It’s not a hobby

The Lancaster Literacy Research Centre is currently home to the ESRC-funded project, ‘Dynamics of Knowledge Creation: Academics’ writing practices in the contemporary university workplace’, led by Karin Tusting.

This project aims to understand how knowledge is created, shaped and distributed through the writing practices of academics. We are working with academics at different stages of their career, in three main disciplinary areas, and in three different types of English HE institution. The first phase of the project involves interviewing these academics about the range of writing practices they engage in.  We have asked what different types of writing they do, who they do it with, which tools they use, and the physical spaces in which it gets done.

Even though we are interested in all types of writing, including teaching-, impact- and admin-related writing, what our participants most want to talk about is scholarly writing. When asked what they enjoy most about their work, perhaps unsurprisingly, they talk about their research rather than their admin. Some participants differentiated between scholarly and other types of writing by referring to the former as “proper” or “serious” writing. When prompted to tell us about other types of writing, one professor said, “I can’t think of other types of writing” before pausing and adding, “I mean, there are other types of writing, aren’t there, like when you produce documentation, say, for courses you’re teaching.”

So far so obvious. But here’s the rub: When we looked at their calendars and asked about their typical day, what they considered the “proper” writing scarcely featured during their allocated working hours. Instead, days were swallowed up by exactly the types of writing they did not consider central.  One professor began, “If I have a work day…” When I asked what this meant, she described a day when she came to the office and had meetings, dealt with emails and did admin.  I was reminded of Rowena Murray’s article about academic writing, entitled, “It’s not a hobby”, in which she explores the place of scholarly writing in academic work.  Almost every participant in the Academics Writing project, has said that they do little, if any, scholarly writing in the office, and that they struggle to find time for it.

The next phase of the project will shed more light on any patterns associated with this, to do with, for example, discipline or type of institution, but it paints a compelling picture of the challenges facing academics, particularly in an era when research output is assessed as never before.

by Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University

Murray, R. (2013). ‘It’s not a hobby’: reconceptualizing the place of writing in academic work. Higher Education, 66(1), pp. 79–91.

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