Teaching Writing to Doctoral Students

just me teachingI spent last weekend teaching writing to doctoral students at Staffordshire University, and enjoyed it enormously. It was an experiential course that I had devised with input from Dr Katy Vigurs, who hosted the course. We included creative exercises on drafting and redrafting, getting unstuck, the relationship between writing and thinking, and how to find your voice. There was also a short talk from me and several discussion/Q&A sessions. In between these were a dozen half-hour ‘shut up and write’ sessions for students to work on their own writing.

This course demonstrated to the students, very thoroughly, that they can achieve a meaningful amount of writing in just half an hour. And we taught them how to do that, through discussion, example, practice, and review. They had seen the course programme beforehand and planned what they would work on. The half-hour discipline was difficult for them at first; they found it hard to ‘get in’ and ‘get out’, but by the Sunday they were switching between ‘work’ and ‘break’ modes like doctoral ninjas. Several students commented on their evaluation forms that they had achieved more than they had planned.

Before the course, I asked students to complete a form telling me which aspects of academic writing they were good at, and which they wanted to work on. I also asked for a 500-word sample of academic writing from each student. This was partly so I could give individual feedback, and partly so I could get a sense of the individual and overall standard. Generally, the standard was good, particularly as I was seeing excerpts from work in draft. But the students evidently thought they were not good at writing.

This made for a very satisfying moment for me. It went like this:

Me: “I’d like to know who, in this room, thinks they struggle with academic writing because they’re not very good at it. Put your hands up please.”

[Most hands went up, most faces looked miserable]

Me: “I’ve seen examples of your writing, so I can tell you, with some authority, that you’re wrong. You are good at it. The reason you struggle with academic writing is because it’s hard.”

Then I stood in front of the class for a quiet moment, enjoying the war of expressions on people’s faces, as the message began to sink in. It was such a delight to see incredulous smiles break through.

It was also a delight, as always when teaching, to witness students having ‘light bulb’ moments. One woman said to me, with an expression of pure joy, ‘I’ve got it! I just have to write! That’s all I have to do! And if I keep writing, I’ll get my thesis done!’ It’s the kind of statement that can seem obvious after the fact, but it was a huge learning point for her, and I was thrilled to see her happiness.

Of course the true test will come when the students are back in their everyday lives. I think and hope we did enough to embed the practice and motivate the students, and the evaluation forms certainly suggest that we did. But I’ve been involved in training and teaching for far too long to take that for granted. We encouraged the students to form peer networks for support, and suggested that they might set up their own ‘shut up and write’ sessions, whether virtually or in real life. Early signs are that mutual support is growing within the group, and that can only help.

Talking of the virtual dimension, some students from Staffordshire University who couldn’t make the whole weekend, and some from other universities, joined in with our ‘shut up and write’ sessions via the #StaffsAcWri hashtag on Twitter. There are regular ‘shut up and write’ sessions on Twitter (check the #stuw hashtag) which you could join if this interests you – or you could even start your own. It’s amazing how much you can get done in half an hour: one student wrote over 800 words in just one of the half-hours, and most produced several thousand words in the course of the weekend.

My favourite comment from the evaluation forms was: ‘I never drifted off! I have only 2 relevant doodles and have produced work I will be proud to share with my supervisors!’ Further to last week’s post, this is why I think writing can be taught. Not everything about writing, and not to everyone – but those who are engaging with the process, and willing to learn, can certainly be taught the skills and the craft of writing.

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