Institutionalizing Doctoral Writing Practices: International Collaborations (5/5)

Introduction

The new globalized and networked conditions in which universities operate provide new opportunities for creating writing cultures though international online graduate exchange. There are many benefits for doctoral researchers and their thesis development in building doctoral writing communities across nations. To illustrate the possibilities, we consider one example where supervisors used their international networks and intellectual partnerships to create new spaces for doctoral text work and identity work.

The collaboration between Julie McLeod in the Faculty of Education, Deakin University, Australia, and Mimi Bloch, in the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, was based in their research conversations developed during sabbatical. They decided that students in both countries would benefit from a cross-institutional reading group. But it took two years of planning and implementation to make it happen. Below we use excerpts from McLeod’s (2004) discussion to outline the nature of this ICT-based doctoral exchange.

 The exchange was conducted through a combination of an online 15 week seminar and discussion of readings and research, video-conferences and synchronous chat, face-to-face meetings and a two-day student research conference held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The exchange was conceived as a valuable way for students to extend their research and doctoral studies through cross-national and comparative dialogue, and through the building of new kinds of doctoral communities that spanned time and space. At one level, it was a form of ‘research training’ and induction into the culture of international networks and collaborations. At another level, it was a learning ‘adventure’, embraced with enthusiasm, excitement and dedication by all who participated, and which carried with it throughout a sense of the unexpected and uncertain. Indeed, it has been the unexpected learnings, the unpredictable outcomes and ‘lines of flight’ arising from collisions and conjunctions of ideas and experiences that have provided some of the most powerful insights for participants in their reflections on their own research.

(McLeod, 2004: 1)

The two universities were enthusiastic and supportive of the initiative, and our respective Departments and Faculty provided strong financial support for the program—for example Deakin Education subsidised the travel of its students, and Madison School of Education provided accommodation and meals for the visiting Deakin students. On the one hand, such support can be interpreted as symptomatic of the sector push for markets and internationalisation, but, on the other hand, it also allowed for innovation in learning and cross-cultural collaboration. Students who participated in the exchange did not pay any additional university fees—there was no immediate ‘market’ or commercial gain, though the exchange very likely contributed to strengthening links between the two institutions. A primary motivating goal for all participants was to learn across and with national differences, to encounter different traditions of graduate education. It was not market-driven, its focus on ‘differences’ was not subordinated to economic ends, and it was designed as a collaborative exchange, where the ‘host’ country was neither one institution/country nor the other: the point of reference for ‘difference’ was constantly shifting. The exchange itself was made possible by the use of ICT, and ongoing reflection on the kind of learning and interactions this created (or inhibited) was a key feature of our learning experiences.

(McLeod, 2004: 3)

McLeod stresses that the mix of ‘virtual and actual’ communication was crucial to the success of the exchange. Students in the US and Australia had to negotiate the challenge of email online discussions and the vulnerability of showing their scholarly selves in formation on the screen and in teleconferences. The opportunity to meet face-to-face ‘in the flesh’ at a two-day conference at Madison in 2004, with all the social events and dinners attached to such gatherings, generated enormous excitement and anxiety. Each student presented a research paper, based on their dissertation work, research interactions and the readings from the seminar. But the conference facilitated a wide range of student understandings, some of which were unexpected. These are the reflections of Annelies Kamp, one of the Australian doctoral researchers:

… it was not until the entire exchange community met face-to-face in Madison in April 2004, that the influence of our diverse pedagogies struck me. The Madison students impressed all of us as being very well grounded theoretically, no doubt a reflection in part of the depth of the coursework component of their candidatures. In contrast they appeared struck by our mode of independent research, the way we would take theories and apply them to our own studies. Their journey from knowledge transmission to knowledge production was by way of a more structured route, more closely supervised; ours was more fluid, less closely supervised.

(Kamp, 2004: 1)

  All the Australian students highlighted the importance of being taken seriously ‘overseas’. They returned home energized and re-enthused about the significance of their research. It was as if they had acquired a new vantage point from which to view their work and emerging scholarly identities. There have also been other textual spin-offs. Four Australian students presented a seminar with McLeod and Bloch at the national education research conference in December 2004 and subsequently wrote chapters on their experience for a book on international doctoral collaborations, edited by Bloch and McLeod. Such work offers new opportunities for thinking about the text work/identity work in doctoral research communities and yet another opportunity to think institutionally about how to foster international writing cultures.

 Making institutional writing cultures happen

We have argued throughout this book that writing and doctoral research are one and the same, and that thinking of a neutral stage of ‘writing up’ at the end of doctoral research is profoundly misleading. We have suggested a range of strategies that supervisors can adopt in order to make scholarly writing practices and the formation of a scholarly identity integral to their pedagogy. We noted at the beginning of this article that a reliance on the initiative of individual supervisors was the predominant situation, and that universities needed to do more to support, spread and develop writing-focused supervision practices.

We have outlined five sites in which writing has begun to be taken more seriously. It is important to state that these kinds of initiatives are not cost neutral. Pilot writing projects are often initiated because interested staff have donated time, on top of ordinary workloads, to get them up and running. Or, conversely, it may be that pilot projects are funded, with the expectation that new practices will somehow be absorbed into unchanged workloads. Neither of these scenarios is sustainable in the long term. If thorough evaluations of writing-oriented initiatives are conducted (and in our experience this is often not the case), then the long term costs of such ventures must be part of the evaluation. Changed cultures require changed management systems, including shifts in the ways resources and workloads are managed.

Because most universities now rely heavily on reputation, quality measures, marketing and, in many countries, incomes derived from student fees, they are increasingly vulnerable to evidence which suggests that some are more responsive to student needs than others.15 Doctoral completions count more than ever in ‘image’ and ‘quality’ management technologies, and institutions can ill afford to continue to ignore the connections between writing and doctoral success in examination.

This could be taken to mean more attention to technical writing skills in the undergraduate phases of university education (Avery and Bryan, 2001), and greater provision of student support services for particular students who are seen to be deficient and in need of remediation. However, we suggest that these kinds of approaches are insufficient.

As universities move to ensure that all university teaching staff are cognizant of a range of teaching and learning strategies appropriate to adult learners, and as they begin to experiment with models of group supervision and peer support, it seems to us that it is the right time for them to consider how to provide support for writing-oriented supervision practices. Making doctoral writing a topic of conversation among supervisors would at least be a start.

We hope that this book provides an incentive for such discussions and that it constitutes a resource for those supervisors whose institutions are not yet aware of the importance of text work and identity work.


Reference:

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision (p.153). Routledge.

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