Community Acuity (5) supervising doctoral writing — situated practices

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. 

This is a guest post from Dr Amanda French, Associate Professor, School of Education and Social Work, Birmingham City University.

Much of what I do in my supervision sessions is based on what I wish someone had told me when I was a PhD student struggling to make sense world of doctoral education where, or so it seemed to me, everyone else appeared to magically understand what was expected of them. For this reason I see the process of academic writing development, now that I work as a doctoral supervisor, as demystifying the ‘discourse of transparency’ that often informs discussions around academic writing whenever anyone transitions into doctoral writing.

My own thesis was a study into higher education lecturer’s attitudes to academic writing: ‘Through a glass darkly’. A post-qualitative case study into lecturers’ perceptions of academic writing practices in higher education. (2014: available here). During the process of writing my thesis I became very interested in the idea of academic writing as a situated practice, i.e. we learn how to do it through directly participating in the work, and with the support of our communities. To learn situated practices, the relationships that support our learning matter more than the instructions on how to do it. My thesis touched on the idea that doctoral writing involves doctoral students transitioning to new ways of doctoral writing which the supervisor can and should support and develop in the same way that they would support the development of their supervisee’s knowledge base and disciplinary understanding to doctoral level.

For supervisees adapting to new expectations, writing can be difficult, especially as so often supervisors’ assumptions about how they expect their supervisees to write are often tacit or confused.

At worst, some supervisors simply do not see doctoral writing development as part of their role. For this reason I find it useful to draw attention to the ways in which writing at doctoral level requires a different kind of writing, with which new supervisees are not unsurprisingly, unfamiliar with at the beginning of their studies.

For me I feel it is very important to focus on this period of ‘writing transition’ as many of my supervisees are established and very experienced teaching professionals. Often these colleagues find the experience of engaging in doctorial study and writing, initially at least, very disempowering, especially when they receive feedback focusing on the lack of ‘doctoralnesss’ in their early attempts at writing.

In practical terms, using this situated approach, I work with my supervisees to explore common if often unarticulated assumptions about academic writing practices that often circulate at doctoral level. For example, one of my opening questions to supervisees is ‘What do you understand by the term ‘doctoralnesss’ in the context of writing? and ‘How do you think so-called ‘doctoral writing’ will differ to your previous experiences of writing for academic purposes?’. In my experience, this gets supervisees thinking about doctoral writing as a specific form of academic writing. Thinking consciously about and discussing doctoral writing this way makes visible the assumptions (often but not always disciplinary-based) that inform expectation about how one should write a thesis, as well as the more traditional focus on what one should write for one’s thesis.

This formative analysis of supervisees’ previous writing, and experiences of writing, also helps to identify how, through working on their thesis, they are often beginning to engage in different forms of professional identity-work. That is they often begin to think of themselves as researchers as well as teachers or ‘students’, and this change is often mediated through their changing conceptions of, and confidence with academic writing.

I feel that my practice as a supervisor has also benefitted from this approach as it reinforces my conviction that doctoral supervision is also about being a conscious writing developer. By this I mean that the supervisor can and should mediate and/or model the situated writing practices that characterise writing at doctoral level in the supervisor’s and their supervisees’ disciplinary fields.

Feedback from my supervisees thus far, since using this approach has been largely positive. In particular, they have discussed how interrogating with me, what doctoral writing actually looks like and/or is supposed to do, has helped them articulate more precisely their frustration with the act of producing writing from one supervision to another.

My comments on their difficulties with writing become more explicitly processual. Each supervision session therefore becomes less about what they have not achieved with their writing, and more about how they can achieve what they want or need to.  Those discussions have also foregrounded and repositioned worries about their writing ‘not making the grade’. Instead, our discussions have normalised those fears, through them they have been able to see that struggling (and even sometimes failing) with doctoral writing is an inevitable and possibly necessary process that they need to go through as they progress with their studies.

In addition they reported that it has also helped them think differently about the kinds of writing transitions that their own students go through and how they might, in turn, support them in similar ways.

Amanda has also recently published two papers that may also be of interest to you:

Author: predoctorbility

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.