The ubiquitous cry from PGR and PhD students is the wish they had started writing their thesis sooner. Both the lure of the lab or the fieldwork to generate more data, and the remorseless obsolence of literature demanding constant reading update, distract from and/or justify avoidance of the commitment to write ”just yet…”. Compounding this are the sometimes bruising encounters some students have with their supervisors: the ‘just write’ injunction can acquire near-paradoxical qualities in the mind of such students with the effect that scholarly identity and confidence in capability are detrimented. And for international students there is the added factor that identity as student researcher is mediated through a linguistic barrier that manifests itself with an intimidating immediacy when they write. The combined effect of these factors triggers interferences that, whilst they are uniquely the product of each individual’s habitus and cultural capital, produce the common result of writing avoidance.
In my experience, a group-coached approach to these interferences has proved successful in terms of not just productivity per se, but also the enhanced confidence and motivation to rise to new writing challenges. As part of the University of Portsmouth Graduate School programme, since 2009 I have run several writing groups each year.
These small groups (each no more than 10 students) have one simple goal: to instil the habit of writing. This apparently simplistic approach belies the need to apply all of the qualities of individual coaching to this context. If we take Biggs &Tang’s ‘what the student does’ constructivism, we need to add the notion of ‘what the coach is’ into such a pedagogy to ensure we are, to paraphrase Hiefetz and Laurie, maximising higher degree student well-being not comfort. The purpose is to facilitate ‘triple loop learning’ (Hargrove) to move towards transformatory, higher order goals which, by exploiting the generativeness of peer-based writing, reading and discussion practice and experience, include the growth of identity, reflexivity and self-reflexive appreciations.
A group meets for 6 sessions during which each group member commits to submitting a piece of writing to each session deadline, reading and commenting others’ submissions, and then in the session discussing the impact each piece of writing has on them, its positive features and constructive recommendation for improvement. A key feature of this is that the focus is not on topic or subject content, nor on grammar-type issues. The group is critically interdisciplinary thus the movement for the group members is to start noticing and appreciating the qualities of the text in hand, for example its awareness of audience, coherence and cohesion. Work is not expected to be complete, indeed it can be very early draft, and the agreed word limit is a maximum of 3000 words.
All of these elements challenge the beliefs that students tend to hold about the act of writing and the writing they generate – both in terms of how critique lands with them and how they defend aspects of it.
Does it work? Not for everyone, but commonly the individual outcome is well represented by these reflective words of a second language PhD student: “The most important habit I got from the writing group was the writing process itself: writing something, and then leaving, then going back to it, tweaking it, amending it, and rephrasing it with a more critical eye. And then, that was it: there is a recipe for good writing! It is commitment and perseverance. The process of coming back to a text can take several loops but it is worth the satisfaction you have when it is pleasant to read to you and especially to others.”