do academic writers love reading?

Often, when I run workshops or give presentations about academic writing, I begin by talking about reading. I ask how many people like reading and how many people like literature work. I ask whether workshop participants read outside of the academic work that they do. And I’m always struck by the responses, by the sheer number of people – doctoral researchers in particular – who don’t seem to like reading. They do read, but they don’t want to do any more reading than they have to. Of course, these days reading can be complemented by other media – listening to podcasts and watching youtube clips for example. But at the centre of these media is still the practice of reading.

It strikes me, and I know this is going to sound a bit mean, that being a researcher/scholar and not liking reading is a bit like being a chef who doesn’t like eating, or a carpenter who hates working with wood. Words, language, ideas are the stuff of scholarship. They are what makes our academic world go round. As de Certeau put it, the university is a scriptural economy. If you don’t like reading and working with ideas and then writing so that other people can read your work, then the academic world is going to be a pretty tough and alien place to be.

And there is a connection between reading and writing. Those who are keen readers are more likely to be writers. Well, I might not have proof of that statement, so it could be dismissed as just an educated assertion, but that’s certainly my experience teaching in schools, as well as in universities. There’s a logic to a reading-writing connection of course. People who read a lot have a familiarity with writing, and with multiple authors’ approaches to writing; they are likely to have developed a degree of tacit understanding about the ways in which language and texts are crafted. They appreciate some writers more than others and can generally explain why.

The reading-writing connection is more evidenced at the ‘professional’ level. In interview, a lot of writers talk about their love of reading. Here’s Jane Smiley, who wrote a book about novels and novelists

When I was researching the nonfiction book I wrote about the novel, I discovered the childhoods of most novelists were similar to mine. Almost all novelists grew up reading voraciously, and many of them come from families in which it’s automatic to tell stories about family characters, Aunt Ruth or whomever, and they are curious and/or observant. I was one of those kids who had to be told to stop asking questions all the time, that’s what novelists do. We gather information, and we form what we learn into a story (p 207).

While academics don’t necessarily form their ideas in the same way as novelists, my educated hunch is that the people who are the most determined academic writers also read – willingly, enthusiastically and a lot. While some of this scholarly reading may not be easy, and most of the writing certainly is not, they don’t believe that reading time is wasted time.

I’d love to do some research looking at the connections between reading and academic writing. The accomplished academic writers that I know all read widely. Most of them don’t just read academic texts, but devour a range of other kinds of writing, including fiction. Many belong to reading groups outside of the academy. They live a kind of life of the mind, much of it through texts of diverse genres and styles.

Productive academic writers don’t see that reading is a tiresome necessity, that it’s drudgery, that it’s to be done only in sufficient quantity to get by. In fact they/we usually treasure the time that they/we do get away from daily duties  to dive into a new book.

And that love of reading is why I’m often tempted, when I am told by doctoral or other researchers that reading is something that has to be done in order for the ‘real research’ to take place – as if it’s simply some kind of administrative requirement or an archaic ritual – to respond by suggesting the reluctant academic readers need to take time off to read a lot of good books. Join a book club, I want to say. Go to a writer’s festival. Stock up your e-reader. And do this not for any reason other than to build your love of reading and words, to sink into the play of language, to take the time to listen, in Roland Barthes words, to the ‘rustle’ of the text.

Posted in academic writing, Jane Smiley, miley, reading | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

how is APRIL 1 for you – oh, just the usual game

Bourdieu says that academic work, like other areas of social, economic and cultural life, can be thought of as a game. This is/was my game today.

Academic Meeting 4.0

(Shortlisted for best British university simulation app, 2015)

What’s new in version 4.0?

Updated dictionary of euphemisms for Get on with it, Don’t let him speak again, No way are we doing that, When’s the coffee coming and What the hell is going on here.

New characters: Impact Management Director, Impact Management Deputy Director and Impact Marketing Manager; REF 2020 Coordinator; and Budget Readjustment Task and Finish group.

Bug fixes for crashes as Pro Vice Chancellor speaks.

Streamlined capacity to report off the record conversations via live tweeting.

Behind the scenes adjustments to make parking fines easier to accrue with reduced time to pay off.

Enhanced detail of attendees’ emails.

Expanded opportunities to add doodles to meeting agenda.

Improved compatability of new building programme with Times Higher league tables.

Added features: Increased sandwich choice, mystery meat on sticks removed and improved chocolate biscuits; live student social media lecture ratings.

Extension packs available for new IT system and changing logos.

So how is/was your day then? On or off your game? And which game are you playing?

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all that reading? think of it as tracing your family tree

When you start on a PhD, or indeed on any new research project, there’s always a lot of reading to be done. It’s easy to lose track of what this reading is for and to forget why engaging with all of the extant literatures is important. So a brief recap –  reading is the way in which we:

1. understand the history of the field and the key figures in it
2. find what has already been said about our proposed area of research
3. establish which prior research we can build on
4. identify any debates we might want to enter
5. ascertain if there is any research we want to challenge.

A helpful metaphor for orienting yourself to scholarly reading in general, and to all of the reading that has to be done for the PhD in particular, is tracing the family tree. Think of all that reading as a process of tracking down your ancestors.

Most of us are familiar with the notion of genealogy – the process of researching your own background, where you come from. We are probably also all familiar with the television version of finding your family tree, the one where celebrities are helped by professional genealogists to find their forebears. Their family tree work usually starts with parents and then grandparents. Tracking through census, births, deaths and marriage records (where these exist) often reveals surprising or sad – and equally often pretty ordinary – past lives which, the television programmes inevitably claim, have made the celebrities who and what they are.

Engaging with the literatures can be thought of as developing your research family tree. For instance, reading the literatures allows you trace various key influences on your work – you can map what you have inherited from your forebears. You can signal these inheritances so that readers can understand what material is yours alone and what is gleaned from what others have done. You can locate family squabbles – you might decide to ignore these, or to be part of them. You can also indicate branches of the family that have gone off on their own and have become estranged – you may or may not wish to reconnect with them. You might also want to look at the ways in which broader social events connect with your individual heritage to see how your family trajectory has been patterned and shaped.

Now, the family you are discovering through the reading you are doing is an intellectual one. The object of all of your reading is to find out what intellectual traditions your work is based in, what it refers to and uses. While you are reading you are also tracing connections, lines of development and ruptures, and family likenesses. You are lining up with particular vectors of thinking and of actually doing research. You are finding out who you are as a scholar, and taking your place in a line of thinking and writing.

And my own intellectual tracking here? I thought of the metaphor of the family tree while watching a youtube clip by Dr George Patton from Waldon University. He talks about the literature review as an intellectual history. I’ve taken that idea and built on it, just a bit. I recommend watching the whole clip, it’s not that long, as Patton goes into helpful detail about the ways in which the literature review functions as an intellectual history.

Posted in family tree, George Patton, literature review, metaphor, reading | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

writing with your supervisor

This is a guest post from Dr Charlotte Wegener who is Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication, Aalborg University, Denmark

I am currently finalizing draft chapters for a book I’m co-writing with my former supervisor. The title of the book is “Twice the fun – a survival kit for doctoral students and their supervisors” and it will be published later this year by Sage. The aim of the book is to support and inspire students and supervisors to make the PhD endeavor creative and stimulating – even fun! Based on our own experiences, we advocate an apprenticeship learning perspective to shed light on the dynamics of the student-supervisor interaction and the potential for mutual learning and production. One chapter specifically addresses student-supervisor co-writing.

Supervision involves issues of production: a thesis preferably of high quality and other products such as conference papers or articles. It also involves issues of process: the student’s socialization into a research community, lifelong learning and identity formation (Goode, 2010). Student-supervisor co-writing can address both but it does not necessarily do so. Here, I will tell the story of my own co-writing experience and how it inspired me (and my supervisor) to write “Twice the fun”.

I was about one year into my doctoral studies when I got this e-mail from my supervisor:

Dear Charlotte
Today I was asked to contribute to a book on Innovation Psychology. There is a short time, and the final manuscript must be ready in December. However, it struck me that maybe we could write the manuscript together?
Alternatively, I can write it myself, but it would be great with an empirical article based on your interviews.
Please consider it but I understand if you turn it down, of course.
Regards, Lene

We had just met and discussed my initial analysis of 15 interviews I had carried out. The overall theme of my study was innovation in the elderly care sector. I wanted to know more about how innovation was understood before I embarked on the fieldwork which was going to be the main part of my empirical work. I had not considered the interviews as a separate study which might lead to a publication. However, this piece of co-writing turned out to be the first stepping stone for me to decode academic writing. It also initiated a series of co-productions, of which “Twice the fun” is the most recent.

The Danish book chapter (Wegener & Tanggaard, 2012) and a subsequent revised version for an international journal (Wegener & Tanggaard, 2013a) evolved solely over e-mail not through face to face discussion. We met to discuss other aspects of my work but when the book chapter and the article were published, it occurred to me that the production process was substantially evidenced. Wolcott (1990) discusses the usefulness and importance of ‘writing early’. He argues that writing about our work provides a baseline, an articulation of where we have been as researchers. This emphasizes the importance of notes about assumptions and impressions during the process of analysis. The e-mails that assisted every new version of the manuscript were not created as early writings or conscious notes about process. However, unintended as they were, they constituted a comprehensive record of learning and collaboration, because each exchange of a new version of the text was followed by a commentary e-mail.

I suggested to my supervisor that we wrote a paper about this process using our e-mail conversation as data (Wegener & Tanggaard, 2013b). The analysis of our e-mails shows that my super visor decided on the overall structure and idea of the book chapter as well as which literature to focus upon. However, when we wrote the international article, she asked me to contribute more directly by finding my own theoretical sources. The emails also show the delicate processes of streamlining the text. For a long time, my supervisor merely added text and refused to revise. But eventually, we both had to revise more comprehensively and get involved in rewriting each other’s text. I felt slightly annoyed when she suggested deleting a ‘chatty’ section of mine, but basically, I agreed. In the final fine-tuning I even had the courage to suggest deleting text initially produced by her.

The research on co-writing for production is sparse and, in general, there has been relatively little empirical research on doctoral supervision practices. Supervision is still a privatized space or even a ‘black box’ (Goode, 2010). Our paper opens up this black box, which in this case is the mailbox. It is highly contextual and person-specific. However, it can give rise to questions of how co-writing processes can be initiated and driven. In a co-writing process what is required to write (and get published) is not always elicited verbally. Paré (2010) found that supervisors’ ability to write well does not necessarily make them well qualified to teach students how to write well. However, what they know is sometimes conveyed more precisely when they engage in writing together. What I experienced was a common purpose, which allowed my supervisor to be quite explicit about expectations and also allowed me a fair amount of her time and attention. I had the opportunity to decode academic writing conventions while reading her contributions to the text. At the same time, I felt free to practice because I did not have to worry that I might ‘put my foot in it.’ I could leave the final assessment of my ideas and writing style to my supervisor. In this phase, my own judgments were thus not critical, because my supervisor acted as a gatekeeper or a ‘first cut publisher’ (Kamler, 2008). I did not experience the often reported feelings of fear or self-devaluation, mainly because I did not feel alone in my first process of production. I was literally taken by the hand through co-writing and empowered to take subsequent steps on my own and with peers.

Co-writing with your supervisor can foster your ability to decode the social practice of academic writing and publishing.


Goode, J. (2010). Student agency in ‘doing supervision’. In: Walker, M. & Thomson. P (Eds.) The Routledge Doctoral Supervisor’s Companion: Supporting effective research in Education and the Social Sciences (pp. 38-50). London: Routledge
Kamler, B. (2008). Rethinking doctoral publication practices: Writing from and beyond the thesis, Studies in Higher Education, 33(3), 283-294.
Wegener, C. & Tanggaard, L. (2012). Innovation som håndværk eller håndgreb. [Innovation as craft or levers]. In: Nickelsen, N. C. M. & M. Bendixen (Eds.) Innovationspsykologi: En antologi om erhvervspsykologiens bidrag til innovation [Innovation Psychology: An anthology on occupational psychology’s contribution to innovation] (pp. 37-72). Copenhagen: Dansk Psykologisk Forlag.
Wegener, C. & Tanggaard, L. (2013a). The concept of innovation as perceived by public sector frontline staff – outline of a tripartite empirical model of innovation, Studies in Continuing Education, 35(1), 82-101.
Wegener, C. & Tanggaard, L. (2013b). Supervisor and Student Co-Writing: An Apprenticeship Perspective Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 14(3).
Wolcott, H. F. (1990). On seeking – and rejecting – validity in qualitative research. In: Eisner, E. W. & A. Peshkin (Eds.) Qualitative inquiry in education: The continuing debate (pp. 121-152). New York: Teachers College Press.

Posted in Charlotte Wegener, co-writing, supervisor | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

is the PhD a ‘journey’?

It’s not at all uncommon for doctoral researchers to think about the PhD as a journey. And they generally use the PhD-as-journey as more than a simple metaphor – it becomes a, even THE way of explaining to other people what has and is going on in their candidature. The PhD-as-journey becomes a way of telling self and others the story of the PhD process and the various experiences, emotions, and challenges along the way. The notion of the journey sums up the sense of movement, personal growth and change. The journey becomes a meaningful way of narrativising the ups and downs of the whole doctoral experience.

But how good a metaphor is it really? As Christina Hughes and Malcolm Tight (2013) have pointed out, the journey is a pretty vague concept. There are various kinds of possible journeys, some pleasant some not. Hughes and Tight suggest that the most common PhD journey narrative is actually a quest, a search for a treasure, promised land and/or wisdom. Think Holy Grail here, Jason and Argonauts and the Golden Fleece… Well, not exactly. Hughes and Tight argue that the doctorate is most often a Pilgrim’s Progress, with “staged posts of hope, loss, fear, doubt and achievement” (p. 769). Hughes and Tight argue that the Pilgrim’s Progress is in some ways an apt allegory for the doctorate as it captures the loneliness, confusion, loss of voice and avoidance of temptations in the process, as well as the final arrival at the heavenly destination.

So what’s the down side of the journey narrative? Well, Hughes and Tight argue that the Pilgrim’s Progress journey is a particularly individualistic view of the PhD. It places individual motivation and spirit above all else – the pilgrim just has to believe and want hard enough to get there. What’s missing from this line of thinking, according to Hughes and Tight, is anything about learning a set of new work habits – those associated with rigour, knowledge and skill. So they propose that a better way of thinking about the doctorate is to consider it as work.

I want to add to what Hughes and Tight have to say. It’s also important to note, I reckon, that what’s often missing from an individualistic narrative of the doctorate as journey is of course anything that is its binary other, that is, anything remotely social in nature.

For a start, doctoral journey narratives may not include framing issues in any sense other than either as obstacles and helping agents for the individual. By framing issues I mean university rules, higher education policies, fees and income questions but also the ways in which socio-cultural relations of gender, race and ablism for example might function with and through them. Similarly, supervision is seen as an individualised aspect of the journey. Perhaps the supervisor is a valued helper, perhaps a malicious nuisance, perhaps an absence. This view of supervision leaves out the notion of supervision as something that might institutionally structured and framed – it’s really an integral part of the doctoral process and doesn’t just happen by and to an individual, but to cohort after cohort. It’s very strongly framed and regulated. The supervisor must be a gatekeeper for rules, norms and the disciplinary community. Supervision is, I’d argue, also pedagogical and thus has a body of knowledge and know-how. The supervisory gate keeping and pedagogical practices can’t really be understood or interrogated through an understanding of a lone supervisor who is there in relation only to an individual doctoral researcher and their journey. Both are mutually constructed and patterned. A social analysis is required to make sense of this.

And then to the idea of work. Hughes and Tight focus on the kind of work that is involved in learning how to research and write the thesis. Hughes and Tight suggest that the notion of the doctorate as work calls attention to the product, rather than the process. The doctorate is

… a form of work that has involved graft, skills, time, training and painstaking attention to a specific subject of study over a significant period of time. In such a way it is akin to craft, where the intellectual value of the thesis is the primary consideration. (p.773)

But the notion of work can be just as individualised as that of the journey. I’d argue that rather than simply focusing on the work that the doctoral researcher does, it is also important to see work as labour AND about labour relations – the conditions under which the work is undertaken and the various kind of regulations, supervision, training and support that are available.

It’s also critical, it seems to me, to recognize that one person’s work is generally dependent on the work of others. The ecology of support structures – training programmes, library facilities, social media activities and so on, not to mention other scholars whose writings we use – are often entirely omitted from the individual PhD-as-journey narratives. However, they might equally be omitted from the notion of the thesis as work. And that would be to ignore the important contribution that other people make to any research, regardless of whether it is a doctorate or post. In some cases this contribution can be very negative, thankfully in most cases it’s not only useful, but also generative and positive.

A Pilgrim’s Progress certainly doesn’t recognize a supportive (or otherwise) ecology. So I’m now trying to think of a narrative archetype that does. There do need to be ways for us to tell the story of our doctorates and our research. So if the Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t it, and work isn’t it either, what’s the narrative archetype that moves us away from the individual making their way against all odds through multiple perils and problems, and moves us towards recognition of the social AND the individual in the PhD?

Hughes, Christina and Tight, Malcolm (2013) The metaphors we study by: the doctorate as journey or work. Higher Education Research and Development 32 (5) 765-775 (unfortunately this article is paywalled).

Posted in Hughes and Tight, journey, metaphor, PhD, thesis, work | Tagged , , , , , | 24 Comments

why you should start an academic writing group

This is a guest post by Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs, a final year PhD researcher from the University of St Andrews.

It might be a little weird, but I like to read about the process of writing. Sometimes this might be procrastination, but the more I have gotten the opportunity to speak to others about their writing practices the more I have gained confidence that reading about writing has done me some good.

I want to share some of what I have learned because it has made me more productive and helped in getting over feelings of guilt about work/life balance. Mainly, I want to convince you of the value of setting up a writing group, suggestions for the format of this and justification for why it works. Essentially, my favourite insights gained from reading about (academic) writing.

At the beginning of this academic year my supervisor became co-head of a housing research centre that is a 20-minute walk from our main School building. While it isn’t far, it is enough distance that the research centre is a bit isolated. My supervisor and I were talking about a way to create a community ‘out there’ and thought a writing group might be a nice way to bring everyone together, without adding another meeting/seminar/commitment (which can sometimes start to feel like a burden when they take too much time away from your research). This idea also came after an extended conversation about writing habits (and binge writing), and we thought it might help establish ‘good’ writing practices. The first session five of us trialled writing together for 2 hours, with some breaks for discussion; we were all pleasantly surprised at how focused we were, so we agreed to do it again. I was so excited about the writing group that I was telling everyone and a few colleagues started their own in other Schools (Geography & Geosciences, Management, and Biology). The writing groups, and even individual sessions, vary slightly in structure/feel depending on who attends, but no matter the format the collective energy generally helps you stay on task and feel accomplished.

Why you should be in an academic writing group

In this blog I only include 4 links, these are to other posts that I found motivational and offer some inspiring, and inspired, tips on writing regularly and as Pat Thomson says being ‘writerly.

An important part of being an academic researcher is remembering that you are an author. Your job is not about research for the sake of collecting and analysing data, the goal is to share your findings and assertions. In order to do this you need to think of yourself as an author and part of that is considering how to cultivate good writing habits.

You have hopefully heard that trying to write every day is a good idea. One study suggests that academics who write daily and set goals with someone weekly write nearly ten times as many pages as those without regular writing habits. I appreciate I’m writing for researchers who might have questions about the methods and assumptions of this study, but no matter the point stands that writing regularly, setting goals and having someone else to report to will increase your writing output.

By writing regularly, and for shorter periods (2-3 hours a day), you remove some of the fear related to writing, and binge writing in particular. Writing, like any skill, is something that you need to practice to improve at; by being in a writing group you ensure (at least) two hours per week of protected writing time. Furthermore, writing in a group is incredibly motivating, so as long as you turn up you will likely be focused during the session. Often my most productive part of the week is in my writing group(s).

Being part of a writing group creates a space in which to talk to others about your research and writing habits, share tips and support one another. The PhD is notoriously lonely, but writing is something all academics should be doing and is a common ground that can bring us together. I am part of three separate writing groups that sit in different departments/disciplines and yet an almost instantaneous sense of community and camaraderie has come from my participation in these groups.

Finally, writing groups are a way to practice good writing habits and to maintain them. It is like joining weight watchers and weighing in every week; you’ve publicly made a commitment to start writing regularly and as a group you keep each other accountable. More than that, you encourage and support each other through the struggles of writing.

Suggestions and considerations for the format of your writing group

The way I structure my writing group is to have a two-hour session with 4 pomodoros and I prefer smaller groups with only 2-6 people. To start everyone writes their goal for the session on a white board/flip chart, making your goal public so that you can talk about your progress. This relates back to that idea of sharing accountability but is also part of learning about your own abilities and setting realistic goals. Before I was part of a writing group I had no idea how many words I could reasonably hope to write in an hour. The structure of the pomodoros and goal setting helped me understand what I could reasonably achieve in two hours on different writing tasks. It can be useful to track when/where/how many words you write so that you know about your own writing abilities and do not set unrealistic goals. Meeting daily goals, even if it’s just taking satisfaction from being on task for 2 hours without any Facebook/Twitter/email/news breaks, is incredibly rewarding. Furthermore, I find working with others helps you realise your accomplishments. We seem to belittle our own achievements, perhaps feeling like we should always be able to do more, and often members are surprised when someone else in the group points out that they have indeed achieved their goal.

There is no single way to use your writing group time, but I have taken a few ideas from Rachel Aaron who explains how she went from writing 2,000 words to 10,000 words a day. I prefer to work on more ‘generative writing’ during writing groups; I’m just trying to get my thoughts out on paper or a rough first draft. That way I can spend the rest of the day guilt-free responding to emails, preparing for teaching, editing or planning my writing for the next day (or maybe even taking a cheeky nap). Following Rachel’s lead I spend the first five minutes making a quick plan of what I want to write and then expand on this structure; it helps to know where you are going before you start writing. I have also been reminding myself to get excited about what I am writing. If I am bored writing it, why would I ever expect someone to bother reading it? The collective energy of being part of a writing group can make writing more enjoyable, and you should enjoy writing about your research, otherwise why are you doing it?

Are you in a writing group? If not, why not? If you are, do you have any tips or suggestions?

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thesis know-how – go direct to the source

It’s not at all uncommon for thesis writers to use secondary sources. This term – using secondary sources – refers to the practice of reading about Text X that is relevant to your work in Text Y, and then referencing it. The reader knows that this has happened because the citation will refer to both Text X and Text Y.  The citation will say something like (X date in Y date page).

Now, using a secondary source is of course absolutely fine. No examiner expects that the doctoral researcher will read everything or indeed that they will find every single original text that they reference. Some books might be out of print or just plain unavailable. Universities might not subscribe to the journals you want and not all of the missing ones will be accessible through inter-library loans.

However, if there is rather a lot of X in Y in the thesis an examiner is prone to think that the doctoral researcher has been a bit lazy. After all, in three years it ought to be possible to chase some of those key references up, particularly if they are actually widely available. For example, using a basic concept from Bourdieu or Foucault and referencing it to a secondary source – as in (Foucault date in Y date page) – looks either just slack or more worryingly like lack of knowledge of the field. Maybe their review of the literature and their appreciation of key figures and debates in the field is poor, the examiner muses. So it’s a very good idea to always try to get hold of the original if you can. And certainly, beware of using too many secondary sources.

But additional trouble comes when the doctoral researcher cites something that they think is the original source but it actually turns out not to be. This might be because the doctoral researcher has failed to take note of a citation in the text they were reading. If so, that’s careless and sloppy. Or it might be because the source that the doctoral researcher is using actually hasn’t acknowledged where they took the concept from. That’s not the doctoral researcher’s problem is it? Alas, it might turn out to be…

Examiners of course may not spot the lack of acknowledgement of a primary source. However, they are examiners because they know the field and they are thus likely to know the originals. Sometimes examiners do pick up the instances of the innocent use of a secondary source as if it’s a primary. You don’t want that if it can be avoided.

It’s always a good idea to ask your supervisor when they are reading through your draft thesis to make sure to tell you about any sources that examiners might query. Where might they be expecting to see a primary source where you have a secondary? And it’s a very good idea to check that you have picked up the original sources of ideas and concepts by always looking carefully at the citations in work that you are using and referencing.

Posted in citation, primary source, secondary source | Tagged , | 2 Comments