Institutionalizing Doctoral Writing Practices: Writing Courses (4/5)

While North American universities have a long tradition of offering compulsory composition classes for first-year undergraduates, there are no comparable institutional structures to support the writing of graduate students. Rose and McClafferty (2001: 27) recently issued ‘a call for the explicit and sustained teaching of writing in graduate education’ (see also Mullen, 2001). They argue that while the quality of scholarly writing is widely bemoaned inside the academy, little is done ‘to address the quality of writing in a systematic way at the very point where scholarly style and identity is being shaped’ (p. 28). They describe one such effort at UCLA, where Rose instituted a course on professional writing in 1996.

The course is structured as a writing workshop and is taught by rotating faculty members. It is not framed as a remedial site of intervention but rather as a discursive space to support students to learn scholarly genres. The primary texts for the course are student writing across a range of education disciplines (social science and comparative education, psychological studies, urban schooling, higher education and organizational change). Each week students bring three to fi ve pages of their writing to the workshop, they distribute it to small groups or the group at large, read it aloud, give their assessment of it and then engage in discussion with peers and the instructor about it. Students range from first year to those writing their dissertations. The topics of discussion range widely from issues of grammar and mechanics, to style and audience, to evidence and argumentation, to research design and broad issues of conceptualization.

Rose and McClafferty (2001) cite numerous benefits for students enrolled in the ten-week workshops, including: an increased sense of agency about how to craft writing; a stronger sense of audience and rhetorical stance (how to make writing accessible while honouring the conventions of a discipline); and improved skills as critical readers and co-instructors, ‘guiding, prodding, pushing and encouraging each other to write more effectively and more authoritatively (p. 30). Above all, they emphasize the positive effects on student scholarly identities. Workshop spaces encouraged students to establish and refi ne their relationship to their work and disciplines, and more consciously shape a scholarly identity within their disciplines.

It is important to emphasize, however, that the UCLA course also had longterm institutional effects – generating other courses and the involvement of many academic staff. Over time, a further special topics course in writing and rhetoric was introduced. The faculty experimented with writing tutorials for non-native speakers of English, some students formed writing groups and some faculty began talking more frequently and forcefully about writing, with divisions increasingly giving attention to writing in their newly revised core courses on research practices. Issues of teaching and workload allocation, and finding appropriate instructors and resources were debated, shifting a view of writing as simply a technical or service enterprise and generating ‘a heightened attention to writing beyond the boundaries of the course itself’ (p. 31).

In Australia, a number of institutionally sanctioned courses for graduate students in a variety of disciplines is also beginning to emerge. Starfield (2003) reports on a faculty-based thesis writing course for postgraduate research students in the arts and social sciences. Initially conceptualized as solely for ESL writers with problems, the course was extended to both fi rst and second language speakers of English in recognition of the fact that thesis writing requires ‘a range of contextualised, negotiable literacy practices unfamiliar to many students’ (p. 138).

The course uses annotated examples of Australian arts and social sciences theses taken from the Australian digital thesis website and focuses on writing different sections of the thesis genre. Starfield calls on current applied linguistic research on academic writing (Bunton, 2002; Dudley-Evans, 1997; Swales and Feak, 1994) and offers a range of strategies to students for constructing their own theses. She argues that students from other faculties could benefit from such courses, especially if they use rich examples from recent theses in appropriate disciplines.

Paltridge (2003) also describes a course on dissertation writing at a large Australian university: this was designed for TESOL students. Like the example given by Starfield, this course also makes extensive use of models and analysis of actual dissertation texts to build student knowledge. The course meets weekly for an hour over a full semester and is situated in genre-based approaches to writing. The teacher is a faculty member and teaching is generally in small groups of six to ten students. The starting point is a discussion of the social and cultural context of dissertation writing, the effect of novices writing for expert examiners and the roles and responsibilities of student writers. Students then engage in analysing sample dissertations.

As Paltridge explains, this strategy allows students to

  … carry out an ‘on-line genre analysis’ (Flowerdew, 1993) of a dissertation with a similar research perspective to their own. This analysis takes them through the major sections of the sample dissertation, considering both the context and organization of the stages of the text as they go. Students then consider the reasons for the various organizational choices the writers of their texts have made. They report on their analyses to the class, and see to what extent the practices of particular research types differ (or not) from each other. Students then use the results of their analyses as a guide for preparing the writing of the dissertations. The use of models not only gives students a guide to conventional forms of texts (Dudley-Evans, 1997) but also provides ‘valuable clues to the status of knowledge in the field’ (Charney and Carlson, 1995: 116).

(Paltridge, 2003: 12)

 On the basis of this work, students propose a table of contents for their own dissertations which they present to the class, explaining their rationale for the way they have organized their text. This leads to sessions on planning individual chapters, using the results of previous genre studies as a framework to guide student writing.

Thus, a very closely guided set of textwork strategies is used to scaffold student writing and increase textual knowledge, genre knowledge and social knowledge. As with other institutional initiatives we’ve considered,13 the student evaluations are overwhelmingly positive and point to yet another way for supporting thesis writing outside the supervisory relationship.


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

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