Learning to Write at the Doctoral Level

I love learning.   I read a lot for work and school; watch documentaries, news clips, TED Talks, and the like for fun; and listen to audiobooks, radio, and podcasts while driving, working out, and cleaning.  One result of ingesting so much information is that I often have myriad ideas banging up against one another in my head.  Though I take in a lot of information on any given day, I find I rarely achieve a deeper sense of learning unless I also make time to write.  Whether that writing takes the form of a twenty-page term paper or a one-line Facebook post, taking time to decide what matters and how to articulate it increases my level of understanding of and connection to the topic foremost in my mind at the moment.

Green discusses the role of writing in active learning in the context of subject-specific literacy (in Beavis & Green, eds., 2012).  He asserts, “The use of written language enables the learner to focus deliberately on his or her thinking and work on it so as to develop it further” (p. 10).  Learning to write is one goal, but writing well in turn is a tool for thinking and making meaning.  In this way, literacy builds upon itself cyclically.  This concept isn’t new, but over the past few years at UVM, I’ve seen how this pattern continues to play out at the doctoral level.

With two degrees in English, I arrived at UVM with solid writing skills and an awareness that professors have different expectations and style preferences for student writing.  My approach to this challenge has always been to tackle the first paper of any class with gusto and attempt to meet the requirements of the assignment through my own style.  Then I eagerly await feedback.  Some professors respond positively from the start.  That makes life easy.  Others are more critical.  This is more challenging (always a bit of a blow to the ego), but constructive criticism also promises a steeper learning curve.  Through the years, I have adapted my writing style to different contexts, sometimes writing well within my comfort zone, other times stretching to accommodate professorial preferences.  And I have learned a lot in doing so.  Once a course is done, I can take or leave whatever skills or quirks I’ve picked up along the way.

This learning habit has been useful at the doctoral level.  Switching from the humanities to the social sciences has challenged me to take on a series of new genres.  After years of writing for English professors, I’d developed a style of long, serpentine sentences and a love of figurative language and artistically placed punctuation.  I’d come to appreciate writing that presents the unexpected and allows ideas to flow fluidly from one to the next such that by the end of a text one might trace the thread all the way through and see that each detail has served to set up all those after it without ever announcing its intent.  My writing style, developed through years of studying literature, betrayed an assumption that readers are willing to invest energy in interpretation.  That’s what English students do.

My professors in the social sciences have required me to be more concise, formulaic, direct, and clear.  Through research and policy writing, I’ve been trained to write introductory paragraphs that offer mini-outlines of the paper as a whole.  There are no surprise endings, no quirky language twists, and much less figurative expression.  In this context, I have learned to assume that my audience is busy, that I must get to the point or expect to lose their attention.  This is a more pragmatic style of writing.  I still have work to do to master it and then to master blending it with the more literary style I still find appealing.  (There are, of course, social science genres and publication niches where such a hybrid style is embraced.)  Through this process, writing has become for me a more versatile tool for learning and communication.

Writing at the doctoral level has pushed me hard, not least because I have surrounded myself with professors and peers who are willing to criticize my work while enthusiastically supporting me in developing my ideas.  As I dig into my dissertation, I continue to hone my writing skills.  Unlike writing a term paper, which typically involves submitting a single final draft, writing a dissertation is an iterative process, a process of reading, researching, writing, receiving feedback, and cycling through these phases again and again.  Sections get revamped many times over before being polished for final defense and publication.  This iterative process suits me well.  Revising forces me to rethink my ideas over and over again as I work out precise and effective ways to communicate them.  As my writing becomes more clear, so too do my thoughts.  As my writing improves, so too does my thinking.

Reference: Green, B., & Beavis, C. (2012). Literacy in 3D: An integrated perspective in theory and practice. Camberwell, Vic: ACER Press.

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About Caitlin S. Steele

Caitlin S. Steele is a graduate teaching fellow, research assistant, and doctoral candidate in the University of Vermont's Ph.D. program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Her research focuses on complex systems as an interdisciplinary lens in K-12 curricula. Through her dissertation, she is exploring the concept of systems literacy and questions around how one becomes systems literate. Before arriving at UVM, Caitlin taught English for twelve years. In 2009, she received a Rowland Foundation Fellowship to support her work collaborating with colleagues across disciplines to develop a sustainability-themed freshman academy. She continues to work closely with the Rowland Foundation, serving as a Rowland Associate organizing professional collaboration among past and current fellows located across the state of Vermont and beyond.