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Kamler, B. and Thomson P. (2006). Helping Doctoral Students Write: pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.

As a new PhD student, I read this book both for my own learning and out of fear of the fact that I could be asked at any moment to meet with a PhD student who will – absolutely – have more experience of this level of study than I do.

Compared with other texts I have read preparing for this next step, this particular book is aimed at supervisors rather than students, and is therefore couched in a lot of politics and pedagogical literature, which will hopefully be of particular use in the mentoring context.

The key advice from the book I believe may be valuable for sessions with doctoral candidates is:

  • Supervisors often wish students would write more simply, more logically, and less tentatively.
  • Students need to make their writing more concise and focus on the order of content: lead with comments and themes, rather than other authors for a sense of variety and authority. However, some level of repetition of terminology for instance can be helpful in connecting all passages of the work.  In short, students need to pay attention to style and the how of writing, not just the what and why.
  • Formatting should not be left until the last minute, as presentation is important too.
  • Use blank space to make the writing easier on the eye.
  • Frontloading or backloading is common in theses: either adding too much background and methodology without enough actual new research, or too much writing about findings which are then undertheorized and unsubstantiated.
  • Literature work requires:
    • sketching the nature of the field and possibly some of the historical developments involved;
    • identifying major debates and defining contentious terms;
    • establishing which studies, ideas, and methods are most pertinent to the study;
    • locating gaps,
    • in order to create the need for the study,
    • and identify the contribution the PhD study will make.
  • It is worth thinking of the Literature Review as a metaphor of moving into occupied territory, as it can be overwhelming, the students feeling uncertain as to where landmines are, or which paths are best to take/ avoid. Or it can be seen akin to ‘persuading an octopus into a glass’, which equates to the living, unruly nature of literature which constantly needs to be updated and revised throughout the years.
  • Moreover, the ‘invisible scholar’ phenomenon is common when literature reviews are all ‘he said’ ‘she said’, without evaluation, centralised ideas, or links to broader discussions. The simple act of shifting attribution/citing to the end of the sentence can foreground the idea and writer though. More assertive phrases can also be used, like little attention is paid to…, it appears that…, this work focuses on…, evidence to date suggests…., despite…
  • Be aware of various expressions and their usages. Hedges like possible, may, believe can either show the writer’s uncertainty, or it can bring attention to the concept as an opinion rather than fact, and also convey deference and modesty. Emphatics clearly, in fact, definitely demonstrate writer certainty and stress the information.  Attitude can also be expressed via adverbs like unfortunately and hopefully, as well as modal verbs like should or must.
  • Being critical is not just about praising or contradicting, but
    • making decisions about which literature to engage with, which to ignore, and which aspects to stress or omit or downplay;
    • paying attention to underlying assumptions, definitions, theories, methodologies, methods, and findings, as well as looking at points of similarity and difference;
    • while showing respect by concentrating on what a work contributes as opposed to what it fails to achieve.
  • It can be useful to think of the literature review as holding a dinner party. It is something found in normal everyday life, it is the student who is actively doing the inviting, the student will expect to be part of the conversation, and a dinner party is usually a positive experience.
  • Take care over bias and assumptions influencing the work however, through self-critical questions. All texts can be deconstructed, even our own.
  • Having a supervisor edit work with the student in the room can be dynamic and allow for more integration of the student, while increasing their understanding.
  • The concepts, arguments, and findings of a PhD need to be ‘potent and convincing’.
  • Argument is the compelling part; so can it enter into more parts of the written work than just fixed formulaic sections like the Discussion section? The argumentative thesis, after all, is central to reaching the ‘scholarly contribution’ criteria of the PhD.
  • Lively and stimulating writing can be very appealing; there’s ‘no reason why the scholarly requirement to interrogate complex ideas and to use precise terminology should equate with eye-watering ennui’.
  • Writing papers helps with flexibility and focus: foregrounding and de-emphasising different aspects and playing with structure and coherence for different audiences is a great skill to adopt.
  • Abstract writing helps develop a clear argument and succinctness, as well as author identity.
  • Going to conferences and talking about the work and defending it will clarify the work in the student’s mind, as well as giving the student a sense of authority.
  • There are 3 types of questioner at conferences: people who want to talk about the paper the student didn’t actually write, those who wish to make themselves look smart by ripping into the student’s work, and people who just didn’t get the point. To all, the student can simply say thank you and seek to discuss it after the talk, while the questions may illuminate the work and its gaps.
  • The main message of the book: stop thinking in terms of ‘writing up’. Writing is a ‘vital’ part of the research process from day one, through keeping journals, summarising information, and recording observations, to expressing ideas and theories as they develop, composing articles and conference talks, the act of thinking through writing, and writing the final thesis dissertation itself.  ‘The phrase ‘writing up’ actually obliterates all this labour and complexity.’  I quite agree!

Watch this space for how the PhD sessions work in practice!

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Achievement Boards

Watching a Christmas film over the weekend, I came across a fantastic idea from across the pond: achievement boards.  Though they presented it in a fixed format, it can be simplified and utilised by anyone.  Might even try it myself.

The fundamentals include taking a fairly simple picture of your choice that you can colour in, with decent blocks of white (see examples below).  Write into each block a target you’d like to achieve, which can be themed or cover life goals or anything you wish.  Then as you reach each goal, you colour that part of the picture in, leaving a stunning and creative image that also highlights your achievements to go on the wall.

This would be ideal for help with time management, organisation, motivation; you could possibly even adapt it for mind mapping.

 

Reflections

Ever since I began mentoring, I have tried to engage in the reflections as much as possible, often informally considering my sessions even if I haven’t written up about them.  However, it can be tricky at times to reflect: digging deep, being so open and honest with myself and with others, and being brave enough to criticise myself while also trying to encourage myself to improve next time.

But recently, I felt that all this hard work had been put into practice with an amazing and enjoyable session in which I simply asked a multitude of questions, such as ‘How else could you do this?’  ‘How would that idea make it better?’  ‘Why is it important to you to change x?’  ‘What else do you need to do and know before you can hand this in?’ ‘Why is x a concern?…What makes you think that?…How could you change this?’

I realised, as the session was progressing, it was the first time I hadn’t actually said anything at all.  I hadn’t pointed out issues I personally thought were important to focus on, or decided on a topic for the session.  I hadn’t said anything was a good or a bad idea.  I hadn’t even come up with suggestions the writer could use.  It was as if I had become the writer’s inner voice, or Jiminy Cricket, present only to listen and to challenge, but not to judge or impose.  The only comment I made was to reassure the writer at the end that they had obviously put in a lot of thought into their work, had clearly exhausted alternatives, and this boosted their confidence in their efforts and they felt ready to submit.  In short, I felt like I had actually earned my star, and I just hope to be able to replicate this in future, after a few inevitable wobbles of course.

jiminy

Writing Essays by Pictures

Review: Gröppel-Wegener, A. (2016). Writing Essays by Pictures. Huddersfield: Innovative Libraries.

I recently came across this book as a new addition to the Peer Mentor library and wanted to give it a read.  I found it very colourful and creative, easy to read, with some innovative techniques for approaching essay writing that would best work for a relatively new student or people with a more kinaesthetic learning method.  As a result, it might be handy to have a flick through and keep it in mind as an alternative for anyone struggling with traditional note-taking, planning, and writing techniques.

Some key examples:

  • The ‘Assembly Approach’ uses the analogy of snacking as opposed to eating Christmas dinner when writing up.
  • Connecting the dots instead of simply spider diagramming can reveal gaps in knowledge.
  • The Iceberg analogy shows that work needs to come to a point and have substantial support for one’s polar bear reader to be challenged and intrigued, and yet to remain on safe ground.
  • Seeing the writer as a Detective finding sources and then noting all evidence.
  • Making visual pictorial notes initially if accessing the right words is tricky, or a ‘poetic inquiry’ summarises texts as a poem using key phrases.
  • The analogy of the Ocean of Literature describes skimming, mapping, then diving into the literature.
  • Taking a ‘long short walk’ improves powers of observation by literally slowing down a typical walk to notice things which would otherwise have been ignored; the skill can be transferred to reading and notetaking.
  • Creating an annotated bibliography as greeting cards: with an illustration encapsulating topic, topic details and notes on the inside, and on the back any details about source bias and source details such as whether it is peer-reviewed.
  • Using index cards to make notes of points rather than notes on whole texts, as these can be easily moved around physically to create an order for the essay.
  • Seeing the first draft as spilling the beans only, a bit like free writing.

Once Upon A Time: Mentoring On Creative Pieces

Blog Post 1 Pic

Though not necessarily a common occurrence within Peer Writing sessions, it could be possible that a student approaches us with a piece of non-academic writing; be it for an assignment within The School of English, The School of Creative Studies and Media or even a personal piece it could be useful to know a few tips to help advise a mentee on their creative work.

The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing which is available online via the university catalogue (I’ve copied a link to it below) is an excellent compilation of advice for both students attempting creative writing and mentors trying to give constructive feedback. This is a useful skill for us to have because, as the Companion states, ‘writers are, at their best, creative writers whether they are writing journalism, plays, philosophy, novels, history, poetry or scientific nonfiction.’ (Morley & Neilsen, 2012 Pg. 1) Below I have compiled a list of three aspects within creative writing that I’ve noticed my students struggling with consistently, and how we can aid them in overcoming these obstacles.

https://tinyurl.com/yb4jnaeu

  1. Floating Dialogue

This is a term used to describe too much dialogue being used in succession. It applies mainly to bodies of text such as novels and short-stories and can sometimes be used by writers attempting to avoid heavy amounts of description because they worry it makes their work seem ‘boring’ or takes away from the action. Essentially, the writer shall have a small map in their head of everything that is occurring within the story as they write it and may not be aware that we, the reader, cannot (and will not) create the same map of movement without written hints. So, when the writer focuses only on the dialogue between the characters the speech tends to ‘float’ up and the reader loses track of where exactly these characters are. It’s important to reassure the student that despite having good dialogue, the reader sometimes requires a little description too, even if it’s as simple as…

‘They began to pace, hands flapping and feet stomping against the ground.’

This is enough to ground the reader and remind them that the characters are still within the same room they were when the dialogue began.

  1. Purple Prose

This may be a term some are familiar with, and probably experienced if you’ve ever read Tolkien or Wilde, and is essentially the opposite of floating dialogue; purple prose is when the writer spends far too much time setting the scene. They may write pages about the glorious medieval manor house their story is set in and after a page of dialogue we leave it behind, never to be seen again. It brings down the reader engagement of the story and can oft times be a slog to read through. The best advice to give a writer who is showing this within their writing is to simply tell them it’s not required. Remind them that world-building is important but should be peppered in over the course of the narrative. If they’re unaware of it, inform them of Checkhov’s Gun:

‘Remove everything that has no relation to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’

This is an excellent quote to use because it can get the writer thinking ‘What does have to be there? What can I put in that will become important in later chapters?’ etc. and can often turn a point of criticism into a point of creative thought.

  1. The Inciting Incident

Many times when going over creative works with my students I will read about half way through, put a small line by a sentence and tell them ‘you’ve started your story here.’ All stories need to have a hook, an incident that incites the movement of the narrative while gaining the reader’s attention; this, as the name suggests, is the inciting incident. We, as the mentors reading through and helping to improve the work will often pick up on this much more easily than the mentee will. We read ourselves and if you look through the mentee’s creative work and find yourself wondering ‘what is going on here? What has happened? Why are these characters doing this?’ And you’re halfway through the piece it’s important to flag that up with the writer and let them know you’re lost. Once the writer explains it to you things may make sense and if they do, let them know that you should be able to obtain that information from the writing alone; encouraging them to think like they’re reading it for the first time is useful too.

And that’s about it! The most important thing, as I’m sure we all know, is to be kind when giving this kind of feedback as students can become very attached to creative pieces they’ve written, especially if it in some way is a reflection of their life, and encourage them to redraft, edit and never delete anything for good. If a piece needs to be removed I tell my students to save it within its own word document. Later down the line if they’re looking for inspiration for another piece of writing that small part could be just the thing… Come to think of it, that may work for pieces of essays that need to be edited out too.

 Bibliography

Morley, D. and Neilsen, P. (2012). The Cambridge companion to creative writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

Polished writing, and recurrent themes.

 

Two things crop up in mentoring sessions a lot. First, questions like ‘How do I make my writing sound more formal/professional?” Second, the length and wordiness of the weaker bits of writing. In academic writing too many words are worse than too few. On starting University, the gulf between written and spoken English grows, and once well-crafted essay now seems amateurish.

When asked for help refining writing- well, it’s a lifelong thing!  But there are few tricks that can be used. Tense, too, can make a great difference (‘tense can be making, too’ doesn’t sound as snappy). Much of this will fall into the final editing stage, which can feel more like a pruning session than anything else. Still, it’s often the little microskills that add an air of confidence and professionalism. It may be easier to categorize them…

Substituting words-Because/as, Lots of/many, this means that/hence, Even though/while, Keep/retain, But/yet, Says/states (affirms, suggests, argues…), you’ll  probably come up with far more as you think about them. Swapping a longer word with a shorter one, or an informal with a formal one, is an easy way to polish your work. Remember the word count, but also how long it will take to read your sentence. A syllable count will make a difference too!

Emotiveness-Another thing is to keep traces of emotion to a minimum. You may be writing a heartrending report on some appalling topics, but it is not so much about your feelings, as the reasons the reader should feel that way. I read an article in the Guardian which was basically about how much the writer hated the Thames Garden Bridge. I gave up caring what they thought long before the end of the article, being presented with so many laden words (despicable, chummy, gobbled ect…) and so few reasons to feel the same way as the journalist.

While essays allow more flexibility for personal opinion than reports, remember to present the information, order it so it supports what you believe, summarise what you feel should be taken from it- and let the reader form their own views.

Structure and order- ‘Many excellent blog posts have been published by the Study Skills Centre’ is not quite as strong as ‘The Study Skills Centre has published many excellent blog posts’. The first is an example of the ‘passive construction’, where a noun has something done to it. The second is the ‘active construction’- the subject does something in its own right. The blog posts were published- but the Study Skills Centre publishing them sounds more engaging.

Also-paragraph beginnings and ends. A common way of beginning a paragraph is to finish the previous one with a statement, then begin with a formulaic link word such as ‘ However’ or ‘Therefore’.  If each paragraph follows the same pattern it gives an under confident impression and a rather flat tone.

Try using a question or a quote. An element of uncertainty in the leading statement, can pique reader interest. Especially if it’s something they didn’t expect. Or beginning a paragraph with a ‘honing in’ of something brought up in the previous one? The ‘Henceforth’ or ‘Although’ can be moved further into the paragraph, if used at all.

 

Writing should be enjoyable to read. For all the stress and worry of writing, it will be worth it in the end. You’re always going to come back to it later on and feel you could do better (hence my previous post on cringy pre-teen poetry). The main thing is that the piece at hand is as good as you can make it. Be proud of your writing!

Speed Reading and Strategies for People with Dyslexia

Students with dyslexia often struggle with the amount of reading required for their degree; a common complaint is that they sit for hours reading, yet failing to internalise the information they have read. Dyslexics also struggle with their reading speed: they take longer to read and often “regress” to previously-read words because they haven’t absorbed the meaning.

Fortunately, there are a number of strategies writing mentors can deploy to help dyslexic writers:

Reading to understand text

One of the most widely-used reading strategies is “SQ3R”, which stands for “Survey, Question, Read, Recall, and Review”.

Survey

In this method, the reader is first required to skim-read their text. This will enable them to quickly get the gist of the content, get a sense of how long it is, and find subheadings or topic markers with which to organise their notes.

Question

Next, the reader should write questions to encourage a deeper encoding of the ideas within the text. Turn any subheadings into questions, or scan the first sentence of each paragraph to determine whether it signals the content to be expounded in the rest of the paragraph.

Read

Equipped with these questions, the reader can now read the text with a purpose: this strategy helps the information to be more deeply encoded and, therefore, more easily recalled.

Recall

This stage tests whether the text has been understood: ask the reader to recite or briefly note down the key information they have just read. It’s fine to re-skim the piece to obtain names and dates.

Review

Finally, the reader should reflect on what they have read. Did they understand it? Does anything need to be expanded? Did they agree with the author’s interpretation or methodology?

This stage helps to develop the ability to critically analyse work, as well as providing another layer of cognitive encoding that will help the material to be internalised and recalled at a later stage.

Reading speed

People with dyslexia tend to read more slowly than other people. This is caused or exacerbated by a number of issues. For instance, distractions tend to cause disproportional problems for people with dyslexia. Even slight distractions can cause a train of thought to be lost, meaning the reader has to start from the beginning. People with dyslexia also tend to make more eye movements as they follow a text, reading each word individually. Though this might appear to be a good strategy to ensure that words and meaning are not missed, good readers make fewer eye movements and read small chunks of words together (though they may not realise they are doing it).

There are a couple of ways to circumvent these issues (and are also helpful for people who simply have difficulty concentrating on large texts).

Minimise distractions

This is an easy one! Advise the writer to go somewhere quiet to read, silence their phone, and close down social media pages. There are also slow, lyric- and advert-free pieces of music on YouTube that are designed to help people to study; I am highly sceptical of their claims to “induce alpha states for learning” and so on, but what they DO provide is an easy-to-ignore background noise that will help to block out more distracting noises.

Create a schedule

You should also advise students to create a reading schedule, with reading sessions lasting no more than 45 minutes. If they lose concentration more quickly than this, shorten the sessions. There is no point in sitting down for 8 hours, poring over a book and despairing at knowing no more than when it was picked up. Short, focused sessions will help readers to stay on track and make the most of their reading time.

Use a pencil to guide the eyes

An interesting fact to note, for dyslexic students and anyone hoping to learn to speed-read, is that the eyes move more smoothly if they’re guided by a pencil (though any pointy implement will work!) – more so than if the eyes are guided by a finger. When using a finger, many people tend to point at words individually: this is what we’re trying to avoid. Moving a pencil along the lines in a smooth motion allows the reader to peripherally perceive the surrounding text. For a dyslexic student, this more closely mimics the action of reading experienced by non-dyslexic readers.

I hope these tips come in handy the next time you have a dyslexic mentee, or anyone who needs a bit of help with focussed reading. I’ve used them with a couple of writers now, and it seems to be helpful – though, like any new skill, it can take some practice for it to become fluid and natural.

(Source and further reading: Study Skills for Students with Dyslexia, Sage Publications).

Quick Tip – Welsh Translation Service

Hi All!

Not sure if everyone has seen the recent email from the Corporate Communications and Marketing department – but within that email they stated that Canolfan Bedwyr (Bangor University’s Center for Welsh Language Services, Research and Technology) offers a translation service (short piece of text: up to 250 characters about 50 words), courses for tweeting in Welsh and writing in Welsh on the web. I just thought this might be something useful for us to know about!

Hope you’ve all had a great Easter break!

Links:

Canolfan Bedwyr: https://www.bangor.ac.uk/canolfanbedwyr/

Canolfan Bedwyr, Translation Unit: https://www.bangor.ac.uk/canolfanbedwyr/cyfieithu.php.en

Pratchett, Austen and the beginnings of craftsmanship.

It’s always impressive for craftspeople to look over their early work. It’s said to always keep your first sewing project, attempt at a bird box, lumpy knitting and so on, to remind you of how far you’ve come. For me, looking back on my pre-teen notebooks and squirming at embarrassment- well, that does a similar job!

The fact is that writing is a craft that can be honed, and experience will take you a long way. Writing with another writer lets you watch another craftsman at work. A little like the medieval apprentice system. That’s one of the wonderful things about peer mentoring. One of the main reasons people come to the Study Skills Centre is simply that they’re new to the particular style of writing asked of them. Highly talented freshers or non-native English speakers are just starting this craft, and by ‘learning by doing’ with a writer who’s been through much the same, the whole style visibly matures and deepens.

This maturing of style and learning-by-doing is a lifelong thing. Fans of the Discworld series will notice the difference between the first and the last ten books. There are 41 Discworld books written over the course of thirty plus years, so naturally there will be development in the quality of writing! The earliest books are ones of very close parody- to Rock and Roll, to Shakespeare, and simply to the plethora of weak fantasy novels so popular in the 80s. In academic terms, there was over-heavy reliance on the source material, with limited originality. Pratchett’s inexperience also shows in the long, over emphasised sentences, weighed down by excess information, and an unclear central theme in the various strands.

Similar is the Juvenilia (juvenile writings) of Jane Austen, which you may be able to get a copy of online or from an old fashioned second hand bookshop. These short stories romp with energy, are clear parodies of the source reading material and don’t quite have the same readability or sound structure of her later work. Many believe that the finest novel she ever wrote was her last, Sandringham. Sadly this was never completed due to her early death, but the same theme of continuous improvement with experience remains the same.

So moving back to The Study Skills Centre, how is this likely to benefit the writers of Bangor University? For a start, I always assure the less confident ‘novices’ that they will only get better. And they do. To the point I can be little more than a sounding board for the more experienced mentees.

Secondly, neither the mentor, the text book or the lecture slides can tell you exactly what to write. While the assignment brief must be followed, a university student is expected to have their own words and viewpoints on the topic. A hand to hold can be comforting, but sooner or later it should not be needed. Two excellent quotes from one of my tutors are-

“Academics are always arguing. That’s what drives science forward”

“You’re becoming the academic now. People are going to look to you for advice”

So Peer Mentoring is interesting in that it helps writers at that early, awkward stage, which even the greatest have. By letting the mentee direct the session and taking a step back to focus on the issues at hand, we help others of our kind develop. And for my own early works? Maybe my parents’ attic is the best place for them…