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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Who do you work for anyway?

The project team had the pleasure of being invited to give a talk this week at a careers event at Manchester University, aimed at humanities researchers. The event included a panel discussion on the theme of What do you actually do?  The panel’s insights were not only very interesting and amusing, but also resonated with the findings of the Academics’ Writing project. For example, there was unanimous agreement that an academic’s job was roughly divided into three main areas: teaching, research and admin, which is consistent with what our research participants have said. However, the panel members added that there was also some “other stuff” too. Asked what this “other stuff” consisted of, they revealed that it included attending committee meetings, doing ethics reviews and the like. Much of this type of work we had categorised as “admin”, but some universities call it “service”.

As part of our analysis, we coded the transcripts of our interviews with participants, attaching a descriptive code to genres of writing that people talked about. 64 different genres emerged, but they did not all fit into the tripartite system of teaching-research-admin. Conducting peer reviews of books or articles, for example, is not exactly admin. It’s not for the benefit of the department or institution, nor the academic doing it, who receives no pay, credit or time for such work (although arguably, academics at the beginning of their career may do reviews to gain experience or help establish their reputation). Such work is central to academia as a way of upholding standards and creating disciplinary knowledge, but it is also time consuming, yet it is not accounted for in the workload allocation models academics are expected to adhere to. Similarly, responding to surveys and participating in disciplinary or professional fora do not fall neatly into research, teaching or admin, yet academics often see these activities as crucial for staying up to date with their field and contributing to their discipline.

This raises the question not just of what do academics actually do, but of whom they actually work for. Clearly, they are employed by their institution, but much of what they do could be argued to have benefits for others beyond or within the university. In the age of the REF,  is it one’s department that one primarily strives to benefit? This might actually work against any wider sense of disciplinary identity, since comparable departments must effectively compete with each other. What about the fee-paying students? Are they our “customers” who we must serve? Or is some of an academic’s work actually for themselves? After all, our h-index is ours alone, and when academics move institutions, they take their work with them. Or do they? Some argue that academics moving institutions prior to the REF be disallowed from submitting work done in the preceding year or two for the REF in their new institution.

Several panel members in Manchester, and our own participants, talked about their research writing as though it were something personal and rather indulgent. “I’m going to be selfish and use this time for myself” was the way one person described getting research writing done. Another piece of advice from a panel member was, “If you get a second that belongs to yourself, work on a paper”. Research writing was the thing that got squeezed by other work, and the thing most likely to get done in personal time; at home, on holiday and in the evening, partly because it was seen as something that belonged to the individual.

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Academics on strike

A two-day strike was held this week by academics in the UCU (University and College Union) in protest at differentials in pay increases between vice-chancellors and the rest of the the academic workforce, the gender pay gap, and the casualisation of staff contracts.

I suspect the general public does not have a great deal of sympathy, since the popular perception seems to be that academics are handsomely paid, enjoy long holidays, including having the entire summer off, and know very little about how things work in the “real world” anyway. Just the other day, someone (who works in a university, but not as an academic) said to me, “Academics have lots of down time, don’t they?”

This notion might stem from the fact that academics are often not in their office or don’t work fixed hours. But they may be teaching, or conducting research in a lab or in the field. They may be at a conference in another city or country. They may be examining at another university, or giving a talk, or attending a meeting. Or, our research suggests, they may be at home writing, since they often feel that their offices are not conducive to the concentration required for scholarly writing. Academic work is far more diverse than those looking in from the outside may realise. Every academic I’ve met since I began my current role seems extraordinarily busy and they can’t all be exaggerating. They work in the evenings, they get up at 5.00 am to work on journal papers before the working day begins, they mark at weekends, and they take work on holiday.

Academics in the UK are a relatively privileged bunch. We’re well educated, we enjoy a modicum of social status, and we are certainly not at the bottom of the heap in terms of socio-cultural advantages, but as Rosalind Gill (2014) points out, we ignore the increasing workloads, precariousness and stress of academic work at our peril, for once this culture creeps into the domain of the relatively privileged, it won’t be long before it is accepted as the norm everywhere.

 

Gill, R. (2014). Academics, cultural workers and critical labour studies. Journal of Cultural Economy, 7(1), 12-30.

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Cultures of counting: Metrics through a critical lens

Tuesday 24th May sees the Academics’ Writing project’s fourth and final workshop on the role of metrics in academic life. This time, we have invited two expert speakers to talk about what responsible metrics might look like in the context of both REF and TEF. The speakers are Professor Paul Ashwin of Lancaster University and Professor James Wilsdon of the University of Sheffield.

Metrics evoke a mixed reaction across the higher education community. A commitment to using data to inform decisions makes some enthusiastic about the prospect of granular, real-time analysis of our activities. Yet we only have to look at the blunt use of metrics such as
journal impact factors, h-indices and grant income targets, to be reminded 
of the pitfalls. Some of the most precious qualities of academic culture
 resist simple quantification, and individual indicators often struggle to do justice to the richness and plurality of our work.

Across both research and teaching, metrics are receiving greater emphasis from policymakers and managers. The November 2015 HE green paper outlines a new regulatory architecture, including the replacement of HEFCE with a new Office for Students, and the introduction of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Metrics are portrayed as crucial to the TEF, albeit with some scope for expert judgement alongside, and there are now fierce arguments raging across the sector about whether we need a TEF at all, and if so, how it should be designed, and what mix of quantitative indicators it should employ.

Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods. How to exercise that power to more positive ends was the focus of The Metric Tide, a recent UK review of the role of metrics in research management and assessment. The Metric Tide sets out a framework for responsible metrics, and makes a series of recommendations for researchers, university managers, funders, policymakers and publishers.

In this seminar, James Wilsdon, who chaired The Metric Tide, will outline its main findings, and reflect on ongoing efforts to influence debates about UK research policy and funding, including over the design of the next Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is currently the focus of a further review by Lord Stern.

Paul Ashwin, in the context of the proposed TEF, will examine the challenges of developing measures of teaching quality that do not simply reflect institutional prestige.

Both speakers will consider what a culture of ‘responsible metrics’ might look like for research and teaching, and the opportunities and obstacles to achieving this.

James Wilsdon is professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, and was chair of the UK’s Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management. He is now chairing a European Commission expert group on the future of altmetrics.

Paul Ashwin is professor of higher education at the Lancaster University and a co-investigator in the ESRC/HEFCE funded Centre for Global Higher Education.

This talk is part of the Designing the Academic Self series, sponsored by the Academics Writing project, which is part of the Literacy research Centre at Lancaster and the Northwest Doctoral Training Center and is open to early career researchers and doctoral students from Lancaster, Manchester and Liverpool universities.  To book your place, visit Eventbrite. 

 

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Academics’ experiences of professional networked learning

The project team have been presenting our findings on academics’ experiences of professional networked learning at the 2016 Networked Learning Conference. The slides can be found here: NLC10may2016_slides

It was a thought-provoking conference overall, with many sessions, including Helen Beetham‘s and Magda Bober‘s talk, echoing some of the themes that have emerged from our research. Helen talked about the disaggregation of professional roles in academia, including the blurring of boundaries between personal and professional time and identities. This is a major concern for our own participants – almost without exception, people talked about the pressure / drive to check email using portable digital devices, even when when not ‘at work’, and about concerns around the ways their identity could be constructed online. Magda talked about the ways in which students and staff in HE use mobile devices, and the symbolic meanings these held for these two groups.

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What can and can’t metrics tell us?

Tuesday 26th April sees the third of four interactive workshops on the role of metrics in academic life, run by the Academics Writing  project, alongside  Masud Khokhar and Tanya Williamson of Lancaster University library, called What can and can’t metrics tell us?

Higher education institutions in the UK have to justify how they spend their research funding and demonstrate that this spending resulted in high quality research outcomes. This is achieved mainly through the REF (research excellence framework) and bibliometric measures associated with it. The research activity of individual academics, departments and institutions is measured in various ways and the resulting data used for a range of purposes. But are we asking the right questions? And are we using the data in an appropriate way?

This interactive workshop is part of the Designing the Academic Self series, and explores the ways in which quantitative indicators of research output are used, by both institutions and individuals. We begin by exploring what exactly are we trying to measure, and consider how well are the metrics we generate can do this. We will talk about case studies of how metrics are currently being used in different UK institutions, and will consider the potential positive and negative effects of these on academics.

To book a place, visit Eventbrite 

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To blog or not to blog, that is the question

Our PI Karin participated in a public lecture in Lancaster last week on the theme of Teaching, Tweeting, and Trolling – Our Online Worlds.  In addition, I had the pleasure of going to Sweden to give talk at Stockholm University’s department of English on behalf of the Academics Writing project. In both of these talks we shared findings on how academics’ writing practices have been affected by technological changes.

We asked our participants if they did any writing on digital platforms such as Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, and found a bit of a trend across the disciplines (bearing in mind that our sample is too small to draw generalisations). Not many of the mathematicians used these platforms, while historians tended to speak rather more positively about them, even if they didn’t actually use them much.

The reasons our participants have given for not engaging with these new genres of writing include a perception that they were trivial or inconsistent with their professional identity. For example, one participant (a statistician) said, “I don’t necessarily approve of Twitter and Facebook so I tend to avoid them”. But these feelings of disapproval were not shared by everyone, and others were keen to use these platforms.

One History professor said, “I lay awake sometime last week thinking maybe I should have a blog. Haven’t got around to it. But the blogs I do read, some of them are terrific.” Another historian expressed similarly positive views: “I am really interested in the idea of blogs and sometime, maybe when I retire, I might get into blogs. I think they are really fun. I don’t do Twitter either. All those modes of communication seem quite interesting.”

The language these historians use speaks of the potential pleasures and creativity of these forms of writing, yet their take-up is constrained by the need to produce other, more privileged genres. This was particularly clear in David’s comment, “A lot of the work is grey literature where people have written blog pieces. I think that’s opened my eyes to what’s possible in that area but yes, if there’s time – I think it’s always a question of time. Again, that work is not valued by the university as far as I can see.” Although he saw potential in these forms of writing, particularly in terms of communicating to audiences beyond the academy, he acknowledged that peer-reviewed, scholarly publications take priority, partly driven by institutional demands to produce REF-able research outputs.

Where do you stand on these hybrid genres? Are they appropriate for academics? Should institutions value them more or would this simply add to already heavy workloads?

 

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Dissemination events

As we reach the end of the first phase of the Academics Writing project, we are holding a series of dissemination meetings to share interim findings from the research and to invite responses and comments from those whose working lives the research may impact upon.

Because we have been asking our participants not only about scholarly writing, but also about teaching- and admin-related writing, there are interesting data about how academics decide what to prioritise among their workloads, the range of digital platforms and devices they use for writing, and how they create a space for themselves, both physically and psychologically, to get to the writing that really matters to them.

All of which has implications for how we prepare new researchers for their role, and for how their working hours and spaces are organised. Thus, the dissemination meetings are targeted not only at academics, but also at those involved in the professional development or training of early career researchers and doctoral students; those working in research management and support; those responsible for academics’ work spaces, and anyone with an interest in academic writing.

The meetings are on the 18th of March and the 19th and 22nd of April at universities around the North of England. If you’d like to attend, get in touch with Sharon on s.mcculloch@lancaster.ac.uk for more information. and we’ll send you details.

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How are metrics affecting academics’ writing practices?

Academics are increasingly subject to a range of ‘metrics’, attempts to produce a quantitative measure of the reach and impact of research (and, increasingly, teaching). Research metrics include measures at the level of the individual, such as the h-index (a measure of an individuals’ research output and the extent to which it is cited), at the level of individual papers such as numbers of downloads or numbers of citations, and at the level of journals such as the ISI ‘journal impact factor’, worked out on the basis of citation rates across a journal’s outputs. Newer metrics – ‘altmetrics’ – try, in addition, to capture the wider range of ways in which research publications can have an impact in the virtual world, producing measures based on numbers of views, downloads, saves, shares and recommendations online. All these metrics are becoming increasingly important in recruitment to academic positions, promotion, and of course assessment of academic departments via research assessment exercises such as the REF.

The existence and influence of such metrics has a range of effects on academics’ writing practices. They impact, for instance, on the selection of journals to write for, genres to write in and topics to focus on. Academics are increasingly expected to engage in self-promotional virtual practices including maintaining professional webpages and academic social networking, and these activities can have a direct effect on the newer altmetric quantitative indicators.

The second of four interactive workshops takes place this week, exploring the ways in which quantitative indicators informed by digital technologies are influencing academics’ writing practices.We will report on preliminary findings from the Academics’ Writing project and attendees will have the opportunity to discuss their own experiences of using and being measured via metrics.

Workshop title: Designing the academic self: How are metrics affecting academics’ writing practices at UK universities?

Date: Tuesday 16 Feb 2016, 1.00 – 3.00 pm

Venue: Lancaster University, Charles Carter A15

This series of workshops is run with support from the Northwest Doctoral Training Centre, and is free and open to doctoral students, staff and researchers from Lancaster, Liverpool, and Manchester Universities. Please register your attendance via Eventbrite. For dates and themes of the whole series of workshops, click here.

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The long word club

One of my pet peeves is conference speakers who sit down and put on their reading glasses. This is a sure sign that they’re about to eschew slides and read their paper aloud. Moreover, the paper will be crowded with abstract concepts described entirely through words of 8 syllables or more.

It may be called “a conference paper“, but this does not make it acceptable to inflict 30 minutes of unsupported listening on a tired audience. The projector is there for a reason.

I’d been moaning about this when my colleague Mary sent me a link to a blog post by Mark Carrigan,  in which he discusses  sociologists’ habit of writing in unsociably dense, turgid prose.  Carrigan quotes Les Back in the Art of Listening,  comparing academics to “bookish limpets” (2007, p. 163).  So if we recognise our own weaknesses in this regard, what should we do about them?

James Mulholland  has argued that rather than attempting to make complex research more accessible to general audiences, we should simply embrace esoteric knowledge and technical language as intrinsic aspects of dealing with complex ideas. Stay in your ivory towers, he urges, and write books that few people will read.

Carrigan suggests that blogging and tweeting offer possibilities for making academics’ writing more engaging and opening it up to a wider readership. While I’m not completely convinced that that academics who blog are not already preaching to the converted, I do think that Mulholland is missing the point somewhat. The debate is not about whether we should change the books we write, but how we might persuade more people to read those we do write.

The title of this post was inspired by / stolen from:

Gardener, S. (1992). The long word club: The development of written language within adult fresh start and return to learning programmes. Brighton: RaPAL.

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