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

Project: Funded ProjectResearch

1/02/15 → …

This 2 year ESRC project starting in January 2015 focuses on the changing nature of academic work. Academic life can be very diverse, including research, scholarship, teaching, and public engagement, and it involves both carrying out these activities and administering them. We see the principal role of an academic as being to produce, shape and distribute knowledge. Writing of many different kinds is central to this endeavour.

Many different factors have been transforming the nature of academics’ writing practices in recent decades. New digital technologies have changed both the tools we use to write with and the kinds of writing we do. Maintaining a blog or tweeting regularly are very different kinds of activities from preparing a journal article or writing a lecture. The ubiquity of email communication in universities brings its own pressures. Managerial accountability practices designed to measure and assess knowledge production and dissemination lead to new writing practices, such as writing impact statements and performance review documents.

All these different writing practices are woven together through an academic’s daily work, within particular kinds of social and material contexts. This research project focuses on academics’ writing practices, working with people in a range of disciplines in different universities in England. We are not privileging ‘scholarly’ writing. Rather, the project will study different kinds of writing, including those associated with research, teaching, administration, consultancy and service. Using ethnographic approaches, including interviews, observation and close analysis of writing processes, we will develop a better understanding of what it is to be an academic in the 21st century.

Using the lenses of literacy studies and socio-material theory, we focus on how participants perform everyday tasks and enact ‘being an academic’ in the specific organizational settings of their life. Literacy studies sees reading and writing as social practices, rather than ‘skills’. It situates them as multimodal activities as well as paying attention to how history and context shape the kinds of reading and writing people engage in. Socio-material theory highlights the importance of people and material artefacts in networks of activity. We will be interested in both what people are doing with writing in their local settings, and in ‘text trajectories’, how texts circulate and co-ordinate activities across multiple sites.

Data analysis will identify the social networks and relationships which frame and support academic writing. It will draw attention to the often competing purposes involved, along with the resources and tools people draw on. It will examine the distribution of academic writing activities across space and time and the range of disciplinary and institutional domains in which writing takes place. As well as informing scholarly understandings of academic writing, this research will contribute to understanding textually mediated social organisation and knowledge work more generally. It can also be drawn on in training and development. Ultimately, the project will contribute to more informed debate around what it is (and what it should be) to be an academic in the 21st century.

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