Adopting a New Research Identity

Most people find it easy to accept that graduate writing challenges are connected to the profound shift in identity that often accompanies graduate study. The novel challenge of graduate-level writing can be so much more than just a technical challenge, more than just a simple matter of not having done something before. In fact, a sense of incomplete identity can manifest itself in the quality of writing and even in the ability to develop a productive writing practice. While I have long believed all this to be true, the idea became much more real to me after I had the experience of needing to adopt a new research identity. When I took my first sabbatical, I was doing so in a field that I hadn’t studied as a doctoral student; as a result of this disciplinary transition, I was embarking on a research project without much relevant experience.

Over the course of this research, I undertook the ethics review process; contacted potential interviewees; learned how to make and manage digital recordings; conducted interviews; arranged for transcripts to be made; completed the data analysis; and drafted an article based on the research. Many of these activities may sound benign or even routine, but they were fundamentally different from anything that I had done before. It is unsurprising that learning these various skills was difficult, but what was striking, at least to me, was how deeply uneasy I felt throughout. Being reflective about this uneasiness was crucial both because I needed to overcome the discomfort in order to complete the project and because I could tell that understanding my own experience would help me to understand the challenges facing doctoral writers. We are all aware of the transitions that this group is making: from generalist to specialist, from student to researcher, from novice to expert. Making comparable transitions myself and experiencing a sense of being unmoored from my usual sources of professional authority emphasized the potential vulnerability of academic writers. As a teacher of writing, I benefited from this tangible reminder that the weakness of doctoral writing often come from the enormity of the identity shift that students are undertaking.

To characterize the transition from student to doctoral researcher as one of identity formation rather than as simple expertise development is a powerful way to go beyond popular—and often facile—explanations of the weaknesses in academic writing. Writing problems are occasionally straightforward matters of convoluted syntax or arcane vocabulary or disorganization, but are more often indicative of deeper struggles. To take two common examples, think of an introduction that fails to emphasize the significance of the problem under discussion or a treatment of the literature that reads like a laundry list of what everyone else thinks. Weak introductions are a consistent issue for the thesis writers that I work with; novice writers often fail to remind the reader of the significance of the current research. This omission can result from the over-familiarity that sometimes causes us to leave the most obvious things unsaid or from inexperience with writing sophisticated academic texts, but it can also result from the absence of a conviction that our contribution is worthy of being highlighted. Similarly, novice writers can struggle to manage literature reviews in a manner that conveys the preeminent importance of what the current writer has to say. Students can be taught to write better literature reviews, but the ability to do so has to be grounded in an underlying sense that they have the authority to synthesize the existing literature in support of their own project. In other words, they have to believe that their own project is a legitimate successor to the literature under discussion.

These sorts of writing problems can, of course, be addressed at the level of technical expertise: it’s entirely possible to give students a range of straightforward strategies to counteract common academic writing problems. However, delivering that advice in a way that also addresses the underlying identity tensions can provide novice writers a way out of their writing difficulties that is grounded in improved self-understanding. Once we accept that the work of identity formation will be inscribed in the texts that we write, we can seek out both technical solutions and a deeper understanding of the source of the difficulties. In my experience, students are more able to assimilate technical solutions into their own writing regimes when they see their problems as connected with a legitimate professional shift rather than simply as symptomatic of their own inadequacy. Since the challenge of inhabiting a novel identity can then be framed as an inevitable part of the scholarly development process, we can increase the chance that graduate writing support will be seen as essential. Such a framing can move our perception of writing problems from a model of deficiency to one of professional development, helping writing support to gain institutional traction. If we see the limitations of a novice academic writer as a natural by-product of the process of shifting from student to scholar, we may be better able to advance a framework for doctoral writing support that goes beyond notions of remediation to become an integrated part of doctoral education.

A Productive Process

As I prepare for an upcoming dissertation boot camp, I find myself frequently returning to a central question: How do I talk about productivity without seeming to suggest that my audience is somehow at fault for being insufficiently productive? There’s no getting around the fact that self-improvement schemes often rest on a basic notion of inadequacy. Why else would we need to improve the way we eat, exercise, communicate, or store our socks? Obviously, many such suggestions are benign; even if you’ve been bundling your socks all wrong, it’s unlikely that any suggested improvement could make you feel particularly bad. You may even feel good about your existing sock storage regime and be happy to roll your eyes at those who advocate dramatic new approaches. But chances are that you lack the same insouciance when on the receiving end of writing productivity advice.

Advice about writing productivity is a sensitive topic for two reasons: one, because writing is an inherently hard activity that is intimately connected to our sense of self and, two, because writing often elicits our very worst tendencies. If it were just the former, things would be much simpler. Advice would scarcely be necessary: support and encouragement would be sufficient. But the truth of the matter is that most writers struggle to write enough. Our writing struggles are emphatically not a superficial issue: all this not writing isn’t freeing us up for more leisure or more sanity in our work-life arrangements. If anything, inconsistent writing habits are making it harder for us to achieve some sort of balanced allocation of our limited time. The promise of writing productivity is that if we learn to manage our distractions and use sound strategies to harness our good intention, we might spend less time writing and still get more done. While that sounds entirely good, advice about writing productivity can still often feel very wrong.

One of the reasons that productivity gets such a bad name in academia is that it often seems as though even good productivity advice fails to take into account the complex context in which academic writing takes place. Self-improvement, after all, puts the focus firmly on our self, leaving very little room to treat that self as subject to a wide range of social, economic, emotional, and physical pressures. When the individual is seen as the sole author of their own productivity woes, they are likely to experience a sense of personal inadequacy, regardless of the structural barriers that they face. However, while productivity can be a pernicious framework, productivity itself can be amazing. The ability to get things done is generally a significant factor in the happiness of a writer. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting that a writer who isn’t writing because they have caregiver responsibilities or administrative duties or teaching tasks or a desire to enjoy these last days of summer vacation is doing anything wrong. There are so many reasons for not meeting externally determined goals, and I have no desire to contribute to the view that we are only doing right when meeting those goals and conforming to standardized productivity approaches. But while productivity can be a poor master, it can still be a good servant. Despite my reservations about the hazards of the discourses surrounding productivity, I’m still going to talk to graduate students about having a productive writing process.

My hope is that the shift from talking about productivity to talking about having a productive writing process will undercut any hint of guilt or blame. Being productive can mean meeting external demands in a way that is detrimental to our sense of ourselves and to our ability to live a full life. But having a productive process is something that naturally benefits us. We aren’t focused on producing a certain amount or on meeting disembodied requirements, but rather on what we need in order to be productive writers. To develop that self-understanding, we have to be reflective about all aspects of our writing process. What does being productive mean to us? What does a good day of writing look like for us? What sorts of things stop us from realizing those goals? What roles do guilt and anxiety play in our ability to write? What sort of writing support community do we want? What specific pressure points tend to push us away from writing and towards distractions? What might we do differently to change the patterns of our writing practice? These types of questions are a way of starting a conversation about building a productive writing process into our lives. And while that conversation needs to be critical about the conditions of academic labour and highly attuned to individual circumstances, it also needs to acknowledge the power of building a productive writing process.

Unpacking Professional Development for Graduate Students

The work that I do on this blog is generally designed to support my work in the classroom, which involves teaching academic writing and speaking to graduate students. When graduate students attend these sorts of workshops or courses, this undertaking is often characterized as professional development. In order to understand that characterization, it’s essential to think about what is meant by the term ‘professional development’. Most of us first became familiar with the term as something designed for already-working people. That is, professional development was necessary precisely because the original training or education was complete. After a number of years in a job, we benefit from professional development because it can offer us innovative ways of approaching what we do, thus making us more confident, competent, or engaged. When we start thinking of professional development for graduate students—that is, for people who are currently in school learning how to do something—we have to confront an obvious question: Why do we need ‘professional development’ for people who are still in school? Isn’t that what the school is for? If we are to offer professional development for graduate students, we clearly have to be reflective about the process.

Whether or not professional development initiatives act as an implicit rebuke of existing graduate education, the growth of such initiatives highlights what generally isn’t happening within graduate programs. Traditionally, graduate programs have been good at training students to do a certain sort of academic work, but less good at supporting a wider range of ancillary skills. Before looking at these ancillary professional skills in more detail, I’d like to make a distinction between professional development and professionalization. My anecdotal sense from my own university is that professional development tends to be offered centrally while professionalization initiatives are coming out of departments themselves. While the two things are similar, they are also significantly different. Professionalization is something that happens to the field of study whereas professional development is something undertaken by the individual. That is, professionalization reflects an awareness that graduate departments themselves have an obligation to offer initiatives—that are often part of a degree program and possibly even compulsory—to support students’ eventual ability to thrive professionally. In contrast, professional development has an individual dynamic: the student can decide to develop their professional skills on their own time and away from the department. While I think the structural integration of professionalization is valuable for a range of reasons, I’m going to focus in this post on the training offered centrally under the auspices of professional development. In what follows, I am going to divide these skills in three categories: integral; professional academic; and professional non-academic.

Integral skills are those that allow us to communicate our research effectively. The ability to explain research to a wide range of audiences in a wide range of formats must be seen as integral to the educational goals of a graduate student: research that can’t be conveyed to others in an appropriate fashion is inherently lacking. These integral skills—writing effectively, understanding how to make presentations, being able to communicate research to different audiences—will indubitably help students in their professional lives, but they are different from other forms of professional development because of their inherent connection to being a successful student. You can’t thrive as a graduate student without developing these skills, which makes them different from the skills necessary for moving from being a student to being a professional.

Professional academic skills are those that prepare students first for the academic job market and then for an academic job. The key element here is, of course, teaching; as so many have observed, a PhD is often expected to prepare us for teaching despite the fact that the actual teacher training component of doctoral education can be pretty hit and miss. Supporting graduate students as nascent teachers rather than just fostering their research skills is a crucial way to prepare them for academic jobs. Similarly, talking about how to apply for funding and how to prepare for scholarly publishing can help with the transition from student to professor. However, given the current state of the job market, preparing for the job of being an academic isn’t sufficient; graduate students also need to be prepared for the travails of an increasingly fraught job search process.

Lastly, professional non-academic skills are those that bridge the gap between graduate training and the jobs that many graduate students are going to find—by choice or by necessity—outside of the traditional professorial role. We know that doctoral training is often extremely transferable, but we need to clarify those pathways and facilitate the translation that allows graduate students to frame their existing skills as valuable for a wider range of professional opportunities.

These three species of professional development obviously involve a great deal of overlap. Some of the skills will operate in all three areas because they are fundamental skills. Some of the skills will be readily transferable: a good understanding of oral presentation skills, for instance, will allow us to make many different sorts of effective presentations. And some of these skills themselves will assist students in understanding the very nature of transferable skills. As an example, when I teach students about writing for different audiences, they are learning two things: at a basic level, they are learning to adjust their writing to suit its potential audience; at a higher level, they are also potentially learning to be more reflective about the nature of the skills that they are developing in graduate school.

Accompanying all these species of professional development, of course, is the need to provide holistic support for graduate students. Supporting graduate students means acknowledging both that they have issues—financial, familial, medical, emotional—affecting their graduate experience and that the task of building the necessary research and ancillary skills is inherently difficult. We need to give graduate students access to the skills they may lack while also acknowledging the complex stress of graduate study. While it doesn’t replace providing concrete emotional support for graduate students, providing these three types of ancillary skills can have the effect of normalizing their challenges. Graduate students, who so often struggle in their dual role as advanced student and novice scholar, can be reassured by the very existence of this sort of professional development. I’m often surprised by the fact that a frank discussion of the intellectual and emotional challenges of graduate writing is met by relief from many graduate students. Despite the prevalence of that narrative, many graduate students have often internalized a different and more damaging narrative about their own deficiency vis-à-vis the expected work of a graduate student. These psychological costs have tangible implications for the students themselves and also play an important role in rates of attrition and lengthy time-to-completion.

As we think about these three species of professional development and the complex demands of graduate study, we also need to think about the diverse needs of different graduate student constituencies. We can divide graduate students by discipline; this division can be a broad one between the sciences and the humanities or something finer that recognizes the unique professional demands of different graduate programs. We can divide graduate students by linguistic background; some students are learning to write suitable academic prose in their first language while others are accomplishing the same task in a subsequent language. We can divide students by degree; the needs of doctoral students are often different from those of Master’s students, especially from those in terminal Master’s degrees. In order to tackle needs spread along so many different spectrums, it is very helpful to have a deeper understanding of the types of things we are trying to impart. Clarifying our understanding of what professional development might mean for graduate students can help us to design suitable offerings and explain those offerings in terms that make sense to the many constituencies involved. In the end, offering these professional skills is one way of ensuring that all graduate students—each of whom represents a unique spot among many overlapping measures of identity—can have the chance to thrive in graduate school and beyond.

I would like to thank Dr. Jane Freeman for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post.

Revising Out Loud

This past fall, I accidentally published a very rough draft of a post. I still don’t know how I managed to hit Publish instead of Save Draft, but I did. The post was so rough that I hadn’t even decided whether or not I wanted to publish it; I often use this space just to think through issues that are on my mind. After my initial horror subsided, I found the reader reaction interesting. Lots of people said that they were actually glad to see a provisional version of someone else’s writing. I’ve certainly talked here about how rarely we see other people’s weak drafts and have often wondered how best to combat this problem. Mistakenly posting a work in progress is certainly one way to show the world how muddled my thinking and syntax can be. I decided there must be some way to build on this accidental overshare, but I wasn’t immediately sure how best to do so.

As I pondered this question, I realized that my revision process has two phases. I often talk about the relatively simple fact that we ought to tackle some aspects of revision before others, but here I’m getting at something different. Before we can begin these sequenced stages of revision, we may need to confront our own ambivalence about what we’ve written. This preliminary phase—which I will talk about this post—is the hard one for me. The second phase is the fun one because it involves fixing something that I know I want to share. The hard part is deciding whether something is worth sharing and whether it can be revised into publishable form. This stage is harder because it is less about technique and more about self-doubt. My litany of self-doubting questions are likely familiar to many of you. Am I saying anything interesting? Is what I’m saying even right? Has someone else already said it better? Might I be inadvertently offending someone? Could I be unnecessarily complicating the issue? Have I contradicted myself? You get the idea. In the rest of this post, I want to talk about the process of responding to such early questions in a way that allows me to make an initial commitment to my own writing. In order to get to the point at which I’m ready to make the necessary revisions, I need to assess three aspects of an early draft: relevance; coherence; and manageability.

Assessment of relevance: The first revision decision is whether I want to share something at all. As I often say here on the blog, some things need to be written more than they need to be read, and I have lots of those in my unpublished drafts folder. To decide whether to publish something on the blog, I need to think about the relevance of the topic to my anticipated audience. In this case, the key point was that presentation slides benefit from being designed rather than written. Was that worth talking about? Since I see such a large number of slides decks that are full of text while being hard for the audience to follow, I decided that these reflections were relevant. By making this decision early, I try to avoid the inefficiency that can result from being noncommittal about my own writing.

Assessment of coherence: Once I establish that I want to keep a post, I have to assess its coherence. To do this, I turn to a reverse outline. Obviously, a reverse outline isn’t nearly as important for a short text as for a long one, but it can still be helpful. Identifying the basic point of each paragraph confirms whether I’ve been able to sustain my attention to a topic and allows me to see whether each of the paragraphs makes a distinct contribution.

Assessment of manageability: Finally, I find it valuable to create a manageable path to completion. It can, of course, be hard to decide how much revision is necessary: finished is not an objective state. Because revision can so easily become a self-perpetuating activity, I like to make a clear plan. This planning doesn’t necessarily stop me from late-stage tinkering, of which I do far more than I should, but it does make it harder for me to indulge my tendency towards endless revision. Knowing that revision ultimately has diminishing returns, I like to make an explicit plan based on revision priorities and available time.

Taken together, these different assessments give me a meaningful way of managing my own discontent. As is not uncommon, my early writing efforts often fill me with dismay. It is important, however, to have a concrete way to move past such feelings of inadequacy. It can be helpful to realize that others are also struggling, but that alone won’t enhance the quality of our texts. To improve our writing, we need a way of channelling any unhappiness. By asking myself these questions, I am trying to be deliberately hard on myself without succumbing to the negativity that results from being indiscriminately hard on myself. There is some discipline required here: I allow myself to be very critical on the condition that I will accept what I come up with when I address the criticisms. In other words, I can’t just continue to find new problems.

Once I’ve finished these initial assessments, I have to do the actual revisions. As I said above, this part I love. Figuring out what a sentence (or paragraph) is trying to do and then figuring out what is getting in its way is a lot of fun. While I often lack confidence in the things I’m trying to say, I sometimes feel real pleasure in my ability to make my sentences and paragraphs do as I wish. I’ll try to do a post in the future that looks in detail at that sort of sentence and paragraph transformation. In the meantime, I’d love to hear other people’s strategies for getting comfortable with their own early drafts.

2015 in Review

Happy New Year! Before heading into a new year of blogging, I’d like to take a quick look back at the past year. My first post of 2015 was my attempt to articulate what I found so troubling about the tone of Steven Pinker’s 2014 book on academic writing. In this post, I argue that the value of Pinker’s insights on writing are obscured by his overly broad characterization of what ails academic writing.

I followed this defence of academic writing with a somewhat related topic: how we use metadiscourse. In this post, I talked about the evolution of signposting, suggesting that even boilerplate metadiscourse can be transformed into something that informs the reader while being well-integrated into the text. I think this notion is important because the prevalence of clunky metadiscourse shouldn’t be treated as an argument against the value of effective metadiscourse in academic writing.

My next topic was a very different one: whether I should use the singular ‘they’. At the simplest level, I decided to do so (spoiler!) because this blog is a place where I can pick and choose among style conventions as I wish. But, more generally, I made this particular decision to embrace the singular ‘they’ because I believe that it is necessary, correct, and beneficial.

During our summer term, I taught a thesis writing course. At the end of that course, a student sent me an interesting email questioning some of the assumptions animating my discussion of productivity. This note gave me a welcome opportunity to think more about the ethos underlying the notion of productivity, especially as it pertains to graduate student writers.

In lieu of writing a reasonable number of new posts this year, I spent an unreasonable amount of time classifying my old posts. What I came up with was an annotated list, published in September as How to Use this Blog. This list is now a permanent page on the blog, allowing me to update it as needed. It can be found by using the For New Visitors tab. This list is a good way to see the type of topics that I have discussed here and to find groupings of posts on particular topics. If you are interested in finding out if I’ve covered a specific issue, you might prefer to use the search function (located near the top of the left-hand column).

After a short post previewing AcWriMo 2015, I ended the year with a post on the way we write our presentation slides. In this post, I discussed the possibility that our presentations may suffer if we compose slides in the same way we compose our other written work.

As you can tell from the brevity of this list, the past year was a relatively quiet one here on Explorations of Style. The blog is now five years old, a milestone which has given me the opportunity to reflect on what comes next. While I will continue to publish new posts, my main project for the upcoming year will be to rework some of the older posts. I’ve learned so much over these five years—from readers, from students, from colleagues, from other bloggers—and some of my original posts need updating to reflect that development.

As always, I’m happy to hear about topics that you’d like to see discussed or questions that you’d like answered. In the meantime, thanks for reading and good luck with your writing!

The Writing on the Slides

A few weeks ago, Raul Pacheco-Vega asked on Twitter whether presentation slides were a form of academic writing. My first thought was ‘sure, why not?’; I see little point in circumscribing the activity of academic writing to exclude any of the things that academics write. But my second thought was that conceiving of slide preparation as academic writing could easily contribute to the notion that slides are places for extensive text. This is not to say that slide writing couldn’t be a genre of academic writing, as Pat Thomson suggested in her reply to Raul, but rather that emphasizing writing on slides may lead us to over-emphasize the extent to which slides are meant to be read.

Of course, some slides are meant to be read; in some contexts, slides are a way of sharing content. Some people—especially in business environments—use slides as a kind of report, as a platform for conveying information that will need to stand alone. That use of slides will, needless to say, require a very different type of writing; this helpful post from Dave Paradi explores the difference between presentation slides and slides designed to stand alone. (Teaching slides, which often try to both stand alone and support a lecture, are another matter altogether.)

What interests me here, however, are those slides that are meant to support a formal talk. In my view, only once that talk has been written—ideally in a manner suitable to being spoken—ought the accompanying slides be designed. I’m not making a capital-D distinction between designing and writing, but rather making a practical point. Presentation software should not have the same relationship to a presentation as word processing software has to a written text. We often start writing a paper by opening our word processing program and beginning to type; unfortunately, people often start working on a presentation by opening up their slide software and beginning to type. The creation of slides in advance of the writing of a presentation has two hazards. First, the slides are being created before we have a fully worked out plan, which means that they may not represent the optimal arrangement of information. Second, these premature slides are almost always wordy because they are bearing the brunt of the initial rush of thinking.

In this scenario, the presenter is saddled from early on with slides that lack coherence and that have too many words. As the presenter then tries to shape the oral presentation, those slides can be a bad influence. Speakers often seem to be reacting to slides rather than using them as support for their remarks. And when the speaker is reacting to a slide, the audience will often struggle to decide how to allocate their attention. A speaker should always be in control of the audience’s attention, including their attention to the slides. When the slides are too wordy, the audience will often be tempted to read those slides, thus neglecting the words being delivered by the speaker. Once the audience’s attention is bifurcated in that way, it can be hard for the presentation to succeed. If, on the other hand, we write a presentation before we design the slides, we are more likely to create slides that enrich the presentation by providing synchronized visual support.

This reflection has taken me far from Raul’s original question and deep into one of my own preoccupations. Again, it is not that I have any interest in defining what is and is not academic writing. But I do think it’s valuable to frame presentation writing as something distinct from the process of slide design. If it suits your workflow or your philosophy of work to define both as falling under a broad #acwri umbrella, that’s great. The crucial issue for me is that we subdivide the activity of presentation preparation into the work of writing what we are going to say and the subsequent planning of what the audience will see on the screen.

Are You Ready for AcWriMo 2015?

When I saw that PhD2Published had announced AcWriMo 2015, my first thought was that they were announcing it early this year. Then I looked at my calendar and noticed that it was already October 29! I’m not sure where October went, but I’m excited that AcWriMo is starting. Given that my October seems to have vanished without a trace, I obviously need something to inspire me to get back to writing.

For those of you who are new to Academic Writing Month, you will find all the information you need on the beautiful new PhD2Published site. For my thoughts and reflections on previous iterations of AcWriMo, see here, here, here, and here. As I say in all those posts, I love the idea of a month dedicated to academic writing. By inspiring us to articulate specific goals (rather than just hoping to write more) and by nudging us to share those goals publicly (rather than keeping them quiet in case they don’t pan out), AcWriMo can change our experience of academic writing. There are no magical strategies, of course, but giving academic writing more priority and more publicity makes a lot of sense to me. If you are interested, go to PhD2Published to declare your writing goals and plans for the month. I signed up this morning; I’ve never been all that productive during AcWriMo in years past—all the great conversations about academic writing and productivity inevitably distract me from actual writing—but I’m hopeful enough to try again.

I am hosting the next #acwri Twitter chat (November 12 at 3:00 pm EST/8:00 pm GMT), and we’ll be chatting about AcWriMo and productivity more generally. Whether or not you decide to participate in AcWriMo, I hope you’ll join me on the 12th to talk about the many ways in which we all struggle to be productive in our academic writing. And all month you’ll find a great conversation about academic writing by following the hashtag #AcWriMo. I looking forward to seeing you there!