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Academic Writing at the Doctoral and Professional Level in Engineering: The Current State of the Field and Pathways Forward

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Graduate Studies Division Technical Session 2

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

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Kate Caroline Batson University of Georgia

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Kate Batson is a PhD candidate within Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia. Her research is centered around writing practices at the doctoral and professional levels within engineering. Previously, she served as an instructor in the Intensive English Program (IEP) at The University of Mississippi, where she taught 18 different courses and served as the IEP Operations Coordinator. She was also the IEP in-house specialist on academic writing at the graduate level and worked collaboratively with the College of Engineering and Graduate Writing Center to ensure an array of writing services were offered to international graduate students within the College of Engineering and other departments. She has presented at regional and national Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) conferences. She holds a BA in Latin American Studies and an MA in Spanish Linguistics from The University of Alabama, and an MA in Modern Languages (TESL) from The University of Mississippi.

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Learning outcomes of engineering students are moving from emphasis on students’ technical abilities towards a balance with what are termed ‘soft skills’ that complement technical expertise—one such skill being successful communication. Troy and Liang (2019) and Maher et al. (2013) echo this emphasis on communication, arguing that graduate student ability to clearly communicate in written form is necessary for future careers, as the ability to write will greatly affect post-PhD career opportunities. Moreover, in the United States, research suggests that engineers spend more than 30% of their time writing (Covington et al., 2007; Kreth, 2000). In a survey of U.K. engineers, more than 50% of the respondents spent more than 40% of their time writing (Sales, 2006).

This important shift of emphasis towards improving the written proficiency of engineering students has led to an increasing amount of research that has investigated how to support students in successfully engaging in the written genres common in both academia and industry. Yet, much of the efforts of both researchers and researcher practitioners on how to support student writing have been centered around those at the undergraduate level, with very few studies focusing on how engineering programs may support writing skills within doctoral education (Berdanier, 2019; Cox, 2011; Gassman et al., 2013). This finding suggests a movement of engineering departments—and higher education institutions in general—to expect students to be fully apprenticed into academic and professional writing of their field upon beginning their doctoral studies, even though the written genres that these students encounter in doctoral programs may differ greatly from those required in earlier degrees.

Available scholarship on academic and professional writing within engineering thus provides limited insight to truly understand and address the present nature of doctoral writing support. The few studies that have examined writing at the doctoral level suggest that engineering students enter doctoral programs with varying degrees of ability to express themselves through written communication (e.g., Colwell et al., 2013). Research also shows that both doctoral students and graduate faculty in engineering alike do recognize the importance of written skills as essential to student success (Cox, 2011; Lala et al., 2018). There is little consensus, however, on whose responsibility it is to support the written skills of doctoral students, which faculty are best ‘fit’ to support the writing skills of doctoral students, along with which instructional practices best support students as they enter into the world of academic and professional writing. As such, it is vital to explore how engineering disciplines—and the field as whole—have approached the teaching of writing at the doctoral and professional level; and, to consider what this means for doctoral students, especially those who are multilingual learners, that come with distinct ways of meaning making that must be integrated with the established conventions of their field. This work reviews the present nature of how engineering has approached the teaching of academic and professional writing with several foci: who holds the responsibility to teach academic and professional writing to doctoral students in engineering; the common types of support that doctoral students in engineering receive and the strengths and challenges with that support; and more specifically, the implications of these practices for multilingual learners within engineering. Moreover, insights are offered from the field of language and literacy education on how engineering programs might alter their graduate writing support to better serve the needs of such a diverse population of students.

Batson, K. C. (2021, July), Academic Writing at the Doctoral and Professional Level in Engineering: The Current State of the Field and Pathways Forward Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36636

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