I’ve been thinking recently about my own supervision practices, as well as the literatures on supervision. You’d think I’d have this sorted eh, given how much I write about writing. But there’s always lots of room for reflection, learning and change no matter how much you do something.
I’m wondering what year one PhD tutorials would look like if I focused as much on academic writing as I do on the particular topic that is being researched. What if I balanced process and content right at the get go? Academic writing at the very start.
When doctoral researchers start their course of study most supervisors, including me, concentrate on literature work. This is so the doctoral researcher can hone their research question and then produce a workable research design – and all in a timely fashion. Most of us of course ask that this starting-off work be produced in and through writing.
However, at the outset, we tend to assume that the doctoral researcher knows how to write, and it’s not until they show that they don’t that we intervene. But what if we didn’t hide academic writing away as a secondary conversation topic? What if we supervisors assumed at the start that we were as much responsible for supporting academic writing as supporting the development of the topic? What if we started from the view that, rather than providing remedial support to those who cant ‘do it’ properly, our job was actually to provide structured support for the learning of academic writing? What if our job was/is to help people move from writing essays and assignments to becoming and being academic writers capable of being published in a range of outlets, including good journals? What if we also includedwriting for readers outside the academy? What would we do differently?
If supervisors and grad schools started from a highly writing-focused position, they certainly wouldn’t assume that doctoral writers already know the conventions and genres that are open to them. Noone would assume that they need to start writing draft chapters right at the start. They wouldn’t assume that all doctoral researchers can write in isolation, shut away from one another, alone in the quiet of their own little cubicles. They wouldn’t assume that all doctoral researchers already have a workable set of strategies that they can use to start writing and keep writing. They’d not assume that all we have to do is to point out errors in texts and all that the doctoral researcher has to do is fix it … in other words assume that people new to this kind of academic writing will automatically not only understand why what they’ve done is a problem, but also know what they need to do instead, and why.
So what might we do differently? Well, what might I do differently? Well we/I might, right at the very first supervision begin to discuss the conventions of writing in the discipline, and the genres of writing that are available to the doctoral researcher. We/I might ask doctoral researchers to read for academic writing, as well as for substantive content. We/I might focus discussion on the ways in which research problems/topics are introduced, how arguments are staged and supported, how debates are presented and evaluated, how researchers appear in the text. We/I could look for the ways in which different kinds of structures are used within genres, the kinds of meta-commentary that is used, the ways in which writers create a sense of their own persona within a text. We might discuss alternative writing formats well before it becomes clear that these might be helpful for their particular research project, rather than wait for the doctoral researcher to introduce the subject.
Now I do do quite a lot of this already, and I often do it around actual pieces of writing for conferences and the like, but I’m sure I could address academic writing in a more systematic way in supervision, and I could probably do it earlier. So I’m building myself a little syllabus right now, and I think I might try this start-early approach out this year.