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Learning to write as an academic

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Learning to write as an academic

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Most of the research which investigates writing in university contexts focusses on student writing, and the social practices of writing as part of student learning. In this seminar we present selected findings from our research project (see http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/acadswriting/), which examines the writing of academics in three English universities. We have spent the last 18 months working closely with academics across different departments, universities, and disciplines, and used repeated interviews and observations of writing processes to explore their cultures of professional writing. Specifically for this seminar, we focus on elements of our data where our academic participants recall how they became acquainted with the demands and conventions of their professional writing; in short, how they learned to write as academics.

We outline the management of ongoing and ‘on the job’ learning to write, new challenges of collaboration and digitisation, developing strategies to cope with changes, and mastering an increasing diversity of genres and text-types.

We hope that this seminar will stimulate an important discussion about the choices academics make about their writing, and the most appropriate ways of approaching professional development for academics, both at the early career stage and throughout their professional lives.

Most of the research which investigates writing in university contexts focusses on student writing, and the social practices of writing as part of student learning. In this seminar we present selected findings from our research project (see http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/acadswriting/), which examines the writing of academics in three English universities. We have spent the last 18 months working closely with academics across different departments, universities, and disciplines, and used repeated interviews and observations of writing processes to explore their cultures of professional writing. Specifically for this seminar, we focus on elements of our data where our academic participants recall how they became acquainted with the demands and conventions of their professional writing; in short, how they learned to write as academics.

We outline the management of ongoing and ‘on the job’ learning to write, new challenges of collaboration and digitisation, developing strategies to cope with changes, and mastering an increasing diversity of genres and text-types.

We hope that this seminar will stimulate an important discussion about the choices academics make about their writing, and the most appropriate ways of approaching professional development for academics, both at the early career stage and throughout their professional lives.

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Learning to write as an academic

  1. 1. Department of Educational Research 9th Nov 2016 Learning to write as an academic Ibrar Bhatt Karin Tusting #acadswriting
  2. 2. Universities today  Writing is at the heart of academic labour  Universities are changing within the context of an international, competitive knowledge-based economy (Sum and Jessop 2013) from which emerge new, competing versions of “knowledge” – new producers and audiences  Transformations in the HE workplace have lead to changes in the work, responsibilities and identities of academics which can be tracked through their writing practices.
  3. 3.  Transformations in managerial practices in universities  Accountability and audit (Strathern 2000)  Intensification of work and job flexibility/insecurity  Changing resources – working within changed time/space – new digital tools (Goodfellow and Lea 2013)  Facilitating distance and blended learning and collaboration (Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), video conferencing,  changing nature of scholarship – the ‘digital scholar’ - online library resources,(Weller 2011);  mobilities - smartphones and portable devices
  4. 4.  To be accountable to standards which change the nature of academic work.  To publish in strategic ways which can conflict with disciplinary norms and established practices.  To respond to new demands around impact, public engagement, open access.  To engage in social media and maintain public online persona.  To use new technological platforms eg VLEs which take time to learn. Changes in the demands and resources of the academic workplace lead to tensions and pressures:
  5. 5. Focus of today’s talk  In this rapidly changing environment, how do academics learn the many different kinds of writing practices which they engage in every day?  Different kinds of writing practices  Various approaches to learning writing  Some common patterns
  6. 6. Dynamics of Knowledge Creation: Academics writing in the contemporary university workplace Project team: Karin Tusting (PI), David Barton, Ibrar Bhatt, Mary Hamilton, Sharon McCulloch Literacy Research Centre, Lancaster University Departments of Linguistics and of Educational Research Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council UK
  7. 7. Theoretical perspectives  A literacy practices approach: researching what people are doing, not what they ‘should’ be doing or what skills they should have (Barton 2007; Hamilton 2012; Tusting 2012).  A sociomaterial perspective: researching how people’s writing practices are shaped by social and material tools and contexts, resources including the digital (Fenwick et al 2011; Orlikowski 2007; Callon 2002)
  8. 8. Research design: numbers of interviews
  9. 9. We are here Phase 1: working with individuals • Interviews with individuals about their work practices, technobiographies, and typical days’ practices Phase 2: detailed study of writing processes • Recording the detail of writing processes using screen capture, digital pens, keyboard tracking, informed by interviews Phase 3: understanding the community • Interviews with managers, administrative staff, colleagues and collaborators
  10. 10. Distribution of writing activities Teaching ResearchAdmin Service
  11. 11. Article proposal Book proposal Research proposal Grant applications Ethics forms Communication with research participants Coding Field notes Transcription Outputs: Journal article Systematic review Book Chapter Edited collection Conference paper Report Policy Paper Newsletter Media/newspaper article Thesis Poem Software Summary Film script Genres of research writing
  12. 12. Learning research writing Learning by doing PhD I remember when I did my PhD I was really chuffed with myself. “I’ve written that first complete chapter.” It was part of the literature I was reading. I sent it to [my supervisor]. … He’s, “Mmm. It’s a bit flowery.” Then I read it and I was like, “Jesus Christ. It’s like a Mills & Boon novel.” (Charles, Marketing)
  13. 13. Learning research writing Learning by doing PhD My PhD supervisor told me, “You can’t write. You can’t write.” I was really upset and really worried … Then I had conversations with Dan who has been really important in my intellectual development. Dan thinks like me. Dan said to me, “Writing is understanding.” He said, “Start writing it because the writing is the knowing. It’s not separate.” (Diane, Marketing)
  14. 14. Learning research writing Learning from others I haven't had any formal training. What I've done is work with people who are more intelligent and more capable than me, more experienced than me and worked with them and learnt from them. So it's more been an apprenticeship rather than a formal sit in a classroom type thing. (Mark, Marketing)
  15. 15. Learning research writing Learning from expertise It’s nice to be able to work with people who maybe are more experienced, intellectually, down the line so they can guide the way. There’s a guidance and a learning of what works. (Gareth, Mathematician) I've only written a couple of articles with co- authors, both of which were fun to do […] in one case, I learnt a great deal from a super smart colleague. (Colin, Historian)
  16. 16. Learning research writing Learning from feedback – evaluative and collaborative The training that I’ve had has come through the peer review process. (Diane, Marketing) The thing I really enjoy is when I send that paper off to another co-author and they say, ‘That’s great’. That’s that point where you’re learning. (Charles, Marketing)
  17. 17. Learning research writing Learning to network – meeting people, finding mentors I will write a paper. It will go to Tim. He will take it apart, [Laughter] tell me there’s a million things that could be better. I will then rewrite it. It will then go back to Tim. It’s still very much that I write the paper from end-to-end and then the collaborators take it and criticise it. Telling me that all my work is crap is certainly how it feels. But I have just met at a conference two other women actually, as it happens, who are at the very same career stage as me. There is a special issue that we’ve decided to try and pull a paper together on. We seemed to come from a similar point of view. (Emma, Marketing)
  18. 18. Learning research writing  Learning by doing It’s the practice of it. The more you do it, the better you get at it. (Diane, Marketing) By collaborating with people who had the craft, by talking to people who are successful, by trying my own things, by failing in quite a few others and by learning where to direct my energies, by looking at different styles of writing, different journals, different communities and so on. That was my training. There was nothing formal about it, it was very much like how you learn any other craft. (Michael, Marketing)
  19. 19. Learning research writing  Learning how to learn by doing I’ve done a few writing retreats which are very much about learning the discipline of writing and keeping, this American colleague of ours says, “Keeping your fanny on the chair.” … You do 90 minutes. When you’ve finished 90 minutes, even if you spend the last few minutes writing the next three bullet points, you do not get off your chair until you’ve finished the 90 minutes and then you have a break. I found that very, very productive. That was an important part of my training, keep my bum on the seat. (Diane, Marketing)
  20. 20. Teaching Course proposal Course handbook Course description Setting assignments and exams Course notes Lecture scripts Handouts Lecture slides Blackboard scribbles Feedback to students Exams
  21. 21. Learning writing for teaching Learning by doing I sit there and I look at what I've written and what I've put together and I try and put myself in the position of somebody that doesn't know the area. And it's trying to get that activity so self- explanatory on the sheets or on the handout or on the PowerPoint that I won't have like 20 or 30 different people asking me what the hell does it mean. (Josh, Education)
  22. 22. Learning writing for teaching Learning from students Because I'm sort of new to the game, and I'm also new to online courses, a lot of our teaching is done through the VLE, it is very much at the moment learning as I'm going on. So I'm quite responsive to what the students are saying. (Josh, Education)
  23. 23. Administrative writing Institutional Agendas and Minutes Notes Budgets Comments on student applications Database Departmental documents Letter Explanation of procedures Job announcement REF documentation Personal Expenses claim To do list PDR Personal reflections Rough notes
  24. 24. Service Book review Review for a journal Proposal for a new journal Survey response Forum discussion Guest speaker request Opinion piece External examining report Reference letter
  25. 25. Learning administrative writing Learning by experience When I became a head of department, I wanted to do the job because I had various ideas about how to take the department in certain directions and how to manage people, but I had no formal training for that and, to be honest, very little administrative support. So it was a bit of a roller coaster time, and I feel I achieved certain things, but they were more by dint of learning on the job than by anything that counted as ‘training’. (Colin, Historian)
  26. 26. Learning administrative writing Weaknesses of formal training When I became HoD, the university runs a type of training course for HoDs. I went to all of the aspects of that. I thought the university didn’t quite get it right, because it focused on the university’s specific processes and logistics of how things happen rather than how to manage people. They promised that they were going to run various things like how to manage people courses, but they never put them on (Gareth, Maths)
  27. 27. Learning administrative writing People developed their own meta-logistical systems and strategies [Interviewer had asked about to-do lists:] Post-Its, which I go through every day and I have a much longer-term to-do list thingy and then I have one for the day or for the week, so several to-do lists, which I need to keep on my mind. Then, I often have a couple of things I really want to get done that day as well, sometimes, they are actually just physically in my very old-fashioned paper diary, where I have meetings, but also in pencil, things that I really want to do, in between the official meetings and so on. (Juliette, Social Sciences)
  28. 28. Learning administrative writing  Learning email strategies (or not) Just before Christmas I had 596 emails […] 596 unread, at least. I have 14,000 total […] I went into the unread items and I pressed control A and then I deleted them all, and they all went. So rather than having 596 I had none in my inbox and I felt brilliant. And you know what, this is the scary bit, nothing happened.[…] So, a few people come back to me, work on that, but I work on the premise that if they’re not going to come back again then fine. So now I try and keep to one day a week where I can just manage emails. I’m getting about 60 to 80 a day. (Charles, Marketing)
  29. 29. I think, in terms of presenting yourself to the media, in some ways I think training is very valuable. (Gareth, Mathematician) The problem is that the people who generally drum up policies are pretty clueless on the whole world of social media. So I think they sort of left it to academic judgement. (Mark, Marketing) Learning new genres: Social media and public engagement
  30. 30. They are useful to form a brand awareness ... As in the brand of my department, and my brand. And when the day dawns that I have anything published, it will be all over Twitter. When the day dawns that I have time to write a blog, when I feel suitably informed to talk about stuff… I feel at the minute that it’s all still a bit new. I haven’t done anything for long enough to really call myself an expert in it. So it would just be my opinions that were in a blog. So why would I write them? (Emma, Marketer) Learning new genres: social media
  31. 31. Key themes  Learning from others – relationships, collaboration and feedback – and learning to set up networks for support and mentoring  Learning by doing - importance of autonomous, self-directed learning, and how to support this  Weaknesses or lacks of formal training To learn writing, you have to sort of sit there and do it yourself. (Diane, Marketing)
  32. 32. Discussion  How can academics best be supported in ongoing learning?  What’s the role of ongoing formal training?  Are early career staff well-prepared for the diversity and autonomy of academic work? #acadswriting
  33. 33. We are currently collecting data for Phase 3. To follow the project’s progress: Blog at http://wp.lancs. ac.uk/acadswriting/

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