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.

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.

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.