Tag Archives: Teaching

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.

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Social Media and Expertise

This summer break from blogging was entirely necessary, but I have missed writing here. I’d like to ease my way back in with some reflections on the nature of the ‘expertise’ presented in a blog like this one.

In June, I was at a conference and, as usually happens, I found a theme emerging over the weekend. Not the explicit conference theme, but rather a notion that came up again and again regardless of the stated topic. Of course, to some extent, we all inevitably hear what we are primed to hear. And for me, this conference was about notions of expertise. How do we establish expertise about writing? In particular, given the topic of my own presentation, I was interested in questions of social media and expertise.

My presentation concerned the way social media participation might act as academic production for writing instructors in Canada. While allowing that a marginal status within the university might lead some writing instructors to adopt a more traditional attitude towards the established norms of scholarly publishing, I ultimately argued that writing instructors have much to gain from an expanded notion of academic production. In particular, I focused on three ways in which social media participation based around blogging might prove useful to writing instructors. First, a non-traditional appointment of the sort that is common for writing instructors gives latitude for exploring emerging styles of academic communication. Second, most writing instructors have limited time for research while still needing research engagement to thrive in our roles; social media participation offers a more flexible model of engagement. Third, our work as writing instructors requires that the needs of students be primary. As a species of academic publishing, blogging allows us to speak in a way that can reach students as well as peers.

At its root, blogging is about sharing expertise in a way that relies upon a crowd-sourced, DIY form of peer review. I give writing advice here on the blog in the same spirit that I give writing advice in the classroom. That is, I openly acknowledge that there can be no one-size-fits-all approach, and then I make very particular suggestions. In doing so, I am claiming a certain expertise about writing based on my previous work with writers. Readers and students alike have to decide if the approach is valuable to them. Advice about writing is always idiosyncratic, but tends on occasion to present itself as universal. In my view, far too much of what is said about academic writing underestimates its own specificity. In fact, writing advice gains value precisely by being framed as a matter of particular experience. Rather than rejecting the particular or framing the particular as universal, we should be offering support and concrete suggestions to improve the writing process.

Taking some time away from blogging has helped me to reflect on the status of the advice that I give here. I also had a chance to spend two amazing weeks at a research methods seminar; this experience gave me the time to think more about the way epistemological questions affect how we teach and talk about writing, both in the classroom and through social media. I’m so grateful to the seminar organizers and participants for giving me so much to think about as I embark on my year’s sabbatical.

I hope you’ve all had enjoyable and productive summers. I’d love to hear what topics you’d like me to cover in the coming weeks and months; if you have any thoughts, let me know in the comments or via Twitter.

Writing and Enjoyment

A recent post on the Doctoral Writing SIG blog addresses the idea of writing aversion. In this post, Susan Carter discusses her work with an academic who has an actual phobia of writing. Most of us don’t have such a dramatic disinclination towards writing, but it’s still rare to find much in the way of real enthusiasm. And this general lack of enthusiasm poses an interesting teaching challenge. What is the best tone to take when discussing an activity that has such high stakes and that poses so many emotional and intellectual challenges? Obviously, an important and difficult task like writing isn’t best met with mindless positivity. But reflexive negativity can have costs, too.

If I focus on that half-full glass, I know that I run the risk of annoying graduate student writers by potentially minimizing a genuine struggle. The last thing most graduate student writers need to hear is how super fun writing can be. Indeed, telling the truth about the difficulties inherent in academic writing is essential. Students will often tell me at the end of a course that they hadn’t previously realized that others were struggling as much as they were; they clearly value the opportunity to get away from their usual disciplinary spaces to a place where the real challenges of academic communication can be discussed honestly. Even if I accomplish nothing else as a writing teacher, letting novice writers know that everyone struggles with writing is worthwhile.

While I’m in favour of this sort of honesty about the writing process, I have no wish to contribute to a dismissive attitude. If you can’t talk about a love of writing in a writing classroom, where can you? In part, I’m looking to disrupt any narrative that equates unhappiness with profundity. Loving to write does not preclude taking it seriously or doing it well; writing needn’t necessarily involve opening a vein. The writing classroom should be a place where enjoyment of the writing process gets discussed. It should also be a place where the centrality of writing to the academic endeavour is acknowledged. Not everyone needs to love writing, but everyone who is heading down a career path based on writing needs to make their peace with it.

There is a natural middle path here: the pleasures of the writing process and its challenges are two sides to the same coin. To talk about the pleasure is not to deny the pain. But for those who are sure that writing is just a necessary evil, any discussion of enjoyment can seem naive. I recognize, of course, that academic writing is not an engine that will run on love alone. The hard work of writing needs to go on  with or without inspiration, but that doesn’t mean we can’t approach it as a crucial professional commitment that must be something more than just an unfortunate obstacle. I’d love to hear how others talk about the writing process in a way that respects the inevitable frustrations without giving in to a narrative of negativity.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @ThomsonPat, using your allotted word count well in order to meet the needs of your reader.

From @DocwritingSIG, developing good habits of academic writing early in graduate study.

From Inside Higher Ed, thoughts on automated grading of student writing.

From Lingua Franca, Geoffrey Pullum explains his distrust of Orwell on the topic of clear writing.

From @StanCarey writing in @MacDictionary blog, a great post on ‘whom’: where it will fade and where it will persist.

From Inside Higher Ed, advice on making writing instruction part of all undergraduate instruction: Teaching Writing Is Your Job.

From @ProfHacker, a set of questions to help us be more mindful in our pursuit of productivity.

From @ThomsonPat, a discussion of the politics of characterizing the practical impact of your scholarly work.

From Lingua Franca, a great look at an editorial prejudice:  can you have an ‘on the other hand’ without an ‘on the one hand’?

From @scholarlykitchn, a consideration of the new relationship between Elsevier and Mendeley.

From @cplong, an interesting post on using Twitter for collaborative note taking during presentations.

While I don’t entirely agree with this take on academic writing, the reminder about the author’s role in constructing meaning is apt.

From @OnlinePhDProgs, a great list of thesis and dissertation resources.

I think this is an interesting idea: Taking a Class I Usually Teach

From @UVenus, the relationship between inspiration and distraction.

From @evalantsoght in @GradHacker, good advice on working with an unmanageable amount of scholarly literature.

From Henry Hitchings in the New York Times, a nuanced take on nominalizations: what they are and why we use them.

From @AltAcademix, advice on what to do if you are “alt-ac curious” during graduate school.

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.

AcWriMo Reflections

Before getting to my AcWriMo reflections, I’d like to say thanks and welcome to all my new subscribers and followers. November was the busiest month ever on the blog: there were nearly 5,000 views and we passed the 50,000 views mark overall. Thank you all for reading and commenting and linking and sharing!

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As anyone who reads this blog knows, November was AcWriMo, an exercise in public accountability and support for academic writing facilitated by the lovely people at PhD2Published. As I discussed in a post at the beginning of the month, I decided to participate as an experiment. Looking back over the guiding principles set out by PhD2Published, I see that I basically kept to them. I aimed relatively high; I certainly told everyone; I thought a lot about being strategic in my approach; I checked in over the course of the month; and I did work hard. What I didn’t do was meet the target I set for myself. I committed to writing a weekly blog post (five over the course of the month) and turning a conference paper into an article. I did do the former, although that was no more than I would have done anyway. I started working on the paper and even managed to create an initial draft. But by the middle of the month, I hit a wall: to finish the paper I needed to engage more deeply with the literature and didn’t have time to do that. So I carried on blogging and following the AcWriMo activities of others and using what extra time I had to plan the literature review I need to do. (I was assisted in this planning process by an amazing series of posts by Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn (of The Thesis Whisperer) on Pat’s blog patter; in this series, they detail and reflect upon a work in progress. It is a rare and welcome thing to see people trying to give voice to how complicated and unruly the research process can be. For me, that was AcWriMo at its best: a public discussion of writing challenges in a manner designed to demystify the process.)

Engaging with AcWriMo confirmed one of my key assumptions about writing: we all need less how-to and more self-knowledge. The ‘right’ way to write is elusive, considerably more elusive than a lot of writing advice seems to grasp. To get a sense of the vastly different ways that we experience writing—brought into focus by the artificial pressure of an ‘academic writing month’—I recommend looking at some of the great post-AcWriMo reflections that have been written thus far. Here are a few that I’ve enjoyed: Raul Pacheco-Vega; Peter Webster; Liz Gloyn; Lyndsay Grant; Ellen Spaeth. And PhD2Published has begun the process of reflecting on AcWriMo through a series of Storify posts. If you read these posts, think about what resonates for you as a writer. What writing practices works for you? What holds you back? Can you distinguish between psychological and practical barriers to writing? Does technology help or just displace the problem? When has writing been best for you? Academic writing is hard enough—trying to do it according to the dictates of someone else’s process can make it even harder. Self-knowledge is key. In that spirit, I offer my own reflections. They are unlikely to be interesting in and of themselves, but I hope they serve as an example of how to develop a better understanding of oneself as a writer.

So what did I learn about my academic writing process from AcWriMo?

1. That concrete and demanding writing goals are essential. Writing is so easy not to do; I start many days wanting to write and having to do any number of other things. Anything I can do to move writing into the obligatory column is valuable. I have found it helpful to think about the imperative to write in two ways. First, I need to conceive of what writing means to me for professional satisfaction, development, and advancement. For most of us, writing is crucial, but I found it useful to identify its precise value to create more motivation. Second, with that sense of my broad priorities, I need to create a concrete writing schedule. Working backwards from a target means that I can see exactly how much needs to get done right now and prevents the sort of magical thinking that allows me to imagine I’ll pull off miraculous feats of writing in an unspecified future while remaining hopelessly unproductive now.

2. That committing to a certain amount of time spent writing works better than committing to a number of words/pages per day. In particular, short Pomodoro-style bursts work best for me. The 25-minute period, short enough for even my appallingly bad powers of concentration, helps balance writing with the rest of my life. I can be out of touch for 25 minutes, from my co-workers, from my kids’ school, and from social media. The five-minute break spent catching up on email and messages gives me the sense of connectedness that I love as well as the ability to stay on top of all the little things as I go along. Which leads me to my next observation.

3. That getting behind on everything else for the sake of writing makes me unhappy. My central professional commitment is teaching, which means class preparation, reading student writing, meeting with students, and—needless to say—lots of email. I need to get these things and any associated administrative work done in order to be comfortable writing. This prioritization is not something that always works well; if writing is put last, it will sometimes be left out. Taking AcWriMo as an opportunity be more aware of how I spend my time allowed me to see that my days fall into three basic types: days when I genuinely can’t write; days when I can and do; and then days when I could except that my inefficiency and inattentiveness mean that I’m unproductive. Accepting the first type as legitimate helps me to turn my attention to reducing the third type.

4. That making myself read is always my biggest challenge. Reading makes me impatient; the ideal pace for reading is slower than I like things to be and requires more intellectual flexibility than I naturally possess. Writing, on the other hand, allows me to be active and creative. Of course, good academic reading must be active and can be creative, but it’s still not an activity that comes easily to me. When AcWriMo begins in 2013, I’ll need to have a well-researched project in hand, ready for a month of intensive writing. In the meantime, I hope to turn my attention to solving this persistent weakness in my research process.

5. That my writing process is unduly hampered by pre-emptive anxiety. It doesn’t speak well of me, but I have come to accept how easily I am thrown off my game by potential problems. Current problems would be one thing: it is genuinely hard to write when you hit a conceptual roadblock. But I am dissuaded from writing by the mere possibility of problems in the future. What if I’ve chosen the wrong approach to this issue? What if my observations are completely trite? What if my argumentation doesn’t fit my desired conclusions? The sane reaction, obviously, is to keep writing until the potential problem becomes a real problem or fails to materialize. I’m working on getting better at blocking out the ‘whatifs’ when I write. Do you know that Shel Silverstein poem? It’s one of my favourite kids’ poems: Last night while I lay thinking here/Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear/And pranced and partied all night long/And sang their same old Whatif song:/Whatif I flunk that test?/Whatif green hair grows on my chest?/Whatif nobody likes me?/Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?… 

6. That blogging is a lot more than just writing. I was so struck this month how much time I spend preparing each post (beyond the time spent writing) and how much time I spend in general maintenance and social media engagement. This entire process is one that I love, but it is time spent and not exactly time spent writing. When thinking about how to allocate appropriate time to writing, I need to think about all the facilitation and administration that goes along with having a blog. (Pat Thomson had a very interesting post this week on blogging and social media participation as a complex form of academic labour that breaks down any simple dichotomy between work and leisure.)

7. That traditional academic writing can be restful after the immediacy of blogging. At the beginning of the month, I felt a little uncomfortable to be writing in other than a blogging or microblogging format. The lack of feedback felt strange; like when you put an actual letter in an actual mailbox and then wonder, six hours later, why you haven’t heard back yet. But once I got over the strangeness, I found it very restful. Once again, I could take advantage of the ‘nobody ever has to read this but me if it’s awful’ strategy that got me through my entire dissertation. That’s a hard strategy to employ in blog writing; knowing that I’ll be publishing in the coming days (or even hours) means that I have to be fairly committed to what I am writing at the moment of composition. It was lovely to write with a broader time frame in mind, knowing that I could finish the whole article with the luxury of returning to it with a critical eye later.

Overall, AcWriMo was a great chance to focus on what both writing and not writing look like for me right now. In particular, this month gave me a unique opportunity to reflect on the role of writing in this phase of my life: without the pressure to produce a dissertation, without the anxiety that accompanied my recent promotion process, and with the very different rhythm of maintaining a blog. I look forward to continuing to reflect upon the experience of academic writing amidst the wonderful online academic writing community; thank you to the people at PhD2Published and all the AcWriMo participants for the encouragement and all the engaging commentary. I hope you are all able to continue to, in the memorable words of an AcWriMo participant, ‘write like there’s no December’.

The Supervisory Relationship

This blog aims to present both my own ideas about graduate student writing and my commentary on other people’s ideas. I’ve struggled a bit with the best way to do the latter. I find that I often draft comments about interesting things I’ve read, but then don’t post them (because writing is easy, sharing your writing is hard!). Those sort of reflections can quickly become stale, so they end up sitting unused in a draft folder. Increasingly, I just share the things that I find interesting on Twitter; the commentary aspect is lost, but at least the sharing is timely. Since not everyone follows me on Twitter (@explorstyle), I am going to start including a list of the things I’ve shared on Twitter at the end of these posts. The post itself will consist of a comment on one recent item of interest. Today’s link isn’t particularly recent (unless, like me, you feel like July was just a minute ago!), but I know that it is one that graduate students will find relevant.

This post from the Thesis Whisperer blog on what doctoral students need from their supervisors highlights the potential for difficulties in the supervisory relationship. The post discusses what doctoral students can and should expect from their supervisors—and whether that relationship needs to be as fraught as it so often is. The post was inspired the actions of a new doctoral student who was looking to avoid the inevitable pitfalls. I thought the post did a great job of summing up two equally undesirable poles: one, avoiding all rookie mistakes or, two, suffering through every indignity that every doctoral student has ever endured. Surely neither of those extremes is ideal. Although a PhD is never going to come without some struggle, the process shouldn’t be a source of actual trauma. We all hear far too many stories about the misery caused by inadequate supervisory relationships; the Thesis Whisperer’s characterization of her role as that of a ‘global agony aunt’ is telling.

In general, I believe that the uneven quality of supervision, while unfortunate, must not be allowed to derail the writing process. Instead, the thesis writer needs to see themselves as capable of gaining the necessary expertise from a range of resources. Ideally, the supervisor will figure heavily in the writer’s development, but an unwilling or inexpert supervisor needn’t signal doom for the writer. And while I don’t think that the goal of supervision should be to make sure that each generation suffers as much as the last, I do know that trial and error can be an invaluable route to meaningful expertise. A good supervisor is many things, but not necessarily a protection against travelling down unproductive pathways. Those pathways are crucial—not to replicate a needless tradition of suffering but rather to give thesis writers the depth of experience necessary to complete this demanding and defining writing task.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

I love this cartoon from @xkcdhttp://xkcd.com/1108

More good advice from @GradHacker on successfully navigating conferences: http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/09/17/successfully-navigating-conferences-part-2/

From @GradHacker, a post on getting our ideas down on paper, so they don’t keep us up at night! http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/09/14/write-it-down-go-to-sleep/

From @ProfHacker, a post on the things that we should make easier and those that we should make harder: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/make-it-hard-on-yourself/42568

From @chronicle, something to make you laugh and feel better about your own presentation mishaps! http://chronicle.com/blogs/onhiring/when-your-presentation-goes-awry/33710

@scholarlykitchn says the exact right thing about PowerPoint and Prezi: http://wp.me/pcvbl-77T

From the NYT, a clear discussion of the subjunctive in the always-delightful After Deadline blog: Save the Subjunctive! http://nyti.ms/QgRZQE 

From Barbara Fister, a very nuanced take on the way we talk about plagiarism: The Plagiarism Perplex http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/plagiarism-perplex

From @chronicle, a call for reverse mentoring: http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2012/09/06/why-we-need-reverse-mentoring/

The recent @GradHacker podcast on productivity systems is full of interesting and helpful insights: http://podcast.gradhacker.org/?p=122

From @ProfHacker, a helpful overview of Twitter for academics: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/how-and-why-to-participate-in-a-tweetchat/42380

From @GradHacker, a useful discussion of the pros and cons of Prezi: http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/08/29/prezi-a-dynamic-presentation-or-nauseating-experience/

I love this post from @stancarey on the choice between following bad rules or standing up to their eternal enforcers: http://wp.me/pglsT-3o7

Putting it in Your Own Words

My six-year-old son loves this blog. Well, not the actual blog itself, but the stats page. And he’s merciless about slow days. On Sunday mornings, he will often report, in a tone of morbid satisfaction, “Only nine views! You are doing terrible today!”. (I hope in your head you can hear the word ‘terrible’ being stretched out for maximum emphasis.) He understands that the spikes in activity—which are the whole point, to his quantitative way of thinking—are caused by new posts, so his suggestion is usually that I should sit right down and write something. Unfortunately, his desire for me to write is in direct conflict for his desire for me to play endless games of Monopoly. Even more unfortunately, I don’t have the heart to tell him that blogging is actually way more fun than Monopoly.

Given all this, you can imagine his pleasure when I told him that I might be able to use a new joke he’d repeated to me in the blog. Here goes:

Q: How can you fit a 10 page article on milk into 5 pages?

A: You condense it!

Hilarious, right? Welcome to my summer vacation!

As summer vacation slowly turns into preparation for fall, I’ve been mulling over how to improve the way I teach one of my least favourite topics: paraphrasing. I’m sure my discomfort with this topic is connected to the fact that paraphrasing necessarily brings up issues of plagiarism, a topic that we all feel anxious about. The immediate stakes are high for students when I talk about effective paraphrasing, in a way that isn’t the case with discussions of transitions, semicolons, or strong verbs. If I’m wrong about those topics or even if I just do a poor job explaining my intent, the implications aren’t particularly significant. But if I handle paraphrasing badly in the classroom, a student might go on to provide a weak paraphrase in their own writing, an act that can have consequences.

It is also the case that explaining a good paraphrase can be pretty hard to do; even if you ‘know one when you see one’, it can be hard to craft enduring principles to use in future writing situations. The classroom conversation often ends up centred around whether sufficient changes have been made. This is a legitimate issue for students to worry about, but I think that the notion of ‘sufficient changes’ is ultimately a problematic one. Conceiving of any writing task as a matter of making sufficient changes to someone else’s text seems risky to me.

To address this risk, I like to shift the focus away from the whole notion of making sufficient changes. Of course, the idea of putting something into your own words is a commonplace in academic writing, but I think the resultant emphasis on changing words can lead students to feel that they are engaging in a meaningless technical task. What’s worse, students who don’t write in English as their first language often feel that they end up with something less elegant and effective than the original formulation. But what if we were to think less about word or phrase replacement and more about how we can effectively use someone else’s ideas in our research; that is, not so much just ‘put it in your own words’ as ‘reframe the idea in your own words so that it helps you to explain your research aims’.

For sound advice on paraphrasing, you can try the OWL at Purdue site or the Writing at U of T site. In keeping with my advice to think about paraphrasing as part of a broader issues of talking about the literature, I also suggest looking the Academic Phrasebank from the University of Manchester. This site is one of my favourites, and I will return to a discussion of its many merits another time. For now, I point to it because it provides a helpful range of ways to talk about the scholarly  literature. Asking ourselves why we are talking about another person’s work is often the first step to deciding how to phrase our explication of that work. The Phrasebank, by offering a range of sentence templates, can help us to decide whether we are interested in a text because of its author, its methodology, its topic, its time frame, etc. Those decisions can help us with the broader issue of how to structure a lit review, but they can also help us talk effectively about other people’s work at the sentence level.