#Take5 #20 The Best Way to Manage OUR Writing?

Managing academic writing: how managerialism puts pressure on academics’ writing practices

By Sharon McCulloch of the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University

Writing is central to what academics do, mediating almost every aspect of their work, including research, teaching, administrative and service work as well as public engagement. Much has been written about student academic writing, but less is known about the range of writing that academics do these days and how this might be changing in light of changes in higher education such as marketization and the use of managerial principles in higher education.

This #Take5 blog shares findings from an ESRC-funded research project at Lancaster University that investigated academics’ writing practices in three English universities. We interviewed 75 academics in three disciplines (mathematics, history and marketing) at three different English universities, asking them about the writing they did in a typical day, how this fitted into their workload, and what tools and resources they used to do it. We also interviewed administrative staff and heads of departments to find out about management expectations regarding academics’ writing, and how writing work was shared within and beyond departments.

The academics we spoke to described writing a very wide range of text types, not all of which they saw as a core part of what they should be doing. For example, many of the academics we spoke to spent time writing module descriptors or course handbooks, as described here by David, a mathematician:

See what’s in the course handbooks, all have proper descriptions and agree with each other […] I can see the point of it but it all – like everything, it takes on its own momentum and people go really crazy about it.

With respect to this sort of administrative writing, academics in every discipline complained of having to repeat the same information in different ways, as illustrated by this comment by Diane, a professor in marketing:

God. You have to repeat everything endlessly […] I had to write pages and pages of stuff to justify what the aims of the course were, of this new master’s programme, and then you have to justify it and then you have to justify that there’s a market there and demonstrate evidence for the market.

This type of writing was viewed by many academics as more to do with demonstrating accountability or justifying the use of resources than the business of creating or disseminating disciplinary knowledge. Unsurprisingly, one source of resentment about this related to the time it took up, and how easily it could eat into time for research writing.

When we asked our participants about their writing, they invariably talked first and foremost about their research writing. The writing of journal articles, monographs and chapters was described as the ‘serious’ or ‘real’ writing that occupied a central role in shaping their identity as academics. However, many people talked about struggling to find time, particularly longer, uninterrupted chunks of time, for scholarly writing. The majority of our participants did all or part of their research writing at home, often carving out time for this by getting up early and putting in a couple of hours’ work before going to the office, or by writing in the evenings after the immediate daily demands of work and family had been dealt with.

Even when time could be found for scholarly writing, there was a perception that regulatory apparatus associated with the REF was piling on the pressure around the number and standard of papers to be written. Almost every academic we spoke to had performance targets linked to the REF written into their conditions of probation or promotion, either implicitly or explicitly. For Charles, who worked in a marketing department, there was a perception that these targets were becoming tougher and tougher to meet:

Now back when I started it was “Just get a couple of twos, maybe a couple of threes, if you get included in the REF that’s brilliant.” Now you need, as a junior member of staff or any member of staff in this department, you need to be able to get a four star journal.

This has implications not only for academics’ ability to meet their institutions’ expectations and progress in their career, but also for their sense of purpose and identity. Asked what he enjoyed about writing, Alex, a senior lecturer in history, replied,

Gosh, what a rare question to ask […] in the rhetoric of modern universities, lip service, and I do think it’s lip service, I’m afraid, is paid to, “Oh, staff are valued,” etc. I think increasingly, in a competitive higher education market, it is very target-driven, more boxes to tick. And therefore enjoyment isn’t really an issue, so I’m flummoxed because I can’t remember anyone’s ever asked me that before.

Enjoyment, or lack thereof, was also mentioned in relation to the effect of managerialism on teaching work. Michael, a marketing lecturer, describes below how managerial practices can erode academics’ willingness to innovate in their teaching practice:

The bits I tend to enjoy less and less is of course this sort of overwhelming standardisation of everything. The filling of forms about forms you’ve just filled. This constant derivatives of auditing practices. And I also tend to resent these days the way that even your ability to do innovation in teaching is so much constrained by all sorts of rules, expectations, sets of expectations, lists of this, lists of that, consultations through god knows how many committees. It is quite enough to discourage most of us to do something very different, or to try out anything.

What has emerged from the Academics’ Writing project is a picture in which research writing is subject to a number of ever-moving targets and metrics, and is squeezed into the margins of academics’ working lives by other forms of writing aimed at demonstrating compliance with standards. These combined pressures risk suppressing the joy and creativity of life in the academy and undermining the sense of intellectual and pedagogical purpose that most academics hold dear.


Sharon McCulloch is an associate lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University. She is also a postgraduate tutor at UCL and a teaching fellow at the University of Bath. Her research interests are in literacy practices as they pertain to both students and professional writers in higher education. You can read more about the Academics Writing project here, more specifically on academic writing and the REF here.

Link to my profile at UCL: https://uclappliedlinguistics.wordpress.com/postgraduate-tutors/

Link to my profile at Lancaster: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/linguistics/about-us/people/sharon-mcculloch

Twitter: @samcculloch1




#Take5 #19: Learning Development – the best values?

For this #Take5 we have we have invited Helen Webster from Newcastle University to blog about Learning Development values. This is in honour of our ALDinHE Conference, 10-12 April, University of Hull: http://www.aldinhe.ac.uk/events/9/aldinhe_conference_2017.html?p=7_9, and follows her recent interesting discussion on the LDHEN list.  So – thank you Helen! Everybody else – do leave a comment – pass the post on – have a great Conference … and think about offering your own blogpost very soon!

The Value(s) of Learning Development

What are professional values? I remember when I was doing my teacher training that values didn’t really get much attention in amongst all the complex abstract education theory we were learning. They definitely seemed a bit ‘fluffy’ and irrelevant amidst the practicalities of my early teaching placements. I wasn’t very sure what a value was, let alone what my own values as a teacher were. It’s only later in my career as a learning developer that I’ve come to reflect on how much my values, even half-articulated, underpin everything I do in my teaching practice, how important they are to our status as professionals, and how very practical a tool they can be. Values give us the ethical principles to interrogate and guide our practice as professionals and therefore standards to aspire to and hold ourselves to account to. They are a means of communicating and building trust with those we work with.

This thinking led me to undertake an exercise in our learning development team, in which we established the professional values we aim to embody in our work. This allowed us to reflect on our beliefs and assumptions as a team, establish agreed common standards for our practice, build our confidence and quality in our practice and assert our professionalism. I ran a similar exercise during a regional event for ALDinHE in January, which participants also found thought-provoking. We started off looking at the values formally espoused by more established professions, before thinking about what might work for Learning Development in our own institutional context. Some of the values for the Newcastle Learning Development service arose from our particular circumstances; others are, I hope, relevant to the Learning Development community more widely, and some may be recognisable to colleagues in the more established professions from which Learning Development has grown, including subject teaching in higher education.

In Newcastle, we’ve used our values document in various ways. On an individual level, we use it to examine our own practice and look at the impact of even the smallest interaction on student learning. Opening a one-to-one with a throwaway phrase like ‘so how can I help you?’ or a workshop with ‘now, what I want you all to do is…’ can, for example, subtly but negatively affect the whole dynamic of a session. On the other hand, a reframing along lines more in keeping with our values of empowerment, respect and student-centredness can really turn a session around. On a larger scale, they’ve helped formulate our whole approach to workshop design with co-created learning outcomes from which we learn as much as our student partners, redesign the spaces in which we see students for one to one appointments and find a more nuanced approach to digital resource development than just ‘putting content online’. I believe that working to embody these values in our practice is making a tangible if implicit difference to the quality of our provision which is evident to students and academic colleagues. The next step for us is to start communicating this more explicitly in the way we present ourselves as professionals, in our publicity and service statements with colleagues and students and build it more formally into evaluation and quality assurance.

We’ve certainly found reflecting on and articulating our values a very useful activity at Newcastle on many levels, and having shared them more widely beyond our team and institution, the process has been received with much interest from other Learning Developers. Whether you feel this thinking about values ‘chimes’ with your practice or not, I hope you find the values we shared to the LDHEN list a thought-provoking aid in reflecting on your own practice, individually and when working with others! I’d love to hear any responses.

Helen Webster is Head of the Writing Development Centre at Newcastle University. She is a learning developer who has worked over the last decade at UEA, Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin Universities, before returning to work at Newcastle, where she did her first degree in German. She’s a former medievalist who did a PhD on learning and the laity in the fourteenth century and taught Medieval Studies at Oxford, Cambridge and UCL, realising she preferred working with living rather than long-dead students. She has a PGCE in Further and Higher Education, and is a Senior Fellow of the HEA. She is currently developing CPD resources for the Association of Learning Developers in Higher Education. Helen tweets at: @scholastic_rat