Academics’ workplace writing: findings from 2 years of research

On 28th February, Karin, David and I presented at the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre’s seminar series, on key findings from our project. The abstract and slides can be seen below:

Abstract: For the past 2 years, the Dynamics of Knowledge Creation project have been working closely with academics across disciplines and institutions to develop a better understanding of the variety of writing activities academics do in their workplaces, looking especially at how changes in the context of Higher Education influence those writing practices. In this talk, we outline key findings from the project, particularly in relation to managerial practices, digital communication, and locating writing practices in time and space. We will also touch on how screencapture of real-life writing practices have added extra layers to our understanding of the writing process.

Slides can be found here

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The importance of being REF-able

The project has a short article published on the excellent LSE Impact blog, on the importance of being REF-able, as part of the Accelerated Academy series. In it, we discuss the interaction between research evaluation frameworks and academics’ individual career goals, their sense of scholarly identity, and their disciplinary norms and practices. In the week or so since it was published, it’s been retweeted and shared many times, and I’ve been asked for links and hard copies via ResearchGate. Perhaps it has touched on something close to the heart of those working in academia? The article can be found here.

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Academics Writing conference at the SRHE, 13 January 2017

The end-of-project conference was held at the SRHE (Society for Research into Higher Education) in London on Friday 13 January 2017, with the aim of sharing  our methods and findings with the wider research community, and hearing the views of those who attended on some of the issues we have investigated.

People came from far and wide to join the conversation, and we were delighted with both the level of interest in the project and the stimulating nature of the discussion. Many people came to speak to us individually during the day to ask us about specific aspects of the project, to challenge us, to tell us about their own research in similar areas, and to share their experiences with writing, many of which resonated with what we found through the project.

We promised that we would make the slides and audio podcasts of the presentations available, so they can be found here.

Session 1:        What’s going on for academics, writing? An introduction to the project and context, by Karin Tusting


Session 2:        Managerialism and its effects on academics’ writing  by Sharon McCulloch


Session 3:        Space, time and boundaries by Mary Hamilton and Karin Tusting


Session 4:        Affect: how people experience and respond to change by David Barton


Session 5:        Challenging methods for literacy research: reflections from our methods by Ibrar Bhatt


We would like to thank everyone who came to the event for their thought-provoking questions and comments. We would also like to thank Theresa Lillis, who acted as our discussant, the SRHE staff who helped to make the day run smoothly, and our project administrative manager here at Lancaster, Dee Daglish, whose hard work made the conference possible.

Please do stay in touch with us by commenting or emailing us at Lancaster. We will post information about further events, publications and the like on this blog, so you may want to bookmark it.

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Writing that counts or writing that is counted?

At the beginning of December, I went to Leiden in the Netherlands to present a paper on behalf of the Academics Writing project. The conference was the Accelerated Academy, which brings together scholars from across Europe, mainly from STS (Science and Technology Studies) but also from other disciplines, to share research about the acceleration of higher education and the increased use of metrics for research evaluation. Clips of some sessions from the Prague conference in 2015 can be found here.

Our paper focused on the tensions that have emerged from the project around the REF. The UK’s national research evaluation exercise pushes academics in competing directions in their writing. The REF and institutional policies around it drive academics to write more and better journal articles in each REF period, and this has become an overarching goal for academics’ writing practices: to publish enough and to target the right journals is to keep their job, to get promoted and to be considered successful. But not all academics really want to publish this sort of journal article, or at least not at the expense of other genres. Historians value monographs, but these take a long time to write and because four research outputs can be submitted to the REF, four has become something of a magic number. Four monographs in a single REF period would be more or less impossible, but departments expect at least four publications, so historians are pushed towards writing journal articles. For Marketing academics, four translates as four-star; their ultimate target for publishing. They are encouraged to publish in four-star journals, which they see as a.) unrealistically difficult and b.) pushing them out of their discipline. If it’s too hard to get into a four-star marketing journal, one can always aim for a four-star management journal.

Finally, although since 2014 the REF rewards writing for impact beyond academia, writing for non-academic audiences was widely perceived by our respondents to be of secondary importance to writing for peer-reviewed, high-impact journals. Many were interested in writing for the media, writing blog posts, tweeting and the like, but didn’t feel that their institutions valued these genres. This view is unsurprising given the relentless counting and evaluating by universities of writing that is aimed primarily at other academics.

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How do academics learn to write?

The project team gave a research seminar recently entitled, ‘Learning to write as academic’, in which Karin and Ibrar talked about how academics learn to write the huge range of genres they encounter every day. Mostly people pick it up by trial and error with help from colleagues. Lectures slides are adapted from previous years, old reference letters are recycled and stock phrases used, colleagues share previous versions of reports, and so on. Scholarly writing is improved by asking co-writers for feedback, but an assumption is generally made that if you’ve got a PhD, you must already be good at scholarly writing. Alas, rejection is a common experience and not everyone feels as competent as they might wish.

In our research interviews, the question, “What sort of training have you had to prepare you for your role?” is usually met with puzzlement, because the short answer is “none, aside from the PhD”. This may be changing for newer academics. One participant noted sagely that training offered by central educational development units tends to cover the things that a new academic would have needed to get the job in the first place. In this sense, it comes too late. As this young lecturer said, “If I couldn’t already do those things, I wouldn’t have got this job.” Training, it seems, is a little behind the curve.

Nevertheless, informal networks of learning seems to work fairly well for most types of writing academics do. As our PI, Karin, pointed out, however, this does not extend to email. Email is a source of niggling anxiety for almost every academic we have spoken to, but it is not something people routinely talk about. Different people use different strategies for handling the flow of emails; some had elaborate systems of folders, and some tried (usually in vain) to clear their inbox every day. Some restricted the hours in which they responded to emails, but for others this was a source of frustration, as they wanted to get routine emails out of the way in the evening or before the working day began. But academics don’t generally share their practices with others. No-one seems to know if what they’re doing is normal, if it annoys others, or if someone else might have a better idea. In fact one of the sources of stress around email is the fact that people adopt different practices and their expectations don’t always match.

The slides from the talk can be found here.

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Moments of beauty in academia

The Academics’ Writing Project has taken us to destinations far and wide. We’ve given talks in England, Sweden, Hong Kong, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Spain, and the USA. And before the year is out, we’re going to The Netherlands and Wales.

Even at home in North West England the project has taken us to unexpected places. So far, we’ve visited the offices of 38 academics, and because they often work from home, we’ve also been invited into the domestic domains of several of our participants. I’ve been to farmhouses with sweeping views of misty moors. I’ve perched on a child’s chair among stalagmites of books in a cramped study. I’ve been invited through bedrooms and up vertiginous staircases to hidden attics piled high with papers and paintings. I’ve been fed homemade bread and jam, and I’ve been given books of poetry. Yesterday, after our interview, someone sat me down and played me a Haydn sonata on the piano.

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What do academics do all day (and night)?

Earlier this year, the project team did a series of impact events at universities in the north of England, where we talked, among other things, about the range of different writing tasks the academics we interviewed engaged in. The types of writing our participants did extended to 64 different genres, not of all of which fitted neatly into the usual understanding of how the academic role is sliced up, as discussed here. There was such interest in this aspect of our findings that we then did a talk on it for a sharing practice event here at Lancaster, the slides for which can be found here. The audiences at these events nodded and chipped in with their own experience, which was generally similar. The impression that emerges is one of being under pressure, of having a lot to do, and of seldom having enough head space to work on anything that requires intellectual graft.

When I stumbled across this list, called “What is my lecturer doing?” by Sarah Uckelman at Durham University, I noticed considerable overlap between her work day and those described by our participants; both feature things like preparing lectures, writing module descriptors, giving feedback on student assignments, writing exam papers, and writing reference letters. Uckelman’s list is not intended to focus on writing in the way that ours does, so she includes things like ‘going to the library’, but the fact that so many of the activities on her list involve writing underlines the centrality of writing to academic work. Sarah’s list also echoes our findings about writing stretching well beyond the working day and beyond the boundaries of the office.

How does Uckelman’s or our list compare with your own range of professional writing? What sorts of writing do you spend most time on? Have we missed any genres that academics commonly engage in?

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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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