This is a guest post from Susan Gollifer, a doctoral researcher in education at The University of Iceland. Susan’s research looks at teachers and human rights curriculum.
I am coming towards the end of a two-month Erasmus placement at a university overseas. During this time, I have had the opportunity to work with master’s level students on their academic writing and to write two chapters of my own thesis-I should add, draft chapters. As I approach the time to return home, I have started to reflect on my learning experience in terms of how productive I have been with my thesis writing. Writing does not come naturally to me and I spend considerable time drafting and redrafting my text before I am satisfied with a final result. I often return to my writing several days later and completely restructure my work. In this sense, I see myself as a writer who aspires to be a better writer. However, during my stay at my host university, I have come to appreciate academic writing not only as technically challenging but also as an art form that provides a space and a medium of expression for the social and individual dimensions of life experiences.
My current experience is one of living with a sense of reflective freedom, which I feel was absent in the routine of family, studies and work that characterises my very wonderful life back home. This reflective freedom has led me to be both creative and critical, resulting in some extremely productive writing. So, what has influenced this reflective freedom beyond the obvious distance from routine distractions?
First, living with my supervisor: supervision is an interesting and potentially complicated process; and in part due to invisible boundaries that are constructed consciously or unconsciously, stated or unstated. Living with my supervisor, for some ten days or so, broke down these invisible boundaries to reveal a productive and creative space that allowed me to move forward with my writing. The living arrangement was based on a mutual respect to keep to set supervisor/student meeting times and not to cross the boundaries of any formal arrangements. However, it also facilitated the informal and unstructured flow of conversation that touched on many of the issues that I am addressing in my research.
I came to appreciate the value of hearing myself speak and discuss in an environment that was non-threatening with a person who is as passionate about my topic as I am, and yet who has different academic knowledge, opinions and experiences than I do. I was challenged to look at my work in a critical way, not because of the pressure of a deadline or to respond to feedback. Rather, the informal social interaction helped me to make sense of what I had read previously, to recall salient points made during seminars and conferences that I had attended, and most importantly, to critically revisit what I had written so far and to look at my supervisor’s work in a more critical way. And then my supervisor left.
Second, making the informal formal: Thankfully, the reflective freedom remained after my supervisor left the country, despite the fact that I have spent the greater part of my time alone, thinking, writing, reading, and rewriting. I am doubtful that I would have reached this creative stage of my work had I not had experienced the informal interaction that promoted my freethinking; but nor would I have been at this stage had I not formalised the informal. I live about half an hour away from the university where I have an office space. During my daily walk to and from my flat I am continuously working through conceptual relationships, encountering contradictions, challenging arguments, reorganising my chapters and questioning my analysis of data. I found that by the time that I had reached my destination, some of these ideas had stuck, and others had disappeared. I found this frustrating and so I started to document my freethinking as soon as I reached my destination. I am even contemplating recording myself as I walk to and from university as I have come to realise that hearing yourself speak is an important part of organising thought processes and arguments. I now realise that I do this far too infrequently. These basic strategies have helped me to formalise the informal, resulting in some productive writing.
So what can I draw from this experience? I am aware that within two weeks I will back to my home routine and could so easily lose what I have gained from my reflective freedom. How to act to sustain it? I have several ideas that draw on Pat’s blog and my own experiences of academic writing. In reference to her blog on the PhD as a journey (see Pat’s blog March 23, 2015), I identify with the metaphor of a doctoral journey that has both social and individual dimensions and that does not separate my work, my studies and my private life into three distinct categories. I want to break down the negative aspects of those invisible boundaries.
I am not suggesting that we all move in with our supervisors. However, I am suggesting that there is a need to rethink how to approach academic writing, both from the perspective of an instructor and a student of academic writing courses. How can we develop the concept of academic writing groups so that they provide space for informal interactions that inform formal academic writing courses? Can these be combined in ways that provide students with adequate opportunities to process their development from external inputs, both formal and informal, and in a way that leads to creative and critical writing? Does this then imply that intensive writing courses with an instrumental focus on output is inadequate as regards addressing the social and individual dimension of the students’ needs? In other words, should we be thinking of academic writing as a continuous component of the development process that accompanies the student from the beginning to the end of her or his journey through higher education rather than as an input to achieve an output? Perhaps then the habit of writing as an intrinsic and enriching component of education and quality of life is more likely to be sustained.
I, at least, intend to build on my experience of reflective freedom to inform the way I approach academic writing, as a student, an instructor and a writer who aspires to write better to do justice to my topic.