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Writing in research education. Working with discourse and identity challenges faced by doctoral students
Carlino, Paula.
Writing Research Across Borders Conference II. George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, 2011.
This paper analyses a postgraduate writing seminar designed to help doctoral students deal with some of the challenges experienced when trying to join an academic community. In addition to acquire the academic knowledge required to become a researcher (the current disciplinary discussions, the methodological tools to contribute to them, and the writing practices inherent to scientific genres), there are emotional and identity capacities that need to be fostered if graduate students are to enter in the collective conversations that disciplines entail. These are mostly neglected by graduate programs. Students who survive have developed them on their own and sometimes with great suffering, as many studies show. On the contrary, the question I address in this action research is how writing or ´text work´ can be explicitly linked to ´identity work´ (Kamler & Thomson, 2004). With this purpose, I examine a 30 hour writing seminar developed through 20 months with 3 cohorts of part-time Education doctoral students (N=18) in which I accompanied them through the process of writing, group and peer reviewing, and rewriting two scientific texts. During the first year of candidature, when they had not even defended their thesis proposal, they were asked to write a dissertation abstract as if their dissertation were finished. The purpose of this task was to encourage writing as an epistemic tool to plan their theses work as a whole and to think of the coherence among purposes, research questions, methods, intended results, and relevance of their prospective study. A year later, they had to write a paper with work in progress regarding their dissertation and find an appropriate conference to submit it and present it. Additionally, they wrote two non academic but ´subjective´ texts: an initial autobiographical account of themselves as writers and a final portfolio in which they documented and reflected on their work in the seminar. The analysis of these reflective writings, together with the course assessment students carried out, reveal some of the discourse and identity tensions doctoral graduates face when trying to take part in the disciplinary community they aspire to enter. Their reflective texts also show subtle ways in which the writing seminar gave them the chance to learn technical knowledge and participate in new scholarly genres, as well as develop social and emotional tools to dare to do it. Making their feelings of incompetence explicit and receiving support to overcome them through writing, feedback, and rewriting was experienced as an opportunity for a long-term reflection on who they were and who they wanted to become.
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