Thursday, April 30, 2015

Structure as a Booster for the Argument

Image result for thesis
by Susan Carter, Doctoral Writing:

In our writing class we were talking about the structure of academic writing. Although structure is a framework that can be revised through ordinary workerly diligence, its effect works at a deeper level, showing authority and conveying purpose.

Carefully controlled structure will support the argumentation. Thus the structure of a research thesis - the overall shape and its framework joinery - is important to the success of the argument.

Ann tells of her experience back when she was a thesis writer: ‘I visualized the hard-bound thesis, complete with my name on the spine, as being an “argument” from beginning to end. I designed every chapter to have a punch-line, which would contribute one major argument in support of a holistic contention’ (Carter, Kelly & Brailsford, 2012: 56).

Her envisioning ahead of doing (a helpful strategy in itself) shows she was aware of the need for structure to really work in holding the argument in place consistently right through the thesis.

It is a good idea for each chapter to be framed with an introduction and conclusion that deliberately takes the holistic argument forward. Often this will be installed only towards the end of the thesis writing process, as it is only then that the overarching argument becomes clear and, hopefully, well-articulated.

But a sentence that says what this chapter needs to contribute to the thesis written early on can also act as an anchor to hold the author to the chapter’s purpose. Usually somewhere along the route of thesis writing students will need to learn to cut back on what is not relevant to their research question, problem or hypotheses, their research and their argument. Knowing the precise purpose of the chapter can guide this cutting back.

Readers (and supervisors) vary in terms of how much they like to have a mini-roadmap at the start of each chapter.

Giving two or three sentences to how the chapter’s argument is made up, and the order of what is coming, always seems sensible and courteous to me, although some readers hope to be held on the argument’s path by the riveting quality of the prose and its unmistakable drive forward alone.

Examiners, though, often read the thesis they are evaluating at night when they are tired and in short bursts: it never hurts to remind them where they are.

A firm line of argument can be held in place by the use of subtitles and what Elizabeth Rankin calls ‘echo links’ (Rankin, 2001: 30), clusters of words embedded within the thesis rather than placed in subtitles that assure the reader the themes within the argument are woven consistently throughout.

Barry White (2011: 132) gives examples of what he calls ‘preview, overview and recall.’ White scripts an example of preview and overview:

"The following analysis is presented in two stages. In the first the current perspectives on … are evaluated. The second is a critical evaluation of … In this chapter the reason for … has been discussed. In the next section, this discussion will be elaborated by …".

His example of recall is ‘back in the introduction.’ In our class, a nice example of recall was found when we looked at introductions and conclusions in articles chosen for their strength: the conclusion began, ‘To return to our research question …’. Linkages like this can be installed during the final revision process, when one sweep through the entire thing could be with the purpose to check for structure and to install linkages.

I guess the main point of this post is to emphasise that structure should relate to the argument and purpose of the thesis. The conventional headings of introduction, literature review, methods, findings, discussion and conclusion do this to some extent: they signal covertly that this written work describes an authentic bit of research that is contextualised within its discourse and follows acceptable methods in its epistemology. But that just focuses on the thesis as a thesis.

The reader wants to know what its original contribution to knowledge is, that is, what argument it is putting forward. I recommend that thesis writers deliberately and decisively make use of structure to very clearly show the argument that their research allows them to make.


Carter, S., Kelly, F. and Brailsford, I. (2012). Structuring Your Research Thesis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rankin, E. The Work of Writing: Insights and Strategies for Academics and Professionals. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

White, B. (2011). Mapping Your Thesis: Techniques and Rhetorics for Masters and Doctoral Researchers. Camberwell: ACER.

The Dead Zones of the Imagination in Higher Education

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by , The Sociological Imagination:

In his recent book on bureaucracy, David Graeber often turns to higher education to furnish examples of the broader tendency he describes. I thought this was a particularly vivid passage worth reproducing:
The explosion of paperwork, in turn, is a direct result of the introduction of corporate management techniques, which are always justified as ways of increasing efficiency, by introducing competition at every level. What these management techniques invariably end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell each other things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of our students’ job and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors, institutes, conference workshops, and universities themselves, which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors. Marketing and PR thus come to engulf every aspect of university life.
The result is a sea of documents about the fostering of “imagination” and “creativity,” set in an environment that might as well have been designed to strangle any actual manifestations of imagination and creativity in the cradle. I am not a scientist. I work in social theory. But I have seen the results in my own field of endeavour. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have, instead, been largely reduced to the equivalent of Medieval scholastics, scribbling endless annotations on French theory from the 1970s, despite the guilty awareness that if contemporary incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or even Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the U.S. academy, they would be unlikely to even make it through grad school, and if they somehow did make it, they would almost certainly be denied tenure.
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy pg 134
His claim is an empirical one: ever greater tracts of time are consumed by activities other than scholarship. This in turn has obvious implications for scholarship. Dead zones of the imagination can increasingly be found in our universities.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Are Lectures the Best Way to Teach Students?

by Bruce Charlton, Sam Marsh and Nick Gurski, The Guardian:

University lectures are often slated for being boring and poorly attended, but is scrapping them a good idea? Academics debate the matter.
Is it time we moved on from lectures?
Is it time we moved on from lectures? Photograph: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Vast, stuffy venues that seat hundreds; students sitting in the dark and unable to see the speaker; a disembodied voice droning into a microphone; the lecturer reading out endless powerpoint slides which have already been posted online; the scanty audience passive instead of actively making their own notes - distracted by themselves and others intermittently browsing the internet and social networks; and the whole thing being recorded as if to emphasise to students that they don’t really need to be there nor pay attention.

These atrocities are what people currently call lectures, and they are indefensible.

But the alternatives to lectures are mere gimmicks and novelties designed to get praise and awards for teaching “innovation” (a bicycle with triangular wheels is an innovation - the proper question is whether it is fit for purpose).

Good lectures are possible and achievable - I experienced many of them at my medical school. But they are not easy, nor are they as cheap as some alternatives. Good lectures require all-round effort from people who appoint teaching staff and design lecture theatres; from those who construct courses and those who create the educational ethos.

And (hardest of all) good lectures require here-and-now concentration during the actual teaching period - effort from both lecturer and audience alike. A good lecture is hard work because it’s a one-off performance. Like the theatre rather than the cinema, everybody present contributes to the success or failure, everybody is involved. But when it works, it’s an experience that may be remembered forever.

Real lecturing is irreplaceable in the same way that live theatre or musical performance is irreplaceable - seeing and hearing each other in real-time and working together on something they both value.

It is sad that so few modern students will ever experience anything of this kind.
Empty lecture
‘We were faced with stubborn attendance problems on our large first-year modules. Classes often ended the semester half-empty.’ Photograph: Rex Features
University teacher Sam Marsh, and senior lecturer Nick Gurski, in the school of mathematics and statistics at the University of Sheffield, say: Well-delivered lectures can be a good way of passing on knowledge and they dominate teaching in higher education. But there are a myriad of reasons, lapses in concentration or early starts, for example, why students might not get as much from them as we’d hope - and these issues are amplified by large cohorts.

We were faced with stubborn attendance problems on our large first-year modules. Classes often ended the semester half-empty. We’d tried our most popular lecturers, updated the course materials and introduced online tests with little effect.

We decided to create a collection of specially-filmed short videos to replace lectures on a module teaching mathematics to engineers.

Students would watch the videos online in their own time and each would be followed by a short quiz. By changing the character of weekly problem classes to include more demonstration and peer discussion we could double their frequency without a big increase in staff time. This would be where students would really benefit from interaction with both lecturers and other students.

When the pilot launched we quickly noticed that not only did students watch the vast majority of the videos on time, but attendance improved dramatically. Over the year students attended three times as many problem classes as traditionally-taught peers from other departments.

When we applied statistical analysis to three years’ worth of exam data, comparing with other cohorts on the same syllabus, we found that we had added somewhere between 4 and 12 marks to the average grade of a student.

Our format is now expanding across the engineering faculty, and next year we will teach 1,000 students in this way.

There may, of course, be a limit to how many videos students can watch in a week. In some cases the time-honoured lecture format is working very nicely. But it seems clear to us that there are lots ways to teach, and some of the best don’t involve lectures.

Your Dissertation Plan: 18 Free Tools

by Mark,

A dissertation requires solid organisational skills and effective time management in order achieve a high standard, so we’ve put together a list of some of the best free tools available to make the planning stages of your project easier.

Choosing a Topic

Before you even get near your research proposal, you need to have a topic in mind. Mind mapping is a great way to organise and visualise your early ideas when developing your dissertation topic.'s mind mapping tool allows you to collaborate with colleagues online, which could be useful for sharing with peers or your project supervisor. also features collaboration and boasts mobile access with it’s free iPhone app, whilst focuses on speed with it’s handy keyboard shortcuts.
Evernote provides tools for your computer, mobile device, or web browser which capture your ideas, notes, and inspiration wherever you are. This free toolset lets users save text notes, web pages, photos, and screenshots with a comprehensive search feature so that you can retrieve your ideas quickly and easily. 

Reading and Research 

Using Google Scholar you can search a large index of scholarly articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions. To get the most out this research tool check out Google’s guide to Advanced Scholar Searches.

Compiling a bibliography in the required format can be a time consuming task at the end of a dissertation, especially if you haven’t kept track whilst writing. Fortunately there are free tools available which help you to store your citations from the beginning of your project and retrieve them in a number of commonly use formats. Bibdesk is an Open Source Mac app with bibliography management and search features, as well as some useful import and export capabilities.

Alternatively, you could use Zotero‘s browser extension for Firefox which can automatically sync your data with multiple computers. It also features browsing for mobile devices, which means you can access your data in away from your computer.

For Windows users, BiblioExpress offers a simple reference manager that can format citations in common styles such as ACS, APA, and MLA. 

Planning your time 

Time management is crucial in a large project such as a dissertation. It may be useful to plan backwards from your deadline, allowing extra time where necessary for unforeseen delays and revisions.

Gantt charts are a very visual way to allocate time to your dissertation tasks and there are many free tools to help you build your own. This is especially great if you’re accommodating some non-work time too. Google Docs has a Gadget in it’s spreadsheet feature which creates Gantt charts for free. Similarly, if you already own Microsoft Excel you can build Gantt charts with it too.
Tomsplanner is a dedicated web-based Gantt generator which is free for personal use, and Team Gantt‘s free trial offers an alternative with a slick interface.

If you’re not keen on Gantt charts you could simply plan your project in a standard calendar. Google Calendars is web based meaning you can access it from any computer and most mobile devices. You could also share your calendar with your supervisor if you think you’re likely to miss deadlines. Microsoft Outlook’s calendar and iCalendar on Mac could also be useful planning tools. 

To-do Lists
If you need to organise your dissertation workload on a shorter time scale, TeuxDeux‘s well designed interface helps you to plan your tasks on a weekly basis. There’s also a paid iPhone app for task management on the go. HabitRPG is an excellent option for those of you who need a bit of positive reinforcement alongside your planning.

If a week is still too much to think about, check out Todokyo which takes simplicity to the next level with a clean-looking daily list. 


If you find yourself constantly distracted by the lures of email and social networking, you could try Freedom’s free trial. This Mac app blocks your web connection for up to 3 hours at a time, leaving you to concentrate on your dissertation. Alternatively you can block specific websites from Firefox using Leechblock, and Google Chrome users can do the same with StayFocusd.

Image credit: @boetter

Friday, April 24, 2015

What is Positive Education? Lessons From a Year 3 Classroom

Positive Education: The Geelong Grammar School Journeyby Jacolyn M. Norrish, OUP Blog:

What is Positive Education? This is a question I am asked on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis.

Whenever I am asked this question, what immediately comes to mind is a visit to Bostock House, one of Geelong Grammar School’s junior campuses.

At the time of my visit, the Year 3 students were preparing to go on a camp. At 8 and 9 years old, the students were quite young to be away from home for three days and two nights.

The Bostock staff had decided to focus on teaching the children some skills and mindsets for well-being - and specifically skills of resilience - to help them to really connect with each other and engage fully while on camp.

With this end in mind, the teaching staff had taken the research and theory of leading scholars in the field, such as Karen Reivich, Jane Gillham, and Martin Seligman, and explored ways of making key ideas meaningful and relevant for young students.

Throughout the weeks leading up to camp, students completed projects exploring ways in which various plants and animals adapted to the environment as they survived and thrived in different terrains. Students read stories and considered how characters had used their strengths to overcome difficulties and embrace opportunities.

The class had completed a (somewhat messy) experiment on the difference between an egg and a bouncy ball … and unanimously decided that they would prefer to go through life with the capacity to ‘bounce and not break’.

The classroom learning had been so well scaffolded, that when the word ‘resilience’ was finally introduced, the students were able to make meaningful insights into how they could be resilient in their own lives on a daily basis.

Students provided examples of times they had overcome disappointments, let go of grudges after conflict with a friend, took on an exciting challenge, or came together to support another student during a family difficulty.

Students also shared what they had learnt with their parents and families, and the language of resilience spread beyond the classroom and into the home. Needless to say, students used their new understanding and skills to have a brilliant time together while on camp.

Now, as an academic, I have always been captivated by the concept of knowledge translation. How do we move advances in science into the realm of real life application? How do we translate a growing evidence base in ways that make a meaningful difference to the community?

To me, these Year 3 students discussing, exploring, and applying the skills and mindsets for well-being and resilience in such creative and tangible ways is an example of the translation of science at its best. This is how I understand Positive Education - taking the most recent scientific understanding of physical, psychological, emotional, and social health and making it real, applicable, and helpful for children, young people, adults, and communities.

The official definition, used by Geelong Grammar School, is that Positive Education brings together the science of well-being and positive psychology with best practice teaching and learning to encourage and support schools and members of the school community to flourish. Central to the approach is the Model for Positive Education and its six domains of: positive relationships, positive emotions, positive engagement, positive health, positive accomplishment, and positive purpose.

Character strengths such as gratitude, curiosity, forgiveness, leadership, and spirituality, provide an underpinning framework for Positive Education and help to bring core learning to life for members of the school community of all ages.

And why does Positive Education matter? The statistics on depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental health concerns in adolescents and adults are frighteningly high. It is estimated that one quarter of young people in Australia live with a mental illness.

Positive Education is a proactive and preventative approach to building well-being and health in schools and communities and aims to reduce the worrisome prevalence of mental illness across the lifespan.

There is also the irrefutable fact that students who are physically and mentally well are better equipped to learn and achieve academically and more effectively manage the transition to further study or employment after secondary school.

Furthermore, well-being matters - helping students and staff to nurture strong relationships, develop and maintain healthy lifestyles, be engaged in their studies, and give back to the community are valued outcomes in themselves.

Throughout my time at Geelong Grammar School, I was blown away by the skill and creativity of teachers in making the skills and mindsets of well-being real for their students. I witnessed children as young as three and four practicing mindfulness and meditation, older students discussing the importance of growth mindsets in tackling difficult academic concepts, and students of all ages communicating about their emotions and actively looking to support the well-being of others.

Perhaps the only thing that has struck me more than the innovation of the school staff in teaching well-being was the role of relationships and communities in building mental and physical health. In Positive Education, supporting and nurturing the well-being of others and the community is considered as important as looking after the well-being of the self.

Schools are dynamic, complex, ever-changing communities. They are also natural homes for the science of well-being. It is the coming together of the skills and mindsets for flourishing and what schools do best in terms of educating young minds that truly paves the way for flourishing futures.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

How to Write a Good Introduction in Three Steps

by Arjenne Louter,The Dutch PhD Coach:

A while ago my colleague Daan Andriessen brought the ‘Swales three move model for introductions’ to my attention.

Very practical, because a well-written introduction can help you in producing a well written article. Therefor I would like to introduce you to the ‘3 moves’, this is the version of James Luberda.

Be aware that these ‘moves’ aren’t rules, but more a guideline for what readers expect in the introduction of an academic article. By making these ‘moves’ the reader will have more sufficient information to follow the story line of your article.

The Swales moves help you to write a good introduction

Move 1    Establishing a territory

In this opening move, the writer may do one or more of the following to broadly sketch out where the subject of his/her essay falls - the “big picture”
·             Point out the importance of the general subject
·             Make generalizations about the subject
·             Review items of previous research

Move 2    Establishing a niche

In this move, the writer then indicates to the reader the particular area of the broader subject that the essay will deal with. This can be done using one or more of the following:
·       Make a counter-claim, i.e. assert something contrary to expectations
·       Indicate a gap in the existing research/thinking
·       Raise a question about existing research/thinking
·       Suggest the essay is continuing a tradition, i.e. it is following in the footsteps of previous research/thinking

Move 3    Occupying the niche

In this move, the writer then sketches out exactly what this particular essay will accomplish in relation to move #2, and gives the reader a sense of how the essay will proceed. In general, each of the steps below will appear in this move, in order:
·       Step 1: Outline the purpose of the essay, or state the research that was pursued
·       Step 2: State the principal findings of the essay - what the reader can expect the essay/research will have accomplished for them by the time they get to the end
·       Step 3: Indicate, roughly, the structure of the essay - what will appear in it and in what order

Do you have a different way to prepare a well-written introduction? I would love to hear from you.

Does Academic Resilience Affect GCSE Exam Anxiety

English: An anxious person
An anxious student (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by British Psychological Society:

Edge Hill University’s Professor Dave Putwain has had a new research paper published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

Professor Putwain’s latest study, Academically buoyant students are less anxious about and perform better in high-stakes examinations, follows his previous research which found that pupils who worry about their exam performance are more likely to do badly than those who are less anxious.

Professor Dave Putwain said: “The next step in my research was to ascertain whether test anxiety is an antecedent or outcome of academic buoyancy (students' capacity to successfully overcome setback and challenge that is typical of the ordinary course of everyday academic life) and to discover whether academic buoyancy is related to examination performance.

705 students in their final year of secondary education (Year 11) participated in the study, which required them to self-report data for test anxiety and academic buoyancy.”

Examination performance was taken from the mean English, mathematics and science scores from the high-stakes GCSE exams taken at the end of Year 11.

The study results showed that academic buoyancy protects pupils against viewing exams as threatening by influencing self-regulative processes, and so enables better examination performance.
In turn, worry has a negative effect on academic buoyancy. Tension felt by pupils was also measured, however this did not appear to affect academic buoyancy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Slide of Academic Standards in Australia: A Cautionary Tale

Image result for academia
by Gigi Foster, UNSW Australia Business School, The Conversation:

The recent furore about academic standards in Australian higher education - including Monday night’s damning Four Corners expose - has the potential to bring not only desperately needed attention, but actual change, to the sector.

The uninitiated observer of this frenzy may struggle to gain a balanced understanding of what has gone wrong, and how much more wrong it has gone in Australia than in other countries.

Let’s take a good look through the lens of an economist at where academic standards come from and how they are nurtured, so as to have a hope of crafting an Australian policy remedy.

Lesson 1: incentives matter

Any economist recognises these as the most important two words that our discipline offers. In the case of what is taught in higher education, the “cui bono?” question - meaning “to whose benefit?” in Latin - asks who stands to gain from actively upholding academic standards, and who stands to gain from their decline.

Let’s first consider the top leadership of a university: those responsible for making ends meet. This group, having increasingly lost ground in the battle for funding from the Commonwealth and having precious little endowment or alumni-sourced revenue - frequent go-to sources in other countries - has been pushed further and further toward dependence on the market for education services in order to meet its spending targets.

This translates into a need to focus squarely on customer appeal. The question then changes to: what do young high school graduates want from university?

Most want a job when they get out, and most also want to have a pleasant student experience, and neither of these is particularly well-correlated with their program’s level of academic excellence.

Most also want to attend the best university that they can get into, and this would normally lead to pressure to uphold academic standards, since the university that is seen as “the best” will presumably be more successful at attracting students.

What do school leavers look for in a university? Student experience, job readiness, or academic rigour? from

However, university quality isn’t always obvious to an outsider. What’s more, Australian domestic students do not typically change cities in order to attend university, meaning that Group of Eight universities all have either monopoly or two-player oligopoly access to demand from most of the top students within their home city.

This translates into market power for those institutions lucky enough to be already at the top of the rankings, which in turn means less of a competitive incentive to keep standards high in order to keep students coming.

Finally, let’s consider the incentives of academics. Academics are judged on both research productivity and teaching “quality”, where the latter is typically measured using student evaluations of teaching that are conducted online.

Because no serious incentives are given to students to fill in these online forms, most response samples are comically small in size. It would not be unreasonable to suspect that those students who do fill out evaluations are frequently the ones who either adored or hated the teacher.

Students don’t like feeling bad about their performance or being pulled up for academic misconduct, and can use teaching evaluations as a vehicle to make their displeasure known.

Academics also frequently face large time and effort costs if they pursue problems like plagiarism and academic misconduct, not to mention the raised eyebrows from university management if too large a fraction of students fail.

In sum, the university bureaucracy sees strong incentives to let standards slide in order to please prospective students and thereby get more revenue, while the individual academic at the coal face sees strong incentives to go easy on students so that students are happy and the academic’s chances of promotion are favourable.

Lesson 2: academia is defined by academics

Notwithstanding the protestations of teaching and learning administrators, academic standards cannot be perfectly pinned down in assessment rubrics or statements of learning objectives.

This is because evaluating university students' work is largely subjective: it is based on the gut feel of the person doing the evaluation, where that gut feel is formed over years of exposure to the type of work that is expected in the given discipline.

This means that academics are ultimately the only valid institutional store of knowledge about what academic standards should be.

Academics are really the only ones who can say what academic standards should be. from

There is a better chance of Australian universities keeping up with international best practice if academics have been rigorously trained, are active in professional bodies, travel regularly to high-profile conferences, and so on.

In truly world-class universities, the bureaucracy plays second fiddle to the academics who produce the service that the university sells. By contrast, in many universities in Australia, arguably the tail is wagging the dog.

Entrenched and disproportionately powerful bureaucracies act like fiefdoms, perennially announcing new platforms that the rank-and-file scurry to be seen to embed, and rewarding or punishing academics in accordance with how well they are seen to toe the party line.

The policy response

What to do? Some countries have trialled the creation of explicit sector-wide learning standards, endorsed by various groups, in a bid to control what gets taught (like the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes in the UK).

Make students surveys compulsory Ed Yourdan/Flickr, CC BY

The Commonwealth-sponsored National Discipline Standards in Australia project, which taps selected professionals from across the country to develop explicit statements of academic standards in different fields (such as economics), falls under this heading. Without wide adoption by academics and embedding in university departments, however, such standards have a hollow ring to them.

No intervention will provide an overnight fix. Those who benefit from the present system will wince at the prospect of the potential remedies below being put to public debate and independent evaluation.
  1. Require student evaluations to be submitted by every student as a pre-requisite for the release of their final marks each semester. This small systems change - designed to shift students' incentives to provide feedback - will make the provision of student feedback operate more like voting, and less like blackmail.
  2. Have teachers evaluate each other on a rotating basis and use these evaluations in promotion decisions. At the same time, mandate the complete freedom of individual academics to fail as many students as they see fit to fail, ensuring that appeal committees (staffed by academics) and support services are in place to process an increase in the numbers of failing students.
  3. Connect the admissions and teaching functions of the university by increasing the voice of teaching academics in the admissions process. Admissions decisions are an academic matter, and should be treated as such.
  4. Mandate an increase in the voice of academics within university governance more broadly. While Commonwealth funding to the higher education sector has fallen dramatically over the past 30 years, it is also true that large amounts of money are spent on large salaries to university bureaucrats with questionable academic credentials. We should design university governance to raise the voice of those who know what academic standards are, and whose personal incentives it serves to uphold them.

Read more of The Conversation’s coverage of Australian university standards here.
The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A Sense of Humour Towards Doctoral Writing?

Image result for PhD and humour
by Susan Carter, Doctoral Writing:

‘We’re mimics, we’re parrots - we’re writers … you may start to feel [as a writer] that you are trying to pass off a TV dinner as home cooking’ (Lamott, 1995: 177).

I want to make the case that applying humour to doctoral writing is helpful, a great coping mechanism. Jorges Cham has grown famous because the world needs what he does.

I’ve been reading books about how to write, and thinking how their advice might apply to doctoral writing strategies. Paul Sylvia takes a hard-nosed pragmatist approach (Sylvia, 2010), detaching all emotion and treating writing like any other task.

He’s cheerful about this, and irreverent about the need for inspiration from within, advising ‘put your “inner writer” back on its leash and muzzle it’ and focus on the ‘outer writer,’ productively outer facing (Sylvia, 2010: 3). It’s a good-humoured survivalist approach given the relentless accountability regimes that we currently work within.

Sylvia waves aside the idea of emotional blockage: ‘I love writer’s block. I love it for the same reasons I love tree spirits and talking woodland creatures - they’re charming and they don’t exist … saying you can’t write because you have writer’s block is merely saying you can’t write because you aren’t writing. It’s trivial. The cure for writer’s block - if you can cure a specious affliction - is writing’ (Sylvia, 2010: 45-46).

Those who find writing really tough to crank out will hate such an attitude, but those who find it difficult to wring writing from their doctoral students might identify with Sylvia. And it is useful to most of us to find different ways to ensure that writing gets done.

Sylvia’s (2010) practical workerly advice is to use an excel spreadsheet, set daily writing chores at the start of the week, with columns for the date, the task, whether it was achieved that day or not, and the word count if relevant.

He includes data analysis and literature review as possible chores, but the day’s work needs to be measurable, and you need to log in whether you did it or not. That way, says Sylvia, there’s no need for emotion - you simply know you will get the writing done within the time-frame you want. If you are so inclined, you can produce bar charts of your monthly word count to cheer yourself up.

I tried this for a while, but kept forgetting about the spreadsheet for days at a time. However, on a couple of days it pushed me to grouchily churn something out just so that I could tick off I had done it.

What I like, besides advice that would be very useful for some people, is the steady sense of humour throughout Sylvia’s book. I believe that maintaining a sense of humour helps any long, tedious discombobulation, which is often the experience of doctoral writing. Doctoral students who manage to see the funny ironies of their experience probably end up better equipped for completing and for what comes after graduation, I suspect.

Another writer-on-writing raises the necessity of humour for survival. Anne Lamott takes an almost opposite position to Sylvia, rampaging through writing-based emotions that she dramatically feels demand suicide or murder of critical reviewers (Lamott, 1995).

Yet her exaggeration is premised on humour: by overstating, she spoofs and thereby mitigates the negative emotions of writing and feedback.

She’s wise to self-doubt: many doctoral students trying to capture academic tone and discipline epistemology in their writing will warm to the thought that ‘We’re mimics, we’re parrots - we’re writers … you may start to feel that you are trying to pass off a TV dinner as home cooking’ (Lamott, 1995: 177). It’s nice to hear an experienced author with multiple editions talk like this about self-doubt.

She describes drafting and revising realistically: ‘Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly’ (Lamott, 1995: 114).

And Lamott also spells out that when a close family member was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she became ‘desperate for books that talked about cancer in a way that would both illuminate the experience and make me laugh.’ It was at this point that I saw that these two writers, seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum on the role of writers and emotion, both demonstrated a lively respect for the power of humour.

Maybe a sense of humour should be added to the transferable skills that graduates should have. How would we teach that?

I’m wondering whether other academics talk to doctoral writers about humour, or make use of humour, to mitigate the writing-feedback-revision iterations that can seem relentless for students and supervisors? I’d love to hear what you think and what you do in this regard.


Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by Bird: Some Instructions for Writing and Life. New York: Anchor.

Sylvia, P. (2010). How to Write a Lot: A practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (6 ed.). Washington: APA Life Tools.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

More International Students Should Mean More Support for Communication and Interaction

Group of students from
by Sophie Arkoudis, University of Melbourne, The Conversation:

A national survey of international students has just been released by Education Minister Christopher Pyne, stating the reputation of our institutions is the number one factor in attracting international students to Australia.

Australia has been very successful in attracting international students. We are the envy of many other countries that seek to match and surpass this success. International education varies between Australia’s third and fourth major export and we need to maintain this growth to sustain our share of the market.

While Australian universities have been successful in attracting international students, more needs to be done to ensure institutions can adapt to increased numbers of international students in classrooms.

The well-being, satisfaction and academic success of international students are major priorities for the Australian higher education sector. A recent study by the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education investigated the attitudes and experiences of first-year students in universities.

It supported the results of today’s international student survey in finding that first-year international students were generally satisfied with their university experience.

However, international students were less satisfied than local students with the quality of teaching and were more likely to feel that university had not lived up to their expectations. The study also found that international students experience more difficulties with their studies, compared with local students.

These findings point to the challenges that universities face. In particular, universities have had to improve English language programs and provide better academic support services. A major challenge lies in assessing the English language skills of university students within their course of study.

Who are our international students?

The number of international students in Australian higher education has increased from around 35,000 in 1994 to over 236,000 in 2014. Australia attracts international students from 191 countries.

The largest group is from China - around 36% of all international students in Australian universities. India and Vietnam round out the top three countries for international students. Six of the top ten source countries are in Asia.

Research has indicated time and again that international students are a very diverse group of learners, just as local learners are. The international-local divide is a false dichotomy that is full of assumptions and half-truths. It supports the view that somehow international students are a problem to teach in universities but that local students are not. This is an incorrect assumption.

Many international students have English language problems

English language programs are often under-resourced. Student studying on campus from

Many students, both local and international, encounter difficulties in writing at a university level. As employer surveys continue to show, high English language skills are important for all graduates, not just international students.

The increased number of international students has meant that universities have had to develop better approaches to support all students who struggle with their English. Universities have tried to address these issues by introducing foundation subjects in first-year undergraduate courses, which develop students' language skills and offer English language support classes. Some progress has been made, but more needs to be done.

Research indicates that academics believe they are ill-equipped to deal with teaching English language in their classrooms. Most English language programs are under-resourced and operate outside of subject teaching. Practices can be disjointed and not connected to assessment within subjects.

We need to include English language in the assessment of university subjects. Without this, it is difficult for universities to know their graduates have the necessary levels of English language communication for employment.

At the very least this would minimise the risk of developing a negative perception of the quality of Australian graduates. This can only be good for the international reputation of Australian universities and for attracting international students.

What have universities done to assist interaction?

The presence of large numbers of international students offers many opportunities for local students to interact with students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. While social integration between local and international students has increased over the last ten years, significant improvements can still be made in this area.

Universities face a challenge to improve engagement between local and international students. Students studying from

International students want to engage with local students. Research shows they seek to make Australian friends.

Part of the difficulty for some international students is that they can find themselves in classrooms full of students from the same country as them. This tends to occur in business and management courses, which have the largest numbers of international students, mainly from China.

Another challenge is that many local students have fewer opportunities to socialise with international students. The First Year Experience study shows that local students are spending less time on campus compared to students ten years ago. One of the main reasons is work.

Universities try to create opportunities for students to engage with each other. Some of the initiatives include transition programs, common foundation subjects in undergraduate degrees, and group work. Universities have also invested in purpose-built learning spaces designed to promote collaborative learning and peer engagement.

Guidelines for designing curriculum and promoting student interaction have also been developed to assist academics. These are being used to redesign teaching so that international and local students can reap the benefits of engaging with each other. This is important for local students, who need to develop these skills for working in the “Asian century”.

While these are all steps in the right direction, more needs to be done to ensure international students are getting the most out of what they are paying for. Better programs need to be put in place to make sure these students have the requisite communication skills to not only finish their degrees, but be employable once they have.
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University Balance Sheets Tell Us Only Some are Right to Cry Poor

by John Rice, University of New England, The Conversation:

With all but one exception, the vice-chancellors of Australia’s universities came out in support of fee deregulation, or removing the government’s caps on university fees, because they said current funding was unsustainable.

So with the release of some universities' annual reports over the last few weeks we’re able to see how the universities are really faring.

Vice-chancellors have already come out telling us not to be fooled by surpluses on the balance sheet, so is the financial situation really as dire as they say, as rosy as their detractors say, or somewhere in between?

Australia’s universities - where are we at?

In February, the University of South Australia’s David Lloyd bemoaned the policy and funding chaos he has found since moving to Australia from Ireland. However the University of Canberra’s Stephen Parker sees the funding system as pretty good.

An opportunity is emerging to better reflect on the state of Australia’s universities, as they release their (calendar year) annual reports. They have been coming in dribs and drabs, dictated by an anomaly that requires their tabling in state parliaments on various dates. Some interesting patterns are emerging.

First was Western Australia - whose mixed bag of results set the trend that has been repeated in Queensland and Victoria. In Western Australia, Murdoch’s organisational woes coincided with a steep decline in its financial fortunes.

Digging a little deeper, Murdoch’s results were primarily driven by higher costs, static revenues and lower investment returns.

Later came Queensland and Victoria. Griffith, focused on two main campuses that span the south-east corner of Queensland, provides an insight into the emerging pressure the sector is confronting.

Its Commonwealth Grant payments (essentially that part of the revenue stream contributed by the Commonwealth to pay for undergraduate education) increased from A$498 million to A$519 million between 2013 and 2014, while employee and other expenses increased from A$728 million to A$753 million during the same period.

All universities make up the difference primarily from student fees - much of which comes from international students and domestic postgraduates - the majority of whom study in the increasingly contested business, commerce and economics fields.

In many ways, Murdoch and Griffith are exemplars in a sector under strain. During the last few years, the sector’s primary union, the National Tertiary Education Union, has had much success in “pattern bargaining” - achieving similar income increases across various universities, while also seeing pathways established for academic casuals into more secure “teaching focused” roles.

Both of these successes come with financial costs, and there was little concomitant increase in revenue for many universities in 2014. At Murdoch, student numbers were down, while costs were up in line with inflation and awarded salary increases.

Investment returns in 2014 (important as universities hold financial assets to offset long term employee liabilities like long service leave) were down, both as ASX returns reduced from 2013 and also as interest rates halved. In organisations running on very tight margins, the impact on notional returns has been acute.

Winners and losers?

Australia’s universities are often considered somewhat tribal groups - the Australian Technology Network (or ATN - technology universities like UTS and RMIT), the Group of Eight (Australia’s most prestigious universities including the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne) and the regionals, for example. Is there evidence that any are riding out the current uncertainty better than others?

What is clear from the above table is that generalisations are hard to make, and no one grouping of universities seems to doing better than any other. It is clear that those most impacted by the problems in Victoria’s vocational education and training system, dual sector institutions Victoria University and Swinburne, are struggling.

Monash is doing well - but much of its surplus is driven by one-off investment gains. Their annual report stated:
While $52 million of this [operating result] was due to the restructure of our investment portfolio and had no cash impact, the remainder still speaks to university-wide effort and wise financial management.
Curiously, some of the lower ranked universities (in terms of global rankings) are doing the best financially. Toowoomba’s USQ, for example, was the most profitable university among those reporting. It has seen good student growth, with limited increases in staffing costs.

It will be important to monitor if such financial success comes at a longer term cost to research performance and community engagement.

While it’s not really justified for all vice-chancellors to be crying poor, there are certainly some universities operating at losses, and many with very slim profit margins relying heavily on unpredictable investment returns.

Whether or not universities should be allowed to set their own fees and charge students what they like is a question for another person, another day; but it does appear that some of our institutions of higher learning need a more stable funding arrangement than what they have currently - one which relies heavily on international students enrolments and uncertain future funding arrangements.

The competitive environment that the government seeks comes with serious duplication and waste. Universities are spending vast sums competing for students and spending large amounts of much needed cash on marketing and advertising.

The system as a whole would perform far better if these resources were directed to teaching, research and community engagement. Surely that is what we want of our universities.
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Australian Unis Should Take Responsibility for Corrupt Practices in International Education

Faungg/Flickr, CC BY-SA
by Tracey Bretag, University of South Australia, The Conversation:

The higher education sector has become increasingly reliant on income from fee-paying international students since Australian universities first entered foreign markets in 1986, a new report from the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption says.

From 1988-2014, the number of international students at Australian universities increased 13-fold. These students now comprise 18% of the student population in NSW universities, and often exceed 25%.

In many business schools, this percentage is substantially higher. The need to generate revenue has often conflicted with the obligation to ensure academic quality and integrity. However, to date, the “blame” for declining standards has tended to rest with international students themselves rather than educational institutions or the sector more broadly.

The range of corruption issues that has emerged suggests standards have indeed been compromised. These include: falsification of entry documents, cheating in English language proficiency tests, online contract cheat sites selling assignments or providing the means for so-called “file sharing”, widespread plagiarism, and cheating and fraud in examinations.

It is widely known by all stakeholders in the sector that a significant number of international students for whom English is an additional language struggle to meet the linguistic and academic demands of their courses.

It is also widely known that international students are burdened with additional pressures relating to culture, finance, family and peer groups.

The My Master cheating scandal uncovered a website international students were using to purchase essays. Shutterstock

While cheating is certainly not limited to international students, they are particularly vulnerable to the brazen marketing tactics of a burgeoning cheating industry which has the capacity to infiltrate social media, university email systems and message boards. This occurs both on campus and online.
International students are easy targets for unscrupulous businesses advertising “assistance” with assignments and exams.

They are striving to make sense of the new academic environment and often have inadequate English or poor educational preparation. They may also have entered the system with false credentials, or may have come from cultures more accepting of practices that we would regard as corrupt.

The media have been at the forefront in exposing cheating and plagiarism scandals by international students. The recent MyMaster investigation revealed the widespread use of cheat sites. In this case, Chinese students could purchase ready-made essays on a given topic.

The resulting public outcry has, at times, been little more than thinly veiled racism. International students have been blamed for declining academic standards, while the higher education sector has not been held to account.

The recently released ICAC NSW report has turned its attention to the role of universities in enabling and facilitating corrupt practices.

The report suggests that Australian universities were not well prepared to enter the international student market. This lack of preparation had long-reaching and most often negative consequences. The report says competition for international students has led universities to:
  • aggressively market for international students without considering the associated costs and risks
  • set inappropriately low English language requirements
  • rely on largely unregulated agents with inducements to submit applications from insufficiently qualified students or, worse, to submit fraudulent applications
  • establish offshore partnerships without the necessary due diligence
  • set recruitment KPIs, reinforced by financial incentives, with no accountability for quality or resulting pressures on academic workloads
  • leave the burden of maintaining standards with teaching academics, while simultaneously pressuring them to pass work of insufficient quality and turn a blind eye to misconduct.
ABC TV’s Four Corners expose, “Degrees of Deception”, validated every one of ICAC’s conclusions. The program gave voice to the desperation of many academics. Their life work of teaching has been undermined by an environment that has little to do with education and more to do with revenue raising.

Tales of being forced to change grades, ignore incomprehensible English, pass plagiarised assignments and manage their own and students' rising stress levels characterised the interviews.

It is apparent that corruption has seeped into every aspect of the higher education sector, from admissions all the way through to graduation. The information shared on Four Corners will no doubt come as a shock to the average family. For those of us in higher education, this isn’t news.

Rather than become despondent and accept the status quo, positive moves are afoot. ICAC has provided a list of “12 corruption prevention initiatives” to counter problems that have been
created by a university’s reliance on revenues from international students who struggle to meet the academic standards of the university that recruited them.
These revolve around relationships with partners and agents, marketing and financial strategies, risk, due diligence, accountability of international offices, governance strategies and admissions.

While no specific “initiative” was provided in relation to setting minimum English language requirements, this issue underpinned the whole report. It notes that:
of all the reasons cited to the Commission, low English-language proficiency was the most common basis given for international students engaging in academic misconduct.
It is evident that universities ignore this fact at their peril.

Thirty years after entering foreign markets, the Australian higher education sector is beginning to recognise that a short-sighted and ill-planned grab for revenue has had long-reaching and potentially disastrous effects on academic standards, integrity and reputation.

ICAC has provided a number of useful recommendations. These make clear the responsibility of universities, not students, for rectifying these issues.
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