Institutionalizing Doctoral Writing Practices: Collaborative Work with Academic Support Services (3/5)

Most universities offer a range of academic support services. These usually include undergraduate workshops and individual and group tutorial assistance. Together with study skills, academic writing is a major concern for those who work in such centres. In recent times, these services have begun to support doctoral students as well. Increasing numbers of students are writing in languages other than their first language, and tighter frames for doctoral completion have created new pressures for the provision of research writing support (Aitchison and Lee, 2006).

But language and academic skills advisers in these centres often operate from a remedial or crisis model of intervention separate from graduate schools. They are often physically and organizationally removed from the faculties with which they work. They may not be seen as academic staff and may be represented differently in employment classifications. They do not ‘teach’ on university degrees. What they do is discursively positioned as complementary and supplementary to the ‘mainstream’. Thus, staff from academic services often find themselves working at a physical, social and cultural distance from faculties.

This structural divide is also constructed by the discourse of ‘service’ which sees students as ‘clients’. The mission of support staff is directed towards the provision of specific ‘skills’ and remedial assistance to students. Such centres often contain staff who are particularly interested in language and writing as a social practice, and many have completed specific education and have done research in the field. In recent years, staff with doctorates have been appointed and many are pursuing doctoral studies. They have begun to initiate research into aspects of student academic experience and to hold conferences at which student services staff are the major attendees. They have also begun to publish articles and books (e.g. Aitchison, 2003; Leibowitz and Goodman, 1997; Nelson and San Miguel, 2000; Starfield, 2003) and there is now a specific publication, The Writing Centre Journal, 12 devoted to the activities of such staff. These university colleagues possess a significant pool of expertise and they are a writing resource with which supervisors can connect.

We suggest that universities need to do more to bring academic support staff and supervisors together – not in supervision training but rather in fruitful partnerships that will benefit students. We report briefly on two such initiatives developed in Australia: thesis writing circles by Claire Aitchison and proposal writing workshops for international students and their supervisors by Kate Cadman.

 Aitchison (2003) initiated thesis writing circles in the Learning Skills Unit of a large metropolitan university, where she was employed as a language specialist. Frustrated with urgent calls from supervisors and management for a ‘quick fix’ to student writing problems, she sought to create a different kind of support that moved from a model of writing development as crisis control, to a proactive program that embedded writing with research, acknowledging writing as knowledge creating rather than merely as knowledge recording.

 (Aitchison and Lee, 2006: 70)

 The writing circles were structured as peer writing groups to mitigate the isolation experienced by many doctoral candidates. The aim was to foster the development of social, linguistic and academic literacies required of thesis writers. The groups ran for ten consecutive weeks, with six to eight students meeting weekly for three hours to share their own writing and discuss an aspect of thesis writing of common interest. The groups were multidisciplinary and culturally diverse, with students at all stages of candidature.

As facilitator, Aitchison played a key leadership role. She developed protocols for giving and receiving language-focused feedback. She taught linguistic concepts. She developed a meta-language for students to describe and deconstruct language. Over time, group members built up their own repertoire of skills so that peers became the primary resource for learning.

A third of each session was ‘teacher-led’, where specific features of academic writing were discussed, such as aspects of thesis structure, using evidence in argument and micro-level questions about style and grammar. This set of topics was negotiated ahead of time and modified depending on group needs. The rest of the session was devoted to critiquing new written work and reviewing reworked writing in light of group criticism. Three to five pieces of writing were critiqued at each meeting. Aitchison suggests that this work helped doctoral researchers develop skills to critique and improve writing as well as a meta-language to articulate their understandings.

Student evaluations of thesis writing circles have been very positive. Students valued the sustained feedback from peers and the opportunity to interact with a language expert in a forum that was not assessed. They reported increased self-esteem, writing production and knowledge about how to critique their own writing.

Aitchison and Lee (2006) highlight multiple values of such peer review groups. Peer writing groups, they argue, attend to the sociality of writing and locate it in a network of social, institutional and peer relations; they are explicitly negotiated, evolving and responsive to group needs and they foster community and a pedagogical space for writers to experiment and explore questions of identity, textuality and authority together.

 We propose that research writing groups, with their ‘horizontalising’ pedagogical frame of peer review (Boud and Lee 2005), address many of the epistemological, experiential and textual dimensions of writing within research degrees. In the common absence of formal curriculum, such groups provide a learning environment that is antithetical to notions of the all-toocommonly isolated research writer. Writing groups explicitly address the questions of knowledge, textual practice and identity in a context of peer relations.

(Aitchison and Lee, 2006: 266)

 Aitchison also recounts a number of institutional challenges in offering thesis writing circles on a larger scale, as the success of the groups is dependent on frequent meetings, small numbers of participants, high levels of self-motivation and an expert facilitator (Aitchison, 2003: 110). Nevertheless, such initiatives highlight the invaluable expertise language advisers can bring to research supervision and how wasteful it is to quarantine their considerable talent.

Kate Cadman’s work in a Research Education Programs Unit illustrates the possibilities of fostering more deliberate institutional links between the language specialist, the supervisor and the student. Cadman and her colleagues hold academic tenure-track positions and have expertise in teaching advanced academic literacies. They work only with research students and are assigned to particular faculties (education, engineering or arts) to provide discipline-specific support to native and non-native language students.

Of particular interest to our discussion is the Integrated Bridging Program (IBP), an institutionally mandated semester-long course for international postgraduate students and their supervisors. It runs throughout the first semester of candidature and is a task-based programme which seeks to facilitate international students’ academic English language development. Students are mostly from EAL backgrounds in Asia, Africa and South America. Cadman and her colleagues use the acronym REAL, Research English as an Additional Language (Cadman 2005), to locate their work in the university’s internationalization programme and capture the political as well as pragmatic hopes they have for their teaching.

 The IBP was structured around a core set of writing and presentation tasks which form the basis of the early stages of the students’ candidature … Students work in small discipline- or paradigm-specific groups, and each student focuses on his/her own research project as the basis for tasks. These comprise a critical review of a single research article from the literature relevant to the student’s topic, a draft literature review justifying the student’s research and a draft research proposal, presented as both a seminar and a document. Language feedback on each task is provided by IBP lecturers, with content feedback given by the student’s research supervisors … An outcome of this curriculum structure is the establishment of a tripartite collaboration between student, supervisor and IBP lecturer.

(Cargill and Cadman, 2005: 2)

 Regular evaluations of the course show that student satisfaction has remained consistently high and that supervisors comment on a range of beneficial outcomes (see Cadman, 2000 for details of this analysis). Cargill and Cadman (2005) have also documented significant changes to the programme during the ten years since it was established – most notably:

  • supervisors have been brought more explicitly into class processes and assessment procedures; they double-mark all written work and attend combined student-supervisor workshops
  • supervisor involvement is compulsory and it is widely acknowledged that this is why the programme succeeds
  • a move from a pragmatic English for Academic Purposes approach to a ‘pedagogy of connection’ (see Cadman, 2005) that values international students’ investments and interests, and fosters greater agency
  • a shift in emphasis from language remediation and grammar work to an enhanced focus on the discourse level of research language, including how arguments are developed in discipline- and paradigm-specific varieties of English.

Such institutional moves clearly foster a writing culture, through the provision of funding and time to both academic and study support staff. They foster more than a crude process geared to productivity and doctoral completions. Rather, such interventions produce structures which embed collective conversations about writing and disciplinary conventions in the practices of academic life.


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

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