Graduate Writing: A Perspective From Both In and Out of the Game

Shut up and write. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do as a graduate student, eventually? I’ve been thinking a lot about writing in graduate school over the past few days because I’ve been attending the Consortium on Graduate Communication’s Summer Institute. While I myself am facing the prospect of completing a dissertation and publishing articles, I participated in the CGC Institute primarily in order to learn more about how I might support other graduate students in communicating their research. This summer I’m taking over as the Graduate Writing Support Co-ordinator for UConn’s Writing Center and—as I’ve experienced many times already in my academic career—I will be straddling the positions of educator and learner. This time my “teaching role” will be peer-to-peer, which both excites and terrifies me. Attending the Institute as both a professional in the field and one of the learners everyone was discussing so intently was a fascinating position, leading to much self-reflection as well as mild anxiety and a vow to be very careful of how I talk about my students from now on.

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I wanted to write about the Institute in order to practice a little of what I’ll be preaching but also because I hope to share some insights with my readers, of which the most important is always myself. (Eleanor: this is what you told yourself you’d refer back to when leading that seminar, remember!) I’ve learned so many things, not least what a nascent organization looks like as it emerges from informal networks: the CGC is very new and we had a general meeting to discuss its next steps. The Institute’s theme was “Bridging English Language Teaching and Writing Studies in Supporting All Graduate Writers” and this bridge has, by far, been the fulcrum of my own thinking over the past few days. As I am based in a Writing Center and studying in a Department of English, my own background is in writing studies: I took a graduate seminar in composition theory and pedagogy, have presented on and chaired panels at UConn’s Annual Conference on the Teaching of Writing, and taught First-Year Writing for four years before taking on my new role. Many of the participants at the Institute, however, had a background in applied linguistics and were housed in language programs targeted at multilingual learners. Thinking about graduate communication support from a different theoretical and institutional angle has been refreshing and, at the very least, will ensure I learn more about UConn’s own language program when I return to school. I want to be sure that I’m directing students to the best resources, after all.

As part of the Institute, we were formed into working groups and my project—supported by others thinking about program design and development—was focused on the syllabus for UConn’s Graduate Seminar in Academic Writing. I’ve been familiarizing myself with the most recent version of this course and thinking about how I can prepare myself to lead it. While I plan on making very few changes before I have the chance to teach it—there will be opportunities between course sessions to do so—I am exploring it from the perspective of its learning objectives. I need to think through the goals of assignments and activities before guiding others through them. Two frameworks that I’ve been using were referenced during keynote presentations from Michelle Cox and Karyn E. Mallett on the Institute’s theme: Tate et al.’s typology of composition pedagogies and Tardy’s description of the four knowledge domains required for disciplinary expertise. Michelle and Karyn both analyzed specific courses with these frameworks in mind, opening up a method by which I could tackle our syllabus systematically and place it in the context of course offerings at other universities.

The model referenced by Karyn offered a way of thinking about the four domains of knowledge needed to develop disciplinary expertise: formal, rhetorical, process, and subject knowledge. These target domains can be mapped closely to the model referenced by Michelle, in which she considered how different elements of writing courses are informed by particular writing pedagogies. For instance, rhetorical genre studies focus on rhetorical knowledge; writing in the disciplines emphasizes subject-specific knowledge; writing process pedagogy—as well as the writer’s workshop model—illustrates the significance of attending to process; and so on. When exploring UConn’s syllabus and how it included these different domains and pedagogies, I was happy to notice that some assignments were including more than one of these areas: for example, consulting with one’s advisor asks graduate students to reflect on process as well as disciplinary-specific expectations while reading dissertations in one’s field is both disciplinary-specific and a chance to analyze a genre. The one knowledge domain that does not map so easily onto writing pedagogies is formal knowledge. This is, no doubt, why it’s the part of the seminar I’m so anxious about facilitating as we will be turning to exercises in organization, concision, and variation. It is, however, crucial and demonstrates why attention to all students as language learners—no one can claim academic English as a mother tongue!—is so important.

I’ll leave my reflections there. Thank you so much to all the participants in the Institute, especially to the members of my working group: Thadeus Bowerman (Texas A&M), Joanne Lax (Purdue), Linda Macri (U of Maryland), Talinn Phillips (Ohio U), Jacqueline McIsaac (U of Waterloo), and Mary McPherson (U of Waterloo). Our final task was a poster presentation and we were proud to develop a concept map of the many intersecting ways we were all working toward building a community of graduate writers. Enjoy exploring!

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