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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be involved in this project.
Senior Research Associate, Lancaster University
LATOUR, B. (1987). Science in action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.