Helping Graduate Students
Develop Academic Voices

by Candace Hastings, Texas State University(former UWC Director)

This article has been re-published from our faculty blog, Stand and Deliver, from 1 July, 2011.

A couple of weeks ago David Caldwell from poultry science asked if I could offer a workshop to their new graduate students on developing academic writing skills. I want to share what I did in that workshop, because instructors from any discipline can use the same activity to help their own graduate students.

Graduate students read multitudes of journal articles during their course of study, so in this workshop I showed them how to read a journal article not just for content, which is what they are used to doing, but also for style. In this way, students can teach themselves what they need to know about writing in their disciplines.

What follows is a short three-step activity that instructors can use with students to help them demystify graduate writing in their disciplines.

  1. Choose a representative journal article and make a copy for each student. Articles that employ some type of data analysis or empirical study work better than theoretical pieces.  For this workshop, David sent me an article from poultry science that was both representative and reflective of the field.
  2. Give students 15-25 minutes to skim the article and make notes. Ask the students to read the article and mark parts that indicate the following:
  1. Ask the students to discuss what they discovered. And don’t worry—they will do most of the talking.

I’m always amazed at what the students see when they read the text and how this exercise generates so many questions regarding writing in the discipline. Some of us may take for granted how scholars in their field talk to each other, but for newly-minted grad students, this may be new and exciting information. For example, in my recent workshop, one student wanted to know why in one citation the author’s name was outside the parentheses and in the other it was inside. I asked the group to speculate on this. They talked about how citing the author’s name in the actual text emphasized the author. They suggested that the author’s work may have been influential on the field or on the problem being examined. The students were engaged with the text and with each other while discussing both the content and the style of the article.

I ended the workshop by advising students to apply what they learn from their reading to their writing. I also told them that even within their field, styles may vary, but now they know how to teach themselves. Will the students make stylistic and grammatical errors? Of course. But if they find the answers in the texts they are already reading, then they become vested in the process. At first, the students may write more by imitation than by integration, but eventually their writing will more readily reflect the level of their disciplinary knowledge. And better yet, they will have taught themselves.