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Making visible the affective dimensions of scholarship in postgraduate writing development work

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Abstract

Many university writing and student academic development centres serve both under-and postgraduate student-writers. However, it is not always clear that the training and development of those who work with writers accounts fully for the affective dimensions of postgraduate writing, specifically. Especially at the doctoral level, where an original contribution to knowledge is required, writers need to take on a confident authorial voice in their work, both written and in conversation with others. Research, however, shows that many doctoral students struggle with this. This paper argues that, to be truly successful and fit for purpose, peer writing development work needs to understand the nature of postgraduate learning and writing from more than just the technical perspective of writing a successful thesis. Writer-focused work at this level needs to account for the affective dimensions of writing and research as well, to engage students in more holistic, critical, and forward-looking conversations about their writing, and their own developing scholarly identity. The paper offers insights into the different affective dimensions of postgraduate writing, especially those under-considered in much practical work with postgraduate writers, and offers suggestions for a whole-student tutoring approach at this level.
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Making visible the affective dimensions of
scholarship in postgraduate writing
development work
Sherran Clarence
Abstract
Many university writing and student academic development centres serve both under-
and postgraduate student-writers. However, it is not always clear that the training
and development of those who work with writers accounts fully for the affective
dimensions of postgraduate writing, specifically. Especially at the doctoral level,
where an original contribution to knowledge is required, writers need to take on a
confident authorial voice in their work, both written and in conversation with others.
Research, however, shows that many doctoral students struggle with this. This paper
argues that, to be truly successful and fit for purpose, peer writing development work
needs to understand the nature of postgraduate learning and writing from more than
just the technical perspective of writing a successful thesis. Writer-focused work at
this level needs to account for the affective dimensions of writing and research as
well, to engage students in more holistic, critical, and forward-looking conversations
about their writing, and their own developing scholarly identity. The paper offers
insights into the different affective dimensions of postgraduate writing, especially
those under-considered in much practical work with postgraduate writers, and offers
suggestions for a whole-student tutoring approach at this level.
Keywords: academic writing development; emotional labour; writing blocks;
doctoral writing; writing support
Received 1 May 2020; revised version received 22 June 2020; accepted 23 June 2020.
Corresponding author: Sherran Clarence, Rhodes University, South Africa
(s.clarence@ru.ac.za).
Introduction
University and college writing centres around the world work, at the very least, with
undergraduate students. But many also work with postgraduate students completing
masters and doctoral degrees (for example, Stellenbosch University, the University
of Cape Town, the University of Toronto, and many others). For the most part, they
do this through one-on-one and small group consultations and workshops with
students focused on writing tasks or projects that students need assistance with. For
example, a student would approach a writing centre with a paper, research report,
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or thesis chapter, and a writing tutor or consultant would spend about an hour per
appointment looking at issues ranging from argumentation and structure, to voice,
style, tone, and even citations and formatting, depending on the student’s writing
needs (see Gillam, Callaway, & Wikoff, 1994; Ryan & Zimmerelli, 2010).
These writing centres, in the main, tend to define themselves as working
with both writers and pieces of writing. Their work seeks to enable students to find
and express their voice (Archer & Richards, 2011); to challenge dominant and
potentially exclusive forms of knowledge-making in the academy (Bailey
Bridgewater, 2017; Nichols, 2017); and to enable access to understanding and
creating writing that effectively communicates the writers’ knowledge and meaning
(Dison & Moore, 2019). Thus, writing centres, at least in theory, create tutoring
spaces between students and writing tutors that are focused on writerly pursuits and
development, which can take time to unpack and explore, especially with students
who are traversing a larger articulation gap between their prior home and school
and current university literacy practices (Dison & Moore, 2019). This work is not
limited to writing centres, however, as it is also implicated in academic
development work in faculty and departmental environments as well (Mitchell,
2010). However, writing and academic development centres also work in the real
world of university and college time and space, where what students write is always
for assessment and evaluation, meaning it is usually high stakes and under some
form of time pressure. Thus, there is often a gap between what we would like to
work and focus on in tutorialsconversations focused on writers and their voices,
ideas, and selvesand what we may end up focusing on in response to these
pressures. We may, for example, focus on addressing concerns in single pieces of
writing that students need to hand in for assessment, and in line with the standards
set by their lecturers (Clarence, 2019a). This gap is not the focus of this paper, but
it is part of the background to how writing centres may plan to, and then actually,
construct and enact conversations about writing with student-writers. This in turn
speaks to how approaches to tutoring are developed, and how peer writing tutors
(also referred to as writing consultants) are encouraged and enabled to work with
student-writers.
If we acknowledge that what we say and think we are and can do in a writing
centre (or any writing development space), and what we actually do in practice, are
not always the same thing, then we have the opening for a productive, albeit
challenging, conversation about the role of writing support structures in shaping
writer-development in higher education. This conversation can extend beyond just
how writing centres work with students who seek out their help to how writing
centres and writing development practitioners work with lecturers, disciplinary
tutors, and research supervisors to ‘demystify’ academic writing as a knowledge-
making practice at university (cf. Lillis, 2001; see also Archer & Richards, 2011;
Dison & Clarence, 2017).
Working with research supervisors, who work primarily with postgraduate
writers, is a relatively new area of concern for writing centres in particular, although
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there is growing evidence of work with research supervisors through academic
development that tackles writing the thesis (Kamler & Thomson, 2006; Guerin et
al., 2017). Most writing centres work with students, and where they are able to, with
lecturers and tutors in academic disciplines around particular writing projects,
assignments, and so on, to create bridges between what lecturers want from
students’ writing, and what students do with the tasks before them (see, for
examples, Archer, 2010; Clarence, Albertus, & Mwambene, 2014; Nichols, 2017).
However, as postgraduate student numbers in universities around the world grow,
especially in contexts where there is significant student diversity in nationality,
home language, prior school and literacy development, and so on, focusing on
postgraduate student writing development is becoming an increasing concern in
research and practice (see Guerin et al., 2017; Badenhorst & Guerin, 2016;
Aitchison & Lee, 2006). This raises important questions about what the focus of
postgraduate writing support, with students and their supervisors, should be, and
how this support should be structured.
The support universities and colleges offer to student-writers is not
necessarily framed by the same discourses that the support staff themselves use to
characterise and guide their ways of working. Writing centres were established in
different contexts (e.g., the United States and South Africa) as part of open
admissions, or wider access to higher education (see Archer & Richards, 2011;
Boquet, 1999). Widening participation for previously excluded or marginalised
students (i.e., working class students, black students) has been linked to
democratising higher education, and also to diversifying both universities and
workplaces (Hinton-Smith, 2012). But, the process of opening up access to students
who attended less well-resourced schools, and come from working class homes;
who speak and write English as an additional language; who have diverse learning
needs and goals, has created tensions in higher education. The tension most relevant
to this paper is that between seeing writing as a set of skills students should have
before they come to university (Bock, 1988), and writing as a set of particularised
practices that students need to be inducted into by disciplinary and academic peers
and experts (Lillis, 2001; Mitchell, 2010). Writing centres have been called to
provide remedial support for students who lack the required writing skills; yet many
position themselves firmly in opposition to this discourse, especially because
research shows quite persuasively that many students, regardless of background or
ability, struggle to acquire academic literacies and discourses, and take on new
scholarly identities (Lillis, 2001; Thesen & van Pletzen, 2006).
Writing centres and academic student support units that understand writing
more as a process linked to knowledge, meaning making, and identity work
(Thesen, 2013) tend to focus rather on helping students understand and create
writing as part of becoming particular kinds of knowers and writers (i.e., adopting
different ways of expressing critical thinking, creativity, analytical reasoning, and
so on) in their disciplines. This is true for work with both under- and postgraduate
students. At postgraduate level, increased demand from governments for highly
skilled knowledge workers, along with increased student numbers, may reinforce
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the discourse that sees writing as a set of skills students coming into a degree
programme should have in place already. Students who struggle to write at the new
level (masters or doctorate) may then be termed problem students who require skills
training or skills support to close the gap between the writing they are doing and
what their supervisors and the university expect of them (Wingate, 2006). What this
discourse misses is the crucial realisation that literacy demands change with each
level of study, and with changed expectations of the writing or other literacy
practices. This is part of what makes postgraduate writing different from
undergraduate writing, and why postgraduate writers should not be expected to
come into a masters or doctoral programme already knowing how to write a
dissertation or thesis at this level. Writing at this level is not just about knowledge
or words on the page in the right tense, form, and style; critically, it is a resource
for expressing a new identity as a knower, and for claiming a more authorial voice
in one’s field of research.
Postgraduate and undergraduate student-writers have much in common in
terms of what they need to work on in their writing, and what they are required to
create and achieve with their assignments and tasks. However, I am going to argue
that there are crucial differences. These differences, and the focus of this paper,
emanate from the affective dimensions of scholarly writing, and the concomitant
expectations of postgraduate education and writing, particularly at the doctoral
level. The notion of identity development and change, and the transformative nature
of moving across different conceptual and research thresholds (Kiley, 2009; Kiley
& Wisker, 2009), means that postgraduate doctoral writing is indeed different from
prior writing students have done. Undergraduate students are not untransformed by
their studies and their learning and certainly engage in identity work, which has
affective demands. However, the use of writing and research as resources to
evidence how one has become a different kind of scholar is most marked at doctoral
level, where a student’s title changes when they graduate. This identity work is also
more overtly part of supervision than it is part of everyday undergraduate teaching
and learning. Identity work involves emotional, affective work. Thus, writing
centres, and those who work with student-writers at this level, including research
supervisors, need to understand what constitutes this affective dimension. Further,
we need to critically consider how we can incorporate the affective labour writers
need to do into our conversations with masters and doctoral student-writers, and
where possible, with research supervisors as well. This reflective, conceptual paper
emanates from my own work as a relatively new research supervisor, and from my
writing development work with postgraduate student researchers and writers.
Writing at postgraduate level
Before moving into the specific conceptual focus of the paper, I would like to first
explore some of the essential meanings and practices that define or characterise
postgraduate writing in particular. A key feature across levels of study in scholarly
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writing in higher education is the presence of an argument and its development in
a paper or thesis through the use of selected evidence and explication, drawn
variously from published research, theory, and data generated by the writer-
researcher. Behind all scholarly writing is the idea of the writer as researcher;
whether they are responding to a question posed by a lecturer or creating their own
research question, student-writers are required to do research to create a
substantiated response to the task, often in the form of an argument, or a claim to
knowledge. This is true of under- and postgraduate writing, because a primary logic
underpinning higher education is knowledge creation, rather than knowledge
‘consumption’; thus students become part of a broad community creating and
extending knowledge in smaller and larger ways (Boughey, 2015).
I argue, though, that postgraduate writing is different from undergraduate
writing in three key ways, and, further, that these are linked to an underlying
axiology that marks postgraduate work as different from undergraduate work.
These differences are, in brief, related to voice, confidence, and sophistication in
the written text. The first key difference is that of voice. Voice is generally defined
and understood in relation to argument or claims to knowledge, and can be
described as the writer taking a position and expressing that position through
choices around supporting evidence and explanation. The argument is a significant
aspect of voice, because this is the tool the writer uses to contribute to knowledge
in her field. Other crucial aspects of voice relate to understanding and having a
sound grasp of the discourse conventions within the scholarly community a student-
writer belongs to, and being able to choose and deploy these cleverly in their
writing, to enhance, shape, and refine an authorial voice as a student becomes into
a proficient writer (Hathaway, 2015). While it is not true to say that undergraduate
students are not required to make arguments or have a voice in their writing, the
strength of this requirement in terms of achieving ultimate success is not as marked
as it is at doctoral level, where the absence of an original argument and
commanding and confident voice (Trafford & Leshem, 2009) may result in a
doctorate not being awarded.
A further important aspect of writing at postgraduate level, not often overtly
spoken about and considered theoretically in writing instruction, is confidence, not
only in one’s writing, but also in the sense that one has something to say of value
to the field. This is a second key way in which postgraduate writing differs from
undergraduate writing. To claim and express a voice, of which an original argument
is a significant part, postgraduate student-writers must have confidence in their
claims to knowledge, and in the evidence and explanation they have selected and
developed to sustain that argument. They need to believe they have something
original and worthy to add to the conversations and debates that their discourse or
disciplinary community is interested in. Several studies on doctoral writing or
doctoral scholarship specifically mention confidence, or assertiveness, as key
doctoral graduate attributes (Gurr, 2001; Stracke & Kumar, 2010; Wang & Li,
2011).
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This sounds deceptively easy, but I contend, based on several years of work
with postgraduate and early career researchers, that confidence is difficult to hold
onto in the face of feedback and critique from peer reviewers, examiners, and
supervisors that is not always formative and constructive in tone or intent. Several
studies attest to students’ emotional responses to, and subsequent blocks around,
feedback from supervisors on their writing (Aitchison & Mowbray, 2013; Can &
Walker, 2011; Stracke & Kumar, 2010). Postgraduate writing, in more immediate
and visible ways than undergraduate writing, asks student-writers to really consider
the scholarly community they are joining with their own research, and to think
carefully about where and how their work is positioned within that community.
Their work is going to be published in an online database upon graduation, and
accessible to other researchers. This raises the stakes for supervisors and students,
and can have implications for how confident students may feel, and how hard they
have to work to hold this confidence in the face of tough feedback that reflects these
stakes. Thus, this is an area of postgraduate writing development that needs
conscious attention and focus in writing development work.
Thus far, I have argued that postgraduate writers need to claim a clear and
critical voice in their writing, and that confidence is necessary to both claim and
express this voice in scholarly environments, in written and verbal forms. The third
key feature that sets postgraduate writing apart from undergraduate writing is the
sophistication expected by readers in how the writer’s voice is expressed and how
the argument is constructed to make an original contribution to knowledge (see
Trafford & Leshem, 2009). Short, simplistic sentences, basic word choices,
terminology not explained or used to make meaningthese are all issues that may
be focused on in undergraduate writing development, especially closer to capstone
level, but there is significantly more pressure on postgraduate writers to write and
think in increasingly sophisticated ways. It may also be the case that many
supervisors expect their students to be capable of this without extended or overt
feedback or development to this effect, given that they have been accepted into a
postgraduate degree programme, and have prior degrees (Hill, 2007). To be clear,
while erudite use of language is certainly part of this, this is not what I mean by
sophistication. By this term I mean, rather, the writer’s ability to demonstrate in-
depth knowledge of the space they are occupying in their field, relative to other
writers’ and researchers’ claims and positions, and their ability to express this
knowledge clearly and effectively using disciplinary discourse and language. This
is an issue of a writer’s ability to read and think in joined-up, complex, layered
ways, and implicates epistemology, axiology, and ontology. In other words, success
at this level is not just about being a proficient writer in the medium of instruction;
it is also about belief in oneself, understanding of the underlying values inherent in
postgraduate writing and research, and the ability to manage difficult emotions
around writing, feedback, supervision, and knowledge-making at this level.
To connect this all to the focus of this paper, I will move now to look
particularly at axiology as an underpinning influence shaping postgraduate writing
and education. The focus of the paper is the need for writing support and
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development work to be able to account for the affective dimensions of
postgraduate writing in work with postgraduate writers especially. This implicates
axiology, which creates very different ultimate goals and expectations for writers
and researchers working at this level, particularly doctoral students. Axiology can
be defined as values and ethics that shape disciplinary research projects, questions,
and concerns (Frick, 2011). Linked to ontology (becoming a particular kind of
scholar), epistemology (choosing what counts as valid knowledge in relation to the
scholarship one is engaged in), and methodology (the means with which that
knowledge is obtained), axiology is a crucial part of postgraduate identity formation
(Frick, 2011). At the doctoral level, students take on a new scholarly, and also
professional, identity: their title actually changes in recognition of the fact that the
holder is a different kind of scholar than they were prior. The title assumes a
researcher and writer who is confident, a sophisticated thinker, and able to express
a range of claims to knowledge with an authentic and disciplinary voice (Stracke &
Kumar, 2010; Trafford & Leshem, 2009). This is, I would argue, part of the broader
axiological underpinning of postgraduate education: that it enables the development
of a scholar that values integrity in research, authenticity, and ethics, and that
expresses these values through confident and sophisticated academic discourse.
Axiology is fundamentally affective in nature. It is, of course, connected to
epistemology, or knowledge of the world. But one cannot claim a doctoral identity
with knowledge alone. Trafford and Leshem (2009) have written about
doctorateness that doctoral students must have and display to be awarded their
degree. This, for these authors, goes beyond knowledge of the field, a competently
written thesis, and a basically sound argument: doctorateness is the ability to show
evidence, through the thesis, of claiming a doctoral identity and voice such that the
student shows they are able to be an independent researcher and a new colleague
and peer. I would argue that a doctoral student cannot or will not show evidence of
doctorateness in their writing without the three aspects of postgraduate writing this
section of the paper has discussed. In particular, students need confidence, which
weaves through all aspects of scholarship at postgraduate and further levels. Thus,
what I am arguing is that writing development work with postgraduate writers in
higher educationimplicating writing support work and research supervision
needs to reckon overtly and visibly with these pertinent affective dimensions of
becoming a scholar at postgraduate level.
Reckoning with the affective in writing development work
If we accept the premise that all successful writingregardless of levelhas, as a
critical part of its endeavours, an engagement with ourselves, and our feelings,
beliefs, values, and work ethic, then we have to be serious, and creative, in creating
holistic writing support. When we write, whether in the social or natural sciences,
we construct the world around us and we make it knowable to ourselves and others.
We do this in different ways, and with different forms of scholarly voice (e.g.,
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53
writing in the first person, or the third person). Nevertheless, as Frick (2011) argues,
when we write a thesis, we not only construct a complex, sophisticated scholarly
text, we also construct ourselves as legitimate knowers of knowledge and discourse
in our discipline, and we communicate a significant part of our scholarly selves to
readers. Thus, scholarly writing is fundamentally about engaging the heartthe
core of the selfalongside engaging the head and the hand (our knowledge of the
field, and linguistic and literacy skill and practices) (see Soëtard, 1994).
At postgraduate level, and then postdoctoral level, the affective dimensions
of writing surface more powerfully than in previous degree levels, and can be a
significant and often tacit stumbling block in getting writing done successfully. This
dimension is often tacit because the focus of a great deal of writing development
work at this level, including workshops for supervisors, focuses on getting the thesis
done: the research process, writing the different sections, working with theory,
conducting fieldwork, managing data analysis, and so on. The focus, in other words,
is on the product, and the parts of the process that lead to the creation or output of
the product. What is often missing from visible and overt consideration is the
person doing all the reading, writing, thinking, and knowing.
At this point, one may want to counter-argue that in working mainly through
one-on-one or small group consultations with writers writing centre or writing
development work is all about the person, and is concerned with the affective. Here,
I want to come back to the idea I introduced earlier about the gap between who and
what we say we are and do, and what we are actually able to do in practical
situations where we are pushed out of our theoretical or ideological framings into a
real world of student (and university) anxieties, writing concerns, and deadlines
(see Carter, 2009; Clarence, 2019a). There is certainly a significant focus on the
person in writing centre work, particularly, and this is reflected in a great deal of
writing centre scholarship, from the United States (Nancy Grimm’s and Mary
Ryan’s work, for example), to the United Kingdom (Lisa Ganobscik-Williams’ and
Kathy Harrington’s work, for example), to South Africa (Pamela Nichols’, Arlene
Archer’s and Laura Dison’s work, for example). However, while the focus of
conversations in writing centres or writing development work is ostensibly on the
student-writer, we need to consider: what is the underlying basis for the
conversation that shapes its ultimate goal or outcome? Is it primarily the deeper,
long-term development of a more confident, sophisticated writer and thinker, or is
it primarily the creation and publication of a solidly written thesis? This is an
important question because it shapes the orientation of our practice with these
students.
If we are focused more obviously on the production of a well-written,
technically sound thesis produced in the ‘correct’ language and form, we may
neglect or rush past aspects of writing development practice that could focus on
affective issues, such as voice, confidence, fear, and anxiety. We may push the
person in front of us into the background, and foreground their writing; writing they
may be stuck on because of the issues we have glossed over or cannot focus on
because our principal concern is the writing itself. I do not want to argue that we
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should not do this, or that this is an either/or choice: writing centres are there to
help writers create writing that conforms to, and perhaps sometimes challenges, the
standards set within their disciplines. Writing development practice would be
remiss in not talking about how to write set texts, like a thesis, in acceptable,
examinable, and successful forms. But I do want to suggest that if we keep pushing
the whole person into the background to focus more narrowly on the writer who has
to produce a set format thesis within a set amount of time, we will be limiting
writing centres’ socio-cultural role as emancipatory, or empowering, spaces for
writers. I believe part of the power of the writing centre, harking back to its activist
academic development roots (Nichols, 1998, 2017), is its ability to pause the
relentless hamster-wheel of academic knowledge production that students and
lecturers are all engaged in, and bring the focus to the person in front of us. This
means not just or only talking about the writing and its deadline and specific needs,
but how the writer feels about writing, what else they are working on, how they are
coping. We have a unique and powerful space in which to enact a more humanising,
inclusive pedagogy around writing that openly acknowledges the affective and its
crucial role in providing access to or enabling deeper engagement with the
epistemological and ontological aspects of knowing knowledge and making
knowledge in higher education.
Some thoughts on how we acknowledge the affective in our practice
Readers may now be thinking: this is all well and good but what do I do differently
in my writing development work or in my supervision practice? This section
outlines my initial thoughts in response, based on my experiences and lessons
learned in working with both postgraduate and postdoctoral writers across several
different university contexts in South Africa.
The first sounds overly simple, and perhaps quite obvious, but it can be
profound in its impact: acknowledge that writing is hard work, and that not
everyone enjoys it all the time. Part of this hard work is the actual writing itself -
finding the right words and ideas, and expressing them effectively; part of this work
is the work of taking on and being comfortable with a new scholarly identity. Many
students looking at their supervisors see successful, productive, published
researchers, and may feel inadequate and stupid when they think about their own
writing as being tough, stilted, and not enjoyable. Many student-writers feel alone
in their struggles, and are ashamed of admitting them because they chose to do this
degree; they feel they should be able to just get on, and have all the requisite
literacies and knowledge in place (see Aitchison & Mowbray, 2013; Hill, 2007).
Hearing from a more experienced researcher that writing is often very hard work,
and that even the most productive writers struggle, get stuck, and hate their writing
can be enormously encouraging for novice researchers. It also helps students to
realise that if they do not already have doctoral (or masters) level literacies in place
at the start (cf. Bock, 1988), there is nothing wrong with them and they are not
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55
stupid or unfit to complete their studies. It is more likely that the process of
acquiring and mastering these masters or doctoral literacy practices has not been
made effectively overt, accessible, and learnable, whether through supervision or
other forms of writing and research development and support (cf. Thesen & van
Pletzen, 2006). Making these literacies, and the work around writing at these levels,
open for discussion and critique is an important part of the work students do at this
level to take on a new or next-level scholarly identity.
Identity formation at postgraduate level, perhaps especially in doctoral
studies, is a struggle. This struggle is marked by (often intersecting) issues of
gender, for example, balancing study, work, and home for women students
(Aitchison & Mowbray, 2013; Carter, Blumenstein, & Cook, 2013); nationality and
language (Manathunga, 2007, 2019); and socio-economic status and race
(Manathunga, 2007, 2019). The struggles are not the same for every student, and it
is important in conversations with writersand with supervisors as part of their
own development not to reify some kind of homogenous idea of what a doctorate
is or should be. Manathunga (2019, p. 1) terms this ‘assimilationist pedagogy’.
There are different kinds of doctoral dissertations and arguments created within
different disciplinary traditions and ways of working, and part of developing
sophistication and confidence is learning to talk about, explain, and relate to these
in one’s own work. Thus, talking about the struggles of claiming and evidencing a
scholarly identity through writing should be a visible part of writing development
work that we make time for, because it is a crucial part of the whole learning
process.
The second practice we can engage in with writers is to talk to them about
the actual practice of writing. Where and when do they write? How often and for
how long? What are some of their most common stumbling blocks that constrain
their progress or knock their confidence? Many supervisors and writing
development practitioners are likely relatively confident talking about the text itself
and what needs to be done to the draft to get it from where it is currently to the next
step; we may well be less confident about talking to writers about their writing
behaviours, habits, and struggles. It may not even occur to us to have that
conversation; this was a learning moment for me in my first supervision experience.
But, experienced supervisors have argued that this is crucial to whole-candidate
development (Kamler & Thomson, 2006), especially when you consider that the
current doctoral student you are working with may be someone’s supervisor in a
few years’ time. What can current students learn about writing that will benefit their
own future students, and their own ongoing self-directed learning and writing?
This is a point to consider carefully, in both supervision and broader writing
development practice: that we are not just trying to help a student complete a thesis.
We are also trying to help a postgraduate student find and develop a new scholarly
voice, express it more ably and confidently, and make a sophisticated argument that
contributes valuable knowledge to their field of study. To enable this to happen
successfully, we need to help students reflect on their own development as writers
and thinkers: they need to think about their own writing process, and what shapes
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56
it for better and worse. This may involve, for students, supervisors, and writing
development practitioners, sitting with some discomfort as certain academic or
scholarly practices may invoke difficult emotions around how a scholarly voice is
expressed, how language is made appropriate and inappropriate in certain contexts,
and how some academic writing practices work to silence parts of a student’s sense
of self (Thesen, 2013). Ideally, this kind of meta-awareness will enable
postgraduate student-writers to work on maximising the practices that work, and
trying to minimising those that are less helpful (Clarence, 2019b). This meta-
awareness may also help students and supervisors to more openly talk about the
risks involved in some aspects of postgraduate writing, and the emotional labour
involved in managing and mitigating these risks (see Thesen & Cooper, 2014). This
will be constant work, as it is for all writers (Sword, 2017), but the work may only
begin in earnest when this meta-level is made visible and open to analysis and
change.
A third practice, focused more on those who work with writers, such as
writing consultants, supervisors, and critical readers/friends, is to have frank
conversations about their own affective experiences as scholars who are also
researchers and writers. If you are reading this from the perspective of a supervisor,
or writing tutor, consultant or advisor, consider some of the issues you have with
voice, confidence, and creating more sophisticated, layered arguments in your own
writing, and what helps you to move forward productively. Create an open-ended
list you can keep collectively adding to that offers you ways into similar
conversations with students, and also possible advice, tools, and practices they can
try to get their own writing moving again. These can be adapted for masters and
honours students as needed, given that the requirements around sophistication and
originality in the thesis are less demanding at these levels. They can even be adapted
for undergraduate students, especially those working on mini research projects
(often at capstone level), and can deepen a university writing centre or student
support unit’s repertoire of student-centred developmental ‘tools’.
It is important to keep these conversations open, and to focus on critical
engagement and reflection. There are few right answers when it comes to how to
write successfully; for example, Boice (1985) argued that you have to write
habitually, daily, to be productive, whereas Sword (2017) argues that a good time
for writing and reading is a time that works for you, and that writing every day is
not a requirement for success in academic scholarship. What we are looking for
here is not positivist notions of best practice that can be measured as more or less
successful than others. Writingespecially doctoral writingis a highly personal
as well as scholarly endeavour. Given that the Master’s or doctoral thesis will be
published, and for many students (although this differs by national or regional
context) lays the foundation for an academic career, the thesis may represent a
scholar’s beliefs and to an extent their passions, reflected in what they have chosen
to research and write about, and how they have done this. That is personal, and so
is the process of creating it, especially when you consider that many students are
what I have termed ‘part-time students with full-time lives’ (Clarence, 2014, para.
Journal of Praxis in Higher Education, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2020
57
2) and that many women, students of colour, working class students, international,
or immigrant students have varied experiences of postgraduate studies, as noted
earlier in the paper. Drawing on these students’ experiences and feedback about
how they navigate writing at postgraduate level in ongoing work with student-
writers, lecturers and supervisors can connect the scholarly, academic and the
affective, personal dimensions of writing work in powerful, and necessary, ways.
A final thought is that writing centres or writing development units could
create an alternative series of workshops, lunch-time sessions, and writing circles
and invite postgraduate students to sessions ranging from facilitated inputs on
different aspects of writingboth more technical and epistemic as well as more
affectiveto writing circles where writers can share and talk about their draft texts
(Aitchison & Guerin, 2014; Wilmot & McKenna, 2018), as well as issues related
to the processes and practices of writing, reading, and getting feedback. Making the
invisible, behind-closed-doors practices and processes that go into creating a large,
significant text such as a thesis more visible and open for debate and discussion can
go a long way towards raising the profile of academic writing not as a set of skills
good students should have, but as comprising different sets of socio-cultural, value-
laden, disciplinary practices, and ongoing work (Kamler & Thomson, 2006). This
may be able to powerfully counter notions that students are somehow at a deficit if
they cannot already read, write, and think at postgraduate level without help or
guidance, as students themselves will be able to challenge this through their own
changed experiences of writing.
Conclusion
The argument I have made in this paper is that writing development work, whether
through a writing centre, a student-facing support structure, or within a supervision
setting, needs to pay closer, more overt attention to the affective dimensions of
writing at postgraduate level. This claim, and my suggestions for shifting or
augmenting current writing development practices with postgraduate students, is in
no way meant to suggest that there is little or no acknowledgement already of the
affective dimensions of scholarly writing. But, it has been my experience, working
with many different postgraduate and postdoctoral writers and supervisors across
several different South African universities, that the affective dimensions of writing
are under-theorised and under-considered in a great deal of writing development
and supervision work. The powerful emotional labouring writers have to do to
access and make the most of their practical writing time and practice needs to be
more openly thought about, theorised, and incorporated into writing development
work with students, and with supervisors.
This relative silence, or occlusion, around emotional or affective labour has
significant implications for the holism of writing development and supervision
work. In bringing this aspect of scholarship more to the fore, students, supervisors
and those who support them can push back against current higher education
Journal of Praxis in Higher Education, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2020
58
discourses that reduce whole people to metrics, such as how much grant money
they can win, how many papers they can publish, and how many students they can
help or graduate (preferably with excellent marks, so throughput rates grow).
Ultimately, I want to suggest that visibly bringing the affective, human, messy
emotional labour behind the texts writers create into the open, showing student-
writers that all writers struggle and need help, but that writing can be pleasurable
and productive, is important work within current outcomes-driven university
environments. When writers encounter and take on emotional stumbling blocks
they can often find creative ways back into their writing, and move forward. They
can learn not only about what successful writing looks and sounds like, but also
what a successful writer feels and thinks and does to remain successful, and happier
in their writerly skin (see Sword, 2017). What counts as success, too, can be
understood in more holistic and balanced ways that take both experienced and
novice scholars beyond citation and publication metrics and narrow productivity
measures. Writing development practitioners and research supervisors can lead the
way here, and change the ways in which we talk about and do academic writing
work in higher education for the better.
Acknowledgements
I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their very kind, and helpful,
feedback, which assisted me in clarifying my own writerly voice.
Journal of Praxis in Higher Education, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2020
59
Author biography
Sherran Clarence is a Research Associate in CHERTL, at Rhodes University, South
Africa. She works primarily with postgraduate writers around thesis and research
writing, and writing for publication. She was the coordinator of the Writing Centre at
the University of the Western Cape from 2009 to 2014, and her work on academic
writing, as well as academic development work, has been published in Higher
Education Research & Development, Teaching in Higher Education, Critical Studies
in Teaching and Learning and in several edited volumes. She writes a regular blog for
postgraduate writers and supervisors: http://phdinahundredsteps.com.
Journal of Praxis in Higher Education, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2020
60
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... Through our experiences, however, we have found that a much more significant benefit of our groups has been the pastoral care we have experienced, particularly in relation to the turbulent emotions associated with academic Pastoral Care in Doctoral Education 4 writing. This should, perhaps, not be surprising since it is clear that academic writing is a form of identity work; doctoral students need to develop their own voice, confidence, and sophistication in their writing as they transform into conveyors of knowledge through their candidature (Clarence, 2020). As noted by Clarence (2020), identity work necessitates emotional investment; at its core, therefore, writing is affective (i.e., it involves feelings and emotions). ...
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Book
Helping Doctoral Students Write offers a new approach to doctoral writing. By treating research as writing and writing as research, the authors offer pedagogical strategies for doctoral supervisors that will assist the production of well-argued and lively dissertations." "It is clear that many doctoral candidates find research writing complicated and difficult, but the advice they receive often glosses over the complexities of writing and/or locates the problem in the writer. Rejecting the DIY websites and manuals that promote a privatized, skills-based approach to writing research, Kamler and Thomson provide a new framework for scholarly work that is located in personal institutional and cultural contexts. Their discussion of the complexities of forming a scholarly identity is illustrated by stories and writings of actual doctoral students. The pedagogical approach developed in the book is based on the notion of writing as a social practice. This approach allows supervisors to think of doctoral writers as novices who need to learn new ways with words as they enter the discursive practices of scholarly communities. This involves learning sophisticated writing practices with specific sets of conventions and textual characteristics. The authors offer supervisors practical advice on helping with commonly encountered writing tasks such as the proposal, the journal abstract, the literature review and constructing the dissertation argument." "In conclusion, they present a persuasive argument that universities must move away from simply auditing supervision to supporting the development of scholarly research communities. Any doctoral supervisor keen to help their students develop as academics will find the new ideas presented in this book fascinating and insightful reading.<br /