Archive for the ‘teaching writing’ Category

I’m curious how you learned the conventions you are to use, the voice you should use, the way to argue within your field, or, if you’re learning as you go, now, as you write your dissertation.

If you were at a U.S. university as an undergraduate, you may not have been writing exclusively in your major course of study until late in your 2nd or even until your 3rd year of school.  By then, had you learned a bit of flexibility by writing in different discourses for your required courses? 

Had you been writing as an art historian one night and the next night as a psychologist?  Did that give you insight into what writing conventions are important in each field?

And as you specialized more and more in  your own field, did you become clearer about your field’s discourse or writing conventions?

The New York Times (9.6.2009) asks several professors to give advice to students entering college this year. 

Stanley Fish advises students to “take a composition course even if they have tested out of it.”  He says, “I have taught many students whose SAT scores exempted them from the writing requirement, but a disheartening number of them couldn’t write.”

Gerald Graff,  the past president of the Modern Language Association, tells students how to write an argument, seemingly without the help of a writing class or instructor.  

Since it’s a little late for those of you who are writing dissertations to take a writing class, Graff’s suggestions on how to take what you know and transform it into an argument might be helpful and definitely would have helped me early on in my student career.

He says: 
1. Recognize that knowing a lot of stuff won’t do you much good unless you can do something with what you know by turning it into an argument.

2. Pay close attention to what others are saying and writing and then summarize their arguments and assumptions in a recognizable way. Work especially on summarizing the views that go most against your own.

3. As you summarize, look not only for the thesis of an argument, but for who or what provoked it — the points of controversy.

4. Use these summaries to motivate what you say and to indicate why it needs saying. Don’t be afraid to give your own opinion, especially if you can back it up with reasons and evidence, but don’t disagree with anything without carefully summarizing it first.

Even as the writer of a dissertation, it’s great to remind yourself that you know a lot of stuff.  It’s easy to forget that. 

Also don’t forget that there’s usually a reason for the writing requirements you run into for your dissertation.  Remember that the literature review creates a context for your methodology and findings or for your argument.

As you write your dissertation, your field’s required structure and discourse conventions give you a great clothesline where you can hang your ideas.

Warm regards,


Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach


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Dissertation writers are largely self-taught academic writers, and the learning process can be a bold and daring adventure.

Over the years many of my dissertation coaching clients talk about the challenges in writing academic discourse.  Academic writing is its own special discourse, with its own particular conventions. My dissertation coaching clients largely learn this discourse by doing.

What they are asked to do and the way they feel their way along, trying to put into practice what they think they’re being asked to do, is not unlike underprepared students in their first year or years of college.

Professors and instructors in composition and rhetoric fields are familiar with David Bartholomae’s article “Inventing the University.” Bartholomae defines how beginning college writers must act as if they know what they’re doing, even if they don’t.

The article opens in this way: “Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion–  .  .  . or a branch of it, like History or Anthropology or Economics or English. He has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.” 

Bartholomae says that students can’t wait to write academic discourse until after they have learned more or can write comfortably: “they must dare to speak it, or to carry off the bluff, since speaking and writing will most certainly be required long before the skill is ‘learned.’”

Likewise, my dissertation coaching clients have to boldly write and rewrite. Dare to write.

Dare to carry off the bluff.

Warm regards,


Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach


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 When and how do we acquire the skills, voice, critical perspectives, and confidence needed for successful writing?   Specifically to write successfully a dissertation and, for that matter, the book that follows the dissertation?

Years ago as a first-year college student, I tested out of composition class, but all students at my university were required to take at least one semester of writing, so I took an advanced writing class.  It’s possible that I may have been required to write an argument, but I don’t remember any such formal assignment.  Maybe I’ve conveniently forgotten it since it would have been a painful process for me.  I came to the university understanding only vaguely what would be required in the demanding, competitive world of a good, large university.  

I think I was a decent writer at that time, but not very analytical.  I had a lot to learn. 

I recall a few assignments from that class–two had to do with describing a place.  I suppose I remember those assignments because it was the kind of writing that I had always enjoyed, but I wonder if in that class I was ever assigned to do something I didn’t already  know how to do, something that would help me write an extended argument.

Throughout my undergraduate years, I never felt confident as a writer, and years later, when I was ready to write my master’s thesis, I recall being very unsure about what I was supposed to do.  And that feeling was magnified even more by the time I began my dissertation.

I remember being afraid, but my strengths of curiosity, love of learning, and perseverance were helpful… at times…when I remembered to call on them.

Student writers in undergraduate school and graduate  school, dissertators, academicians, and professional writers all need to know how to use different rhetorical strategies and how to write in specific discourses.

Learning those skills is hard work, and teaching those skills and the type of writing in which those skills are learned is a bear, especially in terms of the paper load.

Is it a student’s responsibility to teach herself?  Maybe, but when is she or he told that it’s her job or how does she pick up on the cues of what kind of writing will serve her best?

How did you become a good writer?  I’d love to hear from you!

Warm regards,
Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach


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Are you one of the many overworked, stressed people trying to write a dissertation at the same time that you’re holding down a demanding job?  Is each day more complicated than the day before?

If you’ve been teaching as well as trying to find time to write, this week may be what you’ve been waiting for. Is it Spring Break for you?

For a while, you won’t have the burden of preparing to teach / dealing with students / dealing with the critical self-questioning after teaching a class / dealing with colleagues.

During at least some of Spring Break, you can push aside almost everything else to focus on your writing and still have time to exercise, smile inwardly, and, if you’re in a place where you have a change of seasons, watch for a squirrel or a tulip.

A Snow Day can produce a similar change in mood and perspective for a writer.  Just two weeks ago here in the Washington DC metropolitan area, the month of March came in with a Snow Day, and it was heavenly.  I’ve seldom heard anyone speak ill of a snow day.  Given how hard everyone works, a snow day can be a miniature Spring Break, especially for all of us who no longer have Spring Breaks.

Occasionally over the last few years on the cul-de-sac where I live, I’ve seen a fox or two wander about.  On the Snow Day, there it was!  The fox meandered about the street, sidewalk, and yards, acting as if the world was as it should be, quiet, undisturbed, no cars carrying children to the grade school at the end of the street, nothing moving.

A Snow Day helps you move away from the ordinary. The usual doesn’t hold; you aren’t immediately drawn to email or your cell phone.  Writing seems easier to do.

Snow Days are short-lived and, like Spring Breaks, even nonexistent for many people. You may have to do something else in order to focus on your important job of writing. To focus and write may require an extraordinary move.

Taking leave from her job, one of my clients flew across the country to be near her advisor, courageously and brilliantly giving herself time and space to work on her dissertation.

It’s coming toward the end of the time she had planned to stay.  She says that staying an additional two weeks would be very helpful.  If she returns home, she risks being consumed by her regular job and the commute.  Regardless of what she decides, her initial choice to make a bold change in her life, even if for only a while, has made all the difference.  She broke out of a huge stall and is now writing.  She’s producing text.

To give you the chance to write, distance may be what you need—distance and difference.  Snow cover gives difference; miles give distance; Spring Break can do both.

How are you creating difference and distance for yourself?  How could that work for you and help you move forward with your dissertation?   I’d love to hear from you.

Be courageous and put distance between you and the distractions.  Don’t go back to the ordinary and usual until you have to.

Successful writing!


P.S. Boot Camp for writers is a great way to create a writing habit.  Would a strong writing habit be a change for the better for you?

Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation and Academic Career Coach


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An ABD’s dilemmas with her writing underscore for me the problems dissertation writers have when they’re isolated from campus and from an advisor during the dissertation process.

As a dissertation coach, I don’t fix people’s writing, but I listen, and if a client sends me some text, I see what the writing looks like.

This morning a dissertation writer talked about several pages of a chapter. In these pages she writes, in part, the history of a movement.

She came to me because her advisor gives her no feedback.  She had sent him some pages, and it’s obvious he didn’t read the work or, if he did, he decided he wouldn’t involve himself in her process. He says she’s doing great!

The introduction to the survey of literature is murky, repetitious, hard to follow.  It goes on for page after page. She tries to write in what she thinks is the expected discourse. She hurries, compresses, meanders, and throws in rhetorical flourishes.

No one has told her that the convoluted language is confusing.  Nobody has told her, in effect, to choose a traffic lane and stick with it.

In the second half, where she presents the background material, she says, “I don’t have any concepts in here.’  It seems to me that her writing becomes clearer in this second half of the group of pages, but she dismisses that writing as “baby-ish.” She is in a hurry to wrap up the telling of the history because it seems obvious to her.

When she talks aloud to me about her ideas for the dissertation, she sounds competent and clear, but she knows that she has problems when she writes. She is spinning her wheels.

I have faith in her.  I know that she can turn this around, but she is looking at quite an investment of time.

I have to ask:  Did her university prepare her for writing this dissertation?
What responsibility does her advisor have toward her?

What do you think?

Until next time,


Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your International Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
nancy @ nancywhichard.com

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When I was writing my dissertation, I tried my best to let go of all that was unimportant. 

I always wanted more time to be with my kids and to do that I had to let go of all but the essential aspects of my teaching. I wasn’t perfect. Even though I tried to compartmentalize, class preparation and paper grading bled into dissertation time and dissertation time bled into family time.  But when the choice was to spend more time on each paper or hold the line on grading and spend time with my kids, I did my best to cut corners on the grading.

I knew that my kids needed to eat good food, do their homework, have activities in their lives about which they were passionate, and know that they meant the world to me.  I wrapped my arms around my kids and let go of a lot of other things.

Mainly what I let go of was any notion of a perfectly kept house, or even a well kept house.  I was ecstatic with whatever anyone did that would move us all one inch closer to a clean house.

Long before I heard of FlyLady and her Ultimate Timer (www.flylady.net), I had cleaning blitzes.  I would decide that whatever I could get done in 10 minutes would be all that needed to be done.  Bathrooms—5 minutes should be all that was needed to spray cleaning fluids here and there and wipe them up.  Sweeping the main floor of the house—5 minutes tops.

I also had to protect myself from situations that would drive me over the brink.  I couldn’t open my house to family members who unexpectedly decided our house would be a good place to stay for their spring vacation.  I had to ask for help and understanding. 

Where are you drawing the line so that you can get some writing done and also take care of yourself and others in your life?  I’d love to hear from you.

I have something that will be of help.  Go to www.nwcoaching.com and get a free sign-up bonus when you subscribe to my Smart Tips for Writers e-newsletter.

Until next time,

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Just in time for the first day of classes at many universities, we’re reminded of one of the less admirable aspects of higher education.   

Purdue University’s women’s basketball team has been placed on probation for two years because an assistant coach committed academic fraud by helping a student write a term paper.  In emails sent to the student, the assistant coach implicated herself in far more than just “helping.”  She told the student, “Be sure you reread the paper and make it sound like you” (“Coach Caught By an E-Mail Trail,” http://insidehighered.com/news/2007/08/23/purdue).

In another exchange, the student implicated herself when she said, “Stop cakin’ and finish the paper . . . dang!”

Just this week, the London Times tapped Purdue as one of the Top 200 Universities in the world. 


I’m curious whether the professor of the course in question was aware of the student’s work or had any questions about the student’s being able to write the quality of the paper being submitted.

If you teach writing (or if you teach writing within the context of another course), you know that one of the only ways to detect plagiarism and also to help students learn to write is to require drafts and to hold individual student conferences on the drafts.

I’ve had various experiences with student athletes in which there were red flags and intrusions from the Athletic Department.  One student had not submitted work and had not shown up at a conference, but the next day an assistant coach was waiting for me in my classroom.  He touched my arm and made excuses for the young man, and he followed up with a telephone call.  He had also been in touch with other professors and instructors.

That situation did not end well for either the student athlete or the coach.

I don’t know why the assistant coach was so bold, other than the pressure coaches are under to produce wins, and their teams can’t win if students are ineligible. 

At another university, I also had underprepared student athletes in some classes, but at that school there was more academic support in place for those students and the athletes seemed to know that they were to do the work, no matter what. 

At that school, basketball players were extremely valuable to the school since the team went to the NCAA Sweet 16 finals.  Name recognition and increased applications for admissions were only part of what the school gained from having a team in the finals.

Universities bear much of the blame for situations that can sometimes be called academic fraud.  Too many athletes for the so-called money sports cannot do university-level work.  They need what community colleges offer. 

When universities admit students because of the money and fame the students will bring to the school, ethical dilemmas are almost inevitable

Underpaid, overworked instructors or teaching assistants in the lower level courses can’t be expected to redress the missing academic instruction and academic experiences of the underprepared student athlete and at the same time be alert to ferret out fouls from the Athletic Department.

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