lessons learned from a doctoral writing group

This is a guest post from Charlotte Wegener from Aalborg University, who worked with a group of peers to share their experiences of writing in the PhD.

My former doctoral peer group wrote a paper together about the dual process of academic writing and developing researcher identity. The paper is entitled Borrowing Brainpower – Sharing Insecurities (Wegener, Meier & Ingerslev, 2014). In the paper, we analyses one of our own peer sessions. The session was not initially intended as data. I recorded the session on my cell phone because I knew I needed a way of remembering and re-entering the discussion about a chapter for my dissertation which was being discussed that particular day. In our analysis of the sessions, we draw on three concepts proposed by Aitchison and Lee (2006): ‘mutuality’, ‘expertise’ and ‘writer identity’. ‘Mutuality’ refers to the delicate dynamics between power and difference at all levels of interaction such as the negotiation of group norms and the micro-dynamics of turn-taking. ‘Expertise’ refers to know-how that advances learning in a peer group. Expertise comes in multiple forms, depending on the type of group and the needs of its members. Thus, each peer group builds a shared repertoire of language and skills for analysing and describing texts. Finally, the concept of ‘writer identity’ in peer learning refers to questions of voice, authority and writer positioning, issues that invariably arise in writing groups over time and in relation to the research communities in which the doctoral studies are located.

Our experience as a peer group over three years serves as a backdrop for the analyses. However, we decided to zoom in on one specific session with the aim to show, not tell. While similar studies draw mainly on interview data referring to the peer processes, our paper provides first-hand and real-time data from the situated activity of peer learning. We thus aim to invite the reader into the everyday activities of both writing and identity formation in-progress.

I transcribed the one hour long recording and shared it with my peers. We started out by a selection of all dialogues in the transcript that addressed writing struggles and researcher identity. We decided to aim at combining these two aspects because the literature on doctoral writing and peer learning designates these as both critical and underexposed. We then developed the analysis through turn-taking and circulated the text over email several times while simultaneously reviewing the literature and reporting our insights gained from reading every time one of us passed on a new version of the manuscript. At long last, we came across the terms ‘mutuality, expertise and writer identity’ which enabled us to refine the analysis. Thus, our analytical strategy was mainly inductive though inspired by the literature.

Taking a break from one’s own project to read others people’s texts and meet with peers in writing groups may be unattractive for the reason that it is time consuming. However, our analysis shows that all members of a peer group build expertise, mutuality and identity, even though only one text is on the agenda at any given session. Building competencies as a peer reviewer is an important skill in academia, and a safe training environment reduces performance anxiety when the researcher eventually receives manuscripts for review from real journal editors. As a side effect, the reviewer role enables the student to decode what works well and to transfer these insights into his or her own writing.

It is important to mention that peer writing groups are not supportive or productive per se. Potential negative dynamics of peer interaction are over-intimacy, intrigues and non-productive power struggles. These kinds of peer group dynamics are obviously even more sensitive to report, especially from a first person perspective. Yet, they also need attention as they may explain why some doctoral students are reluctant to participate or choose to withdraw from peer groups.

Borrowing Brainpower – Sharing Insecurities, however, tells the story of how peer writing can be a crucial activity to make the doctoral journey a less lonely and less fearful experience. I hope the paper will encourage others to report from those sites and activities that support experiences of desire, delight and joy.

Wegener, C., Meier, N. & Ingerslev, K. (2014). Borrowing brainpower – sharing insecurities. Lessons learned from a doctoral peer writing group, Studies in Higher Education, ahead-of-print(1-14) (paywalled).

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Charlotte Wegener, doctoral writing group and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to lessons learned from a doctoral writing group

  1. Reblogged this on Psych Stats Tutor and commented:
    #peertopeer #PhD #thesisreadinggroup


  2. Sue Gollifer says:

    A really useful and timely blog as we are in the process of learning from our own doctoral peer writing group experiences. As you mention, an important part of peer writing groups is to create a community of practise to address isolation and loneliness experienced by doctoral students. Using first-hand and real-time data from the situated activity of peer learning is also a research approach that could be very effective in our own context at the School of Education. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading the full article.


  3. Rayoung says:

    This is a very useful one for me as well. I am now working on an online writing collaboration with a writing partner based on Wendy Belcher’s book. We’re also hoping to later report our experience back to academic audience in the form of publication. I can definitely speak to some of the points raised here, especially how the collaboration can be a safe space to ‘exercise and practice’ an academic identity. Thank you for sharing this!


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