For one of my classes we have to read a book Learning the Literacy Practices of Graduate School. This is a collection of reflections on academic journeys and their challenges written by professors and graduate students from different universities all over the world. What is interesting about this book is that most of them face same issues, which only reassures me that I am not alone in my struggles with this whole graduate school ordeal.
One of the chapters of the book was dedicated to finding one’s own unique academic voice.This chapter resonated with me the most. Writing is a part of our job description, and we do need to develop our own writing style that would establish us in this academic community. In his book “Writing for Social Sciences” Howard Becker writes that the true challenge for graduate students is not only to convey their message, but also to impress the reader with their writing, to ensure that their work is noticed.
First, I thought that through my writing readers would hear the voice of an international student entering Canadian academia for the first time. My adjustment to the different nature of writing expected of a graduate student in North America has not been easy. I come from an oral based, reflective, apprenticeship driven academic discourse where writing is a supplementary form of learning, needed mostly for language practice. I still have lists of common reporting verbs, sentence structures and format outlines, that I have accumulated over the years in my English for academic purpose classes. These resources, to be honest, have not helped me in finding my voice, but only provided basic scaffolding in finding the perfect synonym for the verb to say.
Then again, for many year I was a professional teacher. That is why it was very hard for me to get used to the ‘student’ part of graduate program. I used to be able to write or say something from the position of an established professional, knowing that my students will probably believe me and not object to my interpretation of the text. Now I feel like I need to prepare myself for disagreement, critique and difference of opinions. Very specifically in writing, it reflects in recognition of my own bias and limitations. I have taught my students to be critically self reflective, and I made it my own practice, however only now I am starting to put it in print. This is again not my own voice, but a common practice that I have been enculturated into.
On the other hand, I come from a well respected academic family. Many of my relatives are established researchers in their fields, and that has always put a label on me. There is a great power in labels, regardless of what they are. I was often labeled as a “child of…”, and expected to perform accordingly. Now I am free from this label and it is both liberating and frightening. However, it has always been my family who I turned to in help with my writing. My mother has always been my most trusted editor, my grandmother had the perfect suggestion for a word or a phrase, my father would always know where to find additional information. I am aware that they are the ones who have influenced my writing style in Russian the most. At the same time, their support gave me strength and confidence. Now when I am in Canada I have to reinvent myself and to rely on myself in the search of my voice. It is an individual even solitary journey, where I sometimes feel as if there is no firm ground I can stand on to balance and there is no trusted person to provide me with much needed support. I turn to my colleagues for help, but in doing that I risk coming across as insecure and needy, something that a graduate student should not be.
In reality, this is a long process – to find my own voice and I don’t expect to wake up one day and to just have found it. On the contrary, maybe I will never find one unique voice. All my experiences inform my choice of research topics, affect my writing, and add to my understanding of the role I have to play in this community. As I move on, my academic voice with develop and change, and maybe one day I will get to write a chapter about my journey in a book!