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.

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.

Designing the Academic Self

Social media, metrics, preprints, websites – much of our academic identity is now tied up in how we mediate ourselves online. So what should we be thinking about and what should we do?

The Academics Writing Project, in conjunction with Lancaster’s Literacy Research Centre and the North West Doctoral Training Centre  is running a series of interactive workshops for PhD students and early career researchers on the use of social media and metrics, called Designing the Academic Self. The workshops are open to doctoral students, staff and researchers from Lancaster and Manchester Universities.

Friday 29 January 2016, 13.00-15.00

Bowland North


Session 1: Who does the Internet think you are?

Sharon McCulloch, Diane Potts, and Tanya Williamson, Lancaster University

Rescheduled from Dec 2015 – please note that this session is on a Friday.

You must register to ensure a place.

Tuesday 16 Feb 2016, 13.00-15.00

Charles Carter


Session 2: How are metrics affecting academics’ writing practices in UK universities?

Sharon McCulloch and Karin Tusting, Lancaster University

You must register to ensure a place.

Tuesday 26 April 2016, 13.00-15.00

Charles Carter


Session 3: What can and can’t metrics tell us?

Masud Khokhar and Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University

Tuesday 24 May 2016, 13.00-15.00

Charles Carter


Session 4: Metrics through a critical lens


The first workshop, Who does the Internet think you are? is a discussion of if and how emerging academics can be pro-active in creating or ‘designing’ a coherent online presence, including practical matters such as selecting your online name and keywords, as well as the pros and cons of commonly used sites for showcasing academic work. Click here to register for the first workshop.

By the end of the four Designing the academic self sessions, attendees will have a deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms of metrics and how such tools can extend the audience for one’s work; of evolving academic writing practices in the face of new modes of dissemination and measurement; and of the critical questions such changes are provoking.

The only linguist in the room

On 15th September, I presented some early findings from the Academics Writing project at the Quadrangular Conference on Technology, Organisations and Society.  The slides from the presentation can be found here. The conference was jointly organised by Lancaster University, the University of Cambridge, University College Dublin and the London School of Economics, and was hosted by Lancaster’s department of Organisation, Work & Technology. In this sense, it was an interdisciplinary event, with talks by academics from economics, history, political science, social anthropology and other social sciences. I was, to my knowledge, the only linguist in the room. However, the Academics Writing project is also interdisciplinary to some extent, and the conference theme Organisational Practices within Contemporary Landscapes seemed closely related to our own exploration of writing practices in universities as workplaces. So off I went, to boldy go where no linguist has gone before…

Like Karin, when she presented at the European Conference on Literacy, and David, at the International Conference on Language in the Media, I noticed many nods of recognition from the audience, suggesting that our findings resonate with others’ research in related areas and/or with their personal experience as academics. However, I was also asked a question that really got us thinking: “You’ve started from assumption that things have changed, but how do you know they have?” I was particularly thrown by this question because the presentation focused on academics’ use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, ResearchGate and the like, most of which only came into existence in the last decade. For a linguist, the mode or genre of language use is an integral part of the literacy practice being enacted, and it wouldn’t make sense to claim that language itself is separable from this. In this sense, we cannot claim that academics’ writing has remained unchanged aside from the fact that it now occurs on these digital platforms. The constraints and affordances of these platforms, both materially and socio-culturally, must influence the nature of what is written. Our data supports this view.

Our data also shows that the use of these platforms is influenced by pressures relating to indisputable changes in higher education, such as the pressure to demonstrate impact beyond the academy, and the importance of metrics in assessing academics’ contribution to knowledge (or perhaps, more accurately, their value to their department and institution).

But perhaps there has been no radical transformation. Academics have always networked. They have always disseminated their research. So perhaps little has changed at a structural level. Will we look back one day and wonder what the fuss was about? Or do we need to pay attention to even small changes, lest gradual erosion washes away the ground beneath us? What do you think?


University as workplace: new directions

On 4th September I presented at BAAL 2015 (Aston University), a paper entitled “The University as a Workplace: New Directions in the Study of Academic Writing” .  There were a lot of nods in the room while I was talking, which suggests we are on to something!  Further to Sharon’s reflections on our autoethnographies of email, many of the questions afterwards picked up on the issue of emails, and how the reading and writing of emails integrates with and affects people’s working lives and experiences.  In particular, people were interested in the idea that the singular notion of the practice of ” doing email” actually brings together tasks, and therefore practices, of many different kinds: quick or complex, boring or challenging, potentially emotionally disruptive and definitely out of one’s control.

This was also the first time I had used our handy little project logo in public:


Someone who had come in after the start of the paper said to me afterwards, “I saw the logo at the bottom – are you part of a skills centre or something?”  I still have to figure out what that means about the semiotics of branding ….

The Mediatisation of the Literacy Practices of Academic Knowledge Production

On the 8th of September, I, David, presented a paper, The Mediatisation of the Literacy Practices of Academic Knowledge Production at the 6th International Conference on Language in the Media at the University of Hamburg. This is the first paper from the project which I have presented and the focus of the paper reflected the theme of the conference, Mediatisation. Click on the title Mediatisation of the literacy practices of academic knowledge production Sept 2015 for my slides . I enjoyed presenting the work and people seemed interested in the topic. Many thanks to everyone who attended and especially those of you who asked questions. It was obvious from talking to people afterwards that the topics raised in the paper – about how every aspect of being an academic is being transformed – fitted with people’s experiences around the world.


No email is an island

As one part of the Dynamics of Knowledge Creation project, members of the project team are researching our own practice and providing autoethnographic data on interesting themes to emerge from the research. One of these is the fragmented nature of academic work, and the role that email plays in this.

We each received between 3 and 106 emails per day, with the more senior team members receiving by far the most. These included personal messages, newsletters, circulars, and spam as well as emails that required a response. One team member deleted 68% of the 84 emails she received on the day she tracked her email habits, and sent only 5 messages, but it is sobering to bear in mind that this is an academic who is semi-retired!

One team member pointed out that “no email is an island”; those that require action often include links or attachments to everything from events websites to manuscripts, often involving hundreds of pages of reading. Our common strategies for handling emails included checking multiple times per day, dealing with the quick and easy messages first, flagging or marking as “unread” those that require further thought, and aiming for (but never reaching) the Nirvana of “Inbox Zero”.

Many of our research participants have described checking email early in the morning, or late in the evening, perceiving email as a distraction from their “real” work. But are academics unusual in this regard? It would appear not. According to Chui et al. (2012, p. 46) high-skill knowledge workers spend 28% of their workweek managing e-mail. In 2011, French IT company, Atos, announced their aim of going email-free after estimates that employees got an average of 100 emails a day, only 15% of which were deemed useful (Chui et al., 2012, p. 30). The same year, in response to union complaints about work-life balance, Volkswagen limited its servers to sending emails to staff between 7:00 and 18:15.

How would you feel about imposed limits like this? Is email a distraction from your “real” work? How do you manage the volume of emails?

Conference talks this month

Conference season is upon us, and the Dynamics of Knowledge Creation team is sharing early insights on different aspects of our data analysis. This week, Karin is presenting a paper entitled The University as a Workplace: New Directions in the Study of Academic Writing at the BAAL annual meeting at Aston University in Birmingham on the 4th of September.

On the 8th of September, David is presenting on The Mediatisation of the Literacy Practices of Academic Knowledge Production at the 6th International Conference on Language in the Media in at the University of Hamburg.

Finally, on the 15th September, Sharon is giving a paper on the use of techno-biographic interviews and what they can reveal about academic identity at the Quadrangular Conference on Technology, Organisations and Society at Lancaster University’s Management School.

We will post links to the slides shortly.

The new landscape of academic communication: conference paper

Between 13th and 16th July 2015 I attended the 19th European Conference on Literacy in lovely Klagenfurt, Austria.  The theme of the conference was ‘Literacy in the New Landscape of Communication’, and our paper based on early project findings developed this theme, entitled ‘The new landscape of academic communication: transformations of writing practices in the contemporary university’.  Drawing on some of the phase 1 interviews, we drew out a few key aspects of changing writing practices that are starting to emerge as important: the significance of changing working and writing spaces; new patterns of collaboration, particularly those afforded by digital technologies; and managerial demands, particularly those associated with the REF.  Thanks to all those who attended the paper and engaged with it, we had some stimulating questions (including the penetrating ‘Does tenure still exist in the UK?’) and some recognition of similar kinds of experiences in people’s own work.  If you would like to see more detail (and some great quotes from our initial data!), the slides are downloadable by clicking this link:

‘The new landscape of academic communication: transformations of writing practices in the contemporary university’.  Paper given at 19th European Conference on Literacy, Klagenfurt, 13-16 July 2015.