Advancing an Authentic Writing Experience Among International PGRs

By Dr Dely Elliot & Dr Kara Makara, University of Glasgow

In the past few years, we have been involved in teams undertaking research into the experiences of international students studying for doctorates in the UK (see for example Elliot, Reid and Baumfield 2016a and b, Elliot, Baumfield and Reid 2016, Elliot, Baumfield, Reid and Makara 2016). We have disseminated the results of our research at a number of events, including  both an ESRC –sponsored Impact Acceleration Account workshop held in March 2017 (see Elliot, Houston, Makara and Reid 2017) and a joint University of Glasgow/ UKCGE workshop held in November of that year (see Elliot, Houston, Makara, Reid and Lido 2017).

These workshops triggered creative discussions and debates among presenters and delegates about the ways in which international (and local) postgraduate researchers (PGR) could be better supported – by institutions, academic developers, doctoral supervisors and just as importantly, by international postgraduate research students (PGR) themselves.

The research and workshops have also inspired some feasible and immediate ideas for practice. In this blog we discuss how, as research supervisors ourselves, we have implemented some of the vital lessons we have learned. In doing this, we have chosen to focus upon academic writing  which lies at the crux of the PhD process.

Academic writing is a challenging task for all PGR because it necessitates a sound understanding of the meaning of critical thinking and writing.  But it may be of greater concern to international PGR whose orientations can be shaped by their previous settings (their respective cultural, academic, and/or professional backgrounds) and continue to influence their preferred study approaches and practices even after joining new learning contexts. Our hope was that paying attention to the mode of writing-related support could make a qualitative difference to our international PGR understanding of academic writing conventions, confidence to write and general writing productivity.

Following the insightful advice of Daley, Guccione and Hutchinson (2017), we eschewed the more common ‘tips and techniques’ (helpful as that may be) approach in favour of one which invited PGR into the discourse. So since 2016, we have been running a monthly two-hour informal discussion with a group of international PGR.

Discussions and activities vary – from informal sharing of good practice for reviewing the literature and academic writing, through to useful courses, seminars and conferences or the practical application of research integrity practices. Additionally, we have used this platform to discuss papers, share supervisors’ draft academic manuscripts, invite PGR critiques and also co-review journal manuscripts with them.

More recently, we then decided to embark on a writing journey with our very own cohort of international PGRs that is not only collaborative and supportive but is able to provide them with an ‘authentic’ writing experience. Our brainchild was inspired by our research impact events but it was also an attempt to act upon themes either raised by PGRs themselves or areas that can assist their development as scholars (e.g. improving writing skills, publishing academic papers).

At the beginning of 2018, we brainstormed their ideas as well as presented another activity as part of our monthly meetings – something that is more focused, time limited and outcome orientated. At the end of the January session, we agreed to commit ourselves to a collaborative and supportive article writing for journal publication and in return gain further ‘authentic’ academic writing experience. And so, we created one of our own ‘inspiring and creative places where people talk, write and learn together because they are being nurtured, empowered and stimulated’ (Aitchison, 2009, p. 261, as cited in Wilmot & McKenna, 2018, p. 4).

Compared to sole authorship, writing with other PGRs and with support from supervisors potentially makes the writing task less onerous and daunting. Our international PGRs also view this undertaking as an opportunity to apply all the ‘writing-related’ activities we have engaged in to date. After identifying a topic (and sub-topics) that everyone could bring expertise to contribute to, they then chose a writing partner and a self-selected section for a conceptual paper. This was followed by clarifying essential points, e.g. a checklist for writing and word count, journal requirements, monthly tasks and soft deadlines to help ensure smooth writing progression. To complement this, one PGR created a Slack workspace to facilitate group communication and file sharing.

We agreed that each PGR and supervisor was to undertake draft preparation, self- and peer-assessment, revision, further reflection (e.g. identifying conceptual gaps, assessing the strengths of evidence, arguments and critiques), checking tone and style, and manuscript polishing until a complete paper was ready. Time for all contributors to reflect on writing, considering other ideas emerging from the writing task itself, and paired and/or group discussions are all embedded in the timeline – with a shared objective to produce the full manuscript for submission by a realistic deadline.

At our most recent meeting, we carried out both self- and peer-assessment of each draft section based on the general criteria (i.e. foci and scope of the paper) as well as some specific criteria and the house style as prescribed by the journal. Giving feedback to each other made writing both supportive and collaborative rather than a ‘lonely activity’.  Since many of our PGRs are at the start of their ‘writing for publication’ journey, this is something that they really appreciated.

Equally, paired and collaborative working promoted greater interaction beyond our monthly meetings. This also offered extra benefits, including clarity of expectations towards pursuit of a shared goal (i.e. an academic paper) while indirectly satisfying non-academic yet equally important needs, i.e. combating international PGRs’ feelings of isolation, through becoming part of another community.

What is also worth noting is that even though the collaborative writing activity started as the two supervisors’ attempt to advance the ‘authentic’ writing experience of our international PGRs, we have been learning as much through giving feedback, discussion and reflection on multiple ideas coming from the whole group. It is truly a fruitful partnership for us all.

Finally, although the model is something that we specifically employed with international students in mind (mainly since the PGRs in our group are all international), we would argue that this model could work very well for supervisors who would like to support either local or international PGRs. And although one supervisor can organise a small group alone, we find partnership between supervisors is a much superior model. After all, ‘two heads are (always) better than one’ – and also more fun!

Note

Two of our international first-year PGRs Emily-Marie Pacheco and Dangeni – were invited to present their experience of being involved in a collaborative writing task at the forthcoming University of Glasgow’s PGR Experience Event on 13th June 2018.

References

Elliot, D., Baumfield, V., Reid, K. and Makara, K. (2016) 
Hidden treasure: successful international doctoral students who found and harnessed the hidden curriculum.
Oxford Review of Education, 42(6): 733-748.

Elliot, D., Baumfield, V., and Reid, K. (2016) 
Searching for a ‘thrd space’: a creative pathway towards the international PhD students’ academic acculturation.
Higher Education Research and Development, 35(6): 1180-1195.

Elliot, D., Houston, M., Makara, K., and Reid, K. (2017)
ESRC IAA Workshop: Towards Maximising International PhD Students’ Experience (Extended Summary Report).
Available on –line at https://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_525844_en.pdf.

Elliot, D., Houston, M., Makara, K., Reid, K. and Lido, C. (2017)
Enhancing the experience of international doctoral researchers: key messages.
Available on-line at http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/157012/1/157012.pdf

Elliot, D, Reid, K. and Baumfield, V. (2016a) 
Beyond the amusement, puzzlement and challenges: an enquiry into international students’ academic acculturation. 
Studies in Higher Education, 41(12): 2198-2217.

Elliot, D., Reid, K. and Baumfield, V. (2016b) 
Capturing visiual meaphors and tales: innovative or elusive?
International Journal of Research and Method in
 Education. DOI 10.1080.1743727X.2016.1191164

Elliot, D, Reid, K. and Baumfield, V. (2016a) 
Beyond the amusement, puzzlement and challenges: an enquiry into international students’ academic acculturation. 
Studies in Higher Education, 41(12): 2198-2217.

Elliot, D., Reid, K. and Baumfield, V. (2016b) 
Capturing visiual meaphors and tales: innovative or elusive?
International Journal of Research and Method in 
Education. DOI 10.1080.1743727X.2016.1191164

Daley, R., Guccione, K., and Hutchinson, S. (Eds). (2017). 
53 Ways to Enhance Researcher Development. 
Frontinus, London.

Wilmot, K. and McKenna, S. (2018). 
Writing groups as transformative spaces.
Higher Education Research & Development. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2018.1450361

Acknowledgements

A special thanks to other team members who played a key role in these research impact events:

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