Pedagogies of research writing: the role of space-time

Post by Rae Dufty-Jones

Writing and Space Series: Post 2/3

Last week’s blog opened this series on ‘writing and space’ with a reflection on how the sabbatical (if available) should be approached more strategically to create space for writing in the neoliberal university. This week I want to continue the theme of making space for writing with a reflection on the field of ‘pedagogies of research writing’. In particular I want to examine what such approaches have to offer in the broader context of the training/professionalization of higher degree research students and how human geography understandings of space-time may be applied to these approaches.

Research training and the neoliberal university

The PhD offers graduate students many opportunities to develop a variety of skills. I (like many others) approached my own PhD candidature as an opportunity to hone the skills in procrastination that I had developed as an undergraduate student. I like to think, however, that I channelled my desire to do ‘anything but write’ into (mostly) positive and productive avenues. In particular I became deeply involved in my postgraduate student representative body, while also running for and being elected to the university’s academic board. As part of the latter role I was told that I was to be the student representative on the university’s ‘research committee’. As it turns out this was a fortuitous moment as it occurred at the same time that the university was grappling with the delivery of the federal government’s Research Training Scheme (RTS). As the title suggests the RTS funding was directed towards formalising the way in which training for research students was delivered in Australian universities. The program involved the provision of a substantial amount of funding into the higher degree research programs of Australian universities. The generous funding associated with the RTS was made all the more unique as it was provided when deep cuts had been made to the funding of higher education in Australia more generally.

Equivalents to the RTS can be found in other national contexts such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom (Roberts, 2000; Demeritt, 2004; Bauder, 2006). The reasons behind the funding of these programs come from various quarters. For instance in Australia and the UK research training programs have been designed to increase the quantity of those with doctoral qualifications (particularly in the STEM disciplines), reduce drop-out rates, improve on-time completions, and improve the employment-related/industry-relevant skills of research students. While in the US and Canada the emphasis on research training is understood to be geared around providing graduate research students with the necessary ‘know-how’ so that they are more able to succeed in increasingly competitive academic job markets – part of a Bourdieuian social reproduction of homo academicus.

As a consequence, the components and emphasis of graduate research training varies from country to country and between institutions. The form in which such training is delivered ranges from one-off seminars to two-year masters-level research training degrees used as the requirement to gain entry to doctoral programs. Likewise, the content of these programs varies from training in different data collection techniques, to semester long courses in the history of the relevant academic discipline.

What strikes me both looking back on this time and at contemporary practices in research training in Australia more generally is the lack of consideration given to the need to train research students in how to write.

When writing goes well Source: "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

When writing goes well
Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham


Research writing pedagogies

As a number of researchers in the field of ‘research writing pedagogies’ have pointed out, writing is rarely considered when universities develop research-training programs (Aitchison and Lee, 2006; Kamler and Thomson, 2006; Lee and Kamler, 2008; Aitchison et al., 2010). When it is, it is often done so in a sporadic and ad hoc way, rather than as part of a sustained and broader reconceptualization of researcher education. Furthermore, when writing training programs are designed and delivered they are regularly stigmatised by being located, outside of faculties and schools, in rehabilitative ‘learning’ units.

The causes and consequences of these wider institutional attitudes to research writing pedagogies are manifold.

First, in academia, writing tends to be constructed as something that occurs at ‘the end’: as ancillary and marginal to the ‘real work’ of data collection and analysis (Kamler and Thompson, 2006). Terminology associated with writing, such as ‘writing up’, presents the task as the natural, easy, and final stage of a research project. Such representations of writing makes the task appear straightforward and uncomplicated and, in doing so, conceals the challenges often associated with writing.

Second, when problems with writing do emerge they are viewed as a personal deficiency of the researcher, rather than the result of a wider failure to teach these skills to the individual. Problems with writing are then generally ‘treated’ only when they reach crisis point and their solution presented as being simply a matter of the individual learning the right perfunctory skills. Furthermore a ‘skills’ approach to writing assumes that writing is a) linear in its production and b) transparent and singular in its meaning. Kamler and Thompson (2008) point to the burgeoning material on ‘how to’ and ‘self help’ books around finishing the thesis as evidence of the prevalence of this (wrong-headed) approach to the teaching of research writing.

Last, for those without the ‘skills’, writing becomes something that is mostly undertaken under the auspices of fear: whether it is writing in response to looming thesis completion deadlines or the need to publish due to job pressures.

Such attitudes and approaches to writing are problematic for a number of reasons. First, while writing is difficult it should not be the major source of anxiety it often is for researcher-writers. Furthermore, these attitudes and approaches are not efficient. For example, a study in 1994 (Torrance and Thomas) found that those students who experienced significant delays in submitting their doctoral thesis or, worse, failed to submit, often did so because of writing related issues. Significantly, these students tended to see a strict division existing between ‘doing research’ and ‘writing the thesis’. Torrance and Thomas (1994) argued that it was this perception of writing as separate from research that created problems with writing for these students. Last, the above attitudes and approaches to writing are also problematic because what writing is created under these conditions tends to not be the best the researcher-writer could have produced.

The neurobiology of writing Source: "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

The neurobiology of writing
Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

So what should a pedagogical approach to research writing look like? The above authors provide many ways of approaching this but the two I want to focus on are: writing as social practice and reimaging the temporalities of writing

    1) Writing as a social practice

First, to counter the dominant ‘skills-oriented’ approach, those in the pedagogies of research writing field argue that writing should be seen as a social practice and as an integral part of the identity work involved in the ongoing (re)production of the ‘researcher’. While the skills-oriented approach tends to present writing as an individual pursuit and the problems associated with it to be problems of the individual, the ‘writing as a social practice’ approach borrows from Fairclough’s critical discourse analysis to show that research-writing is not a singular and static product but active in the ways we represent and act in our social worlds (Kamler and Thompson, 2006). That is, writing should be understood as relational. It not only represents, it is also productive of social relations and practices both within and outside of the academy. The sociality of the writing process can exist between student and supervisor/advisor, collaborators, individuals in a writing group but it also relates to the fact that research writing is an ‘institutionally-constrained social practice’ (Kamler and Thompson, 2006: 5). In other words, research-writing is about the (re)production of the individual researcher’s identity, but this is conditioned by the social relations and disciplinary traditions in which researchers’ identities are produced.

   2) Reimagining the temporalities of writing

The second way in which those in the pedagogies of research writing field seek to trouble mechanistic approaches to research writing is through reimagining the temporalities of writing in the research project. This perspective is summed up as: writing is research/research is writing. That is, rather than something that occurs at the end, writing needs to be understood and approached as an integral part of the research agenda (Kamler and Thomson, 2004). Writing is messy, iterative and recursive. We often need to begin writing in order for us to know what it is that we want to say. Meaning is often elusive and writing is needed to bring ideas into being. By reimagining the temporalities of writing and bringing writing as an element of a research project into every stage of the project, the research-writer can maximise the creative/productive capacities of writing. Writing, and the thinking that goes with it, can be used to refine and improve the design and analysis of the research through out the project rather than leaving it to the end.

An example of how both these approaches within the pedagogies of research writing field can be applied in practice is through the innovative work of Dowling et al. (2012) who examined the role of the ‘PhD by publication’ as a pedagogical strategy to support doctoral writing. They showed how producing the thesis by publication offered the opportunity for research students to be introduced to and mentored through disciplinary communities. Through the engagement with these discourse communities, publishing during the thesis thus brought to the fore for students the idea of ‘writing as social practice’. Similarly, the PhD by publication approach offered an opportunity to unsettle the temporalities of the PhD thesis and the writing associated with such research. This approach to the doctoral thesis was particularly useful for challenging the idea of beginning writing after the fieldwork was complete, as students needed to begin writing manuscripts for review well before this was case.

Bringing a space-time perspective to inform research writing pedagogies

These recent contributions to the pedagogies of research writing field are beginning to filter through into practices of doctoral supervision and other areas of researcher training (albeit in an ad hoc way). For instance, since 2012 my school at Western Sydney University has been running a regular ‘writing retreat’ as one way of delivering researcher writer training for doctoral candidates and early career researchers. In both formal and informal feedback on each retreat what is regularly brought to our attention is the usefulness of being in a different and dedicated space to individuals’ research writing practices and processes. That is, space is important when it comes to learning how to do research writing.

Indeed a sense of the importance of space to research writing is a subtle but pervasive feature in the pedagogies of research writing literatures. There is an abundance of spatial metaphors with countless references to ‘making space’, isolation, environment, mapping, settings, atmosphere, sanctuaries etc. as they relate to writing practices and processes.

As a geographer this is exciting to see. However there has, to date, only been very limited engagement with the ideas emanating from the area of pedagogies of research writing in geography (with notable exceptions including Cameron et al., 2009; Ferguson, 2009; Burgoine et al., 2011; Dowling et al., 2012). This is problematic for two reasons. First, research writing pedagogies have much to offer critical approaches to the teaching of geography in higher education. Second, while there is much geographers can learn from these perspectives there are also important contributions that we can make to this field of research. In particular, while there is a sense that space is important in the pedagogies of research writing literature, how space is conceptualised and applied in the research writing literatures remains, in my opinion, under-developed.

The main problem with how research writing pedagogies approach space is that they adopt what Massey (1992) describes as a ‘classical physics’ stance. That is, space is understood to be a passive setting for objects and their interactions, with time being the constitutive factor shaping these entities and their relations. For instance, when examining the challenges of writing a key factor regularly identified as producing these challenges is ‘time’. That is, often when we (myself included) talk about ‘making space’ for writing we are usually talking about ‘making time’ or ‘space’ in our calendars. Space is often constructed as the place where writing happens, but there is little critical reflection on whether space plays a more active/political role in research writing practices and processes.

Massey (1992: 79) argues for this ‘classical physics’ view of space – as the static container in which ‘stuff’ happens through time – to be replaced with a ‘modern physics’ view of space that argues:

  • Space and time are inextricably interwoven. While different, you cannot have one without the other, nor can you define one as the absence or ‘not’ of the other (Massey, 1992: 77).
  • Further, space is not absolute it is relational; it is constituted through the interrelations it has with different scales, objects and time (Massey, 1992: 77).

What does this mean for how we approach the spatial in pedagogies of research writing? From my perspective there are two things:

  • First we need to integrate into our understandings of ‘writing as social practice’ the role of space. This can be done through recognising that space is socially constructed, and, equally, that the social is spatially constructed. When research writing pedagogies argue that writing is social practice – that is, it is relational – space needs to be seen as an active element producing these social relations.
  • Second because space and time are ‘inextricably interwoven’ when we talk about reimagining the temporalities of research writing, we also need to be reimagining the spatialities of research writing practices and processes.

A space-time perspective to research writing pedagogies allows researchers in this field to be more critically engaged with how the role of where writing takes place affects writing practices and processes. For instance it raises questions around how do PhD spaces on campuses foster productive social relationships between fellow candidates, supervisors and other faculty? Are there the productivity gains (as many assume) when PhD candidates take the writing of their thesis off-campus and into their home spaces, particularly in their final year or does this relocation of writing practices and processes only contribute to negative emotions of isolation? Further, how might space (e.g. through writing retreats) be used strategically to assist universities, faculties and schools to overcome disciplinary silos? Last what are the spatialities of the discourse communities we are seeking to engage with? How does the core-periphery geographical positioning of a researcher and/or their research influence their access to discourse communities? How can Antipodean and researcher writers from the Global South make the most of international conferences (usually located in the Global North) that are often important gateways into discourse communities?

As many Australian universities start to build research masters programs as pathways into further doctoral research, academics within these institutions are presented with an important opportunity to introduce, practice and refine the various techniques that have emerged from the burgeoning literature around pedagogies of research writing in recent years. When doing this however, space should not be seen as a static setting but as an active element that constitutes our learning about and practices of research writing.

Space-Time and research writing pedagogies

The pedagogies of research writing offer considerable critical resources for geographers to rethink our own personal writing practices and processes but also how we might approach the teaching and mentoring of research students and early career researchers. However, geographers not only have much to gain from the literature on research writing pedagogies but should also contribute to innovations around how this field of research conceptualises space-time. In particular, there needs to be greater critical engagement with the role of space and how we understand writing as a social practice. Similarly, we need to not only reimagine the temporalities, but also the spatialities, of writing.

The relationship between space-time and the practices and processes of research writing will be examined in my next (and final) blog on the role of ‘cyberspace’ and writing practices in the academy.

Dr Rae Dufty-Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Geography and Urban Studies at Western Sydney University. Rae’s current research projects include: ‘Mobility aspirations of tenants listing on the “Our House Swap” website’ and ‘Writing pedagogies and the writing retreat’. You can find more about Rae at: and follow her @raeduftyjones on Twitter.

Reference List

Aitchison, C., Kamler, B. and Lee, A., 2010, Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond, London, Routledge.

Aitchison, C. and Lee, A., 2006, ‘Research writing: Problems and pedagogies’, Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3), pp. 265-278.

Bauder, H., 2006, ‘Learning to become a geographer: Reproduction and transformation in academia’, Antipode, 38(4), pp. 671-679.

Burgoine, T., Hopkins, P., Rech, M. and Zapata, G., 2011, ‘‘These kids can’t write abstracts’: reflections on a postgraduate writing and publishing workshop’, Area, 43(4), pp. 463-469.

Cameron, J., Nairn, K. and Higgins, J., 2009, ‘Demystifying academic writing: Reflections on emotions, know-how and academic identity’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(2), pp. 269-284.

Demeritt, D., 2004, ‘Research training and the end (s) of the Ph. D’, Geoforum, 35(6), pp. 655-660.

Dowling, R., Gorman-Murray, A., Power, E. and Luzia, K., 2012, ‘Critical reflections on doctoral research and supervision in Human Geography: the ‘PhD by Publication’’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 36(2), pp. 293-305.

Ferguson, T., 2009, ‘The ‘write’skills and more: A thesis writing group for doctoral students’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(2), pp. 285-297.

Kamler, B. and Thomson, P., 2004, ‘Driven to abstraction: Doctoral supervision and writing pedagogies’, Teaching in higher education, 9(2), pp. 195-209.

—, 2006, Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision,   London, Routledge.

—, 2008, ‘The failure of dissertation advice books: Toward alternative pedagogies for doctoral writing’, Educational Researcher, 37(8), pp. 507-514.

Lee, A. and Kamler, B., 2008, ‘Bringing pedagogy to doctoral publishing’, Teaching in Higher Education, 13(5), pp. 511-523.

Massey, D., 1992, ‘Politics and space/time’, New Left Review, pp. 65-65.

Roberts, S., 2000, ‘Realizing critical geographies of the university’, Antipode, 32(3), pp. 230-244.

Torrance, M. and Thomas, G., 1994, ‘The development of writing skills in doctoral research students’, Postgraduate education and training in the social sciences, pp. 105-123.

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