Category Archives: Graduate Writing

Posts that discuss topics of particular interest to graduate writers

Communication and Content

This interesting article by Jacques Berlinerblau in The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the future of the humanities. This is well-covered territory, obviously, but I was interested in the way he discusses the role of communication skills. His argument is that the humanities can be ‘saved’ by greater engagement with the general public and thus by a greater emphasis on communication skills. Berlinerblau suggests that we ought to “impart critical communication skills to our master’s and doctoral students. That means teaching them how to teach, how to write, how to speak in public.”

Needless to say, I am in complete agreement with that sentiment. However, I am puzzled by the next step in his argument: “this plan will result in far less time for the trainee to be immersed in seminars, bibliographies, and archives. That this will retard the absorption of deep knowledge at an early stage of one’s career is undeniable.” While I understand that this may be a strategic concession designed to allow him to get back to defending his core idea, I do not understand why he allows that time spent on communication skills necessarily has a deleterious effect on disciplinary knowledge. To be clear, Berlinerblau is definitely saying that this trade-off—greater capacity for communication, diminished grasp of content—is worth it. But why is he so sure that this is a trade-off? I see no reason to believe that graduate students who devote time to improving writing or speaking skills are actually taking time away from their disciplinary studies.

There can be no doubt that we all feel that way at times; we all feel that we must try to balance time spent on process with the more urgent demands for production. This sentiment can be particularly pronounced in graduate students. I often hear from students that they would like to visit the writing centre, but they just don’t have enough time. And I am not denying that—in any given day—putting writing on hold in favour of visiting the writing centre may not get you tangibly closer to the goal of a finished piece of writing. But graduate students can and must think in longer increments of time: over the course of their degree, they genuinely do have time to improve their communication skills.

More importantly, formulating this relationship between communication and content as a trade-off contributes to the problematic notion that our communication skills are somehow distinct from our disciplinary knowledge. I would argue that the two are in fact closely intertwined. Effective communication is not valuable only to the recipient; as we improve our capacity for communication, we necessarily improve our own understanding of the topics about which we are communicating. The better we communicate, the more we engage others; the more we engage others, the more we learn from them. And when we strive to explain ourselves better, we inevitably come to a better understanding of what we thought we knew. The artificial division of content knowledge and communication skills needs to be resisted. Knowing what to say and knowing how to say it aren’t distinct. Graduate students who address themselves to the crucial matter of communication aren’t diminishing their content knowledge, they are enhancing it.

Earlier in the summer, I had the great pleasure of participating in the GradHacker podcast. I spoke with one of the hosts, Alex Galarza, about this blog and about academic writing more generally. The audio is a bit wonky in places near the end, but I hope you’ll listen and I hope you’ll return to the GradHacker blog and podcast; they are both great resources for graduate students. You can find the podcast on their site or you can subscribe in iTunes.

Finally, Rob J. Hyn­d­man from Monash Uni­ver­sity has created a helpful list of research blogs (in which he kindly included this blog). Not only did he create this list, he set it up so you can subscribe to all of these blogs as a bundle: one stop shopping for enhanced insight into many facets of the research process!

My links posts are a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Writing for a Presentation

Regular readers of this blog know that it has an unsurprising tendency to reflect my current teaching or research interests. So today, after my first week of teaching, you will have to bear with me while I reflect on writing for oral presentations. This post is about the aspect of writing that is currently most on my mind: the creation of a written text designed to be read aloud. Even if oral presentations aren’t your favourite thing to think about (and most people like presenting even less than they like writing), they are an area in which most of us can improve. In fact, oral presentations are a topic that most people choose not to think about too much. Instead, most people just try to survive them. And most of us know firsthand what it is like to sit through a presentation when the presenter has no higher ambition than to survive. The challenge of oral presentations is obvious: oral presentations are a complex blend of intellectual command, organizational skills, technological expertise, and performance ability. So there is a lot to be said, but today—since this is still a blog about academic writing—I will focus on the creation of a text written explicitly for a presentation.

I will begin with an important clarification. Writing a text that is designed to be read isn’t something that all of you will do. In many fields, the expectation will be a presentation that revolves around speaking and not reading. But those of you who do need to read a presentation have a uniquely difficult task. Faced with this task, some presenters seem to feel that reading is in fact all that is required. However, the experience of having a standard academic paper read to us is not one that most of us wish to repeat. There is, of course, a range in people’s listening abilities; some listeners can manage a degree of attention and comprehension that others—me, for instance—cannot. But as a presenter, it is probably best to target average listeners, rather than the superstars of academic listening. And the average listener has needs that reading alone can’t meet.

So once you’ve learned that a read presentation is standard in your field and acknowledged that simply reading a paper may fail to engage your audience, what to do? The key is to identify what is so valuable about the read presentation. A read paper allows for a complexity and density that might not be achieved without a written text. The benefit of reading is that you can offer deliberately structured prose of the sort that most of us can’t create on the fly. This is what you will be able to maintain in your written paper: sophisticated sentences that convey complex relationships among concepts. Beyond that, you need to think how your presentation text needs to be different. Here are three key areas for alteration: one, the degree of elaboration; two, the extent of structural explanation; and, three, the use of actual annotations of your presentation text.

In the first place, your complex sentences will need elaboration; what can be said once for a reader should be reiterated for a listener. Complex ideas will likely need to be unpacked further in the designed-to-be-read version. Ask yourself if a sentence in your writing might require a reader to read it more than once or even just pause to think about it. If so, you must work that repetition or time for reflection into your read version; strategic repetition is your friend here. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of presentations during which I wished that the speaker had spent less time clarifying the key idea.

Second, you need to think of your paper as a one-way street for the listener. When readers read you, they have the luxury of flipping back to something, of reminding themselves of where they are within your argument. Listeners, on the other hand, are completely at your mercy. Once they lose the thread, their only way to regain it is through the structural signposts you have provided.

Third, the physical text that you read from needs to be distinctly different from a normal paper. The difference will come through the annotations that you make to direct your reading process. Some sentences need to be read in their entirety; some sentences can be a way to get you started with some room for improvisation at the end; some aspects of your paper should probably be left completely unwritten. I usually suggest that some proportion of the examples or anecdotes or elaborations be left open. I also suggest noting for yourself basic things like where you will pause, where you will look up, where you will put the emphasis. If you don’t need this degree of guidance, you will naturally disregard it, but many will find it helpful. For most of us, the appearance of spontaneity is much better than actual spontaneity.

One final note: a more dynamic read presentation requires careful attention to time management. When practicing ‘reading’ in this way, you have to make sure you know how long everything will take you during the actual presentation. It can be helpful to know whether it generally takes you longer to give a presentation than you anticipate or whether you are one of a smaller number of people who actually end up being quicker during the real thing. If you are in the former group, time yourself approximating the presentation as closely as possible, and then give yourself a few minutes leeway. If you are in the latter group, try slowing down!

This topic was well handled by ProfHacker last winter. Their blogger talks about creating a dedicated reading copy, a term which does a good job conveying how it must be different from the original version of the paper. If you have other questions about oral presentations, here are a few recent links that might prove helpful or might lead you to other helpful resources. Here is something from Dave Paradi’s blog about a technical issue: preparing to make a presentation on a computer that is not your own. Here is something from the Presentation Advisors blog on simple ways a presentation can go wrong. Here is something from The Guardian on deciding strategically how many conferences to attend. Finally, here is something from The Professor is In blog on making conferences work for you as a graduate student or junior academic.

Using Resources for Thesis Writing

As a graduate writing instructor, I think about thesis writing much of the time. And this week I am thinking about the topic even more than usual. I am starting a new thesis writing course this afternoon, and I am making a presentation at a conference on Friday on thesis writing as professional development. Since thesis writing is all that I’ll be thinking about anyway, I thought I would devote today’s post to the idea of using resources for thesis writing.

In my presentation on Friday, I am going to discuss how a thesis writing course can be a valuable form of professional development for graduate students. Simply put, writing instruction becomes professional development when it focuses on the writer rather than on a particular piece of writing. As long as thesis writers see their goal as merely surviving the ordeal of writing a thesis, they are not likely thinking about their long-term development as academic writers. My presentation will focus on two ways that thesis instruction can encourage this sort of professional development. First, a thesis course can present the notion of thesis as genre, an approach which opens students’ minds to a new dimension to their responsibilities as writers; not only are they trying to complete a particular research task, they are also trying to convey that research in a form that is meaningful and valuable to the research community they seek to join. Second, a thesis course can also discuss the resources necessary for a student to thrive during the thesis writing process. It is this second aspect that I wish to touch on here today.

When I speak about resources in the thesis course, I am doing so in order to make students aware that there are so many resources available and that they can significantly improve their own writing process by availing themselves of such resources. Too often, I encounter students whose ‘writing resource’ is their supervisor; in some cases, of course, this works well, but more often it leaves the student feeling under-supported. Thesis writers generally need to move from thinking of themselves as fully dependent on a supervisor to thinking of themselves as developing academic writers who can take advantage of a range of resources. The sort of resources I have in mind include books on thesis writing; completed theses, especially if they are linked by a shared supervisor or by similar topics, methodology, etc.; thesis writing groups; courses on thesis writing or on academic writing more generally; published work in the student’s own field; and blogs about the thesis writing process. 

Such resources are plentiful (and multiplying rapidly), so I’ll mention just one today. I particularly want to recommend The Thesis Whisperer. This site presents wide-ranging advice that is both accessible and wise. Broad topics include the writing process; working with a supervisor; the oral presentation component of thesis completion; using new technologies in the writing process; productivity and other psychological aspects of the writing process; publishing considerations; and general research support. Anyone writing a thesis will find some parts of this advice, with its warm and supportive tone, helpful and relevant. It is impossible, of course, for any source of support to be universally applicable; a necessary part of using a broad range of resources is developing the ability to distinguish between advice that is appropriate for your circumstance and advice that would be better suited for someone else (for instance, someone working in a different country or someone from a different discipline or someone with a different theoretical framework). That is, even the most general advice is inevitably rooted in a particular context, and we all must learn to ‘read’ advice and support in such a way that its value for us becomes apparent.

Taking advantage of an expanding range of resources is a way of improving the thesis writing process. Although we all know that we are not actually the first person ever to write a thesis, many of us instinctively approach our writing life as though we were. Figuring it out as we go along; hoping for the best; using trial and error to make key decision; treating a supervisor as the only source of support and feedback—all of these strategies tend to isolate us and keep us unnecessarily apart from the community of thesis writers. If you are writing a thesis, take stock of your current situation so that you can find the resources that will ultimately improve your life as a writer.