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Working with Thesis Writing Partners

The “Thesis Writing Partner”

The following is an offering of advice for how to shape consultations with thesis-writers. The Writing Center occasionally receives requests from graduating students, asking for writing fellows who may be interested in a semi-long-term commitment during their editing process. Consultations with a senior on his or her thesis are quite different than a “regular shift”. Theses are long, students have been working for months on their arguments, and several professors and perhaps other students have already been involved in revision-commentary. For writing fellows interested in working with thesis writers, it is useful to understand that thesis revision may require different techniques and conditions than the typical one-hour consultation.

Diving into another student’s 100 page work can be an intimidating, overwhelming, and confusing task. How much can a writing fellow actually be expected to read? Is it possible to challenge the thesis of a thesis? What happens if an idea produced between the fellow and the writer conflicts directly with the advice given by the writer’s reader, a professor and expert in the field? The preliminary questions alone take a lot of time and energy in answering: before working on a thesis with a student writer, it is important to consider how much time can be dedicated to the process. Unlike a shift in the writing center, a thesis should be given much more than one hour. A thesis’ chapters should be read, the introduction and conclusion well understood, and the writer should feel as though they have enough time to truly breakdown their arguments and composition process before engaging the text in revision. There are many ways to address these elements, however, below I will present one specific, concrete model that I have found successful.

Talk: Even thesis writer’s themselves feel as though they are working with too much information. In order to address elements of structure, organization, and content, it is helpful to development a long-term, comfortable relationship with the writer so that conversation about their work can be extended beyond the text. If the writer feels that he or she can speak freely to somebody who is truly invested in his or her writing, then information that is not apparent in the text is likely to be presented in conversation. Before reading the text (or parts of the text), ask the writer to sit down with you and explain; understand the most important arguments, the methodologies, and why the writer was interested in this thesis topic in the first place. During consultation sessions, begin conversation before even opening the text. Talk about the writer’s most recent edits, questions, or concerns about their paper. You will both be working together for long periods of time, and therefore a “conversational” and “trusting” feel to the writing-partnership is extremely beneficial. Both parties feel they communicate on a level larger than the tangible text on the pages in front of them, and also that they are both invested in the revision work and the task becomes less intimidating.

Time: Consider allocating three consultation sessions, approximately 1.5 hours each with 1-2 hours of preparatory readings and brainstorming, to a thesis writing-partner. These sessions may, by necessity, be spread out across three weeks, especially since the writer is likely to use discoveries made in each session in the edits he or she submits to the faculty readers. Each consultation, then, will be building off the previous one but continuously pushing forward and unearthing new problems and progresses. Due to the nature of thesis-writing, it may be nice to allow these consultations a flexible schedule; work together with your writer to establish approximate dates and times, but understand that as their faculty reader’s feedback my not be received on a fixed schedule, it might benefit the writer to be able to reschedule or negotiate hours accordingly. I found it very helpful to print and read a thesis draft the day before or the day of each consultation; this allowed me to revisit previously discussed problem-areas, examine changes the writer had made, consider any questions or comments left by the writer or her readers, and keep the material fresh in my mind. There is so much material, that multiple readings of the thesis allowed for an deep understanding of the text that – at this level of revision – was necessary when addressing questions surrounding content, structure, and organization. This is a time consuming process, but, for example, if the writing fellow does not know the content and purpose of each thesis chapter, how will they be able to discuss the conclusion to a 100 page paper over the course of three consultations?

Reading: Reading the same thesis three times sounds overwhelming. The initial reading of a thesis necessitates a certain amount of skimming. In this model, I advocate a thorough understanding of the introduction and conclusion, and at least a basic understanding of each chapter. That is to say, know well the argument and intention of the writer, and how he or she wishes to tie together all content. The body of the thesis can receive less attention, but it’s helpful to know the intention of each chapter, or middle section, and understand its function in the larger context of the thesis. In the first consultation, then, it may be helpful to request that the writer decide which portions of the thesis need less attention than others, so that for future consultations the fellow can focus on smaller sections. The initial reading of the entire thesis will have already created a great base for addressing more detailed issues in specific portions of the text. Eventually, the fellow may request that only specific chapters or passages are selected and sent for reading before the final consultation. Another helpful technique is to request relevant feedback and comments provided by faculty readers or peer editors. These remarks can help guide the fellow in identifying the most problematic – or perhaps the exemplary and helpful – passages of the thesis. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the fellow should require the writer to provide preliminary questions and concerns linked to specific passages in the thesis. If the writer is struggling with transitions, he or she should include that in an email or initial conversation with an example, such as a page number, of where the fellow can find a “problem” transition. Of course, many people request consultations not knowing what it is they are struggling with in their paper; if the writer finds herself in this position, perhaps the fellow could ask her to identify passages or elements of the thesis she finds particularly good – parts of the writing that work well. Which passages are structured well? Where does the writer feel she concluded an argument with solidity? This not only initiates a mutual, close engagement with the text, and helps the fellow locate themselves along the reading process, but it also helps to situate a conversation about a very long work in specific pages and chapters, thereby decreasing intimidation and confusion. Writer and Reader should situate themselves together in the text, and find a mutual jumping point for larger conversations.

Model Outline

Initial Conversation with Writer

  • ask questions about the thesis; why are they interested, what was most interesting, etc.
  • establish a time-line; when is best to schedule 3 consultations
  • ask the writer to provide a copy of the thesis, including any available comments and questions

“Initial Reading of the Thesis”

  • read the writer’s, faculty readers, and peer editors questions and comments
  • read thoroughly the introduction and conclusion
  • develop a basic understanding of internal content (this may change according to what the fellow feels is efficient, or what the writer/her advisors have indicated in comments)
  • engage in the text; write in the margins, develop questions and comments attached to specific passages or pages

First Consultation

  • be ready to dedicate 1.5-2 hours
  • have a casual conversation with the writer; ask questions, again, about the thesis and any changes/concerns developed since last conversation
  • employ similar techniques as would be used in a usual consultation — with modified approaches to reading and discussion surrounding the text, even though the techniques between a 1-hour consultation and a 3-week thesis partnership might be the same, the preparation and framework for revision established by the methods described above will allow the techniques to be fruitful in new ways
  • do not be afraid to use time talking; let the writer talk about their thesis, even if it is not directly related to a text-level issue
  • discuss goals for the next consultation; request a copy with any revisions

Second Consultation

  • focus more on specific passages/sections; allow the process to narrow down
  • after having addressed larger questions in the first consultation, and having developed a better understanding of the work as a whole, allow the revision to move into more specific issues

Third Consultation

  • focus exclusively on specific passages/sections
  • revisit feedback given by faculty/peer readers; discuss how this has been worked into the consultations
  • revisit the initial questions/comments provided by the writer before the initial consultation
  • reflect! allow some time for celebration of progresses; this has been challenging and required a lot of hard work from everybody involved