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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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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