On training to write academically

- Pratyoush Onta | 2023-11-24

Our higher education institutions lack serious teaching opportunities in academic writing.

In early 2016, a researcher enrolled as a PhD student at Kathmandu University joined the third academic writing workshop I was offering at Martin Chautari. As was required of all applicants, she submitted the draft of an article she was putting together for publication as part of her application. That draft was part of the doctoral dissertation she was writing. Her application was accepted, and she was sent the workshop guidelines (some aspects of which are discussed below). In February 2016, we started the first class session of the workshop by discussing someone else’s paper that was more ready for review and commentary by all the participants. As soon as the amount of work required in the six-month workshop—revising one’s own draft several times and thoroughly commenting on the papers of others—became obvious, she dropped out of the workshop, saying she needed to focus on her own dissertation writing.

The second encounter happened some months before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted our lives. The head of one of the central departments of Tribhuvan University visited me to ask that I teach a course to MPhil students in his department. He told me the course had been designed earlier and was in the roster of courses offered to MPhil students in his department. Hence, what was to be taught had already been figured out; simply, a teacher was needed at that point. I politely declined the offer since I no longer worked on the theme related to the course. Instead, I offered to teach an academic writing course to the same MPhil students if he was willing to organise its delivery. He left after some small talk, and I never heard from him again.

These encounters are ethnographically revealing. Almost anyone who knows anything about higher education in Nepal can tell that serious opportunities to learn to write academically are in very short supply in our higher education institutions. While there is no shortage of university faculty who provide arti-upadesh on how to write academically, hands-on training that involves working with academic texts in various stages of production is not a regular feature of courses offered even at the MPhil/PhD levels. Our universities do offer such research students courses on academic writing, but their focus is often on basic stuff, namely, getting the grammar right and figuring out the topic sentence. Such courses also focus on technical aspects of writing, namely, citation styles such as the MLA, APA and Chicago style conventions. They also dwell on the format of articles by suggesting that most articles should be structured in the IMRaD format with sections on introduction, methods, results and discussion. The core aspect of research writing—how to locate your argument in the context of the relevant literature, how to structure the writing from the introductory section to the main discussion and conclusion and how to revise your draft repeatedly based on the feedback received from various readers—is not taught adequately.

To be sure, academic writing workshops can be delivered in more than one mode. The five writing workshops that I conducted between 2015 and 2018—each of which lasted for at least six months—were designed under the assumption that to write better academically, you must read other people’s academic writings and comment on them substantially while trying to revise your own writing based on the comments your colleagues provided to you.

Hence for the workshop, all the participants had to first provide an 800-word summary of the challenges he or she was facing while trying to write a stand-alone article. They had to describe specifically what they had tried to do in terms of revising the text and the difficulties they were facing in the process. For instance, they had to write with details about the revision options they had considered and chosen (or not chosen), what theories they had considered and why they had adopted them or not adopted them, etc. Each paper needed a title, an abstract, a structural outline before the main body of the text, including references. The main sections and sub-sections of the paper had to correspond exactly with the headings/sub-headings provided in the structural outline of the paper.

Most of our monthly three-hour class sessions were devoted to written comments on a designated paper or two by other workshop participants who had to provide their comments (800-1000 words) on all aspects of the submitted paper, including its title (appropriate?), abstract (adequate?), its structural outline (easy to follow?) and the description of the challenges being faced by its author (adequately conveyed?). They also had to comment substantially on the contents of the main text (corresponding with the structural outline? analytically insightful?) and the section on references (complete publication details given? consistent style used?).

Each commentator also had to highlight the areas where the paper needed revisions and provide suggestions regarding how those revisions could be done by the author. They were also expected to comment on the author’s writing style and related matters. They were also asked to suggest additional relevant readings that the author could consult.

We would then have an open discussion on the comments made by the participants. The author of the discussed paper could ask for further elaborations on specific comments made by the participants and respond to their comments and suggestions as necessary. All participants were expected to actively participate in this conversation. In the case of some papers, external mentors (some of whom were affiliated with universities abroad) were also engaged. They provided comments over email on the early and revised paper drafts submitted by the participants.

Within two weeks after the workshop session devoted to a particular paper, its author was required to submit a substantial revision plan for their paper. This plan was expected to take into consideration the suggestions made by various commentators and describe how the author planned to address them during the process of revision. The plan was also expected to include a timeline regarding when various aspects of the revision process would be completed and the fully revised paper submitted to the workshop. When submitting the fully revised paper, the participants were required to also submit a separate statement on how various suggestions received on the earlier draft had been (or not with justification) incorporated in the revised version.

As should be obvious, the way the participants were expected to better their academic writing skills was by doing most of the work themselves. By applying to these workshops, the participants had indicated that revising their papers so that they become more suitable for publication was an important goal for them. Hence, they needed to do the hard work of writing, re-writing, editing and commenting to make each other’s papers more ready for publication. My job was to simply facilitate the realisation of all these aspects.

Can such a writing workshop model be tried in Nepal’s universities at the MPhil/PhD levels? I do not know the answer to that question, but those who coordinate such degree programs ought to give this idea serious consideration.  

Published at : November 24, 2023
Source: https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2023/11/24/on-training-to-write-academically


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