Simpson

BUILDING FOR SUSTAINABILITY: DISSERTATION BOOT CAMP AS A NEXUS OF GRADUATE WRITING SUPPORT

Steve Simpson
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (New Mexico Tech)
ssimpson@nmt.edu

 

Researchers in graduate education and writing studies have expressed concern over the quality of the graduate student experience (Golde and Walker; Kamler and Thomson). Several factors fuel these concerns. Dismal academic job markets and high graduate student attrition rates (40-50 percent in US institutions) have prompted numerous programs to reform graduate education. Given the central role of communication in one’s progress toward a graduate degree—and to one’s professional life in science and academia—this appeal for graduate education reform has accompanied calls for graduate level writing support (Simpson, “Problem”; Starke-Meyerring).

At many universities, writing centers have taken a central role in meeting this need for graduate writing support, whether through graduate writing center hours or writing groups (Gillespie; Phillips) or through events such as dissertation boot camps (Lee and Golde). A perennial issue in writing center work, however, is providing these services without confirming notions of the writing center as the “fix-it” or “triage” center. This perception has been discussed in two special issues of Praxis (From Triage; Raising) and is particularly important when working with graduate students. The heft of graduate-level projects can quickly exhaust writing center resources. Further, the complexity of graduate students’ writing necessitates fluid partnerships between writing centers and other university departments. Graduate-level writing programs must be strategic, balancing students’ short-term needs while building infrastructure within campus departments for sustainable graduate support. As Claire Aitchison and Anthony Paré argue in “Writing as Craft and Practice in the Doctoral Curriculum,” “[I]t takes more than one-off courses or writing retreats to create the sort of nurturing and challenging environment that develops writing abilities.” Instead of being sequestered to writing centers, “universities need to suffuse the doctoral curriculum with writing” (20).

Dissertation boot camps—short, intensive thesis writing workshops— have grown popular as a form of graduate writing support. While serving the immediate goal of helping doctoral students finish degrees, they can also serve as quick, low-cost first steps in developing larger networks of campus graduate support. In this article, I discuss a thesis/dissertation boot camp developed recently at New Mexico Tech as a partnership between the writing center and the Center for Graduate Studies. After outlining the program’s goals and structure, I draw from surveys and follow-up interviews with graduate students from an Earth sciences program to describe their experiences and the resulting incremental changes in attitudes toward graduate writing support in their home department. I finish with recommendations for writing centers developing similar graduate-level programs or looking to be more strategic with existing programs.

Boot Camp Fever

The increasing popularity of dissertation boot camps is due in part to universities’ concerns about graduate completion rates. Recent statistics released by the Council of Graduate Schools indicate that many doctoral students can take up to ten years to complete their degrees (Council). At many universities, boot camps are seen as an effective way to help graduate students muscle through the often-frustrating dissertation stage.

Another factor in the growing popularity of boot camps is a high demand among graduate students for writing support. Mastroieni and Cheung from University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate Student Center, often credited for creating the first dissertation boot camp, indicate that the impetus for boot camp came from a Chronicle of Higher Education article describing “desperate doctoral students spending thousands of dollars for private dissertation coaches,” a service they felt “should be supplied by universities” (4). Thesis retreats did exist at some universities, such as the University of Colorado at Denver’s Scholar’s retreat (Smallwood). However, U Penn’s boot camp model, started in 2005,spread quickly to other institutions Today, a Google search for “Dissertation Boot Camp” easily yields 30 to 40 programs across the US and Canada.

The simplicity of U Penn’s boot camp model has much to do with its popularity. Boot camp provides graduate students with large chunks of uninterrupted, distraction-free time to work on theses or dissertations. Individual programs vary in duration (one, two, or three weeks) and time of day. Most offer brief workshops on time management and the writing process, and many provide writing consultations. Boot camps also vary in their departmental affiliations. While some are run exclusively by either writing centers or graduate schools, most boot camps have formed from partnerships between these entities. This approach allows these boot camps to distribute program costs. At the bare minimum, however, one needs only quiet work spaces, plenty of outlets for plugging in laptops, table space for spreading out research, and a full pot of coffee.

Despite similarities across boot camp models, numerous key strategic differences exist. In “Completing the Dissertation and Beyond: Writing Centers and Dissertation Boot Camps,” Sohui Lee and Chris Golde distinguish between “Just Write” boot camps and “Writing Process” boot camps. The “Just Write” model, Lee and Golde argue, “presumes that students will write productively, if they are given space, food, and monitored time” (2). Conversely, the “Writing Process” model encourages sustained discussion about writing—that is, this model extends the boot camp experience beyond the 1- to 2-week event and encourages long-term changes in writing behavior.

In this article, I build on Lee and Golde’s distinction and delineate between “inward-focused” boot camps—i.e., boot camps that function as the place to go for writing support on campus—and “outward-focused” boot camps—i.e., those that work toward better writing support across the university. In theory, this distinction seems clear, though it is admittedly murky in practice. No boot camp would ever intend to be “inward-focused,” but boot camps naturally gravitate toward this approach if they lack strategic planning and explicit discussions of program goals with students and university stakeholders. Because writing centers already struggle with popular perceptions of the “fix-it” station, those who also operate boot camps can find this gravitational pull particularly frustrating.

In the following sections, I describe the boot camp model developed at the New Mexico Tech Writing and Oral Presentation Center and our efforts to become a more outward-focused program. While smaller writing centers might find these strategies more directly applicable, even larger centers might find useful talking points for engaging other university entities and departments when building similar programs on their campuses.

Program-Building at New Mexico Tech

New Mexico Tech (NMT) is a small science and engineering research university in south-central New Mexico. While small (540 graduate students), NMT has strong programs in astro- and atmospheric physics, Earth sciences, and petroleum engineering. Like other universities across the United States and abroad, NMT is concerned with graduate students’ completion rates. Time to degree rates can be high at NMT. According to data provided by NMT’s institutional research office, NMT awarded 92 master’s degree and 16 doctoral degrees in 2012. The average time to degree was 3.8 years for master’s students and 6.26 years for doctoral students. While programs vary in their expected time to degree, these numbers are striking. The data include graduate students at both the master’s and doctoral level taking 8 to 10 years to complete degrees.

In 2009, NMT secured a Department of Education grant for graduate students.1 This grant included writing and oral communication support for graduate students, which had not existed previously at NMT (even in the writing center). Boot camp was accompanied by an array of other writing resources, including graduate writing center hours and graduate-level communication courses linked with graduate seminars in science and engineering departments. (For more on these initiatives, see Simpson, “Graduate”; “Problem”). However, boot camp was the initiative that set everything in motion—the nexus of our graduate writing support. It was easy and inexpensive to start, and it grew popular with students very quickly. This initial success caught the faculty’s attention and provided necessary leverage when talking to departments about more complicated communication initiatives.

We started boot camp during the winter 2011 break and have offered one every winter and summer since. Attendance has averaged 12 or 13 students per event from departments all across campus. The program runs for 1-week intervals, 9-5, Monday to Friday and has been staffed by a communication professor, a math professor, and a graduate writing tutor. Each day begins with a short writing or time management workshop and small “accountability” check-in groups where students report on their previous days’ accomplishments and their plans for the day. Students may also brainstorm ways to approach difficulties they anticipate in the day’s writing. Throughout the week, students may request writing consultations or attend optional writing workshops in addition to receiving information on thesis and dissertation formatting guidelines, copyright paperwork, and so on. We also provide technical support for students writing dissertations in LaTeX2 and a short mid-week stretch with a campus yoga instructor. Students write for at least six hours each day.         

Beyond simply providing a good place to write, two primary boot camp goals are to leverage feedback from students’ advisors and fellow students and to bridge boot camp and other communication initiatives. When registering for boot camp, students generate a writing plan for the week with their advisors. In some cases, advisors use boot camp intentionally to push advisees through more troubling parts of their research. We often have opportunities to consult with advisors on optimal ways of using the program.

More significantly, we encourage students to seek assistance from their fellow students. Many students, particularly from science and engineering disciplines, report receiving all of their feedback from advisors. While advisors are a critical source of feedback for students, advisors can become quickly overwhelmed by the amount of feedback they are asked to provide. Much of the basic feedback—general readability, organization—can (and should) be distributed among students’ peers. While science tends to be very collaborative at the research stage, students often isolate themselves from peers during the writing stage. A significant body of research exists on writing groups and, more specifically, writing groups for graduate students (Aitchison; Gere; Phillips; Thomas, Smith and Barry).  In her history of writing groups in educational and extracurricular settings, Anne Ruggles Gere has demonstrated the efficacy of self-sponsored writing groups—writing groups that develop organically from shared interests and are moderated by writers themselves rather than being created top-down by a teacher or professor. In theory,  student-run writing groups within academic departments on campus can offer students low-stakes, comfortable spaces to share ideas and concerns and act as a middle ground between advisors and more formal writing resources such as the writing center. However, students often need to see writing groups’ benefits before investing time and energy in starting them. Students also experience difficulty knowing what to comment on besides the general “flow” of the document.

To this end, we model writing groups and provide support for students wishing to start one. We distinguish among three types of writing groups: check-in groups, writing groups, and reviewing groups. Check-in groups are accountability groups—fellow writers to whom one reports writing goals and recounts writing progress.  Writing groups, in our setting, refer to groups that meet regularly and write together. Reviewing groups refer to groups that provide feedback on each other’s work. In our boot camp, we offer workshops on forming writing and reviewing groups in which we discuss everything from questions one might ask to basic logistical issues (e.g., finding a space, setting deadlines and page limits, etc.). We also model reviewing through individual writing consultations and informal peer review sessions in which boot-camp staff guide the discussion around students’ texts. Finally, we discuss ways of introducing writing/ reviewing groups to students in their home departments and offer assistance in the initial set-up.

We also aim to bridge between boot camp and other communication initiatives to maximize students’ exposure to explicit communication instruction. When possible, we encourage students to participate in more than one initiative, though students vary in how they choose to do so. Some take a graduate communication course early in their graduate careers and participate in boot camp in their final semester; others take boot camp at the beginning of their dissertation stage and then enroll in a graduate writing course to extend their experience. In some cases, as will be explained later, departments that have set up in-house communication resources have used boot camp as a target resource for their students (e.g., one department seminar helped students create research proposals for projects they work on during boot camp). Ultimately, we encourage graduate students to continue use of these resources throughout their graduate career rather than seeing boot camp as a one-stop fix-it shop.

In the next section, I describe the results of some of our boot camp assessments and share some of the experiences of students from an environmental sciences program who participated in follow-up interviews.

Assessment Procedures and Results

Our boot camp assessment procedures include time-to-degree statistics, exit surveys of boot camp participants and advisors, and 30-45 minute follow-up interviews with select boot camp participants. Time-to-degree statistics (i.e., time from first enrollment to graduation, minus semesters not enrolled) for both boot camp participants and non-participants graduating by Spring 2012 were collected from NMT’s Office of Institutional Research.3 Both boot camp participants and advisors were asked to complete online exit surveys. The surveys not only measured participants’ satisfaction with the resource, accommodations, staff, etc., but also assessed students’ and advisors’ satisfaction with work completed during boot camp and participants’ likelihood of participating in writing groups or coming to the writing center. Follow-up interviews were conducted with select boot camp participants, some of whom had recently graduated. We contacted potential interviewees in clusters by department. Interviewees were selected based on their availability and willingness to participate.

Data collection is ongoing. The results presented in this article reflect preliminary findings after offering four boot camps. We will continue collecting data on our program’s effect over the next two years of our grant. I have focused on interviews conducted with students from Earth sciences, in part because it is the largest graduate program on campus and has had the most boot camp participants. Further, the interviews reflect a diversity of post-boot camp student experiences. Interviewees include three non-native English speakers and two native English speakers: Marta (Spanish, doctoral student), Jamila (Arabic, doctoral student), Ani (English, doctoral student), Gary (English, master’s student), and Song (Chinese, master’s student).4 Of the five students interviewed, two had completed their degrees and had secured either a post-doctorate or industry job, and one completed her degree shortly after the interview. One interviewee (Gary) was completing his thesis remotely while working out of state, and one (Song) had just been accepted into a doctoral program and was scurrying to finish. I also used survey data from three boot camps: summer 2011, winter 2012, and summer 2012.5 Thirty-two students participated in these boot camps, 26 of whom responded to our online survey.

Tentatively, our data indicate an interesting divide between boot camp’s potential short term and long term effects. In the short term, most students report finishing most of their writing plans (on average, 75 percent), and report (on a 1-5 scale) satisfaction with both the quantity (mean = 4) and quality (mean = 4.16) of work completed during the week. Further, the general evaluations of boot camp are overwhelmingly positive.

Interesting divisions emerge when examining long term writing strategies. Of twenty-six survey respondents, four indicated being involved in a writing group prior to boot camp, and only one reported visiting the writing center prior to boot camp. As seen in Table 1, after completing boot camp, participants report feeling more likely to visit the writing center than to form a writing/reviewing group (see Fig. 1). This result is expected. Many boot camp alumni leave motivated to change their writing habits but prefer the writing center over forming a writing group because it does not involve coordinating with other students’ schedules. Sixteen students from these three boot camps subsequently scheduled regular writing center visits to help finish their projects. Four additional participants enrolled in a graduate communication course after boot camp. Thus, boot camp is successful in encouraging participation in other communication initiatives.

Table 1: Boot Camp Participants’ Likelihood Of Visiting The Writing Center Vs. Participating In A Writing Group

 

Definitely not

Maybe

Probably

Definitely

Writing Group

1

9

3

9

Writing Center

0

4

6

15

Opinions are split among students at boot camp’s end for joining a writing group (12 learning toward joining a writing group, 10 leaning away from joining one). What our follow-up interviews have revealed, however, is that even a few enthusiastic students can sell the idea of a writing group to peers and faculty in their home departments.

Of the five students interviewed from Earth sciences, three participated in writing/reviewing groups after boot camp and one (Gary) found a peer at his work site to review his work. Only one student (Song) expressed hesitation about peer feedback. Most of his concerns were logistical, as he did not feel his schedule would fit well with other students’.  Song was also skeptical of advice from others outside his research area (even from other Earth science students), a very common concern among graduate students.

Marta, who participated in two boot camps, was the first alum to organize a writing/reviewing group in Earth sciences.  Initially, she recruited two other Earth sciences students from boot camp (not included in this interview sample) to join her for morning writing sessions. Marta described writing with others as an “addiction.” “I had someone who I was writing here, writing with,” she explained, “so there was this kind of motivation like any kind of addiction. […] you have somebody who shared your feelings. They understand you and then you are going toward a similar goal.” This writing group supported Marta through some difficult times with her dissertation. Like many graduate students, she encountered difficulties with her experiment and had to spend more time working on her dissertation than expected.

Eventually, she recruited more students from her department and worked reviewing into the group. Jamila, who preferred writing alone but wanted a reviewing group, joined the group for their Monday feedback sessions. Jamila, a non-native English speaker, reported increased confidence in her reviewing skills: “From boot camp, I became a better reviewer. […] At least, this is what my people that I reviewed for tell me. That they like it when I review for them because I give them constructive or things that they find useful.” Jamila also noted that she became more aware of the type of advice she was given from her advisor and from others and “transfer[red] it to other people.” The following year, Ani, who had participated in boot camp and a communication course, also started a writing group that eventually merged with Marta’s.

Two interesting phenomena emerged through this writing group. First, the group recruited students who had not participated in boot camp. In one case, Marta’s writing group encouraged one student to attend boot camp and helped her create a writing plan. Second, these students became outspoken advocates of writing support in the department, thus laying groundwork for other writing initiatives in Earth sciences. In her interview, Marta summarized a conversation she had with Ani and others in her writing group about why writing “had not been tackled earlier” in their graduate careers. Departmental faculty noticed this increased attention to writing and often spoke proudly (and publically) of the writing group’s effects on students.

This writing group, coupled with the advocacy of key students in Earth sciences, created fertile ground for launching a new initiative in the Earth sciences department. In summer 2012, we started a STEM communication fellows initiative (i.e., graduate fellows from science and engineering disciplines who work part time in the writing center and part time in their departments creating discipline-specific writing support). Boot camp’s success with students helped convince Earth science faculty that this new program might enjoy similar success.  With help from our Earth science communication fellow, the department chair piloted a 1-credit graduate student writing seminar designed to help newer Earth sciences graduate students develop thesis proposal drafts and to prepare them for future involvement in boot camp.  The pilot course was well-received. Eight graduate students participated in this seminar, several of whom planned to participate in a writing group with our writing fellow the following semester. Three participants from this class enrolled in the winter 2013 boot camp.

So far, we have experienced considerable success with writing initiatives with three departments on campus: Earth sciences, physics, and biology. While we are starting to see the potential for similar development in other departments, some departments have still been a hard sell. Our strategy, as explained in the next section, is to use these initial successes in some university departments to help sell these initiatives elsewhere.

Recommendations for Program Design

Creating “outward-focused” boot camps that scaffold sustainable writing support within university departments takes strategic planning. Institutional contexts vary, so adaption of the model presented in this article is inevitable. Below, I provide recommendations that might help writing centers bridge these institutional differences.

Collaborate with other university entities or departments.

At NMT, we benefit from having these communication initiatives and our writing center housed in the same department. At some larger institutions, it is easy for several campus entities to create overlapping (or conflicting) initiatives. Writing centers should consider meeting with representatives from their institution’s graduate school, learning center, or writing program to identify potential partnerships. At NMT, we have even successfully approached our international student office, the IT department, and the Graduate Student Association (GSA). As discussed by Parker Palmer and others in The Heart of Higher Education, strategic conversations with a variety of campus stakeholders can facilitate cultural change on college campuses, and once the conversation is started, the stakeholders themselves can be surprising. For example, at NMT, we were initially surprised by the IT department’s interest in these initiatives. As it turned out, one IT staff member in particular was very interested in generating better thesis/dissertation formatting guidelines for graduate students. His involvement in our boot camp has added additional practical value to our program.

Start small, and use small successes as leverage for growth.

Boot camp was a great first program because it was easy to start and quickly grew popular with students. It also provided opportunities to develop sustained relationships with the Earth sciences, physics, and biology departments. While we understood that more work was necessary to establish similar relationships with other departments, we resisted the urge to spread ourselves too thin too quickly. We chose to focus first on developing a few relationships fully. For example, we have also built ties with the physics department at our school. Through initiatives such as boot camp and graduate writing group workshops, we built a working relationship with one faculty member who took an interest in our programs and became an advocate in her own department. Through her own participation in these initiatives, she became more comfortable talking about her own writing and convinced her department to enhance a required graduate lab credit, recreating it as a graduate research and communication course. While she still plans to invite the writing center in for peer review workshops and to encourage students to attend boot camp, she has assumed responsibility for further writing support in her own department. As a result, as we branch out and work with other departments, we now have an advocate in the physics department who can vouch for these program’s effects on her students.

Program directors at larger schools might be concerned that this approach would exclude significant portions of the school for extended periods of time. This concern is vaild. However, I would still argue that writing centers in these contexts focus their efforts and build in-depth relationships with responsive departments (though writing centers in these contexts often have more staff and can sometimes manage such relationships with more departments without spreading themselves too thin). In these cases, writing centers should look to develop different tiers of support—for example, establishing as tier one a general set of resources that are available to any graduate student as needed, and developing as tier two a deeper set of resources with targeted programs on campus. Further, program directors at large schools might also need to be a little more strategic with selecting departments or programs with which to work. At my previous institution, a mid-sized Northeastern state university, I worked with an interdisciplinary graduate program in natural resources and environmental sciences. This partnership had two advantages. First, this graduate program had the highest enrollment on campus. Second, students in this program, in addition to working with faculty directly associated with the program, recruited advisors from departments across campus, including chemistry, physics, and history. Thus, working with this program allowed some indirect access to other departments on campus.

Be explicit about program goals.

This recommendation is simple but often overlooked. Writing centers can at times be hesitant to publicize their ‘real’ program goals, and both students and advisors can easily misinterpret boot-camp goals. Some advisors at NMT still expect students to return from boot camp as accomplished grammarians. We discuss our goals explicitly with boot camp participants, since they have had some success articulating these goals to advisors and other students. Further, we have found it useful to discuss these goals at our university’s Graduate Student Association meetings, as our GSA representatives have been extremely helpful in communicating and publicizing these goals. Writing centers at larger schools might find the most active graduate organizations to be situated in departments. While visiting these localized graduate meetings is more time-consuming, it is potentially a direct way to interface with students themselves.  I have also met informally to discuss expectations with advisors sending multiple advisees to boot camp, and I have invited representatives from departments across campus and graduate students to participate in planning meetings for our communication initiatives (with some success). By doing so, I have invited key university stakeholders to have input in how our goals dovetail with their own.

Assess and publish.

Despite their popularity, remarkably little has been published on thesis boot camps. Writing centers often exchange boot camp information informally and use any assessment data only for internal review. Writing center researchers and administrators would benefit from seeing different localized boot camp models and more national data on boot camps’ effectiveness. Given the national concern for graduate education, such data can also provide us with leverage when speaking with school administrators or help in securing external funding for new graduate initiatives. For example, writing centers working with graduate students from STEM fields might be very surprised by how much funding is opening up through agencies such as the National Science Foundation.

As mentioned previously, many of these strategies are most directly applicable to smaller institutions. However, many of these strategies can serve as a starting point for brainstorming program design at some larger institutions as well. For example, even writing centers at larger schools may lack the energy and resources for a large-scale school-wide initiative, so it is still wise to start small and use initial successes as leverage for future growth. Further, mobilizing graduate students as advocates of one’s program might be one of the only ways to reach some research advisors at larger institutions, particularly those who rarely venture outside of disciplinary silos. One significant obstacle for writing centers at larger institutions, however, is publicity. At smaller schools such as New Mexico Tech, it is much easier to communicate successes in one department to representatives from other departments. Writing centers at larger schools may need to be more creative in publicizing accomplishments. Naturally, building relationships with high-leverage allies (e.g., choosing to partner with the graduate school when developing a boot camp) is one step, but seeking additional means of publicity might also be necessary. Useful strategies might include working with the school’s Public Information Officer on an article on a university website or publication, co-sponsoring graduate student events on campus, and so on.

Effective program design does take time and energy, and our programs at NMT are still far from complete. However, we have found this time and attention valuable not only in establishing popular, graduate student-friendly programs, but also in creating the architecture for what could become a much larger, campus-wide network of graduate student support.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Marcia Bardy for assisting with boot camp and for helping conduct follow-up interviews for this study. Additional thanks to Bill Stone for helping develop our boot camp. Funding for these initiatives was provided in part by a Department of Education Title V grant (PPOHA: Promoting Post-baccalaureate Opportunities for Hispanic Americans). However, the content of this article does not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

 

Notes

1. Title V: Promoting Post-Baccalaureate Opportunities for Hispanic Americans (PPOHA).

2. LaTeX is a code-based document preparation program often used in equation-heavy fields such as physics or computer science.

3. Time-to-degree statistics are part of an on-going project. It is still too early to see statistically significant differences in this data.

4. All participant names are pseudonyms.

5. Surveys were piloted during the winter 2011 boot camp. Winter 2011 survey data will not be used in this report, as the study had not yet been submitted to NMT’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). All data reported in this paper was collected in compliance with NMT’s IRB.

 

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