The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation: Academics' Writing Practices in the Contemporary University Workplace

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Educational Research

Abstract

The proposed study will investigate how knowledge is produced, shaped and distributed through the writing practices of academic staff working across a range of disciplines and at different career stages within the contemporary English HE system. Academic writing practices of various kinds (scholarly, pedagogic, and 'impact' writing) are central to the enterprise of higher education. It is largely through these writing practices that universities achieve their central objectives, against which the success of different institutions is measured. Available digital resources, increased managerialism and the internationalization of higher education are reorganizing the socio-material contexts within which academics carry out their writing work.

This study aims to inform future innovation, productivity and teacher training in HE through a better understanding the dynamics of these interconnected processes. The study will inform ideas about how the mission of the university sector can best be supported and developed in challenging times, when demands for greater accountability, increasing numbers of students, resourcing decisions, technologies and changes in the understanding of academics' roles are transforming the work of professionals in higher education.

The writing practices of academic staff in nine disciplinary sites will be followed over a year, through a combination of interviews, close ethnographic observation of both online and offline writing activities, and analysis of the wider organizational context. These methods will generate a multi-modal data set which will be analysed through the theoretical lenses of literacy studies and social material theory.

Literacy studies draws attention to how participants perform everyday tasks and enact "being an academic" in organizational settings. They link methodologically with studies of everyday practice and involve the close observation of textually-mediated interactions. Socio-material theory articulates the importance of both people and material artefacts in networks of activity. This approach identifies the trajectories of texts, how they circulate and co-ordinate activities across multiple sites; and reveals the underlying physical and information architecture of contemporary practices.

Combining these approaches will lead us to analyse elements of the everyday experience and activities of participants including: social networks and relationships; the purposes for academic writing and the location of these within the dynamics of other competing purposes and types of writing; resources and tools including digital and other technologies and library/learning resources; the distribution of academic activities across space and time; and disciplinary and institutional domains including activities of research, teaching, administration, consultancy and service.

Planned Impact

Who are the beneficiaries?
Viewing the university as a workplace, the beneficiaries will be all those involved in the production of writing. This includes academics, those in management roles and other support staff. People in management roles include heads of departments, human resources staff and central university management. Other support staff include departmental administrative staff (or equivalent), IT staff, learning technology staff and information management staff.
Academics across all disciplines and types of university are potential beneficiaries. This covers academics in British universities as well as international universities where there is a focus on writing, and often, specifically academic writing in English. Research students training to be academics are also beneficiaries.
Related professionals in national agencies and intermediary networks include the Higher Education Academy, Research Councils and government departments, ESRC-Doctoral Training Centre Directors, UCU and trade union learning reps., Equality Challenge Unit and disciplinary professional associations. Representatives will be invited to our online advisory group and to our final symposium.
Looking beyond the university sector, professional workers in other sectors where there is extensive writing and demands are changing are also beneficiaries. This includes public sector, private sector and third sector professionals.

How will they benefit?
Professionals will benefit by being better able to manage work demands in a rapidly changing environment. Better implementation of change can be achieved and they can benefit from innovations in knowledge production. Training for academic and professional writing can be improved and the mentoring of early career professionals can be strengthened. This has the potential to enhance the health and quality of life of all involved and to improve creative output. It can increase the effectiveness of the university sector nationally and globally.

What is the timescale for impact?
By beginning impact alongside data collection in the sites, there can be local impact from the beginning of data collection. Over time we provide steps for this to move out to the institution as a whole and beyond. There will also be focused impact activities at the end of the project. Longer term impact on professional culture more broadly can be achieved through our collaboration with The Work Foundation which is part of Lancaster University. The symposium at The Work Foundation in Westminster will reach the national level and will enable a longer term dialogue with policy makers and other professionals beyond higher education.

What skills will project staff develop?
The researchers will be trained in interviewing, coding and fieldwork, using new technologies and newly developed methodologies. They will generate multimodal data and be trained in new data management and archiving skills. They will be supported to contribute to high impact publications and to develop their media presence, including the use of online social media.

Publications

10 25 50
publication icon
Barton D (2018) Negotiating tensions around new forms of academic writing in Discourse, Context & Media

publication icon
McCulloch S (2017) The role of networked learning in academics' writing in Research in Learning Technology

publication icon
Mcculloch S (2017) Hobson's choice: the effects of research evaluation on academics' writing practices in England in Aslib Journal of Information Management

publication icon
McCulloch S (2017) The role of networked learning in academics' writing in Research in Learning Technology

publication icon
Tusting, K. P. (2016) Writing disciplines: producing disciplinary knowledge in the context of contemporary higher education. in Iberica: Journal of the European Association of Languages for Specific Purposes

 
Description This project studied academics' writing practices and identities in the context of changes in Higher Education in England. We focused on socio-material aspects of academics' working lives - space, time, and relationships; digital technologies; and managerial practices.

• Space and time.

Academics have many different roles and responsibilities. Despite investing time and energy in organizing multiple, often conflicting demands, academics' working days tend to be fragmented, and interruptions are commonplace. University spaces are not usually designed with academics' writing needs in mind.

To manage this, academics set boundaries around different types of writing, and try to protect themselves from interruptions. Strategies for setting boundaries include working on different kinds of writing in different places, and blocking out time for particular tasks.

Many extend their writing work across time and space. Most participants wrote at home as well as at their university workplace. This made it hard to make a clear distinction between work and non-work times, spaces and identities.

• Relationships and collaboration.

Each site had its own practices and expectations around writing, mostly learned informally through interaction with academic and administrative colleagues. Divisions of labour between academics and administrative staff have changed over time, and varied across sites.

Collaboration across extended times and spaces were made possible by digital media, but digital communication was rarely felt to be enough for building and maintaining productive research relationships.

• Digital technologies.

Digital technologies are pervasive. They have changed how people access scholarly resources, and how they communicate with students and colleagues. Teaching materials and feedback on work are increasingly located online.

Participants expressed strong feelings about digital technologies. A constant influx of emails was a common difficulty. Almost everyone accessed emails anywhere, using portable devices, particularly phones. Some managed this flow through setting boundaries, for instance removing access to electronic devices at particular times of day.

It was rare for academics to have received formal training around email, and departments had few clear expectations about email management practices. Administrative staff have more shared conventions and expectations in managing email and communications, drawing on workplace training and prior qualifications.

Academics now have many more possibilities to construct an identity on social media. This generated polarised responses, representing opportunities for engaging with wider audiences, but also being associated with risks, both of more public exposure, and of increased workload.

• Managerial practices

Higher education is associated with many systems monitoring performance against external criteria. The most salient of these for our participants was the Research Evaluation Framework (REF) and associated institutional strategies. The REF, other metrics, and institutional managerial strategies did not always reflect disciplinary perspectives on which genres of writing were most valuable.

The REF focus on impact also influenced decisions about writing, encouraging people to engage with new genres and audiences. Responses to this were mixed depending on whether this was perceived as moving away from the central purpose of the discipline.

Other monitoring processes, like the National Student Survey, generated new genres of writing, as well as increasing the reporting required by institutions.
Exploitation Route Our findings have significance for those involved in supporting and training early-career researchers (as evidenced by the invitations our project has already received from research development staff). Reflection on setting boundaries, spaces and times of writing, managing multiple tasks and genres, using electronic devices, email management, choices around social media engagement and making expectations explicit would all be useful for people starting out in an academic role.

They also have significance for higher education management, particularly at the level of the provision of training and support for Heads of Department, who play a crucial mediating role, for instance in how institutional strategic positions are represented to staff and in shaping departmental cultures and expectations around writing practices.

There are also implications for knowledge work more generally. Materials or courses could be produced to support professionals in knowledge-intensive jobs in reflecting on their writing practices and how they deal with multiple streams of information flow while still maintaining time and space for deeper, more reflective work.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://wp.lancs.ac.uk/acadswriting/
 
Description The non-academic impact of this award has principally taken place in academic contexts, but in relation to Higher Education as a workplace and as a teaching space rather than (or, rather, as well as) contributing to scholarship. Much of this has been around the concept of supporting people in setting boundaries around particular types of writing. Locally, the Linguistics and English Language department at Lancaster University has changed several workplace practices, in part as a result of discussions about and events organised by the project. Cut-off times have been set around work emails to enable staff to maintain email boundaries. Writing retreats have been introduced both for staff (as the annual research awayday) and for students (as part of the MA dissertation support course). Participants on our project writing retreat have also taken back the practice of writing retreat to their own departments. We continue to be invited to engage with audiences in Higher Education institutions sharing our findings, and supporting discussion of strategies that individuals and institutions can adopt in order to support academics' workplace writing. Our recent workshop at Northumbria University, for instance, has immediately led to a plan for discussions with management about developing a more structured approach to supporting academics' writing, and making expectations about digital communications practices more explicit. A workshop at Salford left the Head of Research planning to speak to senior management about setting KPIs around minimising the impact of email on people's working lives. When we present and discuss this research, audiences immediately engage with implications for their own institutional setting. The impications for each context may be different, and we do not seek to impose a single model of best practice in academic writing on the basis of this research; rather, we enable people to think differently about their individual practices and about changing institutional contexts, opening up conversations which we hope will continue.
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal

 
Description Introduction of writing space initiative at Queens University Belfast
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
URL https://twitter.com/TracyGalvin77/status/1139203221392695296
 
Description Lancaster-Helsinki academic writing network 
Organisation University of Helsinki
Department Department of Modern Languages
Country Finland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation project is a named partner on a project entitled "Language regulation in academia: the shifting norms of English use", led by Dr Anna Solin in Helsinki. I am contributing a paper to a colloquium on language regulation led by Dr Solin and her team at Sociolinguistics Symposium in June 2016, which brings together several Nordic research teams looking at academic writing.
Collaborator Contribution A researcher from their project Niina Hynninen came to Lancaster as a visiting scholar in autumn 2016. Dr Solin sits on the advisory group of the Dynamics of Knowledge creation project.
Impact - Symposium presented at Sociolinguistics Symposium 2016 on 'Regimes of academic writing'. - Special issue of 'Language and Education' in preparation, for publication early/mid 2018
Start Year 2015
 
Description Membership of advisory group: Brazilian research project on academic writing 
Organisation Federal University of Minas Gerais
Country Brazil 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Membership of advisory group of research project "The changing language and literacy landscape of Brazilian universities: English in policy development and practice". Our role was to communicate with the partners about the design of the project, feed back on project reports, and bring learning from our project to theirs.
Collaborator Contribution The partners led and carried out the research.
Impact Symposium on "Internationalisation, digitization and the changing language and literacy landscapes of universities" at the AILA Congress, Gröningen, The Netherlands, 9th - 14th August, 20202 , with contributors from researchers working in the Brazil, China, Lithuania, South Africa, Sweden and the UK. Two papers about this research project will be presented as part of this symposium.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Membership of advisory group: Brazilian research project on academic writing 
Organisation University of Birmingham
Department MOSAIC Centre for Research on Multilingualism
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Membership of advisory group of research project "The changing language and literacy landscape of Brazilian universities: English in policy development and practice". Our role was to communicate with the partners about the design of the project, feed back on project reports, and bring learning from our project to theirs.
Collaborator Contribution The partners led and carried out the research.
Impact Symposium on "Internationalisation, digitization and the changing language and literacy landscapes of universities" at the AILA Congress, Gröningen, The Netherlands, 9th - 14th August, 20202 , with contributors from researchers working in the Brazil, China, Lithuania, South Africa, Sweden and the UK. Two papers about this research project will be presented as part of this symposium.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Membership of advisory group: Brazilian research project on academic writing 
Organisation University of Brasilia
Country Brazil 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Membership of advisory group of research project "The changing language and literacy landscape of Brazilian universities: English in policy development and practice". Our role was to communicate with the partners about the design of the project, feed back on project reports, and bring learning from our project to theirs.
Collaborator Contribution The partners led and carried out the research.
Impact Symposium on "Internationalisation, digitization and the changing language and literacy landscapes of universities" at the AILA Congress, Gröningen, The Netherlands, 9th - 14th August, 20202 , with contributors from researchers working in the Brazil, China, Lithuania, South Africa, Sweden and the UK. Two papers about this research project will be presented as part of this symposium.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Being an academic today: Academic Careers Day, University of Manchester 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact On 2 June 2016, Sharon McCulloch and Ibrar Bhatt led a session entitled "Being an academic today: insights from a current project on academics' writing", at the Academic Careers Day, University of Manchesterd.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://wp.lancs.ac.uk/acadswriting/2016/06/06/who-do-you-work-for-anyway/
 
Description Contribution to "Academics in the digital university" event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A Society for Research in Higher Education workshop reflecting on professional practices of academics in a digital space.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.srhe.ac.uk/events/details.asp?eid=391
 
Description Contribution to LSE impact blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Sharon McCulloch had a piece published on the LSE impact blog entitled "The importance of being REF-able: academic writing under pressure from a culture of counting", as part of the blog's series on The Accelerated Academy, summarising some of the project's key findings. The blog has a very wide readership (claiming 20,000 readers per week) and the piece has to date been re-blogged to 3 other blogs. As a result of this, Sharon has so far been invited to write 2 other blog pieces which are to appear in the next few weeks, one for the Patter blog which focuses on academic writing https://patthomson.net/, a reflection on the experience of working as a research associate (which can be considered an addition to our autoethnograpic work), and one for the #Take5 blog for the learning development community https://lmutake5.wordpress.com .
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/02/09/the-importance-of-being-ref-able-academic-w...
 
Description David Barton invited to speak to doctoral students at Gothenburg University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Professor David Barton led an online video session with 15 doctoral students at the University of Gothenburg, on research methodology and theoretical framework of ESRC Dynamics of Knowledge Creation project, March 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Designing the academic self 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A series of four workshops were run in 2015/16 entitled 'Designing the academic self', drawing in part on project data to assist postgraduate students and early career researchers to reflect on their online presence, particularly focusing on metrics, developing both their understanding of the place of metrics in the academic realm and engaging critically with this issue.

Workshops included "Who does the Internet think you are?", led by Sharon McCulloch (Dynamics of Knowledge Creation (DOKC) project), Diane Potts (Linguistics Department), and Tanya Williamson (Lancaster University Library), on 29 January 2016; "How are metrics affecting academics' writing practices?", let by Sharon McCulloch and Karin Tusting from the DOKC project, on 16 February 2016; "What can and can't metrics tell us?", led by Sharon McCulloch, DOKC project, and Masud Khokhar and Tanya Williamson, Lancaster University Library; and "Cultures of Counting: Metrics through a critical lens", led by Paul Ashwin, Educational Research, Lancaster University, and James Wilsdon, Sheffield University, on 24 May 2016.

Participants included postgraduate students, members of academic staff, members of library staff, and visitors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://wp.lancs.ac.uk/acadswriting/2015/12/01/designing-the-academic-self/
 
Description Dissemination events 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact In March and April 2016, three dissemination events, entitled, "Getting Writing Done", were held at the universities of Lancaster, Manchester and UCLAN, outlining project findings so far and inviting discussion and reflection. We invited project participants, and members of the universities who might be interested in our findings, including research staff development professionals and representatives of Estates. 24 people attended these events, and subsequent to the events we have been invited to present at 3 further staff development events so far.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://wp.lancs.ac.uk/acadswriting/2016/03/02/dissemination-events/
 
Description Dynamics of knowledge creation blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The project maintains a blog at http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/acadswriting/ which is kept updated with accounts of project activity, uploads of conference slides etc.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/acadswriting/
 
Description Education research seminar, Northumbria University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Karin Tusting and Sharon McCulloch were invited to speak to the Education Research seminar at Northumbria university on 15th March 2017, focusing in particular on strategies for writing time emerging from the project. The audience included academics from the university many of whom are registered for a PhD at the same time, and Liz Atkins, who invited us, saw this as part of her brief to develop research capacity in the School. The talk led to animated discussion between the members of staff who were there about institutional support for writing and the need for explicitly discussing expectations around digital communications in order to protect other types of writing, and Liz and colleagues are planning to propose to the institution mechanisms for adopting a more structured approach to supporting colleagues' academic writing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Inaugural seminar Lancaster UCU 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited to lead a seminar for the local branch of the Universities and College Union at which I presented findings of the project particularly around how academics responded to the pressures of the REF and negotiated contradictory values systems. This is to become the first in a termly series of meetings in which union members will debate issues of significance relating to how we work together in the marketised university. The talk led to sustained debate around the conflicting norms and values of the academic workplace, and additional seminars and meetings to address related issues are in the pipeline.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Public lecture: Teaching, tweeting and trolling 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact On 9 March Dr Karin Tusting presented data from the Dynamics of Knowledge Creation project as part of a panel on online interaction (with Prof Judit Kormos, Dr Julia Gillen, and Dr Claire Hardaker). This was part of the Lancaster University public lectures series. Approximately 100 members of the pubic attended. The session was also posted on Youtube.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/events/public-lectures/teaching-tweeting-and-trolling---our-online-worlds...
 
Description Talk at Salford University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited talk given to Salford University's Centre for Applied Research in Health, Welfare and Policy seminar series, focusing particularly on strategies to support academics' research writing in post-92 and teaching-intensive institutions. Attendees were from a range of areas including academics from across the university, PhD students, and the Head of Research. Discussion afterwards was lively, focusing particularly on the working conditions of academics and the relationship between individual and institutional responsibilities. Feedback on Twitter described it as "a project of beauty", "very interesting", and "superb and thought provoking". Head of Research went away planning to discuss findings with senior management and see how they could be transformed into new KPIs (eg reduction in email demands).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk for Open University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk to academics at Open University Applied Linguistics seminar series about the project, focusing on the changing locations of academic writing. Elicited discussion of and reflection on similarities / differences between experiences of OU staff and staff at other universities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Talk to Professional, Academic and Workplace Literacies Special Interest Group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Keynote presentation to "Work, life, study: Literacies in and out of institutions", addressing the multiple institutional contexts within which academics locate themselves.

Sparked debate on academic work and resistance to managerialism in university contexts.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://pawbl.wordpress.com/events/
 
Description The impact of "research excellence" measures, Klagenfurt University Summer School 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Sharon McCulloch gave a lecture, entitled "The impact of 'research excellence' measures on academics' writing practices in the UK", and led a workshop at "Opening the Black Box of Quality: Reflecting on Scholarly Practice in the Social Sciences and Humanities: International Doctoral Summer School", in Klagenfurt, Austria, in September 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.uni-klu.ac.at/wiho/inhalt/967.htm
 
Description Where next? Transition into further study and employment Sharing Practice event, Lancaster University 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Sharon McCulloch led a session entitled "What do academics do all day?" at this event held at Lancaster University on 6 July 2016. She presented findings from the project and supported doctoral students in reflecting on their own future career possibilities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/oed/spevent/abstracts2016.html
 
Description Workshop in Indonesia on writing culture in the academy (Ibrar Bhatt) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Workshop at Universitas Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa in Serang (Banten Province) Indonesia, entitled "Enriching a culture of writing in the academy". Workshop generated reflection and discussion on the pressures upon Indonesian academics as their universities compete with those in the rest of Asia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://untirta.ac.id/berita/1942
 
Description Workshop on developing research bidding capacity 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Professional development workshop on developing research bidding capacity for academic staff, early career researchers and research students, which drew in part on project materials.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Writing retreat 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact On 12th-13th July 2016, the Dynamics of Knowledge creation project ran a residential writing retreat at Barton Grange Hotel, Preston. All project participants were invited to attend, and those who could not attend were invited to nominate other members of their department or institute. 14 people attended in total. The two days included time for dedicated writing sessions, presentations based on project findings, and time for networking and discussion. All participants were very positive about the experience of attending the retreat and it proved productive for individuals as writers, with various projects completed or developed including research articles, chapters, book reviews, research grants and conference presentations. Subsequently, participants have set up similar writing retreat opportunities at their own institutions and incorporated writing retreats into postgraduate support activities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://wp.lancs.ac.uk/acadswriting/2016/07/21/academic-writing-retreat/