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How do graduate students learn to write academic prose? One pithy quote suggests “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
Beyond being described as a willingness to engage in self-destructive behavior, the ability to write well is also often portrayed as an ascribed trait. Even when we consider strong writing skills as an achievement, we tend to view such learning as an individual process of trial and error. This “we” does not include me, because I was taught professional writing with the admonishment by my dissertation advisor that: Sartre said anyone can learn to write; that means you,Hillsman.
Do most faculty in graduate programs view academic writing as a self-taught skill, assuming their students will develop the ability to write publishable academic articles and books through the generic process of taking substantive courses, reading published articles and books, and submitting manuscripts and responding to reviewers’ comments? Editors of ASA journals sometimes think so as they struggle with endless author submissions that reflect a woefully incomplete learning process. Other faculty appear to view skilled academic writing as something students should already have acquired (One hears “Why did we admit them to the program if they aren’t good writers?”) or something that other professionals on campus should teach.¹
The challenges associated with learning academic writing are amplified by the changing context of the academic marketplace. Competitive candidates for assistant professor positions at research institutions often already have peer-reviewed publications on their vitae. Moreover, a significant proportion of students pursue careers outside of academia, where a very different type of writing is often expected, even for scholarly work. And finally, the blogosphere in particular, and the Internet more generally, has become an influential forum for academic debate. Effectively engaging the ideas in that virtual terrain requires a related, yet distinct, set of writing skills. These factors add another layer of relevance to the questions I am raising here—is teaching academic writing skills a responsibility of sociology graduate programs? If so, what approaches are most effective?
Writing communities. Kai Erikson offered a clear response to these questions in 1948 when he established a graduate course at Yale titled, “The Sociologist’s Craft: A Workshop on the Organization and Presentation of Sociological Materials.” Offered every semester for at least 10 years, the central weekly activity for all course participants was reading and critiquing each others’ work. A non-credit bearing, un-graded course, it fostered what today might be called a writing community loosely guided by Erikson, who attended all sessions and shared his own works in progress alongside his students. In addition to helping students improve their writing skills, the courses also taught important skills in how to give and receive collegial criticism. Norms were established at the beginning of each term in order to mitigate the risk associated with sharing works in progress. In her ethnographic account of the course, “Intimate Work: Teaching Sociologists to Write,” Diane Vaughan explained that “the risk is especially great when the author is new to the profession, the work is a draft, and the exchange takes place in a public setting where one receives the opinions of many.”²
Erikson’s example notwithstanding, courses in academic writing are still not a standard part of graduate training in our discipline. This past August, the ASA Directors of Graduate Studies (DGS) Conference, organized by ASA Director of Professional and Academic Affairs Margaret Weigers Vitullo, focused on the question of how graduate students should learn to write academic prose. Organized with Doug Hartman (former Contexts editor and The Society Pages Editor at the University of Minnesota) and Arlene Stein (Contexts editor, Rutgers University), the conference was titled “Teaching Writing in Graduate Programs: Training the Next Generation.” There were panels on writing books and articles, one on writing for “Public Sociology in a Digital Age,” and a third featuring Robert Jansen (University of Michigan) and Christopher Weiss (formerly at New York University) who have developed and taught their own graduate-level writing seminars.
One-on-one mentorship. As a sign of our changing times, the conversation continued on the webpage of the Fordham Center for Teaching Excellence, where DGS Conference participant Matthew Weinshenker commented, “The discussion focused on the pros and cons of different delivery modes for writing instruction. The traditional apprenticeship model, whereby mentors help advisees sharpen their writing, spreads the burden rather equitably. On the other hand, some mentors are inevitably better writing coaches than others.”³ I would add to Weinshenker’s point that the traditional one-on-one apprenticeship also does not mirror the broader peer-review process that is central to academic writing and publishing and tends to leave students with insufficient preparation to give, as well as receive, critiques of academic writing. This learning process should be viewed as essential for improving the writing and reviewing of scholarship that is at our core as a scholarly community.
Graduate-level writing courses. There are current examples of writing courses being taught in graduate sociology programs, including at Yale, University of Michigan, New York University, and University of California-Berkeley. The success of graduate students from these prestigious programs is undoubtedly due to many factors, but the experience of participating in a graduate-level writing course may be one of them. Yet, outside of these universities, it appears that very few graduate students in our discipline have the opportunity to participate in such a course. Vitullo reviewed a small selection of 10 randomly selected programs from the ASA Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology and found that not one listed a graduate-level writing course in their catalog.
We need to know more about teaching writing at the graduate level in our discipline. Clearly this small sample of 10 programs does not tell a comprehensive story. Where are such courses taught? Are they primarily graded or ungraded? How are faculty compensated for teaching these courses? Are students encouraged to participate in them early in their graduate training, or later? Do they come with pre-requisites, and if so, what are they? What are appropriate measures of success for graduate writing courses in sociology? Are other approaches to teaching writing—beyond the traditional apprentice model or formal courses—being used? What are they?
We need to know more and share that knowledge as a discipline. Send examples and indicators of success to Margaret Vitullo (Vitullo@asanet.org), and we’ll share what we learn. We do not yet have the answers to these important questions, but I am absolutely sure that Daphne Gray-Grant is correct in her August 2013 blog post on writing when she says, “It’s idiotic for us to sit in front of our screens and stare at them until beads of blood form on our foreheads. This is no way to write!”4 We need to make that fact clear to our graduate students as well.
Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.