
Of course it’s easier said than done to move past the instruction or the piece of writing advice. Supervisors have a very difficult task in dealing with writing questions. They/we are simultaneously doing several things at once. One of the most significant is they/we are inducting doctoral researchers into disciplinary communities. Their/our job is to make sure that the doctoral researcher enters the conversations that are going on in their field. And entering a conversation is not simply about the research itself, the ‘stuff’ that the thesis is about. Entering the conversation is also about the way in which the stuff, the contribution, is presented.
Entering a scholarly conversation through text is not unlike entering any kind of conversation – you can barge in and have people think that you are brash and rude, you can be tentative and hang back so that no one pays you any attention, you can say something which conforms to the group expectations – and sometimes, you can say something in a way which is unexpected, but still acceptable. Doctoral writers often don’t know the conventions of the community they want to enter, and they need supervisory help to find out what they are.
A lot of the niceties about disciplinary conventions are not made evident in supervision discussions about texts. Anthony Paré, Doreen Starke-Meyerring and Lynn McAlpine have separately and together researched and written a lot about supervisor feedback. They show very clearly – as in this chapter – the ways in which supervisors often provide useful writing strategies but stop before they get to the important discussions about the conventions of the discipline, and of scholarship as it is practiced in their particular location. The Paré et al analysis reveals not only the disciplinary, but also the cultural-political basis on which supervisors make judgments about academic writing.
This all points, of course, to the difficulties of providing academic writing resources in books, or in blog posts. I always find myself worrying when I start on a post, or on a set of posts, that I can’t fit in enough, that there is not enough room to discuss not only the what and how – but also the very tricky issues about the whys. However, this is something that supervisors can deal with, if they consciously think about the various questions that they need to ask themselves. These include:
• What is the writing problem that I can see?
• Why is this a problem?
• What conversation is the writer hoping to enter?
• What are the textual expectations of that scholarly community?
• What do I think the writer could do to adjust their writing so that they can enter the conversation?
• What strategies can I offer than might help them do this?
• How can I best explain why this is a good idea?
And then there’s the question of forming a scholarly identity through text – but that’s another post – or more.