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.

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.