Institutionalizing Doctoral Writing Practices: Introduction (1/5)


It has been argued that research is writing, and that a focus on writing in supervision can support the co-construction of a scholarly identity. A range of writing and textual strategies has been demonstrated that might be used by supervisors in a dialogue-based supervision practice.

the argument has been that the supervisor embodies and mediates institutional and disciplinary cultures, conditions and conventions. Supervisors, are now under extreme pressure. It is not reasonable to expect supervisors to take on doctoral writing in a perfect ways, without institutional support. By this we do not mean that institutions must start ‘training’ supervisors about writing. Rather, universities themselves must take up the question of research writing. They must establish institutional writing cultures.

A writing culture is one in which questions of writing are foregrounded and not confined to the realm of a pre-dissertation technical fix. It is one in which writing initiatives are linked to policy priorities and wider institutional aspirations (Lee and Boud, 2003). It is one in which there are faculty-sponsored spaces to talk about writing, to play with writing, and to perform writing. It is one in which writing is not ruthlessly and narrowly connected to productivity, but linked to fostering research capacities, practices and ‘know how’. It is a culture in which the hitherto private pleasures and pain of writing are made public through institutionally resourced writing groups, courses and collectives. In such circumstances we might expect to see doctoral writings shared, writings honed to exact meaning and nuance not sent off before their time, writings discussed not displayed. Here too, we might see language prodded, moulded, and caressed into phrases, tropes and metaphors pleasing to the eye and ear while advancing understanding.

Such a writing culture is not remedial. It recognizes that research practices are writing practices and that all university staff and students benefit from systematic attention to writing. It is important to offer individualized services to students who experience real difficulties with writing, because either English is not their first language, or they have learning difficulties or have somehow missed out on ‘basics’. But these services do not constitute, or substitute for, an overall institutional writing culture. They are a base level service only. However, staff within such academic units do have particular knowledges, practices and dispositions which make important contributions to the development of a writing culture. (We discuss how these services might support writing cultures further in this article.)

In short, a writing culture does not simply happen. It must be consciously produced.

We suggest five sites in and through which writing-oriented practices can be initiated. These are not the only sites for building a writing culture; there are of course many others. But they are sites in which we and our colleagues and peers are active and here we report on some of these activities. The sites we propose in are:

  1. supervisor-initiated reading/ writing groups;
  2. writing-for-publication groups;
  3. collaborative work with academic support units;
  4. school/faculty-based writing courses; and
  5. cross university projects.

 Supervisor-initiated reading/writing groups

Many supervisors initiate and support writing-focused pedagogies without expectations of institutional support or even attention. We have suggested that supervisors who are writing-focused begin from the position that writing is not the attribute of a few clever people, but a focus for discussion with all students. Such dialogue is about the practices of writing as research, of writing during the research, and of how to represent the research in texts, including the dissertation text.

Individual supervisors can foster changes to doctoral writing practices by supporting reading and writing groups. When discussing multiple texts in reading groups, it is not hard to foreground questions of writing or ‘reading like a writer’ . This might include a focus on choreography, for example:

  •  the ways in which the argument is carried between chapters and within each one, or is built up through the sections of a journal article
  • the ways in which headings, subheadings and paragraph sentence beginnings and endings carry the argument forward
  • the kinds of signposting that are constructed for readers.

Or a focus on the language used, for example:

  • searching for the ways in which the writer uses metaphor, trope and simile
  •  examining the ways in which the writer has brought colour and shade to the writing through the use of vivid language
  •  debating the wording of titles and headings.

Reading groups can create a motivation for students to read texts outside their usual ambit in order to advance their own and the group’s general understandings. Reading that is both wide and deep enriches discussion of research ‘findings’ as  a contribution to the wider field of knowledge production. During her doctoral research, Pat attended a reading group in which she encountered a range of texts that were associated with a quite different field of study. These were not texts she would normally have picked up in her policy analysis research, let alone read thoroughly. However, some of these unlikely books, mostly related to language, linguistics and literacy education, became very important in the process of theorizing her findings. Reading groups can be lively and supportive places where doctoral researchers can say unfamiliar words out loud, test out ideas, practise taking a ‘hands on hips’ stance to the work of senior scholars, and enter the dialogue of scholarship. They are spaces in which students learn to question received theory, rather than slavishly follow any set pattern of thinking. They can also be places in which students break from the dominant dependency model of ‘apprenticeship’ to encompass learning from and with peers and texts.

At their worst, reading groups become routinized, dull events which a few dominate and it is important to sort out the protocols for the group to ensure that this does not happen. These include setting out how books are to be chosen, what contribution members are expected to make (introductory papers, timed responses from each member), and how to resolve confl icts about group process.

Supervisors may also establish writing groups with students. In a writing group, students and supervisor each write papers, singly and together, share them and produce critiques of each other’s texts. They discuss the processes of writing as practical and theoretical problems. They bring questions about research ethics, epistemology and representation into meaningful conversation with questions of choice of words, possible structures and convincing arguments.

Some writing groups have produced books that are helpful for other writing oriented collectives to consider. We think, for example, of Noeleen Garman’s narrative and arts-informed writing group (Ceroni et al. 1996; Piantanida et al. 2003) in which students jointly explored theoretical approaches to writing through extant literature on writing and different forms of texts, and through writing and debating their own theory and exemplars.

Susan Moore Johnson’s work provides another example. She has worked with her doctoral students on a long-term research agenda examining the retention and attrition of newly appointed teachers. Their collaborative project, The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, resulted in an award-winning jointly-authored book Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools (Moore Johnson et al. 2004). Through the process of joint research and joint writing, Susan has provided a collective space in which students learn not only from her, but also from and with each other.

We are familiar with the work of colleagues who have extended other scholarly writing activities to doctoral researchers. For example, we know of journal editors who ask doctoral students to work as a filtering committee doing a collective first cull of articles, or who have them work in pairs to referee articles. Students then put their refereed work alongside the other referee reports when they are submitted to see the similarities and differences. Students can learn a lot from critically appraising articles written by others for publication, including how to structure an article, the kinds of argument that are convincing and what makes an abstract work.

Such individual supervisor activity is important, but it can be greatly strengthened when supervisors work together on writing projects and programmes. There are, for example, research centres and schools that have gone against the grain of the individualized social sciences model (for example, Malfroy, 2005). In these instances a group of researchers/supervisors declare a common agenda and students are recruited on the basis of their contribution to this agenda. There are joint research projects, shared writing, and ongoing seminars which allow staff and students to share writing in progress, as well as to advance the theoretical and methodological development of the whole group. Taking such action goes against the notion that the doctorate, and indeed scholarship, is an individualized pursuit borne of individual curiosity. The Birmingham Contemporary Cultural Studies11 group is one such example: staff and students wrote individually and collectively for many years and were known as a productive organizational grouping, as well as individual scholars.


Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision (p.157). Routledge.

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