Food for thought

On my recent travels, I read Les Back‘s Academic Diary – a book I wish I’d written. You can browse the beautifully presented online version, but I recommend getting hold of a hard copy, as it’s full of nuggets of insight and amusement. The set of short essays reflecting on different aspects of life in academia is organised into three sections following the terms at Goldsmiths, where Back works. The essays contain Back’s personal reflections on everything from stationery fetishes and academics’ use of Twitter, to more personal anecdotes about characters  he’s met or places he’s visited.

Several chapters address issues that have also come up in the Academics’ Writing project, but one essay in particular, called The Value in Academic Writing struck a chord with me, perhaps because I was giving a lecture the same week I read it, on the impact of ‘research excellence’ measures on academics’ writing practices.

Back describes the UK’s system of evaluating research quality as “absurd” and likens auditing intellectual value to, “trying to weigh handfuls of water against each other.” The project team has been thinking a lot about academic writing and its role in knowledge creation. What is valuable about academic writing? How do we know if it makes a contribution to knowledge, or what its impact might be? These are not easy questions to answer, but Les Back may have hit the nail on the head when he says, “The value of what writers do, even academic ones, is to provide companionship for further thought.” (p. 64). It’s hard to see how thought can be captured by metrics such as star-ratings and h-indices.

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The project goes to summer school

I gave a lecture last week at an international doctoral summer school in Vienna, run by Klagenfurt University. The theme of the summer school was quality in scholarly practice in social sciences and humanities, and my lecture discussed findings from the Academics’ Writing project on how academics’ writing practices are influenced by measures of research quality such as the REF.

I shared extracts from interviews the project team has done with academics who talked about the pressures of having to publish certain numbers of papers in specified venues, often based on journal impact factors, and about feeling forced to publish in journals outside their discipline.

I also ran a workshop on getting published, and Klagenfurt University were generous enough to let me stick around for the whole week, listen to the other invited speakers and get to know the students, who came from Austria, Germany, France, Turkey, Italy, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Uganda, Nigeria, Brazil, Costa Rica and the USA. They were a passionate, articulate and multilingual group and I scribbled down many of their nuggets of wisdom, which sometimes bordered on the poetic. Here’s a selection:

“I write at night, like a witch”

“I feel oppressed by writing in English”

“You need to read texts against the grain”

“There are ghosts in the archive”

“The impact agenda makes bad autoethnographers of us”

I could pick any one of these and write about it all day, but I’ll leave you to ponder your own interpretation of these statements and how they might apply to you.

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The actors in pre-viva reports

Phase two of the Academics’ Writing research project has involved recording academics doing a piece of writing in real time. We’ve used digital pens, Camtasia screen capture software, Inputlog key logging software, and observational notes for this. So far, the genres of writing we’ve captured include a keynote talk, an extended abstract, a journal article, a piece of software, and a pre-viva report. The latter was particualrly interesting to me because I’ve recently written one of these myself – my first one.

In common with other types of feedback on writing, a pre-viva report discusses the quality of the writing and has a gatekeeping function in terms of upholding standards. However, unusually, while the student whose work is being evaluated may never read the pre-viva report, a range of other actors might.

At Lancaster, the pre-viva report is sent directly to central registry as a formal record of the examiners’ assessment of the thesis’ quality before the viva voce. It is not sent to the candidate, and, in the absence of a Freedom of Information request, the student would not usually see it. Registry staff, on the other hand, should read the report and may have cause to question it in the unlikely the event that the report is very critical, but the student is nevertheless awarded the PhD at the end of the viva. This affected the way I wrote my report. I didn’t direct my comments to the student, but I wrote them with one eye on the possibility that he/she could, at some point, read them.

Another actor involved in the shaping of a pre-viva report is the other examiner, who will read it prior to the viva. In my case, never having examined a thesis before, I wanted to evidence my close reading of the thesis and expertise in the subject. The external examiner was someone far more experienced than me, and I didn’t want her to read my comments and see me as an obvious novice. On the other hand, I was also nervous about being too harsh  in my evaluation, and inadvertently looking as if I had something to prove. So I re-read and edited and re-checked my report several times to make sure, not only that I was being fair to the student, but also that I was displaying the right sort of self to the other actors, including the external examiner.

Pre-viva reports serve simultaneously as a formal, permanent record of the examiners’ initial judgement on the thesis, and as a working document for the examiners, who will use it to structure both their discussion prior to the viva voce and their questions in the viva itself. In this sense, the discussion between the examiners is another actor influencing the text. The discussion between examiners has the potential to be face-threatening if they disagree. Thus, the report must be written in such a way that the two examiners set out what they see as main strengths and weaknesses of the thesis and can use these to guide their negotiation over the specific areas they wish the candidate to defend or demonstrate knowledge of in the viva. Even if the examiners are in agreement, as was the case in my recent experience, the pre-viva report acts as a means of structuring the thrust of their questioning in the viva.

Finally, the pre-viva report is also likely to form the basis of the viva report, which is written after the oral examination and takes the candidate’s performance in the viva into account. The viva report outlines the outcome of the viva, any action the student is expected to take, and the deadlines for so doing. A certain level of coherence is to be expected between the pre-viva report and the viva report, and the former probably forms the basis of the latter, with adjustments made to take the change of audience into account. The viva report goes to the student, so must be written in such a way that  that the student understands exactly what to do.

There are some interesting studies looking at the viva examination process (c.f. Carter & Whittaker, 2008; Park, 2003; Wellington, 2010), but I’m not aware of any research that captures the writing process of such occluded genres as pre-viva reports, and I look forward to sharing more on this with you as we analyse the data we captured in phase of the project.

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The tip of the iceberg

Academic writing is a slipperier concept than it might first appear. The academics we interview often say, in reference to a form they filled in or a text they edited, “but that’s not really writing”. This got me thinking about where the boundaries of writing lie.

My doctoral research argued that using source material, which is usually characterized as a writing issue, is actually a reading issue, or more specifically a reading-to-write issue, since I’d also consider reading part of writing at least where scholarly writing is concerned. The point I’m getting at is that this sort of writing seldom starts with writing.

In order to make a contribution to knowledge, we must build on or extend or at least position ourselves relative to the work of others. In this sense, we read first. We might make notes. The notes from different sources might be patched together with our own ideas and become a draft. At which point does this become writing?

As part of the project, we’ve been recording and observing academics writing in real time. This has confirmed that that they usually have books or articles on the desk to refer to when they sit down to write, and that they usually have umpteen different documents open at the same time. Texts written by them and by others are used to create new writing. Parts of a previously published paper might be reshaped and further developed, archival notes might become footnotes, or quotes from a thesis might bookend a new chapter. Reading is an integral part of academic writing, both in terms of informing academics’ thinking in a general sense, and in terms of being woven through the fabric of the texts they produce.

Given that the academics we’ve spoken to struggle to find time for writing, I wonder how they find the time for all the reading that underpins it. Richard Budd, a lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope, writes about this in his succinctly titled blog, Stuff about Uni. Reflecting on his first year as a lecturer, he says, “I’ve read the bare minimum this year – pre-reading for sessions I’ve designed and/or taught, some key articles for funding/conference applications, and literature for assignments […] I feel like I’m falling further and further behind”.

I feel his pain. To use a well-worn metaphor, writing is the tip of the iceberg. If we dared to look under the surface, we’d find that a massive amount of reading has gone into every “output”.

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The myth of writing up research

One of the most common myths about academic writing (and academic research in general) is that it’s a straightforward, linear process. Research projects are often characterized as beginning with reading, and perhaps ‘writing up’ a literature review, followed by data collection and analysis, before the final stage in which one ‘writes up’ one’s findings. The term ‘writing up’ is frequently used in documentation around doctoral study. PhD candidates can apply for ‘writing-up status’ and pay ‘writing-up fees’ when they reach the final stages of their research.

Underpinning this characterization of writing is an assumption that it is simply a process of instantiating in written form what one already knows. From this perspective, writing is a transparent medium for conveying information, and the creation of knowledge is seen as separate from its dissemination.

However, for many writers, writing is a means of thinking. The quote “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say”, variously attributed to Flannery O’Connor, Joan Didion and EM Forster, illustrates this perspective rather nicely. Ideas often begin as half-baked, foggy notions based on hunches. In the process of writing, we dig deep into reading, we filter and select ideas, we write through the lens of theory, and foreground certain perspectives at the expense of others. In so doing, we shape knowledge into particular forms for our reader, but as our ideas crystalize, we likely reach new insights ourselves.

Seen this way, writing is an act of creating knowledge. And this, as any academic will tell you, is a project of blood, sweat and tears. It takes time and it can be frustrating. Sometimes an idea has to brew for a while. Sometimes it has to be written and re-written multiple times. We may re-read source texts, or stare at our data to verify or generate ideas, to explore the meanings we are formulating, and to figure out how the pieces fit together.

Even those, like myself, who cannot get started without a fairly a well-developed plan, may still end up producing something different from what we envisaged at the start. We learn something new along the way, or pragmatic constraints (deadlines, comments from colleagues, reviewer’s demands, etc.) mean that we end up changing the emphasis here or omitting a claim there. Literature reviews may be drafted early, but they are usually edited in light of how the results and discussion panned out, to create a coherent story.

Good writers make telling a good research story look easy, but behind the scenes lies a messy and time-consuming blend of reading, writing and thinking, often without clear boundaries between them.

What about you? Do you recognise anything that might be called “writing up” in your own practice? Do you agree that writing takes on new, sometimes unanticipated shapes?

 

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Academic writing retreat

As a thank you to the academics who have been involved in our project, we invited them to a two-day writing retreat in a hotel near Lancaster.

The retreat consisted of writing sessions of around 90 minutes, with goal setting at the beginning and sharing of reflections at the end. We worked in small groups of around six people, and got together in a larger group for breaks and input sessions.

The only ‘rules’ were that internet access was discouraged during writing sessions to avoid distraction, and that we kept to time. After lunch each day, the project team shared a selection of insights from the project so far and invited discussion on these.

Participants worked on a variety of types of writing including chapter outlines, book proposals, research articles and reviews, and the discussions around these echoed many of the project’s wider findings. One of the things that struck me was how much the group had in common, despite our different disciplinary and institutional contexts. We all struggle to find uninterrupted stretches of time and headspace in which to write.

A mathematician shows academics from history, marketing and educational research how to use LaTeX (photo by Greg Myers)

Each writing session was what one participant called “a buzz of intense, silent activity”, and everyone made progress towards their goals. At the end, the group shared their thoughts on what they’d take away from the retreat and it was gratifying to hear so many positive comments. One historian said that it reminded him how productive he could be. Someone pointed out that writing retreats were liberating rather than remedial, and someone else said she realised, by virtue of writing with others in the room, that she was not the painfully slow writer she had thought herself to be. It appears that having protected time to focus on writing, and having the opportunity to talk informally about and reflect on our writing practices bring affective and motivational benefits as well as the obvious gains in terms of text produced.

Best of all, several participants spoke about trying to organise something similar in their own departments or research groups, and spreading the word that academics probably shouldn’t have to wait for invitations from projects like ours to find space to write in a supportive environment.

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How academics feel about social justice

There is plenty of evidence that academics embrace social justice in principle (who wouldn’t?), and also that they try to put this into practice in large numbers, engaging in civic engagement activities on top of their usual workload, for no reward and often in the face of active disincentives (Bond & Patterson, 2005; Watermeyer, 2015), but to what extent do notions of social justice actually motivate what they do? And do they share a common understanding of what social justice means?

These were the questions addressed by our recent paper at the Higher Education Close Up (HECU8) conference at Lancaster University, Historians don’t set out to change people’s lives. The Academics’ Writing project didn’t set out to find out about social justice, but we asked the academics who participated in our study about what shaped their writing and how they interpreted the idea of ‘impact’ as outlined in the REF since 2014 .

You can find our slides here and can read the associated paper here.

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Paper presented at the Language, Literacy and Identity conference

The project team delivered a paper this weekend at the Language, Literacy and Identity conference at the University of Sheffield on the role of relationships in academic writing and identity. We drew on data from phase 1 of the project, in which participants talked about the importance of relationships in their writing practices.

Digital technologies such as Skype and Google Docs (plus many more digital platforms) made collaboration on writing easier and faster, but many of our participants told us that meeting face-to-face brought benefits that online communication could not by making it easier to build trust, to get others’ cooperation when leading a project, and to communicate in a second language, as many academics do. The social dimension of writing, as discussed by Uta Papen and Virginie Theriault in their presentation on writing retreats at the same conference, meant that being able to combine chat and coffee with writing made the experience more productive and enjoyable.

Academics talked about the “learning all the time” from conversations with others around writing, and this continued throughout their careers. Even senior academics spoke about the need for informal support networks to enable them to learn from their peers. This highlights the need for universities to foster a culture in which such informal relationships and networks can thrive.

These days, many universities are removing boundaries between student and staff spaces, and replacing staff common rooms with open seating areas accessible to all. This reduces the places where academics can talk in confidence about their research aspirations, about the inevitable rejection of papers from journals, and about the pleasures and pains of creating knowledge. Furthermore, workload pressures often mean that academics struggle to find time to chat informally about writing and the emotions it stirs up. This should be taken seriously given the role that relationships play in nurturing a writing culture and facilitating learning, not only about writing, but also about who we are as academics and team members.

The slides from our talk can be viewed here.

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Holding our disciplinary ground

I had the pleasure of going to Ann Arbor last week to present at the International Writing Across the Curriculum conference on behalf of the Academics Writing project. Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan. It’s a lovely college town where, it seems, people have a passion for gardening and also apparently don’t lock their doors at night.

ann arbor garden

Our presentation focused on the ways in which academics’ disciplinary writing practices have been affected by changes at managerial level, particularly the REF. For some disciplines, the picture is rather bleak. For example, in Marketing, our participants were forced to aim their scholarly writing at specific target journals prescribed by the Association of Business Schools’ benign-sounding Academic Journal Guide, which ranks business and management journals according to their supposed quality.

Only 5 of the journals ranked highest (4-star) by the ABS guide in 2015 were in Marketing, making it a very small target to aim for. There is also a perception that most of these journals are US-based, and publish mainly quantitative work.

Here’s a taste of what our participants in working in Marketing departments in England said about this:

“Now it’s not just four star journals. It’s four star journals in marketing. Now the four star journals in marketing […] are US based four star journals. I think there were only 16. I can’t remember what the figure was but it was such an unbelievably low figure, of UK academics getting published last REF into US four star journals.” Charles, lecturer in Marketing

“Now I target management journals, which is one way of hitting a four star.” Diane, professor in Marketing

michigan league

There is much to comment on here about the primary purpose of publishing research, the effect of attempting to measure quality in this manner, the level of autonomy academics enjoy (or not) regarding what and where to publish, cultural differences, disciplinary boundaries, and much more. The other disciplines in our study are experiencing their own sets of pressures related to disciplinary values and practices, which you can find out more about by checking out the slides from the talk.

 

Many of the other presentations at the iWAC conference were pedagogically-oriented, focusing on improving students’ writing in the disciplines, but this still provided an opportunity to consider what it is that we are preparing our students for; what disciplinary writing actually looks like in the context of contemporary higher education.

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Releasing the inner bore

As part of the Dynamics of Knowledge Creation project, we are running a 2-day writing retreat for our research participants next month, so we decided to hold a mini-retreat for the project team as a kind of dry run. David and Mary have a lovely house just outside Lancaster, so we spent the day there writing and talking about writing, with added inspiration provided by the lovely view.

inspiring view

We divided the day into chunks of writing time interspersed by breaks and debrief sessions, and used part of the afternoon to talk about our publication strategy. The only rule was ‘no email / phones during writing sessions’. Mary got an impressive 800 words written in the first 90-minute session, while I managed to delete more words than I created. This was probably a reflection of the type of writing I was doing; editing and augmenting an existing proposal often means crafting and polishing at sentence level rather than getting ideas onto paper.

Ibrar does it with pen and paper

It was important to have the timetable for the day available in hard copy to refer to. This, and Mary’s shimmying of us along, helped to keep us on track. Being able to pop outside during breaks also helped in terms of getting us away from the screen and getting oxygen to the brain. Most of the research on writing retreats suggests that the two most important factors in their success are that they a.) provide a protected space in which writing is the only task to do, and b.) provide a supportive atmosphere in which writing is valued (c.f. Murray, 2015). Some people find the presence of others focused on similar goals to be motivating because it provides a sense of collective commitment. I was a little worried about this side of things, as I like solitude when I’m working, but the knowledge that I would need to account for myself and shouldn’t let the side down did stop me procrastinating.

David in his study

Our writing retreat was subtitled “Releasing your inner bore” in honour of the tidal bore which rushes up the estuary outside Mary and David’s window, and which we stopped writing to appreciate. Sadly, I was too in awe of it to take a photo, so you’ll just have to imagine five bores watching one bore.

Murray, R. (2015) Writing in Social Spaces: A social processes approach to academic writing, Abingdon: Routledge.

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