Federico IIErasmus

Lecture 5 – Discourse(s) of academic writing and publication

Pat Thomson (University of Nottingham, UK)

Pat Thomson PSM PhD FAcSS is Professor of Education and Convenor of the Centre for Research in Arts, Creativity and Literacies in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham. Her background includes twenty years as a headteacher in disadvantaged schools in South Australia. Her research now primarily focuses on school and community change through the arts. She also researches doctoral education and academic writing. She currently has funded research projects with Tate, Royal Shakespeare Company and Serpentine examining the practise and outcomes of artists working with teachers and young people. Her most recent books are Detox your writing: Strategies for doctoral researchers (with Barbara Kamler, Routledge 2016); Place based methods for researching schools (with Christine Hall, Bloomsbury 2016); with two further books in press: Inspiring school change: Transforming education through the creative arts (with Christine Hall, Routledge 2017) and Educational leadership and Pierre Bourdieu (Routledge 2017). She is currently co-editing The Digital Academicwith Deborah Lupton and Inger Mewburn (to be published by Routledge in late 2017) and a special issue of Ethnography and Education journal with David Poveda and Ligia Ferro on the arts and ethnography. Her research and academic writing blog is at and she tweets @ThomsonPat.

Doctoral education is becoming a less elite practice. More, and more diverse people, are now undertaking doctoral research. Policy makers see the doctorate as needing to change, directed not to the provision of singular scholars able to make individual contributions within single disciplines in their national contexts. Rather, they advocate doctoral education which produces multi-skilled and mobile researchers able to work in teams, across disciplines, often on projects directed to major international social challenges in support of “the knowledge society”. It is hardly surprising then that, across Europe, doctoral education and early career support has become more networked and also more similar.

The doctoral thesis is also changing rapidly, with digital, artefact, portfolio and papers dissertations becoming as accepted as the monograph. While national scholarly publications are still important, young researchers now also have to write for multiple audiences and publics, across multiple platforms and media. The general press for academic publication as part of the development of comparable international measures of research quality plays out in the increasing dominance of English language journals and genres of scholarly writing. The increasing insecurity of academic employment, coupled with the rapidly changing publishing landscape, means that most doctoral and early career researchers need considerable support in order to extend and communicate their doctoral and postdoctoral research.

I offer a view of academic writing that is both sociological and practical and that addresses these challenges. Doctoral and early career researchers need to understand the emerging scholarly topography, engage in critical debates about its further development and to position themselves within it. They also need to know the possibilities for and requirements of academic publication and the various ways in which academic writing can be approached. This lecture and discussion brings together researchers from a wide range of experience and cultural contexts, to examine the ways in which the discourses of academic publication can be mediated and appropriated at the same time as high quality publications are produced.

Academic writing: text work/identity work

In this lesson what I am going to do is not to give you tips and tricks about publishing but I am going to talk about some research I am doing with some colleagues on interactive writing, although I will talk about some bits of academic writing, but actually along the way.
I want to invite you to think about yourselves, as I often think about myself, in relation to the process, to the practice of writing. If you think about your own kind of writing biography, what kind of role have had reading and writing in your life? I remember that when I went to school I already knew how to read, I was a very early reader and I am also a compulsive writer. If I go away on holyday what sometimes I do is to say “I am not going to write” but then within two days I am looking for a pen and a paper to write. But I don’t assume that is the same for everybody else. Everybody has a different way of coming to the process of reading and writing but when we speak about academics we usually talk about ourselves as researchers. We don’t so often talk about ourselves as teachers but actually in higher education most of what we do is teaching. So we probably could define ourselves as researchers and teachers but very few would describe what we do also as reading and writing. Of course our work is fundamentally research and teaching but those are based on the practices of reading and writing and the fact that we take them from granted is relevant. It is summed up in the fact that people when they do PhD see writing as a sort of endgame, ‘you know “I am writing up now”. Whereas they are supposed to be reading and writing all the way through, producing different kinds of texts and reading different kinds of texts, thinking about how the text they are producing can be transformed in a book following the publication processes. But we also do a lot of other kinds of reading and writing.

So I want to talk about the way that I have been thinking about those practices of writing with my colleague Barbara Kamler from Deakin University in Australia. We have been working together for a long time. We found each other just after I finished my PhD and discovered this mutual interest in writing and in fact we write as one person, we talk as one person, it is an interesting kind of relationship, we have a intimate sort of shared language. The work we have done was to begin some research on academic writing and then we thought about a book on publishing for doctoral researchers, a book about problems people have with writing. But in a sense the project I have been working on about academic writing has become in some way a bit old, and so I found some other things to work on. So what I really want to present you is this kind of transition phase between moving from one way of thinking about academic writing which is in all the books and to some extent in the blog to thinking about what now, what I going to do now without Barbara, without my twin.

The usual way to talk about writing is thinking about writing as text work/identity work. It is a way of describing what we think happens when people write during the doctorate and so we argue that the academic self is formed/performed through the writing practice. Of course it is not simply through the physical, material act of writing but through the choices that one makes, so it is also about thinking, about the choices about which literature you choose or which tradition you are in. A lot of examiners when reading dissertations will read the abstract and then go directly to references because they really care about who have you been in conversation with in your head, what material have you been reading, where you are going to seat in a field. There are citations but this is more then citations. That is all there embodied in the text (literature, tradition, epistemology, methodology). The way you position yourself in terms of epistemology appears in the terms you use. You can see that there is a kind of struggle in the learning process in the actual language that people use. It is the same with methodology or the choices you make about how you are going to write. But obviously your text is not something you do by yourself. A lot of your writing would be in conversation with your supervisor or committee and it would be shaved by the feedback you can get which is also very often a text, some track changes and different forms of textual interaction. This gives us the sense of how we are seen as performing scholars through the text but also of what we have to do to become scholars. But nothing happens in isolation. Everything is always framed by what is possible within institutions and what is encouraged in the discipline and there are also national traditions as well.

So one of the devices, the heuristics that Barbara and I have developed, which is based on Norman Fairclough work, is to talk about the framing of the text. If you think about the thesis, in the middle of the selection of journal articles, in the middle layer, there is a mediation by the supervisor, perhaps by peer reviewers, perhaps by people at conferences. But the supervisor is always a kind of key gate-keeper around the text you produce and one of the supervisor key job is to make sure that the text you are writing is actually going to be acceptable to the people who they stand for, the outer layer. The outer layer is where you get disciplinary conventions, university rules. Universities for example have a lot of different approaches to what counts as a text. Everybody has a template to be used to write and if you want to pass, no matter what research you are doing, the text has nevertheless to be consistent with the template. So the institution can have quite a strong framing role.

One of the things that happened with the development of global league tables, and with universities seeing themselves as international and moreover comparing themselves in terms of international benchmarks, is the crowded rise of publishing in English journals. It is not simply about writing in English, it is actually about adopting the English genre of argument. It is a peculiarly kind of British standard that you have to imagine as a kind of debate: “Ladies and Gentlemen today I am going to do 1, 2, 3 and my colleague will do 4”. You need to explain what it’s going to happen in the paper in the dominant English language social science journal tradition. It is completely ignored what happens in a lot of other places where there is much more emphasis on exploring ideas, not necessarily find out at what point you get to the end. Some people find this insulting!

It is really important to understand that this is the context within which you are asked to write nowadays: to publish in journals and papers in English. You have been asked to produce yourself as a scholar in a particular kind of writing genre paying particular attention to this bulk of literature, talking about methods in this way and not in another way. It is important to understand that this is what is going on and it is not neutral, this is a cultural artefact.

So this is where I have been, and all the work I have done about writing have been about trying to help people understand that game and understand what the rules are, and give people the possibility to choose if they want to do that, when and how much they want to do that. So that is where I have been, but at the same time I started blogging.

Blogging as a form of academic writing

My blogging was an extension of this teaching and actually what I was writing in the blog often was not in the book, but it was something different, something written very often in response to conversations I had with some people during workshops. Then I got really interested in blog as a form of academic writing, a kind of intermediary form of academic writing. I started thinking about this sort of new project on the practice of writing in social media. And I had to find another friend. I used to work with somebody else and what I like about working with other people is often what you do not get in the PhD, unless you are part of a lab-group, is the opportunity of having conversations with other people. We are really often pretty isolated during the PhD and this is unreal in a way in preparing you for the future academic life because actually most of this work is done collaboratively with other people.

So, I had to find a friend and I found it who has the biggest doctoral blog in the world that has 38 thousands followers. And we have been thinking about what people get from blogging, from this kind of writing. One of the thing I was thinking about is what kind of theoretical resources might me helpful to bring to the question of doctoral writing

Maybe Norman Fairclough is not so useful, because the outer layer is pretty ephemeral, how would you know what is there outside, and the text is pretty fluid as well, so this does not look like a very good heuristic to actually think about blogging. So what might be helpful? Margaret Archer might be helpful for a few bits of it. She talks about reflexivity and the importance of reflexivity is that it is mediating the structural and cultural context in which we live and it is something that a lot of bloggers do: academic bloggers, doctoral bloggers are not just writing about their breakfast they are writing about how they understand the PhD and institutions or how they understand the context. Blogging can be looked at through the lens of reflexivity. Maybe it is useful Michel De Certeau who talks about academics having a kind of inner library in which there are the books they know extremely well, that they use, that frame their work and De Certeau is a very important part of mine. He writes about the scriptural economy, he elaborates a kind of genealogy, a genealogical work actually similar to Foucault. He talks about the power of words, the power of naming and what actually means, assuming an institutional take and focussing on the circulation of words. He also connects this to power relations very strongly because he talks about scriptural economy as a kind of “bourgeois power”, that of making history and fabricating language. I think it is interesting to think about academic writing as a kind of bourgeois power, and making of history. I think it is interesting to think about academic writing as a bourgeois power and making history, and to think about what kind of history we might be making. This brings us back to the Europeanisation project, what kind of Europe are we making? Again this is a kind of reflexive question and a reflexive game.

Of course I can still think about writing as a social practice and this is helpful because it points to the idea that words produce specific worlds, they produce action, and so the question rise: as academic writers what world are we trying to produce? on the fact that again. Words produce actions so what do we produce with academic writings? Who benefits in this kind of social action?

I currently put all of those questions and themes just on the one side, just for a minute and I will have a little play with Foucault. We have been looking at three things. We have been looking at how populations are regulated through their response to productive technologies, and so thinking about being responsible for yourself and what does this means, thinking about meeting or not meeting norms and what those norms are, how are they established and are they produced. We have been thinking about processes of isolation, fragmentation and individuation, thinking of practice, kind of repetition and the role of rhythm, and thinking about writing as one of these kinds of technology. This means thinking about a sort of double way that Foucault has, how is that I have been responsibilized, what is productive of in terms of assess academics, assess what are they writing about and assess the academy and what is actually producing. That is the kind of question he focuses on, I think. But he also focuses on self-writing. In a quite late and short piece, a piece that you can find in the web and is extensively but not surprisingly taken on in the humanities, but less in the social sciences, Foucault talks about this hypomnemata, the notebook basically and what you do in your notebook is to write in conversation with things that you are reading. So think about what you do from the beginning of the doctorate. You are writing notes about what you are reading, you are fighting with what you are reading, you are engaging with text, you are interpreting the text, you are interpreting yourself and your project in relation to this other text. It is not a kind of “this is what I have for breakfast” it is me in conversation with other people’s work. What Foucault said is:

Writing as a personal exercise done by and for oneself is an art of disparate truth – or, more exactly, a purposeful way of combining the traditional authority of the already-said with the singularity of the truth that is affirmed therein and the particularity of the circumstances that determine its use (Foucault, 1994, p. 212).

This is in order to form the self out of the collected discourse of others. However, this is not the only kind of writing he talks about. The notebooks very often form the basis for correspondence: notebooks are the kind of things you write for yourself, that forms a self. They can be the basis of something you might be writing for somebody else and this can be a thesis, but you can also write for somebody else in blogs. Academic blogs are generally situated within a particular kind of academic discourse, another kind of academic text. Even if they have not references, they are still there in a way that when you go to watch a film you can see echoes about the film, in the film. So it is this kind of textual reference that goes on without citations. This often happens in letters and also happens in blogs. The purpose of the correspondence, Foucault says, is to open the self that has been formed in the notebooks, up to the gaze of others and it is an invitation to respond, to ear what is going to come back and there is an evidence about this, it’s not an abstraction. It is about the things that mount up to something more. A letter can be about something you have read: “You know, I have been writing this book about this and relates to my project”. This is very much what doctoral blogging and academic blogging look like. For example I have done some textual analysis on academic blogs and we published a very early paper. But we have been looking a bit more seriously at doctoral blogging within this kind of approach. We have been thinking about how this letter on the blog, in Foucault’s terms, allows people to bring things together and makes sense of this heterogeneous, contextual narratives that form this kind of correspondence. This constitutes identity and, even when you are writing to somebody else, Foucault says:

The letter one sends in order to help one’s correspondent – advise him, exhort him, admonish him, console him – constitutes for the writer a kind of training (Foucault, 1994, p. 215).

So, for example, this clears how the supervision relationship also continuously forms the supervisor in thinking what is important in research and writing. At the same time it is forming the kind of doctoral researcher. There is reciprocity here in this kind of feedback, a mutual form that goes along.

The PhD enterprise under duress. New texts, new genres?

These are the helpful theoretical resources to think about writing, partly because they focus on the genre of the letter and who the audience is, who is reading and who is not reading, in a very complex way. Nonetheless, I also bring some kind of “unease” about blogging and I have written on my concern about the proliferation of what I call DIY Doctorate which is the availability of this night and day, 24 hours, supervision and support that people can constantly get online. Some of this is fantastic but a lot of that is highly commercialised and it seems to be part of a responsibilising process: doctoral researchers take on from themselves the responsibility for going out to all kinds of advice and decide what is ok and what is not, quite often not in conversation with their supervisor. Together with some other colleagues we are trying to do some work around what this landscape is. Of course, it is marketing, it is self-promotion, it is people selling PhD, it is another kind of academic labour in this feral space as well. Anyway that acts, for me, as the boarder context to blogging and the “unease” I have about the interest that institutions now have in that and the kind of rules that are emerging in some places around social media. We have seen people already beset for things that they have said on social media and for things that they have written in blogs particularly in US context, but there were a couple of incidents in Australia as well.

In a little project Mewburn and I have done, we have done a very little survey of doctoral bloggers. It was voluntary, whoever chose to respond and advertised through tutors. We were asking people who were blogging why they did and what they did. We had 300 responses and the kind of major things that came out, the reasons why people blogged are the following:
Blogging is a way of forming a scholarly persona as well. There is this kind of performative sense of writing and the scholar that I am becoming. It is a quite strong sense of becoming through blogging. Bringing in Foucault again, this is a way of creating the entrepreneurial self, promoting the academic self. It is a kind of “look at me, me, me!!!” Or sometimes people are creating different kind of persona and they feel they are able to do within the constraints of higher education.
The next thing that came up quite strongly was this kind of sense of thinking slowly. Here blogging is a way of exploring ideas, keeping things open and this is really interesting as well. An easy explanation would be that this is a form of resistance to this kind of acceleration within the academy but of course it might not be. It might be about demonstrating a particular kind of intellectual style. There are different ways of coming at these results that we have got from this survey.

A number of people said that they just enjoy it. Some of them have been blogging before they started blogging as doctoral researchers. They blog simply because of the pleasure. But again maybe they are highly performative, celebrity academics get a lot of pleasure in publishing themselves as well, but maybe it is another kind of pleasure. They are writing for seek of pleasure, of exploring and expressing. So there are very multiple ways of dealing with this.
We found that one of the most common reason for blogging was to share knowledge and clearly you can see how this meets the need of contemporary institutions: we are supposed to do networks, we are supposed to talk to each others, we are supposed to share our knowledge and indeed a lot of knowledge we are talking about was pretty transmission, it was very much about telling people about our own research. On the other hand, a kind of knowledge sharing can also be a block against this individual and very competitive environment. In fact, this is a problem that a lot of people feel. The fear of people who are blogging is “someone could steel my work” and someone always has a story about their work been stolen.

So that is where we are at the moment. Thinking ideas around this kind of questions and how is the academic writing fixing into the overall academic project. On the one hand, the project of having to make your mark versus one intimately difference, how these things can come together, and the imperative that institutions now place on us to think in the very long term what our project it is going to be and to identify, particularly for those kind of performance management regimes, where people look at what are you going to produce, what forms are you going to apply, where are you going to publish in the next five years in order that you can be written about in this kind of way: ‘The work of … is best known for…’.

There is lot still to think about in relation to academic writing, its pleasures, its purposes, the difficulties people have and the ways in which we do and don’t conform to the kind of genre. And I just want to finish by saying I think there is fair evidence now that the thesis and the journal article to a lesser extent is under some duress from people that are producing different genres and texts.
There are people from humanities who are producing very different kinds of non-linear texts which are much less written-based and much more bringing together archives in very different kind of ways, and use of art forms, use of images for instance. All of these are producing different kinds of texts, of writing genres. I read a very interesting PhD work, a couple of years ago, by a mathematician that was written in three voices: the first voice is the reflexive mathematics researcher; the second is the researcher doing the mathematics research, it is about the method research; and the third is the meta-researcher arguing with the establishment saying why this work should be taken seriously and in this form. I think this shows that the outer layer, that universities are becoming more aware of different ways to write something. But the challenge remains: what then are the characteristics of the work that is expressed in the text that actually show that this is a doctoral level or this is a sufficiently scholarly standard to be published? I think that PhD nowadays has a very uncertain base: it is different things in different places, there are different regulations about what goes with it. There is a lot of debate about whether this is producing the new fast, academic already published, whether it does allow the formulation of the big questions or the big theories in the way that you might do running a big project. These are all debates that I think we are going to have over the next few years and I think that what we don’t want is that EU, the Bologna hand coming across the PhD and trying to regulate the text. It seems to me at the moment that the writing of the PhD is under some duress, but is also a very variable and fragile enterprise, the enterprise of the doctorate!


Curry, Mary Jane and Lillis, Theresa (2013) A scholar’s guide to getting published in English. Critical choices and practical strategies. New York: Multilingual Matters.

Lillis, Theresa and Curry, Mary Jane (2010). Academic writing in a global context: The politics and practices of publishing in English. Abingdon: Routledge.

Thomson Pat and Kamler, Barbara (2013) Getting published. Writing for peer reviewed journals: Strategies for getting published. London: Routledge.

Thomson, Pat and Kamler, Barbara ( 2016) Detox your writing. Strategies for doctoral researchers. London: Routledge.

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