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Academic Coaching & Writing
 

II. Battling Isolation and Creating Your Own Intellectual Community

Oct 18, 2016 by Kathryn Kleypas

In last week’s blog, I mentioned that international students speak with me often about isolation and the loneliness that they feel on the campuses of U.S. universities. If I had to guess, I would bet that isolation is probably the most common reason international graduate students do not complete their programs of study and return home without their advanced degrees. Overcoming this feeling of isolation is very important, not just for emotional wellbeing but for academic success as well. A great deal of research is done by scholars of higher education to determine what needs to happen for students to succeed, and their findings are particularly important for students outside their own home countries. The research asserts that students who actively engage in collaborative learning environments with a diversity of others enjoy successes isolated students do not.

What does it mean to engage in collaborative learning environments? Here are some suggestions for ways you can connect with other students in your department and across the campus—and even outside your campus—to become part of a larger community of writers and scholars. You will experience many benefits from this heightened engagement, and you will also be supporting your university’s mission to nurture global perspectives.

Form a Reading Group

The romanticized image of the creative genius holed away in a garret writing prolifically is just that, a romanticized image. It’s simply not based in fact. The reality is that while the actual drafting of a paper might be a solitary act, many of the other stages of writing such as research and revision can be far more successful when collaborative.

Some of my closest friendships in graduate school came about because I reached out to my colleagues and invited them to form reading groups with me. At first I was nervous to ask them, but I discovered very quickly that other students wanted the interaction as much as I did! In these groups, we chose texts to read and discuss to enrich our understanding of assigned course readings and to build knowledge of the intellectual trends in our disciplines. In one of the groups, we rotated leaders so that each month a different person gave an informal presentation on a portion of a book or article and led the group discussion. Later on as I neared completion of my PhD, I was in a group in which all three of us were studying for our qualifying exams. We had to read many of the same texts so we were able to read, teach each other, and deeply discuss these texts. We not only benefitted from one another’s intellectual strengths, we provided deep emotional support through the stressful period leading up to our exam dates.

Find a Peer Review Partner

Successful writers draft and then revise their papers multiple times before submitting them to their professors for grades, to editors for publication, or to be read at a conference. This is a normal and expected part of the process. Why not team up with someone in your department and ask for feedback? Your peer review partner can help you brainstorm topics for the paper and can suggest readings you might think of adding or suggest ways to build your argument more effectively. In turn, you can provide the same services to your partner.

I have always loved this kind of reciprocal relationship, not only because it has helped me to become a much better writer, but because it has created a sense of collegiality with my partner and a sense of intellectual community within the department.

Make Use of Your University Writing Center

Most campuses have writing centers with trained students and professional staff. Some graduate students feel embarrassed to use the services of their campus writing center, believing that it suggests they are in need of remediation. This could not be further from the truth! This is what good writers do. They surround themselves with people who support their writing. In fact, a regular meeting with a consultant in a writing center is, in principle, no different than having a meeting with a peer mentor. The consultant can support you all the way through the writing process from brainstorming ideas, organizing thoughts, outlining, drafting, rewriting, and proofreading. While writing centers do not function as proofreading services, the consultant also can work with you to identify specific areas where you may have a pattern of grammatical issues. This step can be valuable if you are not writing in your native language.

University writing centers also often offer workshops on topics such as integrating research, building arguments, using different style guides, etc. Some of these will be designed for undergraduates and may be of limited use to you, but it is worth keeping your eye out for workshops that might be of interest.

Some writing centers allow you to schedule a standing meeting with the same consultant throughout the semester. If you find a consultant with whom you work well, make a regular standing appointment with this person. The weekly or bi-weekly meetings will create an accountability structure for you, which will keep you writing on a regular schedule. Of equal importance, you will be having regular conversations about your writing with someone whose job it is to support your work. Students who meet regularly with consultants in their campus writing centers make enormous leaps in the quality of their writing, even after only one term. Over longer stretches of time, the results can be astounding.

This may not be possible for you due to time constraints, but writing centers often employ graduate students to fill in needed hours in the writing centers. Your campus is likely full of international undergraduate students who struggle with writing in English, and seeing your successes might give them the confidence to persist. Talking about other people’s writing with them is another way to become a better writer yourself, and you will be contributing to the community of writers on your campus.

Hire a Virtual Writing Coach

Organizations such as Academic Coaching & Writing provide weekly one-on-one meetings with experienced academic writing coaches as well as access to webinars on topics such as research design, literature reviews, and dissertation topics. A weekly meeting with an academic writing coach can have a profoundly positive effect on your writing and your overall sense of yourself as a scholar. Your writing coach can work with you on each step of a paper from inception through completion, building your research and writing skills at the same time as building your self-confidence and sense of yourself as a scholar.

Discussion Question

What steps will you take to create an intellectual community on your campus?

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