The project goes to summer school

I gave a lecture last week at an international doctoral summer school in Vienna, run by Klagenfurt University. The theme of the summer school was quality in scholarly practice in social sciences and humanities, and my lecture discussed findings from the Academics’ Writing project on how academics’ writing practices are influenced by measures of research quality such as the REF.

I shared extracts from interviews the project team has done with academics who talked about the pressures of having to publish certain numbers of papers in specified venues, often based on journal impact factors, and about feeling forced to publish in journals outside their discipline.

I also ran a workshop on getting published, and Klagenfurt University were generous enough to let me stick around for the whole week, listen to the other invited speakers and get to know the students, who came from Austria, Germany, France, Turkey, Italy, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Uganda, Nigeria, Brazil, Costa Rica and the USA. They were a passionate, articulate and multilingual group and I scribbled down many of their nuggets of wisdom, which sometimes bordered on the poetic. Here’s a selection:

“I write at night, like a witch”

“I feel oppressed by writing in English”

“You need to read texts against the grain”

“There are ghosts in the archive”

“The impact agenda makes bad autoethnographers of us”

I could pick any one of these and write about it all day, but I’ll leave you to ponder your own interpretation of these statements and how they might apply to you.

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.