Suggestions for Supporting Graduate Writers by Mary Hedengren

Today's Axis blog comes from Dr. Mary Hedengren, lecturer at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and former Graduate Writing Coordinator for the University Writing Center at University of Texas at Austin. 

This is our favorite picture of Mary. 

This is our favorite picture of Mary. 

    Thanks to a post-doctoral fellowship offered by the Department of Rhetoric and Writing and the College of Liberal Arts, I’ve spent the last year working with humanities graduate students, and by working with I mean literally working side-by-side in writing retreats and sustained writing groups as well as “working with” them as a consultant and “working with” them as an object of research. I’ve been in tearful consultations with 6th-year students who wonder whether they’ll ever finish and in feverishly optimistic writing-feedback groups. I’ve presided over more than 700 student work hours of writing retreats and facilitated 16 writing groups and held dozens of one-on-one consultations about everything from advisor management to the tricky use of indefinite articles in American Academic English. I’ve waded through the recent explosion in research about graduate writers and even more explosive polemics about them. I’ve also tried to add my own stick to the bonfire and am currently preparing the results of the surveys and interviews administered to liberal arts graduate students about their feedback sources.  At the end of it all, here are the conclusions and best practices that I’ve discovered:

  • Graduate writers need other people. This shouldn’t be too shocking of a conclusion--composition studies has long disputed the proverbial solitary writer in the lonely garret--yet our perceptions about professional academic writing are still rather antiquated. Academic research depends on the ideas of peers (Boud & Lee 2005)--peer review, conference panels, research groups--but the ideal for graduate students remains “independence.” However much we discuss the need for socially situated writing and the impossibility of “authorship,” we still expect graduate students to retreat to a solitary cube like a black box and that quality academic writing will emerge. If it doesn’t, groups may be established or recommended as a remedial effort. However, writing center studies scholars have long contended that social writing is for all writers, not just struggling writers. McAlpine and Amundsen declare “while the doctoral journey is often characterized as one from dependence to independence… we are not sure this is the most appropriate characterization… we believe supporting doctoral students in developing their ability to negotiate intentions and extend and maintain a network of relationships may serve them better in their academic futures” (2011;35). As this quote makes clear, good relationships with advisors may be necessary, but are only part of the wider network, which may include peers of various sorts (Baker & Lattuca 2010).
     
    • Recommendations The UWC recommends encouraging graduate students to wisely cultivate “networks of relationships” through a variety of policies and practices that may include the following:
      • shared offices and other collaborative spaces
      • strong graduate cohort groups,
      • graduate mentors,
      • peer graduate writing groups,
      • advisor-led graduate writing groups,
      • Department- or advisor-led networking events at conferences and symposia
         
  • Graduate writers crave structure. When graduate students transition from coursework to dissertation-writing, they lose a lot of the structure that helped them to progress. The humanities has a highly variable time-to-degree, especially compared to more structured programs in medicine, law and even other academic stem fields. And even the relatively high rate of attrition in the humanities may be of a different sort: medical or law students know clearly when they are choosing to leave their programs, but graduate students can linger 8, 9, 10 years or longer without knowing whether or when they’ll finish (Ehrenberg et al. 2009). Barbara Lovett, studying those who decided to leave their PhD programs, found that many graduate students were unaware of basic expectations--for instance, one student was unaware that in her department, a “B” meant “work not appropriate for graduate school” and was flummoxed when she was not invited to continue her graduate degree even after getting a good GPA (2001). Writing centers are places that are comfortable with ambiguity as writers learn to navigate their own personal writing practices, but they are also places that can provide support and structure to writers. The solution may be simultaneously to create more structure during graduate school and to build more ambiguity into earlier stages of education.
    • Recommendations The UWC makes the following recommendations for graduate programs, from more intensive to least:
      • Hold workshops and meetings about the transition from coursework to dissertation work in order to “alert students to these transitions toward independence” (Gardner 2008;347)
      • Schedule fellowships or other low-structure times for later in student careers, when they have already established networks and self-study structures
      • Develop departmental guidelines for students and advisors about dissertations (e.g. length, type of research, etc.), mentoring (e.g. amount and type of help, meeting times, willingness to review preliminary drafts, etc.) and other ambiguous projects.
      • Create intermediately ambiguous projects before the thesis or dissertation, such as multi-semester courses, capstone projects or article-writing clubs.
      • Especially provide structure during the least structured times of graduate student life (e.g. dissertation boot camps during summer or writing groups while students are on fellowship)
      • Provide scaffolded structure where students can see models of self-directed research. For instance, hold department symposia where faculty members and graduate students present works-in-progress and give and receive feedback, or encourage advisor-led writing groups.