Monday, September 28, 2015

Grad Council Presentation on Graduate Student Writing

Slides and Text from my presentation to the UNLV Grad Council - 23 September 2015

(SLIDE 1) I want to give you a brief preview of the upcoming report on graduate student writing that will be distributed on campus by (hopefully) late next week. I promised Kendall that I would keep this presentation to 5 minutes, so I chose a format that will advance the slides fairly quickly and I’m going to read prepared notes. Hopefully, we’ll have some time after for questions. I hope that the report itself will generate lots of questions and lots of conversations after it’s distributed. So, without further ado . . .

(SLIDE 2) I went to Kate and Kendall last fall and proposed a study on graduate writing. I’ve been curious about graduate student writing practices since my own doctoral study, and I was hoping a study might help describe the expectations for and about writing and the role that writing plays in the graduate student experience.

(SLIDE 3 and 4) We began with a primary goal of gathering information that describes and makes visible writing practices and the culture of writing in the various graduate curricula at UNLV. By doing this, we hoped to address much of the myth and lore that circulates freely among graduate students and, quite frankly, among graduate faculty by making these practices more transparent, thereby creating momentum for assessing (or reassessing) writing practices in the graduate curricula on campus and assessing appropriate and necessary levels of support for graduate writing and teaching graduate writing at UNLV.

(SLIDE 5 and 6) The study used four primary tools for collecting information: 1) An online survey of graduate students about their writing practices and attitudes toward writing; 2) An online survey of graduate faculty about their writing practices, attitudes toward writing, and use of writing in their graduate courses; these were distributed last spring; 3) Over the summer, we gathered three graduate student focus groups and two graduate faculty focus groups to discuss key issues from the survey findings; Finally, we performed external research of current practices and support for graduate student writing across the country.

(SLIDE 7 and 8) 1,047 graduate students responded to the survey, and 365 graduate faculty responded to the survey. Faculty rank was equally represented in the respondents. All in all, we were quite pleased with the response. 

As you can see, there is a contrast in gender identification among student and faculty respondents, which raises some interesting questions: Does gender play a role in writing practices in our disciplines and at the graduate level? How might these gender differences influence our approach to writing? Or our approach to teaching writing?

(SLIDE 9) Beyond demographics, we are pleased to note that, while most believe writing is hard work, the vast majority of respondents actually enjoy writing (at least sometimes). We “see” ourselves as writers, have an understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, and have confidence in our ability to write well in our discipline.

(SLIDE 10) When we looked at the writing process, an underwhelming number of students discuss their ideas with others before drafting, which seems to perpetuate a myth of the individual thinker working alone to achieve intellectual greatness.

(Slide 11) This myth is only heightened when we see surprisingly low numbers for how much, how often, and with who graduate students share their writing. There appears a real lack of trust among graduate students when it comes to writing.

(SLIDE 12) And while a majority of respondents believe that collaborative writing is a key to their professional development, very few of us actually participate regularly in writing groups. Now this might reflect different definitions of collaborative writing and how we might use writing groups, but these low numbers surprised me.

(SLIDE 13) And despite the fact that almost all of us in this room go through multiple drafts before submission (almost endlessly, it seems at times), we don’t create the same expectations for graduate students in our courses. And they respond in kind.

(SLIDE 14 and 15) There is general disagreement about when faculty provide feedback for graduate student writing assignments (and even if they provide strategies for revision). Students state that they only receive feedback after a paper has been submitted for evaluation, while faculty indicate that they provide feedback both after the planning stage and after a first draft. While this led us to a number of interesting questions that we would like to answer in the future, it also speaks for a need to make more transparent the process of writing and the need for a common definition of writing terms and concepts.

(SLIDE 16) The overwhelming majority of faculty use disciplinary standards for developing evaluation criteria for graduate student writing, and most offer a combination of formative and summative strategies for providing feedback to our novice professional writers.

(SLIDE 17) While the number of pages that we assign are similar, the kinds of writing that we assign varies greatly, and it’s hard to determine if the sheer number arises from differences in programs or disciplinary practices. How are faculty developing their assignments? How do they stay current with the kinds of writing being practiced in various professional contexts?

(SLIDE 18) Different universities across the country offer a range of initiatives to assist graduate students write more effectively, including boot camps, writing center services, graduate writing courses, writing groups, and writing institutes.

(SLIDE 19 and 20) Finally, the kinds of writing initiatives and workshops that graduate students want compares favorably with what graduate faculty feel they need. But are these initiatives and workshops enough? While 71% of graduate students believe that faculty expectations for the quality of writing at UNLV is Very High or High, only 30% of faculty believe this.

Do the graduate faculty numbers reflect a distrust of other faculty on campus? Do they reflect a concern for the quality of the graduate students? Do they reflect a belief that they have lowered their standards based on their current experience with graduate student writing? What discussions do we need to have to improve the quality of writing in graduate curricula at UNLV?

(SLIDE 21) Virtually everyone agrees that writing at the graduate level is an important skill that students at UNLV must develop more fully, and virtually everyone agrees that support for graduate student writing is an institutional necessity. Our analyses have only scratched the surface and, in most cases, lead to more questions than answers. From our perspective, this only heightens the need for more constructive conversations about graduate writing practices and teaching writing to graduate students on the UNLV campus.

(SLIDE 22) Thanks for your time. I know that my time is limited here, but I would be happy to discuss this issue in much greater detail with anyone who is interested. Don’t hesitate to drop me an email or give me a call at 5-5073.

Thank you.