Monthly Archives: January 2013

Autonomy and Doctoral Study

In addition to writing about the topics on my mind, I enjoy using this space to talk about the topics on other people’s minds. Pat Thomson had a recent post on methods assignments and methods chapters that was fascinating to me. She was writing about the possibility that a certain notion of doctoral training might have deleterious consequences for how doctoral writers conceive of their intellectual task: “I’m worried that in instituting doctoral ‘training’ courses, we might have extended the under and taught postgraduate assignment genre, and everything it means, into doctoral research.” The specifics of her concern are connected to the shape and conditions of the doctorate in the UK, but the question of how much disciplinary training ought to be given to doctoral students is of broader interest.

My own doctoral education was pretty much a matter of trial and error; the overwhelming message was ‘we trust you, you’ll figure it out’. We were, by many measures, neglected, although we preferred to think of it as European (sounds better). From the very outset, we were expected to come up with our own topics—and our own due dates, but that’s another story—and our own reading lists. Those who finished the program (and many did not) were generally ready to take responsibility for an autonomous research agenda. While that sounds positive, the fact remains that the time-to-degree was unmanageable and the attrition rates were unacceptable.

It is with this slightly Darwinian back story that I now teach academic writing to graduate students. My biggest initial adjustment in this position was grasping the degree of support and scaffolding that my current university provides to doctoral students. To be clear, I think the growth of a supportive infrastructure surrounding doctoral education is an excellent thing. And so I was intrigued by the suggestion that doctoral training could have the unintended consequence of diminishing the extent to which doctoral students are able to inhabit their new role as researchers. I realize that this is somewhat dicey territory. I have absolutely no desire to be the person blathering on about my uphill walk both ways! Nor do I think that suffering should be replicated out of habit or misplaced ideas about its value. But I also know some of the frustration I see in some doctoral students comes from a certain stasis in the role of student. The shift away from student toward researcher can be facilitated but cannot, by definition, be taught. Autonomy will come from experience, not instruction. As I have discussed before in this space, I believe that doctoral writers need to avail themselves of a range of resources in order to gain the confidence and competence to occupy their new role.

As always, I will end this links post with things that I have recently shared on Twitter; since my last links post was in mid-December, there’s lots of great stuff!

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @StanCarey, a strong endorsement of the singular ‘they’. Bonus: you won’t be forced to use ‘thou’ for the sake of consistency!

From @thesiswhisperer, having a key word to act as a theme or rubric for the year. My word: habit.

From @joshmkim, how inbox=zero has worked for him. A great way to make more rational decisions about what tasks to do when.

From @thesiswhisperer, a great @DocwritingSIG post on “working in the deep end of the methods pool”. Very helpful!

From @PhD2Published, a summary of the January 24th #acwri chat on the value of Twitter for academic writing.

From @phdcomics, a brutal comic on the perils of conference presentations. Don’t let any of this happen to you!

From @ntos, a great cartoon about blogging in academia

My favourite non-academic blogger (from the Dinner: A Love Story blog) has great advice about starting and managing a blog.

From the Lingua Franca blog, William Germano gives you all the ‘catfish’ puns you could ask for.

From @scholarlykitchn, a useful discussion of the systems in place for pre- and post-publication peer review.

From @ThomsonPat, a post on blogging identity: crafting private ‘texts’ (for instance, teaching conversations) into public and enduring ones.

From @professorisin, tough, helpful advice on crafting a teaching philosophy that doesn’t rely on emotion, aspiration.

From @GradHacker, an argument for the cognitive benefits of using pen and paper.

From @utpress, a new grammar feature on their blog: When to use a semicolon and a colon?

From the Academic Life in Emergency Medicine blog, reflections on becoming a peer-reviewed blog

@MacDictionary asks whether adverbs imply ill-chosen verbsCould your writing stand to lose a few adverbs?

From @fishhookopeneye, an argument for vibrant presentations regardless of disciplinary dictates. Here’s my take on the same question.

From @PhD2Published, a short discussion of typical patterns in research article conclusions.

From @raulpacheco, a great Storify on how academics can benefit from Twitter.

From John Tierney in the New York Times, an account of ‘positive procrastination‘: can you trick yourself into getting the important stuff done?

From @thesiswhisperer, thoughts on concentration, energy, laziness, adrenaline, and completion in our academic work.

From @StanCarey, a discussion of prepositions at the end of sentences, with the best example ever.

From @GradHacker, thoughts about the fine line between pernicious and productive anxiety.

From @AltAcademix, suggestions on expanding career preparation during doctoral study.

People are always trying to get forestall usage that irks them. I love this project to revive neglected words instead.

From @scholarlykitchn, interesting comments on online comments and the lack thereof.

From Inside Higher Ed, Barbara Fister on the way excess negativity can preclude much-needed rational responses to real challenges.

From The Onion, 4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence

The first #acwri chat of the year talked about resolutions and motivation.

From @MacDictionary, a useful discussion of nominalizations and communicative goals.

From The Monkey Cage blog, JSTOR Cracks the Door.

From @UVenus, lovely reflections on superstition amidst rationality in our scholarly routines.

From @StanCarey, the need to question but not demonize nominalizations.

From McSweeney’s, some irreverent writing advice.

From @qui_oui, a great take on the balancing act performed by contemporary graduate students.

From @poynter, an entertaining list of media mistakes, corrections, apologies, hoaxes, typos, &c from 2012.

From @PhD2Published, a Storify of #AcWriMo success stories.

From the Crooked Timber blog, an excellent defense of Erik Loomis.

From the When in Academia tumblr, an accurate depiction of me and today’s blog post.

From @ThomsonPat, how to prepare to write a conclusion by returning to the commitments made at the outset.

This piece in The New Yorker made me think how a thesis can alternate between being a focal point and being a distraction.

From @PhD2Published, reflections and a Storify on conference presentations on social media and academics.

From Inside Higher Ed, a great round-up of a year’s worth of MOOC-related commentary.

Writing at @DocwritingSIG, @thesiswhisperer has some recommendations (including some kind words about @explorstyle).

From @ThomsonPat, a precise and perceptive account of what can go wrong in a thesis conclusion.


In a one-on-one writing consultation, the most common thing—hands down—for me to discuss with a student is the effectiveness of an introduction. Masters or PhD, humanities or sciences, native or non-native speaker of English, it doesn’t matter. Most draft writing comes with introductions that are inadequate to the task. Which is why I am grateful to John Swales for his essential Creating a Research Space (CARS) model. His model consists of three moves: establishing a research territory; establishing a niche; and occupying the niche.

While I value Swales’s insightful and durable model, I have never particularly warmed to the language he uses. I find it a bit removed from the language that we naturally employ when talking about our research; for me, it seems useful to use more hospitable language, language that reflects the instinctive way we talk about our research. I very much like the way that Booth, Colomb, and Williams talk about the moves of the introduction; indeed, as I have said before, I generally like the way that they talk about all parts of the research process.  Their introduction model also has three stages: a common ground, a problem, and a response. Although I generally like their wording, I’ve moved away from using the phrase ‘common ground’. I find students sometimes interpret common ground as requiring an actual consensus rather than just an established context (which may, of course, be highly fractious). To avoid this misunderstanding, I find it easier to use the word ‘context’ to characterize the opening of an introduction.

Drawing on these two sources, here is the way I present introductions:

1. Context: What your audience will need to know in order to understand the problem you are going to confront. This background material will be familiar rather than novel to your target audience; it may act as a refresher or even a primer, but will not cover new ground. I usually suggest that students try to form a template sentence that they can then use as a prompt to help them sketch out each of the three moves. For instance, “Over the past two decades, research in this field has focused on … ”.

2. Problem (and Significance): What isn’t yet well understood. That is, the problem statement will explain what you want to understand (or reveal or explain or explore or reinterpret or contest) and why it will matter to have done so. For instance, “However, [topic] is still poorly understood (or under-examined or excluded or misinterpreted). This lack of attention is significant because knowing [about this topic] will provide a benefit OR not knowing [about this topic] will incur a cost”.

Given the importance of establishing significance and given the frequency with which this step is neglected, I have often wondered about framing it as a separate step. I haven’t done so, for two reasons. First, the three moves are so well established; it seems needlessly confusing to disrupt that familiarity by talking about four moves. Second, and more important, the problem and significance are genuinely connected; it doesn’t make sense to treat the problem and significance separately, even if doing so would encourage us to pay more attention to the significance. The significance is requisite for the problem, not separate from it.

3. Response: What you are actually going to do in your research. For instance, “In order to address this problem, I will …”.

The beauty of this basic model is, of course, that it makes a great deal of intuitive sense. When students hear it for the first time, they generally feel an immediate sense of familiarity. That intuition doesn’t, however, necessarily make it easy for them to deploy it in their own writing. I focus on four things about this model that may help writers deepen their understanding and thus be better able to use these moves proficiently.

The way it encourages us to take the perspective of the reader. These three moves tell readers what they need to know; having these needs met will then motivate them to continue reading. Our natural inclination is often to express our research as a by-product of our own thinking process. These three moves remind us to disrupt that inclination: instead of telling a story about the twists and turns of our research process, we need to tell the story about our research that the reader needs to hear. Take the example of context. As writers, we often struggle to define the correct amount of context to provide; if we approach this question from the perspective of the reader we are more likely to provide the right amount of context. The reader needs enough to appreciate the topic but doesn’t want us to take them through all the contextualizing information we have at our disposal.

The way it forces us to express the significance of the problem. The significance is generally the least apparent thing to the reader and yet is often the most neglected by the writer. The key here is to remember that the significance needs to be connected to one’s own discourse community. Some novice writers suffer from the sense that there isn’t much significance to their research because they are looking for significance in an unduly broad sense. Remembering that the current work needs to be valuable in the narrower context of the existing work in the field—responding to it, extending it, altering the way it may be done in the future—can help us to craft a clear and credible statement of significance.

The way its explicit breakdown shows us what may still be underdeveloped. By breaking down the introductory passages into distinct parts, this model helps us to see what is already there and what still needs to be addressed. It is very common, for instance, for writers to have a clearly articulated response but a confusing context and weakly expressed problem. For those writers, the response is what they have right, but they don’t yet know how to provide the necessary preceding information. Making the breakdown explicit can help us see what we still need to develop.

The way its scalability helps us to see how we must repeat and reinforce our key issues. Once these three moves are clear to you, you will see them—writ small or writ large—throughout your text. Take the literature review, for instance. Understood as a deeper iteration of the context, we are better able to understand what the work of reviewing the literature means. And we will grasp more easily that a literature review needs to be repeatedly connected to the problem that will be articulated in its wake.

These general observations can help writers to understand the three moves as central to our overall project of connecting our research to our intended audience. I’m out of space for today, but I will return to this topic soon. In particular, I will focus on this notion of scalability in a post devoted specifically to thesis introductions. Given the length of thesis introductions, the three moves have to be used in such a way that the reader doesn’t drown in an initial sea of detail.


Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. C., & Williams, J. M. (2008). The craft of research (3rd ed.). Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

2012 in Review

Happy New Year! I’ll be back with a new post next week, but in the meantime here is a quick overview of 2012. The nice people at WordPress gave me a very pretty year-in-review page that is probably of interest to me alone: how many people looked at various posts; how they got there; and where they were from. But you—especially if you are new to reading this blog—may be interested in a quick recap of what we talked about last year.

Last year started with a bunch of posts on comma use: commas to punctuate for lengthpairs of commas to signal unambiguously that the sentence is being interrupted; and commas in relative clauses, a perennial topic of writing consternation. Apparently these three posts really took it out of me; I have yet to return to the topic of commas, despite the fact that I had promised two additional posts on commas! I’ll have to revisit this issue in 2013.

As always, I talked a lot about the editing process: letting go of ‘perfectly good writing’; deciding what to do when you have deviated from your own best laid plans; managing the perils of local cohesion; satisfying the reader’s desire for a one-way trip through your writing; and engaging in rough editing to bridge the gap between drafting and editing.

I took a break from writing about writing to reflect on my very own blog; in light of an article about the benefit of multi-authored blogs, I argued for the value of a single-authored blog.

During the summer, I did a podcast interview with GradHacker, in which we touched upon a lot of the issues central to this blog.

Over the course of the year, I looked at lots of general writing issues: the value of the injunction to put it in your own words; the pernicious impact a fear of error can have on the writing process; the way a reverse outline can help to structure a literature review; and the strengths and weaknesses of building a text through cut-and-paste.

Academic Writing Month provided the opportunity for lots of great reflections on the writing process; once it was over, I wrote about my own experience and the importance of reflecting on our own writing practices.

At the end of the year, I was interested in how graduate students ought to orient themselves towards dominant writing practices. Is graduate writing self-expression or adherence to form? And how should graduate students orient themselves towards established style conventions? I’m fascinated by this topic, so I’m sure I’ll return to it over the coming year.

Finally, here are a few links posts that I thought touched on important issues: caring about writing without succumbing to peevishness; the balance between disciplinary and professional training for graduate students; the value of writing early; and avoiding the temptation to compare insides with outsides.

Thank you all for reading—I feel very lucky to have such a great audience.

Next week I’ll talk about how to structure and introduce an introduction.