Monday, March 31, 2008

A Hawthorne Effect

As Teppo points out in his comment to this post, writing is not often taught in doctoral programmes. I happen to be an exception to that rule. A while back, the Doctoral School on Knowledge and Management at the Copenhagen Business School hired me as its resident writing consultant.

Because "the literature" in a given field (like organization theory or management studies) is often written in English, academic writing presents specific challenges for academics in non-English speaking countries. Research as a Second Language is part of the answer to those challenges. I think other doctoral programmes, especially in continental Europe, can learn from our example.

It is not actually necessary to go all out and hire a full-time writing consultant. While I do hold a full-time (non-academic) position at the department, only half my time goes the PhD students. The other half is spent as an in-house editor for the department's faculty. My functions in the doctoral school could probably be carried out by a devoted faculty member. Such a person could be given a reduced teaching load in exchange for supervising the writing efforts of PhD students.

My work can be divided into three main categories: supervision, workshops, and courses. I read what the PhD students are writing and offer advice on how to improve it. I also hold regular workshops (participants sign up for sixteen 1.5 hour sessions at a time in groups of 4-6). Finally, I organize courses on writing and scholarship practices.

Fabio's post about what professors can do to help their graduate students emphasizes "timeliness". I agree with this. In fact, I think this more than just a question of getting drafts back to students as quickly as possible. It is about ensuring that there is a continual process of writing and criticism, a cycle that repeats. Low amplitude, high frequency.

The best thing you can do for your doctoral students, at least from the point of view of improving their writing, is to have them submit short pieces of writing to you on a regular basis, providing detailed response and a sustained conversation about the writing process. I sometimes think my influence at the department is largely a "Hawthorne effect": it is not the specific advice I give but the general interest I take in people's writing that improves it.

It's a bit like being a music teacher: someone who notices when the student hasn't been practicing. And when the student has.

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