SRHE conference paper on disciplines in Higher Education

Last month (December 2015) I delivered a couple of papers at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education. One of them was on this project’s findings so far. The Powerpoint is below:

One of the things I discussed with my audience was the strange things happening to disciplines in Higher Education, and the new disciplinary identities emerging. Since identities permeate academics’ writing practices for research, teaching, and even admin work, the paper generated a lot of interest and discussion. Some of these were also tweeted about:

Affect and academics’ writing

As part of the ‘autoethnography’ component of our research project we have been documenting the team’s views associated with the affective and emotional aspects of their professional writing. We decided to explore this particular aspect of academic professional life, as the affective experiences of academic working life (its joys and pains) are closely bound up with successful and unsuccessful experiences of writing (acceptances of papers, completion of monographs, proposals, feedback, etc.).
Here are some of the responses to the questions we asked in the autoethnographic survey:
1) Tell me about a piece of writing you did which brought positive feelings or joy?

I am quite a synthetic thinker and I enjoy the creativity involved in researching ideas and putting them together in an argument in a new way, or developing a storyline from disparate data and viewpoints.

If I am satisfied with a piece of writing (and this might just be an email that I feel I have successfully crafted), I sometimes go back and read it over several times, enjoying the achievement of it.

I don’t feel the same level of satisfaction when I prepare and deliver an oral presentation which is too unpredictable. I feel more in control of my ideas and self-presentation when I write.

I get satisfaction and pleasure from writing, but wouldn’t say it has ever made me “really happy”. To me, writing is mainly an intellectual endeavour rather than an emotional one.

My writing process goes something like this: initial enthusiasm, leading to a first burst of work on something; getting stuck, accompanied by a conviction that this time, it will all be impossible; relief when something clicks and I see how it will be possible (this is usually when I get from ‘idea’ to ‘an actual argument’).

2) What specifically was it that caused you to be happy?

In terms of process, the satisfaction came from seeing the book as a project come together from the original seminar, through negotiating publication with a good publisher, working with contributors and co-editors, designing the book cover etc. In terms of the topic, helping a new field to come into focus.

With pen and pencil writing, I don’t usually enjoy the act as it tends to be messy and untidy.

Content gives me anger, regret and sadness, but not the act of writing itself.

Online I like writing when I do it unnoticed. I hate being rushed, and I try never to circulate drafts if I am not happy with them.

I was satisfied to recently get a chapter from my PhD published – because it had always nagged at me that I hadn’t got journal articles from it and should have done.

3) Tell me about a piece of writing that you did, the memory of which you associate with negative feelings

A piece of professional criticism which I was commissioned to write. Though I stand by the content of the piece, I don’t think I fully understood at the time how my writing was being used politically by the commissioning body and the whole thing felt very uncomfortable – but perhaps uncompromising criticism is always difficult and confrontational – not my normal style.

I wrote an article for a public media outlet. I did it with some edits from their editor who kind of ‘sexed it up’ a bit. There was a really positive response on social media about the issues I raised, with very few negative comments. Some of the negative comments however got to me. It hasn’t changed the way I write. It’s just toughened me up a bit.

I tried to write a book based on my previous big research project, but didn’t, despite spending a lot of time on bits of it – I think mostly because of other life and work stuff happening which got in the way.  I was disappointed in myself – I see myself as someone who gets things done but there were a couple of years when I didn’t.  I also feel that although I didn’t have an actual contract, I let down the people who had said they might publish it.

4) What irritates you most about the professional writing that you do (teaching, admin or research)?

I hate doing boring routine stuff. I think this is why assessing repeated exam answers, for example, is such an effort for me.

I found it hard being required to annotate student scripts online with feedback comments but this was really about a technology that wasn’t fit for purpose. I tend to mark when travelling or at other times when I’m not near a large screen computer and mobile technologies are fiddly for this kind of writing.

I loathe filling in templates for things like annual reviews or references etc. Wherever I can, I take the headings as guidelines for writing in a narrative way and avoid filling the boxes.

Writing abstracts is demanding. You have to know what you want to say, or have to discover it by the act of writing. I was doing one this morning for a plenary in a few months, and I don’t actually know what I want to say. I tried staring at an empty, fresh, new Word document and that didn’t work. I moved away from my computer and tried with a pen and paper. That gave a set of bullet points, but not a well-argued abstract. So a lot of wasted time – it wasn’t the right time for writing something new.

I honestly don’t think there is anything that irritates me about the writing I do.

I don’t know if anything irritates me. Technology can be annoying sometimes I suppose.

5) What do you like most about your writing?

The feeling of “flow” of being absorbed in the moment of writing so that you don’t keep track of time.

The internet has also brought a new dimension to my writing as I frequently search online while I am writing to find references, citations, perhaps read a related article, watch a video or follow a trail that informs me about a concept or aspect of my topic more deeply.

The recognition from peers if it gets it. But the best is when my writing reaches people I never expected it to reach and they value it.

What I like most about my writing is when it has an effect. For example if I review an article for a journal and my writing is useful and has an effect.

I like the process of doing it, and it’s nice for my ego when people cite the resulting text. I don’t pay that much attention now, but the first time I discovered that someone famous had cited my work, I could scarcely believe it.

I like the feeling of thoughts clunking together. I like the neatness of a well-structured piece of writing.  I like finding just the right word to make a sentence work.

6) What do you think about this quote from the writer Dorothy Parker? “I hate writing, I love having written”Do you feel the same? Try to explain your answer.

Yes, I agree. Those horrible hours chained to a computer and not going out for fun, contrasted with the satisfaction of seeing something I’ve written appearing in print. But the opposite can be true too. Enjoyable mornings can pass working and making progress on an article or a chapter.

I understand what Parker means. Writers of all types often say that the process is torturous. There must therefore be all the more satisfaction in having done it, and being rewarded for all that hard work.  I love having written, and in that sense I agree with Parker, but I also like writing. It seems rather indulgent not to.

I know what she means.  I often hate the idea of writing, but when I’m not writing I feel edgy.  When I’m writing regularly I feel much saner.  Though I’m not sure I love having written either – I am often reluctant to look at things I have published.

We are finding that affect and its associations with academics’ writing is emerging quite a bit in our research data, chiming with other research that focuses on the social aspects of writing and the importance of motivation and supportive culture in which academic work can emerge (e.g. Cloutier 2015; Murray 2015).

Do the responses above correlate with your experience? If so, how? And if not, how would you respond to the questions we posed?


Cloutier, C. (2015) How I Write: An Inquiry Into the Writing Practices of Academics, Journal of Management Inquiry, DOI:

Murray, R. (2015) Writing in Social Spaces: A social processes approach to academic writing, Abingdon: Routledge.

‘Technobiographies’ as a method of researching digital practices

When did you first use a mouse? Send a text message? Search for something on the Web? Set up a social media profile?

What caused this first usage? Was it mere inquisitiveness? Or did you have to?

Can you remember the first [essay, email, and shopping list] that you wrote? How did you write it? Is it different to how you would do it now? What has changed over time?

The above are just a few of the many questions you could ask yourself (or someone else) as part of a technobiography, one of a number of methods we will adopt in the ‘Academics Writing’ project.

A technobiography is about researching your own practices with digital media, the phases of change over time, in different domains of your life, and how and why your habits of use emerged. Reflecting upon our use of digital media in our past and how we approached technologies can help us understand our use of new media today, and its anticipated future use. The use of technobios as a research method can add new dimensions to ethnographic exploration of digital literacy practices, especially when looking at ‘habits’ as opposed to ‘skills’ and how these are played out over time in people’s lives (Page et al., 2014).

According to Page et al. (2014), this method of researching oneself begins as “a participant-centred way of documenting change over time in social practices, especially as these relate to people’s lived experiences with technology and their language use online” (p. 128). More broadly, technobios can also be a useful component of an ‘autoethnography’. Insights gained from technobios can therefore be used to explore commonalities between different people, identify how digital literacy practices are situated and located in particular times and spaces, and how everyone has an individual profile of literacy practices in their life history (ibid).

In this project, their adoption as one of our research methods is designed to provide insights into how the writing practices of academics have evolved through time in their professional lives, the challenges and opportunities different academics face, and how these have shaped the work of knowledge production.


Page, R., Barton, D., Unger J. W. and Zappavigna, M. (2014). Researching Language and Social Media: A Student Guide. Abington and New York: Routledge

Mostar tortoises © ibrar bhatt


Call for participants

It’s a pleasure to be working on this project at Lancaster University, and extending some of the insights and skills gained from my PhD study into a different research context and with a great team of people. One of the things that really appeals to me about this project is its focus on the practices of knowledge creation: how knowledge is produced, maintained, and disseminated in the modern University, and what this can tell us about academics’ writing practices and broader academic professionalism. It unpacks the ‘secret’ workings of academic knowledge creation whose outputs tend to gloss the messiness and ephemerality of what went into them. I’m reminded of Bruno Latour, in his ethnography of Science, who claimed that laboratory work was Janus-like, i.e. with two contradictory faces: ‘ready-made’ scientific knowledge from the perspective of an older face which looks back at previous achievements; and scientific knowledge ‘in the making’ from the younger face which confronts knowledge controversies in the moment (see figure below). Academics’ writing also involves a kind of dual activity of surveying, compiling and critiquing existing knowledge, and then adding new perspectives, formulating new arguments from them, and subsequently new knowledges.

Latour, 1987: p. 12

Latour, 1987: p. 12

Academics’ various writing practices are central to the enterprise of Higher Education. The changing landscape of the contemporary academy places texts of various sorts at the centre of academics’ professional writing. This is markedly more pertinent with changes such as internationalisation, the Research Excellence Framework, and digitisation in the work practices of academics. What, therefore, does it mean to be an academic and to be doing academic work? And what background architectures, practices of different life-worlds, habitualised behaviours, administrative diktats and technological usages all together shape (through either constraining or upholding) the doing and being of academics’ writing?

That knowledge is ‘produced’ suggests a maker or producer and even a recipe. In my other work I have drawn from the sociology of actor-network to provide an account of how student work is done. In this framing we can turn to words like ‘perform’ or ‘enact’, and see knowledge as emergent in practices rather than a sole and unitary object with a sole and unitary producer.

Performativity, in this way, also leads us to the politics of what version of knowledge (i.e. an output) is lead/forced/encouraged to emerge as ostensibly the knowledge that we commonly see and hear about (e.g. a published paper, or media coverage reporting on a research publication). An assemblage of conventions, practices, norms, protocols, rules, etc holds this version in place, often precariously. The construction and performance of knowledge creation also leads us to look at the relationships readers of academics’ writing and beneficiaries of ‘impact’ etc. have with these knowledges.

Universities and their workers (‘academics’) will be approached much the same way as an anthropologist would a tribe . A detailed observational account of the settings will be conducted via ethnography, with a focus on the routine and mundane as we enter and explore the babel of disciplines before us. Here we will provide an account of the different professional milieux and the information and material environments which give rise to writing practices and give them their unique character.

As part of a more situational exploration of work ‘as it happens’, we will also carry out contemporaneous and in situ monitoring of academics’ writing through screencast recording alongside Livescribe capturing of note-writing.

As you can probably tell, this is going to be a fascinating research project and we are actively seeking academics from three disciplinary sites each within three HE institutions in the northwest of England. In each University we will work in three different disciplinary areas: STEM, social sciences/humanities, and professional/applied programmes. This will enable us to sample across a range of writing practices both across disciplines and institutions, and within them.

We are at a stage where we hope to establish our research sites and would like to hear from you if you are interested in being on board as one of the nine units of research sites. There will be more posts emerging as the project gets started with further details, but please do not hesitate to contact me on if you would like to be involved in this project.

Best wishes

Ibrar Bhatt

Senior Research Associate, Lancaster University



LATOUR, B. (1987). Science in action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.