Being on the different side of the coin

I have had experience of being a supervisee for my both MA and PhD theses, and this academic year, I have supervised undergraduate research projects and dissertations. My third-year supervisees graduated in July, and I would like to reflect on my experience as a supervisor in this post. I am very pleased that 80% (four out of five) of my supervisees received a distinction, and the other received a merit!

It is absolutely a privilege to be a dissertation supervisor. I have supervised dissertations which are similar to my research interests, including ‘the representation of Muslims in the British press: a corpus-assisted approach to discourse analysis’, ‘the analysis of images and lexico-grammatical features in UK women’s magazines’, ‘the ways in which undergraduates cope with culture shock in Manchester’, ‘the spelling development of primary school pupils’, ‘the relationship between teachers’ identities and classroom practices’. I had a good knowledge of the first three topics, and in order to provide more effective feedback on the last two topics, I was engaged with the highly cited papers in these areas, and thereby, I also improved my knowledge of different areas in applied linguistics.

In addition to individual supervision meetings, we also had group meetings in which my supervisees reported their progress and exchanged their ideas with each other. I believe that group meetings are important for community building and motivation for writing. From my PhD experience, I know that writing a thesis can sometimes be an isolating experience, and interactions with peers may alleviate this feeling. I also offered to have ‘shut up and write’ sessions together as an optional support session, but there was not enough demand for that. Probably, the idea of ‘shut up and write’ event was a bit intimidating for undergraduate supervisees. If I supervise BA dissertations again, I will frame ‘the shut up and write’ event in a different way in order to attract them to an event.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
May 28, 1986

I have observed that BA dissertation writers have three milestones in which they need more support: the stage of designing their research and formulating research questions, the data analysis stage, and the final write-up stage. These milestones may be similar to those of PhD thesis. Also, general advice on writing a dissertation is highly valuable for dissertation supervisees as it is the first time that they produce such a long document (12,000 words). In my first year as a PhD student, I attended a series of academic writing workshops and seminars which proved useful for my academic writing. In this sense, I think we (both the lecturers and universities) need to do more to provide writing support for dissertation supervisees. Just because novice writers have written successful essays throughout their degree programmes, it should not be assumed that they know how to write dissertations, since there may be register differences between essays and dissertations. Writing seminars and workshops specifically tailed for undergraduate dissertations can be held to improve undergraduates’ writing performance.

Most importantly, writing feedback on draft chapters of dissertations is a crucial step to provide supervisees with opportunities to revise their work. We need to have solid knowledge of disciplinary content and academic discourse to provide effective feedback. This feedback process was interesting for me because I was also receiving feedback on my draft of PhD at the same time, and I thought critically about the content and lexico-grammatical features of lecturer feedback. While I was commenting on their drafts on Turnitin, I often put myself in their place (in a way, I was for my PhD thesis), and asked myself: Is this feedback clear and detailed enough? Would I find it helpful? Is it framed in a constructive way? I now greatly value any constructive feedback regardless of writing style, but this may not be the case for undergraduate writers. I feel that feedback written in imperative forms (e.g. ‘revise this paragraph’, ‘rewrite this sentence’) may be discouraging for novice writers, and these imperative forms may perpetuate power differentials between supervisees and supervisors. Indeed, previous studies show that hedged feedback is more likely to be effective for novice writers to revise their writing than unhedged feedback. Previous research informed my practice in that I tried to hedge my constructive feedback as much as possible, such as ‘you could rewrite this sentence’, ‘it would be better to include X here’.

Presents from my supervisees at the end of the academic year 🙂

As a whole, I have learned a lot from my experience as an undergraduate dissertation supervisor, and it was a fulfilling experience for me to guide my supervisees into doing rigorous research!

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Expectations of and on international students in UK HE: Perspectives on English for Academic Purposes

On 16th September, I and my colleague gave a talk at BAAL/Routledge Workshop ‘Expectations of and on international students in UK HE’ at Manchester Metropolitan University. The workshop was a very fruitful event which brought together researchers, professionals of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), and international students. Our talk entitled ‘Internationalisation in UK higher education: Experiences of international PhD students’ drew on our own experiences of academic writing and intercultural communication with reference to internationalisation agenda of higher education. During my PhD journey, it was the first academic event in which I gave a presentation which was not directly related to my PhD (learner language), though I made some reference to my research and other relevant research studies.

I focused on the dynamics of my identity as an academic writer and my experiences of being a teaching assistant of Study Skills course which encompasses critical reading, identifying appropriate literature, and academic writing. Study Skills course is delivered to MA students in order to improve their academic reading and writing skills, and it is useful to provide shortcuts to the conventions of academic writing in English. However, the generic content of academic writing may not enable students to understand how they can present their arguments and contribute to the debate in their own specific disciplines and sub-disciplines. For instance, the way the arguments constructed in TESOL can be markedly different from those of educational technology. Admittedly, it is hard to design a discipline-specific study skills course, but there is room for improvement. Special corpora that would include journal articles and academic books in MA students’ specific disciplines can be used to improve students’ knowledge of linguistic choices, evaluation of the previous literature and argumentation. Additionally, students can be trained to create their own personalised corpus by using the virtual corpus functionality within the Brigham Young University’s collection of corpora.

The second point I made was the academic writing support provided to students. Though we are lucky to receive academic writing support at institutional level, the way it is framed should be changed. In its current format, academic writing support/tutorial service at many universities in the UK is generally available for students whose first language is not English. This makes the assumption that students whose first language is English would not struggle with academic writing, and/or that students from a non-English L1 background would have problems that should be ‘remedied’. In fact, corpus research shows that novice writers may share the same struggles in academic writing, regardless of their first language. Therefore, academic writing support at universities should be given to all students, as the labels ‘home’/‘L1-English speaking’ students and ‘international’/‘L2-English speaking’ students may divide ‘us’. Though there are changes to this approach, the change is slow, and it is remarkable that research in this area has informed the practices little in this area so far. As one of the discussants in the workshop noted, researchers may need to find more effective ways of reaching out to stakeholders in this area. 

calvin-and-hobbes_2During the workshop, there were similar talks and discussions on academic support given to students in UK higher education. Until the workshop, it was inconceivable for me to hear ‘EAP’ referred to as ‘industry’ followed by the rationalisation that ‘it is the reality.’ Although we cannot deny the ideological and economical underpinnings of EAP through which major publishing companies make profits in the Anglophone context, seeing EAP as ‘industry’ would benefit neither students nor educators. Instead, EAP can be framed as collective endeavour of students, educators and researchers. At the risk of romanticising, students’ progress in EAP would be of priceless value to both students and educators.

Writing anytime, anywhere and on any device

The title of this post may sound like an advertisement for a new tech gadget, but it has been my life motto for the past four months. My writing habits for my PhD have changed this year, so I have been doing snack writing anytime, anywhere and on any device. However, I do not know whether this habit of academic writing routine will last for good or whether it is a temporary situation because of the pressure of the ticking clock. Writing my PhD has been my number one priority, and most of my activities fall into Quadrant I in Covey’s Time Management Matrix which was illustrated below. If I continue the habit of snack writing, I will hopefully allocate more time to Quadrant II activities that I would like to do more, but they are currently underrepresented in my agenda. Quadrant III and IV activities are the distractions that cause a feeling of guilt during the third year of my PhD.

Covey's Time Management Matrix

For the last four months, I have written in my office, bedroom, at various cafés, on a train, on an airplane, and I have taken notes in a park. My new writing places have enabled me to focus on my writing in a more effective way, and being at a café, where other people work on their laptops, has motivated me to write more. In comparison to the first two years, I have socialised much less, and writing at a café has become a kind of social activity for me. When I do not have my laptop with me, I am writing on my iPad, and I transfer my writing notes to my laptop. This provides a springboard for more structured writing later on in my office or bedroom. In this way, I have found starting to write much easier than before. Previously, I had spent some preparation time (a.k.a. procrastination) to start writing. In reality, we never feel quite ready for writing, according to Hugh Kearns who delivered a seminar called ‘Turbocharge Your Writing’ in the beginning of the new year at The University of Manchester. His first academic writing tip was to write before you feel ready. I have been trying to put this into practice in my third year.

Café at the Whitworth Art Gallery is one of my faourite places to write.

Café at the Whitworth Art Gallery is one of my favourite places to write.

The third year of my PhD, which has been challenging due to the uncertainty of the future lurking in the background, has more ups and downs than the first two years. Additionally, my mentality that “there is always room for improvement” makes it hard for me to feel that my chapters are done and dusted. Nonetheless, I feel that there is a light at the end of the tunnel after I have successfully completed writing, and I hope that I will slowly get there, and then I will be able to focus more on Quadrant II activities.