#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

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