Writing with your supervisor

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I am currently finalizing draft chapters for a book I’m co-writing with my former supervisor. The title of the book is “Twice the fun – a survival kit for doctoral students and their supervisors” and it will be published later this year by Sage. The aim of the book is to support and inspire students and supervisors to make the PhD endeavor creative and stimulating – even fun! Based on our own experiences, we advocate an apprenticeship learning perspective to shed light on the dynamics of the student-supervisor interaction and the potential for mutual learning and production. One chapter specifically addresses student-supervisor co-writing.

Supervision involves issues of production: a thesis preferably of high quality and other products such as conference papers or articles. It also involves issues of process: the student’s socialization into a research community, lifelong learning and identity formation (Goode, 2010). Student-supervisor co-writing can address both but it does not necessarily do so. Here, I will tell the story of my own co-writing experience and how it inspired me (and my supervisor) to write “Twice the fun”.

I was about one year into my doctoral studies when I got this e-mail from my supervisor:

Dear Charlotte
Today I was asked to contribute to a book on Innovation Psychology. There is a short time, and the final manuscript must be ready in December. However, it struck me that maybe we could write the manuscript together?
Alternatively, I can write it myself, but it would be great with an empirical article based on your interviews.
Please consider it but I understand if you turn it down, of course.
Regards, Lene

We had just met and discussed my initial analysis of 15 interviews I had carried out. The overall theme of my study was innovation in the elderly care sector. I wanted to know more about how innovation was understood before I embarked on the fieldwork which was going to be the main part of my empirical work. I had not considered the interviews as a separate study which might lead to a publication. However, this piece of co-writing turned out to be the first stepping stone for me to decode academic writing. It also initiated a series of co-productions, of which “Twice the fun” is the most recent.

The Danish book chapter (Wegener & Tanggaard, 2012) and a subsequent revised version for an international journal (Wegener & Tanggaard, 2013a) evolved solely over e-mail not through face to face discussion. We met to discuss other aspects of my work but when the book chapter and the article were published, it occurred to me that the production process was substantially evidenced. Wolcott (1990) discusses the usefulness and importance of ‘writing early’. He argues that writing about our work provides a baseline, an articulation of where we have been as researchers. This emphasizes the importance of notes about assumptions and impressions during the process of analysis. The e-mails that assisted every new version of the manuscript were not created as early writings or conscious notes about process. However, unintended as they were, they constituted a comprehensive record of learning and collaboration, because each exchange of a new version of the text was followed by a commentary e-mail.

I suggested to my supervisor that we wrote a paper about this process using our e-mail conversation as data (Wegener & Tanggaard, 2013b). The analysis of our e-mails shows that my super visor decided on the overall structure and idea of the book chapter as well as which literature to focus upon. However, when we wrote the international article, she asked me to contribute more directly by finding my own theoretical sources. The emails also show the delicate processes of streamlining the text. For a long time, my supervisor merely added text and refused to revise. But eventually, we both had to revise more comprehensively and get involved in rewriting each other’s text. I felt slightly annoyed when she suggested deleting a ‘chatty’ section of mine, but basically, I agreed. In the final fine-tuning I even had the courage to suggest deleting text initially produced by her.

The research on co-writing for production is sparse and, in general, there has been relatively little empirical research on doctoral supervision practices. Supervision is still a privatized space or even a ‘black box’ (Goode, 2010). Our paper opens up this black box, which in this case is the mailbox. It is highly contextual and person-specific. However, it can give rise to questions of how co-writing processes can be initiated and driven. In a co-writing process what is required to write (and get published) is not always elicited verbally. Paré (2010) found that supervisors’ ability to write well does not necessarily make them well qualified to teach students how to write well. However, what they know is sometimes conveyed more precisely when they engage in writing together. What I experienced was a common purpose, which allowed my supervisor to be quite explicit about expectations and also allowed me a fair amount of her time and attention. I had the opportunity to decode academic writing conventions while reading her contributions to the text. At the same time, I felt free to practice because I did not have to worry that I might ‘put my foot in it.’ I could leave the final assessment of my ideas and writing style to my supervisor. In this phase, my own judgments were thus not critical, because my supervisor acted as a gatekeeper or a ‘first cut publisher’ (Kamler, 2008). I did not experience the often reported feelings of fear or self-devaluation, mainly because I did not feel alone in my first process of production. I was literally taken by the hand through co-writing and empowered to take subsequent steps on my own and with peers.

Co-writing with your supervisor can foster your ability to decode the social practice of academic writing and publishing.

References

Goode, J. (2010). Student agency in ‘doing supervision’. In: Walker, M. & Thomson. P (Eds.) The Routledge Doctoral Supervisor’s Companion: Supporting effective research in Education and the Social Sciences (pp. 38-50). London: Routledge
Kamler, B. (2008). Rethinking doctoral publication practices: Writing from and beyond the thesis, Studies in Higher Education, 33(3), 283-294.
Wegener, C. & Tanggaard, L. (2012). Innovation som håndværk eller håndgreb. [Innovation as craft or levers]. In: Nickelsen, N. C. M. & M. Bendixen (Eds.) Innovationspsykologi: En antologi om erhvervspsykologiens bidrag til innovation [Innovation Psychology: An anthology on occupational psychology’s contribution to innovation] (pp. 37-72). Copenhagen: Dansk Psykologisk Forlag.
Wegener, C. & Tanggaard, L. (2013a). The concept of innovation as perceived by public sector frontline staff – outline of a tripartite empirical model of innovation, Studies in Continuing Education, 35(1), 82-101.
Wegener, C. & Tanggaard, L. (2013b). Supervisor and Student Co-Writing: An Apprenticeship Perspective Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 14(3).
Wolcott, H. F. (1990). On seeking – and rejecting – validity in qualitative research. In: Eisner, E. W. & A. Peshkin (Eds.) Qualitative inquiry in education: The continuing debate (pp. 121-152). New York: Teachers College Press.

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