What goes on in a university? What would the brother from another planet think if they came to visit one today? They’d see teaching in term time. There’d be some visible signs of research, particularly in labs. But walking around today’s campuses could well suggest that what we academics do is attend meetings, meetings and more meetings.
Universities are big places, rambling and shambling, often developed over a very long time; buildings are usually put up as needed, rather than planned ahead. Despite any external architectural innovation, most of our buildings have teaching rooms and long corridors of closed doors. Behind each door is a solitary scholar beavering away – unless of course they are in a meeting. (I’m ignoring those open-space call centre style offices latterly popular with university managers.)
Our closed-door universities originally developed out of, and in parallel with, religious practices. The first Western universities were very often established by the church, and the shift from monastic cell to academic office isn’t hard to see. But very few of the religious precursors of the modern university were grounded solely in practices of individual and isolated meditations and profound silences. Those precious illuminated manuscripts now resplendent in our archives were generally produced in very social settings. And even if the cell was the site of production rather than a shared (and supervised) workroom, all of the artists knew that they were contributing to a worthy common endeavour.
These days most of us do our writing at home. The collective endeavour we contribute to is our discipline, and knowledge more generally. But this knowledge production is now governed by various kinds of audits rather than an immediate steely supervisory eye. It’s not how much of the page did we cover before nightfall, but rather – How many of this and that did we produce this year? How does what we did this auditing period fit into the prevailing excellence/quality framework and rubric? Are these publications the right ones? Are they/we good enough?
What gets lost in this kind of individualised and competitive environment, I wonder….
When asked about his writing practices, the linguist-turned-multimodal-design scholar Gunther Kress said:
I couldn’t think of writing separately from a whole much wider social environment. So what helped me in writing was moving through a place, specifically the University of East Anglia, a long time ago, where other people were writing, so it was a normal thing to do, it wasn’t unusual…But then, specifically, having friends and colleagues with whom I was working who had confidence in the kinds of things I was thinking, and therefore having the confidence to put those things, which otherwise had been private and unusual and maybe strange and certainly not to be paraded in public, putting them down on paper as in publishing. It’s that, it was about confidence in the community that allowed me then the confidence that people get from feedback, from people who I thought much of, who were friends and colleagues. That allowed me to take bearings… It was that really. So it’s not writing as a mechanical or separate or decontextualised task or process.(Carnell et al., 2008 pp 130-131)
Kress suggests that working in a writing-oriented organizational culture was a crucial prior condition for his writing. He stresses the role of others in creating the conditions necessary for gaining confidence as a writer. He echoes, perhaps, a scholarly/religious order which was social and communally supportive; the ethos was of shared commitment and mutual endeavour.
There’s still a role for collective others in our individual and collaborative writing… But. And it’s a big but. But. An organisational culture supportive of writing can’t be built through audit alone. A transactional performance reward policy – do this and you get this – works for some people but not everyone. And, while online communities dedicated to writing can be wonderful, they aren’t really a substitute for the kind of shared institutional environment that Kress describes.
What’s more, a writing culture can’t be sidelined, left as the sole responsibility of a development unit dedicated to training and professional development. Writing is core to our disciplines and therefore surely ought to be at the very heart of our everyday university lives. Developing supportive writing cultures certainly requires leadership, but it also depends on the agency, initiative, choice and buy-in of communities of scholars. So we too have a part to play in (re) building a writing oriented scholarly culture for today. Not a monastic scriptorium, but something different….
Some universities are much better at building writing cultures than others, and perhaps we need to know more about what they do. And yes, the ways in which workload is managed and staff employed and contracted are certainly part of the bigger picture of institutional writing support.
I’d like to think we can develop a shared view of what can still happen in audit-driven environments. Could we, online, document interesting institutional practices we can take back to our own institutions?
What does your department or school or faculty do to create a social and supportive writing culture? What could other more emaciated writing cultures learn from you?
My department (finance) has a very productive and positive research culture, many colleagues collaborate on multiple projects together and it is stimulating. As a new early career academic, this culture is very important as I am still ‘learning the ropes’. For writing specifically, a senior professor here has undertaken organisation of a more structured writing program for the department, with the end goal being exactly the type of writing culture you discuss in this post. The idea is to get an interested writing expert in (a scholar herself interested in our practices in the field of finance) to lead us through a series of workshops and then maintain this through a workshop held once a semester or so. In addition, she has encouraged us to swap work with each other – thus peer review is a constant process long before the article is sent to a journal. This last point sounds obvious, but we don’t do it. Perhaps a case of needing an expert to point out the exceedingly obvious before we take it on board and actually start the practice!
At our architecture school, the RHD cohort has put together a couple things:
1. Shut Up & Write sessions – Two different hosts each organize a session once a week.
2. Precis & Review Club – We trialling sharing book precis together across the group, and possibly expanding some to full fledged reviews and attempting publication
3. Regular RHD seminars have included discussion of where we are at with our writing, the processes we are going through (e.g. editing a conference paper to become a journal article), and hosting writing seminars with invited Uni support staff to address specific concerns (e.g. structure, or transition strategies, etc.
Finally, we hope to hold a writing retreat or two over the course of this upcoming year.
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