What do academics do all day (and night)?

Earlier this year, the project team did a series of impact events at universities in the north of England, where we talked, among other things, about the range of different writing tasks the academics we interviewed engaged in. The types of writing our participants did extended to 64 different genres, not of all of which fitted neatly into the usual understanding of how the academic role is sliced up, as discussed here. There was such interest in this aspect of our findings that we then did a talk on it for a sharing practice event here at Lancaster, the slides for which can be found here. The audiences at these events nodded and chipped in with their own experience, which was generally similar. The impression that emerges is one of being under pressure, of having a lot to do, and of seldom having enough head space to work on anything that requires intellectual graft.

When I stumbled across this list, called “What is my lecturer doing?” by Sarah Uckelman at Durham University, I noticed considerable overlap between her work day and those described by our participants; both feature things like preparing lectures, writing module descriptors, giving feedback on student assignments, writing exam papers, and writing reference letters. Uckelman’s list is not intended to focus on writing in the way that ours does, so she includes things like ‘going to the library’, but the fact that so many of the activities on her list involve writing underlines the centrality of writing to academic work. Sarah’s list also echoes our findings about writing stretching well beyond the working day and beyond the boundaries of the office.

How does Uckelman’s or our list compare with your own range of professional writing? What sorts of writing do you spend most time on? Have we missed any genres that academics commonly engage in?

Academic writing retreat

As a thank you to the academics who have been involved in our project, we invited them to a two-day writing retreat in a hotel near Lancaster.

The retreat consisted of writing sessions of around 90 minutes, with goal setting at the beginning and sharing of reflections at the end. We worked in small groups of around six people, and got together in a larger group for breaks and input sessions.

The only ‘rules’ were that internet access was discouraged during writing sessions to avoid distraction, and that we kept to time. After lunch each day, the project team shared a selection of insights from the project so far and invited discussion on these.

Participants worked on a variety of types of writing including chapter outlines, book proposals, research articles and reviews, and the discussions around these echoed many of the project’s wider findings. One of the things that struck me was how much the group had in common, despite our different disciplinary and institutional contexts. We all struggle to find uninterrupted stretches of time and headspace in which to write.

A mathematician shows academics from history, marketing and educational research how to use LaTeX (photo by Greg Myers)

Each writing session was what one participant called “a buzz of intense, silent activity”, and everyone made progress towards their goals. At the end, the group shared their thoughts on what they’d take away from the retreat and it was gratifying to hear so many positive comments. One historian said that it reminded him how productive he could be. Someone pointed out that writing retreats were liberating rather than remedial, and someone else said she realised, by virtue of writing with others in the room, that she was not the painfully slow writer she had thought herself to be. It appears that having protected time to focus on writing, and having the opportunity to talk informally about and reflect on our writing practices bring affective and motivational benefits as well as the obvious gains in terms of text produced.

Best of all, several participants spoke about trying to organise something similar in their own departments or research groups, and spreading the word that academics probably shouldn’t have to wait for invitations from projects like ours to find space to write in a supportive environment.

Paper presented at the Language, Literacy and Identity conference

The project team delivered a paper this weekend at the Language, Literacy and Identity conference at the University of Sheffield on the role of relationships in academic writing and identity. We drew on data from phase 1 of the project, in which participants talked about the importance of relationships in their writing practices.

Digital technologies such as Skype and Google Docs (plus many more digital platforms) made collaboration on writing easier and faster, but many of our participants told us that meeting face-to-face brought benefits that online communication could not by making it easier to build trust, to get others’ cooperation when leading a project, and to communicate in a second language, as many academics do. The social dimension of writing, as discussed by Uta Papen and Virginie Theriault in their presentation on writing retreats at the same conference, meant that being able to combine chat and coffee with writing made the experience more productive and enjoyable.

Academics talked about the “learning all the time” from conversations with others around writing, and this continued throughout their careers. Even senior academics spoke about the need for informal support networks to enable them to learn from their peers. This highlights the need for universities to foster a culture in which such informal relationships and networks can thrive.

These days, many universities are removing boundaries between student and staff spaces, and replacing staff common rooms with open seating areas accessible to all. This reduces the places where academics can talk in confidence about their research aspirations, about the inevitable rejection of papers from journals, and about the pleasures and pains of creating knowledge. Furthermore, workload pressures often mean that academics struggle to find time to chat informally about writing and the emotions it stirs up. This should be taken seriously given the role that relationships play in nurturing a writing culture and facilitating learning, not only about writing, but also about who we are as academics and team members.

The slides from our talk can be viewed here.

Academics on strike

A two-day strike was held this week by academics in the UCU (University and College Union) in protest at differentials in pay increases between vice-chancellors and the rest of the the academic workforce, the gender pay gap, and the casualisation of staff contracts.

I suspect the general public does not have a great deal of sympathy, since the popular perception seems to be that academics are handsomely paid, enjoy long holidays, including having the entire summer off, and know very little about how things work in the “real world” anyway. Just the other day, someone (who works in a university, but not as an academic) said to me, “Academics have lots of down time, don’t they?”

This notion might stem from the fact that academics are often not in their office or don’t work fixed hours. But they may be teaching, or conducting research in a lab or in the field. They may be at a conference in another city or country. They may be examining at another university, or giving a talk, or attending a meeting. Or, our research suggests, they may be at home writing, since they often feel that their offices are not conducive to the concentration required for scholarly writing. Academic work is far more diverse than those looking in from the outside may realise. Every academic I’ve met since I began my current role seems extraordinarily busy and they can’t all be exaggerating. They work in the evenings, they get up at 5.00 am to work on journal papers before the working day begins, they mark at weekends, and they take work on holiday.

Academics in the UK are a relatively privileged bunch. We’re well educated, we enjoy a modicum of social status, and we are certainly not at the bottom of the heap in terms of socio-cultural advantages, but as Rosalind Gill (2014) points out, we ignore the increasing workloads, precariousness and stress of academic work at our peril, for once this culture creeps into the domain of the relatively privileged, it won’t be long before it is accepted as the norm everywhere.


Gill, R. (2014). Academics, cultural workers and critical labour studies. Journal of Cultural Economy, 7(1), 12-30.