a ‘good academic day’

What is a good academic day? What happens to make you go home/leave the office and say to your partner or cat/dog/budgie – I had such a good day today.

I’ve come to the rather obvious conclusion that my good academic day is one where I actually get to do “proper scholarship”.

My good day is one where

  •  my co-researchers in Tate school and teachers team and I have an extended, and challenging conversation 
  • doctoral researchers tell me about their discovery of a really exciting new angle on their work
  • a class discussion goes somewhere, participants really push at ideas in depth
  • some sustained reading leads to a fresh perspective, a new set of intellectual resources
  • some of my own writing genuinely excites me because it is creative, it plays with ideas in different ways
  •  I experience the doing-observing-feeling-thinking that is immersive ethnography.

All of these good days have something in common – a sustained flowing, thinking and writing/talking over time … which also pushes me somewhere I haven’t been before. As an educator, I would of course call this learning, learning at the edge of what I already know.

2015-07-25 12.12.13.jpg

over-excited live ethnographic play

Scholarly thinking/writing/talking always involves some of what I already ‘know’, either from prior experience, or from reading, or both. But the something already known can be put together in a new way and/or with something new/different/unexpected. As in …I didn’t start out to end up here, but here I am and… and it is good.

Stitching the old and new together can be a lively, energetic process, exciting and active, engaging body, emotions and mind. Playful. Experimental.

The spoken/unspoken “oh and what about… yes but this instead…” is often also interspersed with periods of deep reflection, and moments of intense not-knowing. These are the instances/instants when what you think you think tangibly shifts.

At such times, notions of impact, evidence, audit and citation scores are completely irrelevant. Nowhere. Not a consideration, not a momentary thought.

For me, these are the scholarly moments to be treasured. These are the good academic days to be fought for in between the everyday of meetings, feedback, marking, reviewing, filing, noting and emailing. Perhaps their very scarcity makes them more precious.

They are certainly what keeps me going.

But, how does this compare to my colleagues I wonder. What’s a ‘good academic day’ for others, a good academic day for you?

 

 

Posted in academic day, academic life | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

a researcher on someone else’s project?

I completed my PhD after a pretty substantial professional career. Then, I went into an academic job and jumped straight into my own small research projects. Now, somewhat later,  I direct larger and longer research projects, often with a colleague and a small research team. This team almost always includes a new PhD, an early career researcher – and their job as research ‘fellow’ is often a crucial toehold on the academic ladder.

This kind of ‘mixed’ research team is common-place. If they are not a ‘teaching only academic’, many newly minted PhDs find themselves working as researchers for other people. They may even work as a part-time researcher on several research projects at once, all run by different PIs.

This is a tricky situation. Having done their own independent piece of research, supported by a supervisor, they then find themselves generating most of the data on some-else’s project, doing first-cut analysis and drafting texts, working to someone else’s research design and some-one else’s research practices. It’s as if they ‘d had L plates on for a long time, briefly took them off and then had to put them right back on again.

2199923358_744bc312e7_o.jpg

Moving from PhD to research fellow is an identity shift, and not always an entirely easy or welcome one. From  assuming the identity of expert researcher (necessary to get through the viva/defence), the Dr. then suddenly finds themselves unable to pursue their own agenda. Their capacity to assume the identity and practices of a fully fledged researcher are abruptly curtailed.

And issues about being a ‘research fellow’ don’t stop there. The project the Dr. is working on may be high stakes and subject to a range of political and contractual issues that are unfamiliar, and also not always logical. Busy PIs may assume that the Dr. knows much more about these things that they have had the opportunity to learn, and may only do the required explanations at the point of decision-making. They may also assume that the researcher will automatically make the same kinds of decisions that they do. In these situations the researcher is expected to act as an extension of the PI in ways that they may not find comfortable, or even acceptable.

And there are significant ethical and practical problems associated with being a researcher on someone else’s project. Co-writing. Credit for authoring.  Attending and presenting at  conferences. But there are other more granular issues too, often related to boundaries – what can the researcher decide and what do they have to refer to the PI? And of course the VERY big one – how can a ‘research fellow’ position play out into a real permanent job?

When I look at the kinds of career advice and support offered by universities – and online – to PhDs and to ECRs, I see a lot of ‘stuff’ about ‘employability’ and an increasing emphasis on discussion about knowledge work undertaken in places other than universities, including self-employment and entrepreneurial activities. Some of this is helpful, some not so much. I also see some support for orienting new researchers to teaching, although scarcely enough.

I see very little discussion about being a researcher on other people’s projects. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of ongoing support for people who are working as jobbing researchers – there is some of course, and some institutions do much better at this than others. But I can’t see a lot of research into the ways in which this avenue of academic identity formation, choice-making and academic career building, including promotion, actually happens. And if ever there was an area ripe for concerted academic self-help online then this is it.

Perhaps I’ve missed all the discussion. I found some scattered bits and pieces when I searched. But perhaps I’m right – being someone else’s researcher is still something that isn’t talked about enough. That’s surprising/distressing/alarming at a time when large numbers of new Dr.s find themselves working on other people’s projects – often for a very long time indeed.

Perhaps some of you Dr. researchers working on other people’s projects would secretly like to contribute some constructive posts about the key issues and strategies for managing and getting on …? I can’t really write them myself as I’m neither in this position nor have I ever been. But…

I’m very keen to have a few offers of, and publish, posts about what it is to be a research fellow on someone else’s project and how to manage. Please contact me if you’d like to contribute. 

 

Posted in career, early career researchers, researcher, researcher identity, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

begin as you mean to go on #wakeupreader

Your average doctoral thesis is about the same length as a fat airport novel, but nowhere near as racy.

We could/should ask whether a thesis ought to be as riveting as a whodunnit or chick lit.  And we’d probably conclude that a thesis couldn’t be a riveting read in the same way as a novel. But a thesis could be enjoyable. It could be good read.

If you want to write the thesis that the examiner wants  and loves to read, then you  will benefit from consciously learning about writing, and practicing what you learn. And keeping on learning and practicing. Learning/practicing the craft of writing can be/ought to be integral to academic life.

Learning about writing means learning about your tools. Writers  use linguistic tools either mindlessly and routinely, or with a sense of writerly craft. And  there are very few writing tools as important as the sentence. Why a sentence? Well, it’s the basic building block of your thesis and all subsequent and allied writing.

A thesis is not accomplished through words alone. A word count does not a thesis make. The thesis depends on stringing the words together – in sentences – and then building up the sentences in a logical and pleasing order. So it pays to know a bit about sentences as they are what you use to construct, well, all things thesis.

Understanding sentences is a strategy for developing control of your writing. It’s not about using recipes and rules. Here is a good sentence and here is  a bad one. NO. Learning about controlling sentences is about drafting, and then revising. It’s about you being a writer.

One of the things to look for when revising at the sentence level is how the sentences actually start. What does the reader come across sentence after sentence? Well, the first thing the reader sees is how the sentence begins.

The most common way to begin sentences goes like this – thing + action. Subject followed by a verb.

Active voice – The researcher had written several pages.

Passive voice – Several pages were written by the researcher.

These are the default sentences structures of academic writing, and they get a fair old outing in a thesis. It’s not uncommon to read pages of literature review which go something like

Jones argued that.. He suggested that.. He produced evidence to the effect… He concluded that…

Or pages of methods writing which go

Quantitative research is defined as…. It allows the researcher to… The researcher must… Qualitative research on the other hand requires…. The researcher always

Too much of this subject + verb structure and the reader, be they examiner or supervisor, ends up reaching for a real airport novel. However, there is good news. The basic subject + verb sentence structure can be varied without too much effort.

4654874738_32526f2814_b.jpg

So what do you do?  Well, you might add a bit more information.

As in.. The researcher had written several pages and this surprised her. 

But the basic subject + verb structure remains. But see what happens when you you simply reverse the sentence order.

 To her surprise, the researcher had written several pages.

A little bit of variety painlessly added. So adding ‘stuff’ to a sentence doesn’t necessarily mean adding a conjunction and another idea. You can change the way the sentence begins.

Within an hour or so, the researcher had written several pages. (This sentence starts with a prepositional phrase)

And a sentence beginning can also help carry an argument forward.

However, the researcher had written several pages. (This sentence starts with a transitional term which makes a strong connection to a previous sentence. You can probably imagine what came before. She stopped writing at ten o’clock, convinced she had done almost nothing. )

 You can easily put pertinent information at the sentence start.

Although she felt that she had done nothing, the researcher had written several pages.  (This sentence begins with an introductory clause)

These are all fairly common ways of adding a bit of variety to sentence beginnings, as well as extra information.

But these are not the only way to kick off a good sentence. For instance, the occasional rhetorical question can be useful.

How much had the researcher written? A few pages within an hour or so, far more than she had expected.

You can use an infinitive to create a need for further information.

To understand her surprising productivity, the researcher compared today’s several pages with yesterday’s one.

You might also consider – albeit carefully as these are tricky to use without sounding  very awkward – how you might use

a participial phrase –  Her fingers racing, the researcher wrote several pages in a few hours

a beginning adjective – Surprised, the researcher began to look for reasons why she had written several pages so quickly.

a beginning adverb – Surprisingly,  she had written several pages very quickly.

This is not the end of the sentence beginning possibilities.  You will find even more in books and websites about writing in English.

I reckon it’s a good idea to keep an eye on sentence beginnings when you read something particularly well written; check out what experienced /clever writers do. You might also write yourself a little cheat sheet of sentence beginnings which you have to hand when you are revising. (I’m not a great fan of cheat sheets because I think they make the process of writing somewhat mechanical, but I know some people do find them helpful.)

Once you get the hang of sentence starter options, it’s easy to read through a first draft looking at the way each sentence starts off. Just print off a copy of your chapter and highlight the first few words of each sentence.  Then look for any pattern that you have inadvertently created.

If you find that you have great long stretches of subject + verb – zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz – then you are in a good place. It’s no disaster to find same-ish sentence beginnings in a first draft. It’s helpful. You know what to do. You can now consider how you might strategically intervene  in this textual monotony with a few syntactical variations. While this won’t be a lot of work, and it may not fix all of your prose problems, you may be surprised how much simply changing sentence beginnings can lift, lighten and enliven your academic writing.

And as you revise, just keep the airport in mind. After all, examiners often read a thesis in an airport, on a plane or train. They need to be kept awake and reading.

And an aside.

One of the best ways to get your head around syntax is to play with your sentences. Play. Yes, play. With no particular goal in mind. Take a few problematic sentences and cut them up so that you have something that looks like magnetic fridge poetry. Rearrange the pieces in multiple ways so that you can see what different structures can do for them, and you.

Make haiku. Invent a limerick. Write a ransom note. Play.

A spare hour or so of word play  can do a great deal for  your control of the sentence beginning, and your confidence in syntactical manipulation.

Posted in revision, revision strategy, sentence beginnings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

new series -#wakeupreader

When my son was about ten years old we went on holiday to Perth. We didn’t fly, as many people do. We drove from Adelaide where we lived. That’s a distance of 2691.44 km, about twenty-four hours driving time. It takes around three days, even more if you stop along the way. A lot of the drive is on The Eyre Highway which cuts across The Nullabor  for 1675Kms. The Nullabor is mostly a flat, dry, treeless plain; there are very long stretches of the road where there doesn’t seem to be much going on. It’s only if you stop and get out of the car that you start to see the micro-variation.

Like many Australians, we figured that Driving The Nullabor was an essential part of the Australian experience. We had to do it at least once.

14562119604_f5f29d88c7_k.jpg

I’d grown up with my parents’ stories of the drive. They regularly braved the distance in the  days when the highway wasn’t paved. Then, it was just red dirt. A youthful Mum and Dad, together with my maternal uncle and paternal grandfather, lived in Kalgoorlie, a mining town outside of Perth, and they all went home to Adelaide a couple of times a year. Across The Nullabor in a trusty Ford.

My father was one of those Australian blokes who could fix anything, so he was usually able to deal with the inevitable mechanical problems that occurred during the then five to six-day trip. However, on one such trip, the windscreen broke – always a possibility on unmade roads – and Mum and my uncle spent the best part of a day trying to stop the thick red dust from filling up the car.  They finally got to a petrol station where Dad was able to make a temporary repair strong enough to go the distance.  The way they told it, this was both adventurous and hilarious. I’m sure it was actually terrible.

But when we did the trip, the highway was paved. ‘Roughing it’, a la parents, was unlikely. But there were still hazards. The Nullabor can be dangerous simply because drivers get tired and don’t stop when they need to. ‘Straight road’ crashes are common. Cars can break down even if they are checked immediately before travelling, as ours was.  We carried lots of water and supplies in case we got stranded; we could sleep and cook in the van if we needed to. But the most likely risk of an accident came from the wildlife.  Kangaroos regularly appear out of nowhere, particularly from dusk to dawn. Roos often come for the grass at the side of the road and the moisture on the bitumen, condensation produced by the desert temperature rapidly dropping as the sun goes down. We had a ‘roo bar’ fitted to our van to lessen potential damage, but we still took the precaution of stopping well before sunset.

29603411633_abf454aff8_k.jpg

Eyre Highway, Norseman, Western Australia

Two days of driving across the Nullabor are pretty tiresome for a small-ish person. We had a repertoire of car games, but these were seriously challenged by the sheer distance and apparently same-y landscape. “I spy” and its variations was usually a favorite car-game. But there was only so much S is for Saltbush we could do. And there was often so little traffic on the road that we couldn’t really guestimate the make, colour or model of cars we would see. The dominant traffic on the Eyre Highway is haulage. Massive trucks carry consumer goods from one side of the country to the other and they travel through day and the night in ‘road trains’. T is for Truck wore thin pretty quickly too.

Now, the side of the Nullabor road, the unpaved ‘shoulder’, is testimony to the power and size of the truck compared to the kangaroo. Road kill. Road kill in abundance. I remember at one point being reduced to playing “Guess how many dead kangaroos I spy on the side of the road in the next five kilometres”. Ghoulish, but effective.

But why am I telling you all this? Well, the analogy is pretty obvious.

Reading a thesis can be a little – or a lot – like travelling on a very long highway. Think of the thesis as The Nullabor Plain.  Without the writer intending it, a thesis can actually be pretty flat and same-y. Readers can be lulled to sleep – or bored to the point of putting the text away –  by the sheer monotony of the prose. There is a repetitive quality to the text which is, ultimately, soporific.

But thesis writers don’t want their examiners to get tired, breakdown or crash into the unexpected textual kangaroo. So they need writing which keeps the reader interested. And this doesn’t come straight away. First drafts are about getting the material and the argument lined up. Creating an interesting text takes revision. A lot of revision. And the thesis writer therefore needs to build strategies that focus specifically on increasing textual liveliness/reducing textual boredom. These revision strategies require careful critical reading – a textual game of “I Spy” to spot the things which might send a thesis reader to sleep and/or crash and burn.

I’m starting a new series of posts about these revision strategies. These posts are geared to helping thesis writers avoid unnecessary reader-examiner slumber. I’ll l cover flabbiness, incoherence and dullness. Less evocatively, this means I’m going to look at expression, repetition and flow. And each of these involves more than one thing. For instance, revising to avoid repetition involves looking at how sentences begin and end, the position of the subject and verb, whether the sentences are the same length and structure, and paragraph lengths. Hours of fun ahead.

These revision posts won’t come one after the other. Nor will they come regularly – say every Monday. That’s because I want to avoid the problem I’m addressing. A blogger doesn’t want to create The Nullabor experience any more than a thesis writer. Readers are kept interested in thesis texts and in blogs because of their variation. So these posts will appear over the next few months, but not all at once. I will use a common hashtag for the posts – #wakeupreader – so you will know them when you see them and can find them later.

I hope they will be useful.

Oh – and parents take note –  the Nullabor road trip produced strong long-term memories, and perhaps not just for me  … album cover Virgin Records, 2000.

R-169706-1378215224-9835-1.jpeg.jpg

 

 

 

Posted in #wakeupreader, academic writing | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

it’s all about wordplay

I quite like a short sentence. And a phrase by itself. Only for stylistic purposes, you understand. Nevertheless, it’s important to vary sentence length, otherwise your reader goes to sleep.

I prefer the active voice. And don’t let anyone tell you can never start a sentence with ‘and’ or ’but’. You can, but it’s wise not to overdo it.

I enjoy the occasional one sentence paragraph too.

And questions? Well, the odd one here or there is a welcome change from sentences. But too many? They make you tired, don’t they?

I really can’t bear extremely long sentences which contain lots of ideas all of which are cobbled together with conjunctions and you can’t really tell which of them is more important because it just reads like a long list and by the time the reader gets to about this point it gets really hard to keep track of what is going on so they generally just give up.

There’s a syntactical long move too, very popular in some French theory, with sentences full of commas, each with their own qualifying phrase; I’m sure you can think of something you’ve read like this. While this comma-heavy sentence, not to be confused with commatisation of identity groups, might be intended to slow the reader down, as Pierre Bourdieu suggests, it can make for difficult reading, particularly if you aren’t used to it.

Equally difficult is the passive voice. The writer is rendered invisible when passive voice is used.  It’s often useful to know who is writing, or who has acted. You don’t get that information when you use the passive voice. But more importantly, excessive use of the passive is stultifying.

What also irks me is the sentence that starts with ‘what’. What is important is to get to the point. What could be wrong with that? (See what I did there. It’s not always true.) It would be so easy to cut out the ‘what’. Instead try – it’s important for a sentence to get to the point. Or better still, I prefer a sentence that gets to the point. A sentence that starts with ‘what’ is irksome’. I always tell people, “I am generally irked by a sentence starting with ‘what’”.

And a bit of humour keeps the reader interested. Even the  occasional illustration can provide a welcome distraction from all that is ‘academic writing’.

6221217532_973ca3b453_o.jpg

However, as with any play, you do have to know when wordplay should come to a .

Posted in academic writing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

a two week book chapter – a.k.a. down the writing burrow

I’ve just written a book chapter in two weeks. This is a long time for me, and it was hard work.

I’m usually someone who plans their writing quite carefully. I begin with an abstract and then flesh it out by adding bullet points. I don’t do pomodoros, or any other form of speed writing. I know this strategy really helps a lot of people, but it doesn’t suit me. I don’t have trouble generating text and that’s in part because I’m an experienced writer and I’m also not precious about words.

Sometimes I start more loosely. This was the case here.

A chapter is a more flexible genre than a journal article. I like writing chapters for this reason. However, this chapter was based on a conference paper I’d written a long time ago. There was already an abstract which went in when the book proposal was submitted. But it was now sadly out of date. I’d fretted over the prospect of writing something I didn’t think was particularly relevant and had missed the due date for first submissions. Fortunately, the book’s editors gave me a bit more time to submit (thanks Jane, Scott and Richard) and I had partially formulated a new argument which still addressed the book’s focus.

I could also see that working on this new material could help me get my head around an aspect of the single authored book I’m currently preparing. The book won’t repeat what’s in the chapter, but the chapter allows me to deal with some new literatures and some ‘factual’ detail about the state of things in England at present. I’m collecting media clips for the book project, and it so happened that two very pertinent pieces were published last week, just as I was preparing myself for the chapter. These  provided a neat introduction.

So how did my two week chapter go? Well, bear in mind that I roughly knew the argument I wanted to make and I’d read a fair bit of the literature. So the time went like this.

Day One:

The Introduction. This was about 700 words and included my two media clips. It also set out the shape of the chapter. I developed headings for the rest of the paper. I read about twelve new papers and put them into endnote. I bullet pointed what was to go into the next section. This took about three hours.

Day Two – Four:

The current context. This was about 2000 words and required me to put together material from government reports, blogs and scholarly literatures. Each day, at the end of writing text, I spent time bulleting the points for the next section and cutting and pasting in a couple of quotations. However, I also did additional readin, searching around the journals and on my book shelf. I keep adding and refining the bullet points for the writing ahead.

Day Five- Ten:

The major argument. As I already had quite a bit of the material in bullets this should  have been simple but it wasn’t.  It was another slowish 3500 words or so. And it was a hard think. I spent two whole mornings just going through journal articles and re-reading bits from books. This writing was in three sections and I wrote each section in one sitting. I also spent time bulleting after I’d finished writing.

Day Eleven and Twelve:

The concluding sections. This required a small new move in the argument and it was about another 1000 words. I then spent a fair but of time fiddling around with getting the right indicative references. So it was another long couple of days writing.

Then it was revision. And revision. And revision. Another two days.

At the end of these two weeks I had a full draft which I have sent off to the Editors.

Now why I have I bothered to tell you this? Well I want to suggest that writing in big long chunks of time is not always A Bad Thing. It isn’t the only way to write, of course. It doesn’t suit the people who struggle to crank out text. And not everyone has lots of mornings that they can put into writing. (I do have that luxury, although my mornings aren’t always consecutive. I lucked out this time.) And some people do prefer to work on multiple writing projects at once. I don’t. I like to concentrate on one piece at a time.

And I have to say that I don’t always write like this. Sometimes I write papers in short bursts over a much longer period of time. And sometimes it takes me only a day or so to write an entire piece. But I VERY often do an intensive ‘down the writing burrow’, particularly when something is overdue or when I am writing a very long text where the flow of the argument is both important and new.

4782267826_25a3457dfa_b.jpg

it’s good to come up for air and find some other writing burrowers to talk to if you’re planning to be down for an extended period

But my two week chapter is A way to write. It’s not The Way. It’s what some people would call binge writing – a term that I dislike a lot.

It can of course be really counter-productive to believe that you have to sit down and write a lot at once if you don’t know how to do that. You inevitably up sitting looking at the blank screen feeling inadequate. And developing a daily writing habit is a very good antidote to that particular problem. But that doesn’t mean that writing intensively is always bad for you. It’s perfectly possible to write a lot in a few days or a couple of weeks and emerge unscathed.

I want to shout actually, quite loudly, that there is NO The Way to write. Rather, we all learn ways to write that help us get done what we need to do. If we don’t, we fail. As I am old, and have been writing for a long time as well as teaching people how to write, I have a range of writing strategies to draw on.  These change. I don’t always do the same thing. But I do write most days. Some of this is blogging, some is papers and books, sometimes notes.

So I ‘write short’ regularly. But I also write long.

It’s the binary thinking and perjorative language that’s the problem. Snacking good, binging bad. Oh please. Get over it. Some of us WRITE SHORT and WRITE LONG. This is not the same as snacking and binging.

My writing strategies are contingent – they depend on how much time I have and what the task is. I have a repertoire of strategies. This seems to me to be the most productive way to think about academic writing. It’s having an #acwri repertoire that matters.

Becoming an academic writer is always about learning how to get the writing done – and perhaps being helped to learn if you find the actual process of writing difficult. You can learn from how other people write, and from being coached, taught and mentored. Working with someone else is often very helpful and can shift you from a habit that is very unproductive and self-defeating  to something almost miraculously generative of words.

But once you have got a strategy that works for you, this is not the end. You can still learn more. Always more strategies. You can always learn more about writing. And without unhelpful either-or thinking.

 

 

Posted in academic writing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

on (re)building institutional writing cultures

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.

Lindisfarne-P.jpg

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?

Posted in academic writing, academic writing as work | Tagged , , | 3 Comments