I recently gave a talk for the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education about the importance of claiming our identity as academic writers. This topic is one that I have returned to repeatedly in this space. I am sharing a revised version of the talk in this post because it covers an aspect of the topic that I haven’t addressed in much detail here: the practical implications of having an incomplete identity as an academic writer. I’m also sharing this talk because it gives me an excuse to include this delightful drawing that an audience member did during my talk.
I can’t tell you how much I love this drawing. I spoke for over an hour and the artist, Giulia Forsythe, captured the essence of so much of what I said. Since I’m completely lacking in artistic skill or the capacity to arrange ideas spatially, I’m in awe of Giulia’s talent. I’m grateful to her for allowing me to reproduce it here. Her website explains more about the intersection between her pedagogical work and her artistic work; in particular, I recommend this video describing her process.
It comes as no surprise that writing is intimately connected with identity: writing is obviously one of the ways in which we tell people who we are. At least to some extent, our discomfort with writing is a discomfort with the process of fixing our identity; what we say in writing will endure, meaning that our exposure to critical assessment may also endure. If this is an accurate depiction of the underlying dynamic of writing anxiety, it is easy to believe that this anxiety is exacerbated for graduate writers. If writing fixes identity, we may naturally hesitate to undertake that activity when we are unsure of our identity. Graduate school is many things to many people, but it is almost never a time of fixed and comfortable identity. In fact, it tends to be a time of porous boundaries between work and life and a time of significant scholarly uncertainty.
All of this means that writing in graduate school often becomes something fraught, which in turn means that it is something you may not do enough of and something that you may not share willingly with others. Not feeling able to write or, worse, not feeling able to share what you’ve written is a serious contributing factor for time to completion and attrition challenges. It also makes graduate study way less enjoyable than it might otherwise be. To combat these very real graduate writing challenges, we need to talk about the debilitating impact of an incomplete sense of scholarly identity during graduate school. Raising awareness can make graduate students feel better about the way that writing has become more difficult, just when they need it to be getting easier. But raising awareness only helps in the long-term: it takes considerable time to become comfortable as an academic writer. Most graduate writers also need short-term solutions to their writing challenges.
In my view, those solutions need to involve explicit writing instruction that can tackle specific issues. We know that scholarly discomfort is often instantiated in academic texts in predictable ways, and it makes sense to talk to graduate writers about those potential weaknesses in their writing. In particular, I’d like to highlight three concrete ways in which an incomplete identity can hamper graduate writing: insufficiently explaining the contribution; insufficiently managing the scholarly literature; and insufficiently crafting an authorial voice.
Insufficiently explaining the contribution. One of the things that I most often see in graduate student writing is introductory material that neglects the author’s own research problem and its significance in favour of focusing heavily on the work done by others. This elision may result from a lack of confidence, but it can also result from a lack of familiarity with the generic features of academic writing. Learning the essential moves involved in introducing a research problem can help writers to overcome the tendency to under-emphasize their own contribution.
Insufficiently managing the scholarly literature. Another common issue in graduate student writing is a literature review that lacks a coherent argument about the need for the current research given the existing state of the field. Again, it is easy to see how a lack of confidence in the identity frame of academic writing makes writers hide behind the work done by others. Learning more about structuring a literature review can help writers manage the existing literature in a way that consistently supports their own eventual contribution.
Insufficiently crafting an authorial voice. Finally, I find myself talking frequently with graduate students about the problem of what can be called writer-less texts. Needless to say, being reticent about inserting ourselves into the text is often a by-product of feeling less than confident about our status as writers. It can also reflect deep uncertainty about the question of voice in academic writing. Learning more about metadiscourse and the factors that inhibit its usage can offer us tangible guidance on how to raise our own profile within our texts.
(In all three of these cases, I would recommend using highlighting to come to a better understanding of how visible we are within our own writing.)
These strategies are meant to improve graduate writing while acknowledging the underlying problem of incomplete identity. By offering concrete strategies for improving writing, I am seeking to help graduate writers improve their writing and thereby perhaps improve their sense of self as writers. At the very least, writing instruction can help us pinpoint common problems and help us to produce stronger prose. At a deeper level, however, writing instruction for graduate students can offer a greater sense of efficacy, which then contributes to a feeling of comfort with the role of academic writer. That feeling of belonging can start to strengthen scholarly identity and thus lessen identity-based writing challenges before they take root.
The title given to me for this talk was ‘Yes, you are a writer!’; I was initially hesitant about that level of exuberance but decided to go with it anyway. (One exclamation mark wasn’t going to kill me!) Embracing our writerly identity may be painful at times—it is natural to prefer identities that make us feel competent rather than ones that emphasize our status as novices—but it is ultimately valuable, both for the technical proficiency that can flourish and for the eventual feeling of comfort with the ongoing and crucial demands of academic writing.