Thursday, September 4, 2014

Learning to Supervise Academic Writing

Greetings from the Finkel Lecture Theatre at the Australian National University in Canberra, where I am attending a workshop on Academic Writing by Rowena Murray, author of "How to Write a Thesis" from University of the West of Scotland. Suggests that 90 minutes is the optimal time for concentrated writing.

One issue which writing for a thesis raises for me is if we are doing the students a disservice for making them do this. A thesis is not a particularly useful form of document: it is used as a form of assessment, rather than to communicate information.Why make the student write a document which hardly anyone will read and develop a skill which they will never use again?

I suggest it is better to have students write much shorter academic papers and reports, as these are read and it is something they are likely to do in the future. The quantity of work needed to award a Masters or Doctorate can then be demonstrated by a collection of such work. Unfortunately such a Thesis by Compilation is seen as not as prestigious, even where it is allowed by a university.

Another issue is collaboration in writing. Students are normally required to attest their work is their own. But employers want (and universities claim), that their graduates can work in teams. Some student activities may be in small groups, but in the case of writing in the workplace may involve dozens, hundreds or thousands of people.

The workshop included a short writing exercise where we had to write about our writing. This was an interesting exercise in thinking about what I needed to write and when I needed to write it, rather than being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. But in terms of the mechanics of planning the writing process, students should be able to apply whatever project management techniques they learn in their discipline. As an example, computer professionals and engineers are trained in formal project management methodologies, used to undertake multi-year projects with large teams of people. Students who have been trained to organise large projects should be able to apply these skills to managing their writing.

Rowena suggested using the phrase : "The purpose of this paper is to ...". A version of this is routinely used for engineering documents: "The purpose of this document is to ...". But when I tried using it in a sociology paper my tutor told me this was plagiarism (which seemed a bit silly, but as a good student I changed it).

Teaching academic supervisors some techniques to help their students to write is useful, but this is the most effective and efficient approach. It would make more sense to have specialists teach the students about writing in specialised courses. As an example, ANU Master of Computing students undertake a course in Communication for Computing Professionals. Previously I have have noticed that about one third of my masters students have difficulty with writing and asked for a course to address this. So far the new course seems to be working. There is no reason why doctoral students should not undertake similar courses.

ANU will run "Scrivener: thesis writing made easier", 24 September 2014, on the use of the Scrivener  Writing Tool for Ms-Word. See also "Writing a novel in Scrivener: lessons learned".

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