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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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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