Graduate Student Peer Consultations: An Interview with Tom Lindsay and Sara Saylor

Sara Saylor and Tom Lindsay coordinate the UWC’s support services for graduate students. They took time out of their busy schedules to fill us in on what those services actually look like. Their experiences offer invaluable insight at a time when writing centers are wrestling with how to best support both graduate student writing and graduate student consultants. We are extremely grateful for their time and their ongoing commitment to the writing center at UT!

1) So what is the graduate student writing initiative?

Sara: The UWC’s graduate student writing initiative provides free support for UT graduate writers in all departments at all stages of graduate study. We offer four main kinds of writing support: individual consultations; writing retreats; workshops; and weekly writing groups. We also provide online writing resources, and we visit graduate classes and orientations to lead presentations. Finally, we help to connect graduate students to other sources of support at UT, including career services and resources for international students.

All writers benefit from community and structure, but these are especially important for graduate students, who are in the midst of a major transition from writing class assignments toward writing as independent researchers and scholars. The goal of the UWC’s graduate writing services is not just to help students improve specific projects, but to help them develop professional identities and effective writing practices for the long term of their careers.

Tom: Sara has summed up the new initiative beautifully. I would just add that Sara and I, along with the UWC’s administrative leaders, recognize how timely the initiative is. Graduate students at UT are under increasing institutional pressures to finish their degrees efficiently, and we hope that our services will help graduate writers do just that. But as Sara suggests, our aim isn’t just to help graduate students finish projects like the dissertation, but to help them develop the sorts of practices they’ll need to thrive as writing professionals both inside and outside academia. 

2) How are graduate student consultations different from the sessions regularly offered by the UWC? What’s the process for a graduate student who wants to bring in her, say, dissertation or master’s thesis? 

Sara: Like all other UWC consultations, graduate sessions use a non-directive, non-evaluative approach. Graduate consultations are 45 minutes long. Starting this fall, each writer’s first UWC consultation will start with a preliminary discussion and online survey to assess the writer’s levels of confidence about writing. To request an appointment, grad students can visit our web site.

Grad students have the option to bring a draft of up to 8 pages (hard copy or electronic) to work on during the consultation. However, it’s not necessary to bring a draft at all. Writers might work with consultants to brainstorm ideas for new projects or discuss the writing process. It’s hard to generalize about the consultation process since each writer has different needs, but here are a few thoughts:

If a grad student wants to work on a specific project, such as a dissertation chapter, we begin by asking her which section she would like to focus on (up to 8 pages) and what main concerns she would like to address. Then, we generally read that section out loud, work together to identify patterns to focus on in revision, and talk through a plan for next steps. 

One main difference from undergraduate consultations is that grad consultations tend to include more attention to the logistics of planning and carrying out a large-scale independent project, like a master’s thesis or dissertation. That means we’re more likely to talk with grad students about practical issues like setting and enforcing realistic goals, communicating effectively with advisors, and managing time. It also means that some consultees will follow up and return for regular visits, so that consultants have the chance to practice mentoring a peer through a long-term project. 

Another key difference is that while undergrad consultations often focus on class assignments, grad consultations are more likely to focus on the conventions of professional genres (like conference talks, scholarly articles, grant proposals, or dissertations). When you’re working with an undergraduate writer on a class paper, you might refer to the prompt or the instructor’s comments to clarify the goals of the assignment. But when you’re working with a grad student, you need to find other ways to clarify the expectations of the genre she’s working in--starting with asking the writer herself. For Master’s and diss projects, you might look at her committee’s feedback together or refer to past dissertations directed by the same advisors. For other professional genres, you might look together at examples of published work in her field. For example, this week I worked with a doctoral student in Education on a book review draft. We read through sample reviews from the journal where she hopes to publish it and then discussed how she might revise her draft to fit within that journal’s conventions.

One final consideration for prospective grad consultants is that sometimes, graduate writers just need to talk to someone about what’s on their mind. Listening compassionately to writers’ concerns is a vital part of our work. Writers at all levels experience fear and anxiety, but these emotions may intensify for graduate students, who are working at new levels of independence in challenging new genres while juggling the competing demands of work and personal life. In some cases, graduate writers may feel that their advisors are not providing the guidance they need, or they may feel afraid to reach out to their committee, so it’s helpful for them to have another responsive listener to talk to. As UWC consultants, we cannot take the place of an advisor or counselor, but we can take steps to help writers feel less overwhelmed by these kinds of emotional strain. We can do this by asking questions that help writers to clarify their options (for example, “Is it possible that your advisor would agree to review a partial/preliminary draft?” “What are your options for seeking feedback from other committee members or colleagues?” “Have you talked with your committee about a timetable for draft review before your defense?”). We can also refer them to other services, like the Ombuds office (for conflict resolution) and the Counseling and Mental Health Center (which offers dissertation support groups and other services specifically for graduate students). In short, grad consultants should prepare for the challenges and rewards of working with people who may be under emotional pressure.  

Tom: What a wonderful and thorough description of our consulting practice, Sara! All I can do is emphasize: while a lot of the work we do focuses on traditional academic genres, such as the M.A. thesis and the dissertation, we also work with all other sorts of projects. For instance, I’ve helped writers with fellowship and grant applications, book reviews, seminar papers, teaching philosophy statements, dissertation acknowledgement pages, draft responses for oral qualifying exams, and emails to editors. We hope graduate writers will bring us “anything and everything.” If it’s a genre we’re not familiar with, we’ll draw on our in-house library and our colleagues to learn about it. 

3) What are the requirements for being a consultant for graduate student writers?

Sara: Consultants for grad student writers should be experienced academic writers themselves--either postdocs or currently enrolled graduate students. Experience with non-directive, non-evaluative consultations is ideal, but the UWC also hires graduate consultants who have other kinds of experience teaching, tutoring, participating in peer review groups, and working in writing centers. Since we now work with graduate writers in all departments, we are always excited to hear from prospective consultants who have specific kinds of expertise, such as writing in STEM fields and working with writers for whom English is not a first language.  

Tom: Great answer, Sara. I’d add that, when looking for new folks to consult with graduate writers, some of the key things we look for--or that our bosses look for, because they’re the ones who do the interviewing and hiring--are friendliness, candor, and curiosity. Even when working with complex, high-stakes academic projects, I’d still say that the best things a consultant can do are 1) engage writers and put them at ease, 2) listen carefully, and 3) respond with honest, thoughtful questions. Oh, and a good consultant always knows when to acknowledge ignorance. Not sure what a social science abstract is supposed to look like? That’s cool. A good consultant will say so and then help the writer at hand find other resources to answer their question. This sort of ego-free candor is especially important when working with graduate students, whose writing decisions often have to be very advisor-, genre-, and discipline-specific. 

4) Why did you decide to get involved with consulting graduate students?

Sara: A couple of years ago, I met a friend for drinks at an academic conference in New Orleans. He asked how my dissertation chapter was going, and I admitted that I was feeling stuck and anxious about it. As I described the ideas I was struggling to articulate, my friend asked questions and took notes on a handful of cocktail napkins. That conversation grew into a plan for moving forward with the chapter. My friend challenged me to “write the stupid version” of this chapter’s argument--the most outrageous, half-baked thesis I could devise--and send it to him within a week. He transformed my writing process by giving me what Tom describes below: permission to write something imperfect. I decided to get involved because I wanted to “pay forward” this kind of peer support, which made a crucial difference in my own dissertation writing process.  

The UWC was not yet open to graduate writers when I completed my PhD, and no faculty-led writing groups were available in my field of study. So I found support in informal draft exchanges and accountability groups. I was thrilled to learn that the UWC had begun serving grad students, so that writers could now find more systematic and structured forms of support all in one place, and I’ve been excited to join that effort. I became a graduate writing consultant in order to connect compassionately with other writers who are struggling as I did, to help them get un-stuck, and to remind them that they are not alone. 

Tom: I fell into this work almost by accident. I was in my final years of the PhD in UT’s English Department and working as a “Graduate Student Administrator” in the then Undergraduate Writing Center when Dean Esther Raizen invited me and a colleague to talk about writing process during her first Dissertation Boot Camp. It was one of the most enjoyable and gratifying consulting experiences I’ve ever had. The graduate students were eager to cultivate writing practices that worked for them and many took our suggestions to heart: some started using the “Pomodoro Method” for breaking up long writing sessions; others told me they began to track their day-to-day writing in personal writing logs; still others found that they loved non-linear styles of brainstorming, such as mind-mapping, which they’d never thought to try before; and a couple even went on to start graduate writing groups of their own. When I talk about writing process with undergraduates, I hope I’m helping them be successful in their current classes, but I’m never certain how many of them see my advice as relevant to the work they’ll do or the lives they’ll lead outside UT. But with Dean Raizen’s Boot Camp participants, I felt I’d helped my peers develop strategies--even if they were small ones--that would serve them for the rest of their writing lives. I’m committed to serving graduate students in the UWC so I can continue to do this sort of work.

5) What is the most rewarding part of being a graduate writer consultant? What about it do you find most challenging? 

Sara: For me, the most challenging part of being a graduate writer consultant is narrowing down one clear, manageable focus for a consultation. When a grad writer wants help with a large project, or has multiple projects underway, or wants to talk about the big picture of her whole writing process, it can be challenging to do the “triage” work of determining what we most urgently need to address and what we can realistically tackle in 45 minutes. Another challenge I anticipate (but haven’t yet encountered) is that graduate writers may ask consultants to provide kinds of feedback that we cannot offer--say, to evaluate how good the work is, whether their advisor will be satisfied with it, etc., or to direct the exact steps that students should take to “fix” the draft. 

One great reward of this work is the chance to connect with peers who are doing high-level intellectual work in all disciplines. I love to learn about the content of each writer’s project, especially when it’s on an unfamiliar topic I might never have encountered otherwise; it’s a great pleasure to spend a meeting just asking questions and hearing writers think out loud. This week alone, I’ve learned about nineteenth-century French novels, classical philosophy, petroleum engineering, physical education, and video games! Consulting with graduate writers also offers professional benefits for us as writers, scholars, and teachers. Working with graduate writers makes me more mindful about my own writing practices and gives me ideas about how to resolve my own struggles. Through graduate consulting and working with writing groups, I’ve learned more about how to ask (and whom to ask) for different kinds of help. This work can also help consultants to become helpful peer reviewers for friends and colleagues. For consultants aspiring toward teaching careers at research universities, this work prepares us to give effective feedback on grad students’ writing and shows us what kinds of support grad students need from their faculty mentors.  

For me, the biggest reward of grad consulting is the sheer gratitude and relief that many writers express after working with us--especially if they were expecting something like a proofreading service for their draft but are pleasantly surprised to take away useful strategies for future writing instead. It’s gratifying to know that we’ve given meaningful help to someone who was in need, perhaps someone who didn’t know where else to turn. I find it rewarding to see writers take up the resources we talked about and put them to use in later projects; for instance, I’m something of an evangelist for the They Say/I Say writing handbook, so I’m always happy to hear back from writers who found this book helpful after I recommended it. And of course, it’s deeply satisfying to share a sense of celebration when graduate writers hit major milestones, like publishing an article, defending a prospectus, or finishing their PhD! 

Tom: I think my previous answer sums up what I find rewarding about this work. As for the challenges, the main one is figuring out how to be both “writing coach” and “friendly counselor,” because, for many graduate writers, a consultant needs to be a little bit of both. I mean, graduate writing is fraught with all sorts of non-academic or extra-academic challenges--more so, I’d say, than your typical undergraduate writer. And these challenges often come out during consultations. For instance, in a given week, one of my graduate clients might be negotiating a complex disagreement with their advisor while another might be struggling to balance writing time with child-care. In other situations, an international graduate student might be struggling with home-sickness and culture shock while another might disclose personal or mental health problems, such as long-running procrastination and insomnia. In situations like these, the challenge is to be a friendly and compassionate listener while also knowing when (and sometimes when not) to steer a client back to the project at hand or to another sort of support resource. But as with all writing center pedagogy, simply asking questions can be the best way to deal with such moments. And these challenges have taught me how to listen to a writer and to provide structure for a consultation without imposing my own agenda on the session.

6) What advice would you give someone else who was interested in becoming a graduate student writing consultant?

Sara:

  1. Feel free to talk to me or Tom if you’d like to observe a consultation or learn more about this work.
  2. Think about the kinds of support that you would find most helpful as a writer, and work to incorporate those into your consulting practice.
  3. Focus on the kinds of help you’re prepared to offer as a trained writing consultant, rather than trying to step into the more specialized and directive roles of an advisor or journal editor. Even if you happen to be familiar with the writer’s subject matter, try to focus on the writing (and writing process) itself during your consultation.
  4. Acknowledge the limits of our services, and remember that it’s okay to ask for guidance when you’re not sure what to do during a consultation. Tom, the AD’s, and I are here to help; the UWC bookshelf offers plenty of resources on discipline-specific writing; and your work as a consultant includes referring grad writers to more specialized services. For example, you can help a consultee with the basics of organization and clarity for a job letter, but you might also refer them to UT’s career services in their field for more specialized feedback.

Tom: Along these lines, too, I’d emphasize that graduate consultants need to be especially prepared to do a little bit of homework, even if it’s during a particular session. Graduate students generally present writing challenges that are more specialized (to an advisor, to a genre, to a discipline or department, to a journal, etc.) than undergraduates. Accordingly, consultants ought to be prepared to not have all the answers. As Sara says, our in-house library and other online resources will help graduate consultants seek some answers “on-the-fly” and in real time--I use these resources all the time. And when I can’t help a writer find the answers they need during the session, I’ll often help them compose messages to their advisors, so they can get help from someone with more specialized authority.

7) Is there anything else about consulting graduate students that you would like to share with the readers of Axis?


Sara: I recently met with a graduate writer who was in the final stages of dissertation work. We reviewed his Acknowledgments section, which included thanks to the many advisors and readers who had helped him with the project along with some beautiful statements of gratitude to his loved ones. I almost teared up reading his prose, and I thought of how lucky I am to get to do this for a living! The experience also reminded me of writing my own dissertation acknowledgments, which included nods to the many readers and friends who helped to get me through the process. We sometimes perceive academic writing as solitary work, but the truth is that it takes a village to keep a writer encouraged and supported through graduate school and beyond. As a UWC consultant, I feel honored to become part of that village.

Tom: Like Sara, I’ll speak to a recent experience, too. A couple weeks ago, I met with a graduate student who described being stuck in a serious rut of procrastination and non-productivity. He was extremely anxious about going to his advisor with rough material but unable to move forward with his draft without advisor feedback. After he talked about months of little-to-no writing progress, I said, “Forget about your advisor. Just write a couple pages for me. Write anything at all--it can be total crap. I don’t care, because I’m not on your committee.” I went on, “We’re going to make you another appointment for the coming week and I want to see the crappiest five pages you’ve ever written, okay? The crappier the better, even!” He balked at first, but then chuckled and agreed. The next week, he’d written five pages of a new chapter. The next week, he’d written five more pages AND been in touch with his advisor for the first time in months. We’ve plans to continue this pattern next month, and his advisor has agreed to start looking at his rough draft materials. Sometimes, all a writer needs is permission to write something imperfect.