Developing academic writing is an essential skill for the students in higher education to achieve academic success and to demonstrate that achievement. My experience as a university student shows that learning in higher education involves adapting to entirely the new ways of knowing –new ways of understanding, interpreting, and organising knowledge –which mainly requires an ability to write well in a purely academic style. Furthermore, students’ academic abilities in higher education are usually evaluated through several writing-related course assignments, research, review papers, and publications. Therefore, academic writing needs the greatest attention in higher education in all contexts.
The purpose of this blog piece is to discuss the thesis writing practices in Nepali universities in light of two theoretical orientations: the traditional autonomous model and the socio-cultural model. As theoretically guided by social perspectives of academic writing, I relate some thesis writing anecdotes from Nepali universities along with my own writing experience to discuss the thesis writing practices and support the main argument of the write-up. My central argument is that thesis writing as a requirement to receive a degree at any cost is based on the traditional autonomous model which considers the process of writing as a highly mental and cognitive activity. As this model seems to be incapable of capturing the context in which the writing takes place, the socio-cultural theoretical orientation offering a more culturally sensitive view of academic writing practices has been increasingly gaining recognizable space in Nepali academia.
Thesis writing practice
Let me begin the discussion with a story. A year ago, one of the ‘back paper’ students (a student who attempted the board examination more than one time) of master’s level came to my residence and requested me to provide a topic for his thesis writing. He told his stories that he was not able to pass the papers in time that would qualify him for writing a thesis. Finally, in two attempts (after two years), he was able to meet the requirements to start the thesis writing process. As he was a high school teacher of English in the western part of Nepal, he further shared that he did not have enough time to go through the overall processes of thesis writing. I could guess that he wanted to complete his thesis writing in any case as early as possible. I offered him some of my ideas on different topics of interest related to ELT (English language teaching). To my surprise, he proposed me to write a proposal for him and he would pay for it. I did not respond to his unethical proposal for a moment. After some time, I persuaded him that I could assist him to review his proposal if he, at least, could prepare a draft. Since then, he went out of my contact. Later, I learned that he hired somebody to work for him.
This is a story of a thesis writer who perceives that a thesis should be submitted at any case and cost as it has been four years to accomplish the master’s degree. The student was entirely unfamiliar with the preliminary research activities such as sources of research topics and proposal writing. Karn (2009) states that one of his students (a student from a Nepali university) seemed to have assumed that thesis can be submitted in any manner, and he did not seem to pay any heed that there is a proper style of writing and the theses should adhere and abide by the standards set by the Department. In a similar line, Neupane Bastola (2020) explores that students’ focus was on the completion of a thesis rather than learning. Her research participants in the study –ten supervisors, complained that their students were interested only in the completion of their thesis to such an extent that thesis writing was just ‘a ritual for the majority’ (p. 10). The above anecdote also signifies the reasons behind some unethical conduct such as having a thesis written and plagiarism. Most importantly, the context clearly indicates that writing a thesis has merely been a requirement to receive the degree for many students, rather than learning research and academic writing skills.
In my experience, as another side of analysis, thesis writing issue is also deeply rooted in our teaching of writing skill from the school level. Students were never taught writing as a process-based activity. The teachers in schools and universities teach about writing not writing itself. For instance, students are made to memorise what a paragraph means rather than making them write a paragraph on different topics. In schools, teachers generally write paragraphs, letters, and essays on the board and students just copy them. They even memorise those notes including essays for the examination. Furthermore, there are ‘ready-made’ paragraphs, letters, job applications, and essays in the markets; the “Bazaar notes”. In a way, these notes make the teachers’ lives go easy. In the university, many students strive to create original pieces of writing. To meet the date for assignment submission, students ‘copy and paste’ in rush. They do not receive enough opportunity to practice writing in the classrooms. Interestingly, it has also been observed that the teachers and university faculties who have never produced a single piece of original writing in their career grade the students’ papers for their creativity and originality in writing (Khati, 2018).
Let me share another story. A professor had a nasty dispute with a student during his second semester in a university class for some reasons. Their professional relationship collapsed thereafter. Coincidentally, the same professor was assigned as the thesis supervisor to the student at the end. Then the student brought a student union leader and threatened the professor and pressurized him to award marks for the thesis as per his (student’s) wish. When the professor tried to persuade him about the thesis writing process, he attempted a physical attack on him with the help of his friends. The student blamed that the professor was not his nomination as a supervisor instead the professor was blamed to take revenge of the past and managed the formal process of appointing himself as a supervisor in the department. Finally, the case grew bigger and bigger among students and professors, and the issue, of course, an academic one was eventually politicalized.
The story is an extreme example of unethical conduct in the university, and it can be analysed from different angles. On the one hand, many students come to the phase of thesis writing with no prior experience of writing anything except in the examination. They do not make themselves well prepared and creative enough to begin the thesis writing process. In this connection, Bhattarai (2009) also observes that students neither examine the research problem critically nor do they defend it satisfactorily. She further mentions that if the thesis supervisor tries to convince them about the right track of the thesis writing process, they feel that they are unnecessarily harassed.
On the other hand, the story also demands the supervisors’ awareness of their expected supervisory roles. Tiwari (2019) seems to be very critical of the roles of the thesis supervisor and raised some ethical concerns on the role of thesis guide in the way they were not professionally supportive to students to enhance the collaborative process of writing of the thesis. He further articulated that all his participants in the research voice came in a way that their supervisors were not cooperative and professional in supporting students’ thesis writing. For instance, delayed response to students’ writing is a major complaint among students. In a similar vein, Sharma, (2017) also points out that thesis supervisors need to consider and be familiar with the expectations of thesis candidates. The scenario evidently depicts that thesis writing is taken as the locus of all master’s level programs. It further stresses that university departments need to take the necessary steps to change this scenario in terms of the theoretical orientation of the thesis writing process, reconsidering the rationale of making students write theses at any cost and practicalities of thesis writing.
Writing as an autonomous cognitive activity
In my observation, the problem mainly lies in the theoretical model of implementing the courses of thesis writing. Traditionally, thesis writing has been taken as a highly mental and cognitive activity, an isolated writing activity of the student which is context-independent. Universities conduct mass orientation of students in a single venue regarding the thesis writing guidelines or procedures irrespective of their socio-cultural backgrounds, level of experiences, diverse disciplines, and areas of interest. Students are oriented as a homogeneous group of people in which student’s writing is based on relatively homogeneous norms, values, and cultural practices. Homogeneous here refers to the uniform and universal writing norms and practices. Furthermore, they are given ‘good’ or ‘bad’ types of feedback in terms of the language they use in their writing. Students do not have many empowering experiences as a one-way socialization process of writing takes place. It is because the traditional model focuses on a set of learnable universal skills for writing a thesis that is separate from the discipline and institutional contexts that considers academic or thesis writing as a predefined set of rules that student writers need to adapt to. Lea and Street (1998) criticise this deficit model which represents student writing as somewhat reductionist meaning, it is dependent on a set of transferable skills, and language proficiency rather than critical thinking.
This ‘one size fits all’ model, therefore, is incapable of taking account of culturally sensitive views of academic writing practices as they vary from one context to another. It further ignores that students’ writing in higher education is ideological in nature. In our context, universities’ departments execute the ‘processes’ of academic writing and thesis writing entirely from a traditional perspective in the way over-reliance on the ‘product’ based model has made it more difficult for students to attain and accomplish the work.
Writing as a socio-cultural practice
Thesis writing, however, is not considered an easy task in all academic contexts even outside Nepal. The experiences –pains and pleasure –of students vary in different contexts. Let me share you two excerpts from two success stories (reflections) of thesis writing in a Nepali university T. Rai (2018) shares her experiences this way:
“During this journey of writing a thesis I experienced most suffering and stressful time, I feel like that a woman suffered during in labour pain. It was in the sense that I had no option escaping from it because I spent about a year preparing this thesis and face several problems, challenges, dilemmas, and fear from the early days of preparing proposal to facing thesis viva. These several painful moments during the process however made me strong and led towards its successful completion”.
She compares the thesis writing pain with the labour pain that a woman suffers. It shows the real struggle of a thesis writer from the early days of writing thesis to defending thesis viva at the end. She gets satisfied after going through several stages of thesis writing during that whole year. Likewise, M. Rai (2018) told her story in this way:
“No doubt writing a thesis is a hard work. But it becomes harder for students like me who have a limited idea about a subject that I am going to study. My study was always focused on ‘how to pass’ the exam. I rarely voyaged beyond the prescribed books and rarely generalised the things in life that I have studied. I always had due respect to my teachers and their PowerPoint slides and I became successful to note and rote them. I was like a ‘broiler kukhura’ (poultry chicken, not free range), who merely depends on others. Since I started writing my Master’s thesis, I realised the real sense of reading and writing.”
She brings a powerful message in her reflection as an indication to shift the traditional approach of lecturing, rote learning and receiving the degree. She made an important point that she was just fascinated by the teachers’ presentations, obeyed them all the time, and made some notes for the examination during two years of her regular study. However, she realized the real sense of reading and writing that begins only after she started the thesis writing process. It indicates that writing a thesis brings varieties of activities and writing practices on the part of students.
These two thesis writers describe the stories on how a thesis writer in the university experiences writing in an early stage, how they struggle or become a part of different reading, writing activities and other academic practices to accomplish the work. While going through the whole stories of two thesis writers, it provides a sense of academic writing as the process of socialization in an academic community. Here, socialization refers to a locally situated process by which a university student from various linguistic and cultural backgrounds becomes socialized into a new academic community, such as a university department. The process involves the thesis writers’ engagement in various academic activities in their communities of practice. Therefore, academic writing in higher education needs to be taken as a social practice, not simply a technical and learnable language skill rather it is always embedded in socially constructed epistemological principles (Street, 2015). Street earlier in 1984, viewing literacy as a plural concept, coined the term ideological and the other is autonomous which is seen as a unitary concept without reference to contexts.
Under the socio-cultural framework, master’s level students as novice researchers and writers gradually learn to access university culture, understand disciplinary discourses, and engage themselves in different academic writing activities in their academic communities. They learn to write from others as an outcome of academic socialization such as discussing their writing drafts with their supervisors, sharing research and writing ideas with peers and upper-grade students, seeking language help from doctoral students and preparing papers for conference presentations. During their engagement in several writing activities, they negotiate with their own life experiences and worldviews or diverse ideologies. Here, the writing is not viewed as a text production activity; but a range of practices centering around the writing act, including reading sources, teachers’ guidelines and comments, advice and guidance from peers as well as teachers, and their own reflections on and observations of their learning experiences (Fujioka, 2007). The final output –the thesis –is the product of negotiation and renegotiation of different disciplinary and institutional ideologies. In the end, the learning from the thesis writing journey changes the thesis writer’s identity and he or she possibly becomes an entirely different person.
To sum up, many thesis writers in Nepal, if not all, view thesis writing as a ‘ritual’ activity. Against this backdrop, the universities’ departments should come up with an appropriate and effective package of thesis writing with theoretical and practical clarity and make the students understand the value of thesis writing –a learning experience, an opportunity to enhance their academic writing skills and a process-based academic practice –in the university. Thus, changing the view of a one-way assimilation into a relatively stable academic community with fixed rules and conventions (Morita, 2004) to the collaborative writing practice which takes account of socio-cultural aspects of the writing is really important at present. This viewpoint considers academic writing as a social-cultural practice and involves several collaborative activities of writing among teachers, supervisors, department heads, peers, upper-grade students, conference organizers, and even publishers. It promotes participatory and engaging academic practices of students in writing in an academic community which, to a greater extent, helps to eliminate unethical conduct during the thesis writing stage in higher education in Nepal.
The author: Ashok Raj Khati is a PhD student at Graduate School of Education, Tribhuvan University Nepal. Mr. Khati is currently working as the principal at the Sainik Awasiya Mahavidyalaya Kailali, located in far western Terai of Nepal. His areas of interest include developing writing skill in general and academic writing in particular.
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Rai, T. (2018). Thesis writing: a next step in learning. In ELT Choutari. Available at: http://eltchoutari.com/2018/04/thesis-writing-a-hard-nut-to-crack-astudents- experience.
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Can be cited as:
Khati, A. R. (2021, January). Understanding thesis writing as a socio-cultural practice in the university than a ‘ritual’ [Blog article]. ELT CHOUTARI. Available at: http://eltchoutari.com /2021/01/understanding-thesis-writing-as-a-socio-cultural-practice-in-the-university-than-a-ritual/
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