Building a community of writers in a university: An ethnographic study

Saunders, Claire (2020). Building a community of writers in a university: An ethnographic study. EdD thesis The Open University.



This study investigates the role of a writing community in the development of academic lecturers’ writing practices in a new UK university, where teaching is prioritised and research is less prominent. In recent years this university has identified an improved position in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) as an institutional priority. The competing priorities encapsulated in this apparent shift in balance between teaching and research provided the backdrop for considering the challenges of building a writing culture in this context and investigating the role a writing group might play in such an endeavour.

An ethnographic case-study approach was used to build a rich picture of the writing group and its activities over an extended period of time, drawing extensively on participants’ own words. The findings are presented as a series of stories, and they reveal the changes in writing practices that occurred as a result of participants’ involvement in a writing group. From a socio-cultural perspective, it is argued that the space within which the writing group occurred was socially constructed. To this end, theories of identity and space help to unravel the complex factors that affect the development of academics’ writing practices.

The findings suggest that the writing group helped to establish writing as a priority for participants. It also changed the ways in which they thought about writing and about themselves as writers. The ethnographic approach revealed a detailed picture of its communal and dialogic nature. The space was shown to be instrumental in helping to define the nature and purpose of writing for the individual participants and the group as a whole. However, the findings also demonstrate that these changes proved difficult to sustain beyond the boundaries of the writing group, and that the reasons for this need to be set in the wider context of the institutional challenges facing new universities in the UK. The study concludes that the writing group provided a space where writing was legitimate and valued, and that its potential might be fully realised in an institutional context that articulates a clearly defined place for writing within its academic community.

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