Column: On Publishing Well
by Ashok R. Chandran
(Book editor, writing trainer)
This month, I share a few ideas on academic writing training in Kerala.
For decades, academic writing was not given much attention in Kerala. At best, the syllabus for an MPhil or PhD research programme included a module on academic writing.
A student often picked up the essentials only after writing the first draft of the thesis, when the supervisor/guide had marked several corrections in red ink.
In recent years, the scene has changed. Research students get their first taste of academic writing when they attend research methodology workshops, most of which include one or two sessions on writing.
Since students can learn only very little in three hours, the better institutions have been conducting one-day workshops devoted exclusively to academic writing and publishing.
The feedback I consistently get while facilitating such workshops is, ‘Please make this a two-day or three-day workshop.’
Clearly, students wish to know more about academic writing.
Are multi-day workshops the best way forward?
How should research supervisors respond to students’ needs?
Here are five alternative ways to learn academic writing.
1. Semester Course
The least-expensive solution is for college or university departments (i.e., faculty) to offer a semester-long writing course for students. After all, faculty are expected to guide students, and that includes academic writing.
Reciprocally, students can prepare drafts, share them among peers to get comments, and ask supervisors to give feedback at least twice for each written article or thesis chapter.
As part of the writing course, students can also be asked to run a graduate journal.
2. Workshop Series
Instead of running a semester-length course, an institution can offer a thoughtfully structured series of workshops.
In one-off, three-day workshops, students get to hear the fundamentals of academic writing. But rarely do students follow through and practise writing.
To get students into the habit of writing, it would be better to first organise a three-day Orientation workshop, and then follow up with periodic Advanced workshops where students work on their own writing and that of peers.
Conducting one-day Advanced workshops in alternate months will give students sufficient time to read and write (e.g., book reviews, short notes, or articles), read others’ drafts and give feedback, and then spend a day at the workshop to polish their own writing.
This multiple-workshop approach calls for sustained interest from students. Therefore, it is better to entrust the responsibility of organising such workshops to the students themselves.
Costs can be minimised if in-house faculty serve as resource persons. Where institutions lack expertise, resource persons from outside can be engaged to run the workshops.
3. Summer School
Well-spaced workshops are ideal, but organising them can be a challenge. If students lose motivation midway or turn up without writing their drafts, the one-day Advanced workshops will fail.
A more practical solution for some students, therefore, would be a summer school.
A three- or four-week, residential programme can offer intense writing training and practice. To be fully effective, a summer school should be subject-specific. For example, compared to a ‘Summer School in Writing History’, a ‘Summer School in Writing Sociology’ would have more sessions on writing ethnography.
4. Writing Clinic
Students can learn from trainers in one-to-one sessions.
Over the Internet, through video calls and other digital tools, students will get individual attention and customised training, i.e., as per the student’s individual/specific needs.
Since this is similar to private tuition/coaching, and students will have to pay a fee to the tutor, a college can offer to meet a part of the fee, from the money saved from organising multiple workshops or a semester-long course.
5. Writing Centre
Like the writing centres in universities in the United States, a college or university in Kerala can set up a department to cater to the writing needs of the institution’s students. (In India, Ashoka University has a Centre for Writing and Communication.)
Such centres host full-time faculty who offer writing courses and workshops for all departments and advise students on writing-related issues.
In the Kerala context, where faculty too are unaware of ethical issues in writing (e.g., plagiarism and how to prevent it), a writing centre can also train faculty and help them integrate writing assignments into the curriculum.
Setting up a writing centre is expensive because full-time staff have to be hired, and space has to be found on campus to house the centre. But a writing centre can also generate revenue as a publishing hub.
Of the five ways outlined, which is the best? It depends on the interests, needs, and capabilities of each institution. Rather than implement the same solution in every institution, it might be better to aim at a diverse landscape in writing training.
One thing is clear: The current practice of organising one- or two-day workshops each year is insufficient to meet student needs in any institution. We must move towards more meaningful approaches to writing training in higher education in Kerala.
Funding institutions, such as the Kerala State Higher Education Council, should incentivise colleges and universities to think deeper and act creatively.
Do you agree? Share your views at the Kerala Scholars Messenger website
© Ashok R. Chandran, 2019.