University of Cambridge: “Write fewer papers, take more risks”: researchers call for ‘rebellion’ against academic convention

A group of education specialists are urging researchers to challenge the “structures and regulations” which define academic scholarship, arguing that different approaches are needed in an age of climate change, COVID-19 and rising populism.

“Nobody is claiming that academic writing is pointless, but why is it the norm? If we want research to address the biggest challenges facing society, we need academics to have the confidence – in a sense the permission – to depart radically from it. We need to be braver and take more risks with what we do.”
Pamela Burnard
The appeal is the starting point for a new book which questions prevailing orthodoxies in academia. Its editors, who are four academics based in Britain and Australia, invite university staff to “rise up and rebel” against these conventions. They attack the assumption that the main output of research should be papers for scholarly journals, describing this as the “boring stuff” of their profession, which often undermines its quality and public value.

Instead, the book calls for more university researchers to “depart radically” from traditional modes of academic production and combine forces with organisations beyond the ‘academy’, “to do the radical kind of work that the world needs right now, in a time of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising nationalism and populism.”

It examines, in particular, how this could be achieved through the arts. In a wide-ranging survey, different contributors cite examples of how academics have used creative writing, poetry, podcasts, music – and less obvious media including circus arts and magic – both to communicate their work, and as research tools.

The book, Doing Rebellious Research in and beyond the Academy, has been co-written by social scientists, critical theorists and performing artists. It argues that although universities often claim to be interdisciplinary, many academics still work in silos – rarely collaborating with colleagues, let alone beyond their institutions.

It adds that this is often a consequence of convention and not intention, and that rather than being inherently remote and ‘stuffy’, as cliché might have it, many academics are under constant pressure to publish in specialist journals. The volume itself is an anthology of “creative essays” exemplifying alternative ways to present research: as creative writing, poetry and art.

Pamela Burnard, one of the co-editors and a Professor of Arts, Creativities and Educations at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “Universities are meant to exist for everyone’s benefit. It’s bizarre that their main research output is complex, esoteric writing that only a few other academics read or understand.”

“Nobody is claiming that academic writing is pointless, but why is it the norm? If we want research to address the biggest challenges facing society, we need academics to have the confidence – in a sense the permission – to depart radically from it. We need to be braver and take more risks with what we do.”

In the book’s prologue, the editors quote a similar point made by the anthropologist, Mary Pratt, in 1988: “How could such interesting people, doing such interesting things, produce such dull books?”

They argue the arts provide alternative modes of expression that give non-academics better opportunities to connect meaningfully with academic ideas. They also suggest that when used as part of the research process, the arts give academics a means to ‘live’ and ‘experience’ their research as something creative and engaging. This often enables them to see the work differently and innovate further. The book provides numerous examples of how this has been done by researchers around the world, using forms such as dance, the visual arts, poetry, hip-hop and podcasting.

One example is the ‘Departing Radically in Academic Writing’ programme in Australia, which trains postgraduate students not just to turn their research into creative writing, but to use it as a research method. Its methods include ‘thesis drabbling’, in which students summarise their thesis as 100 words of stream-of-consciousness prose. Students say this has helped them to make their work “more human”, focus on its real purpose, and reconnect emotionally with why they wanted to do research in the first place.

Elsewhere, the book presents the recent case of a University of Cambridge student who used podcasting to collect data from students and staff for a study about how COVID-19 affected university life. It explains how the project stemmed partly from a dance workshop and ended with her releasing an electronica and spoken word album featuring performed fragments of the interviews on Spotify, to convey the fears and anxieties experienced on campuses during lockdown.

In a separate chapter a psychologist discusses how she used slam poetry and spoken word art to get marginalised young people to open up about their experiences of social injustice. She concludes that poetry can be used to challenge established “notions of what research and knowledge look like.”

This book also touches on even more offbeat artforms. One chapter, for example, reports on the Stockholm University of the Arts ‘Department of Circus’. This trains circus performers but has also used the unexpected realm of circus arts, and their capacity to test the extremes of human ability and self-control, to undertake studies into issues such as teamwork and collaboration in high-risk environments.

In similar vein, a chapter co-authored by a medic, an award-winning biomechanics researcher, and an illusionist and escapologist, write about how the Academy of Magic & Science has created ‘magic shows’ which introduce audiences to transdisciplinary practices and ideas connecting diverse fields such as engineering, chemistry, electronics, physiology, psychology and performance cultures. The co-authors argue that the careful structuring of magic acts, to provoke curiosity and surprise, could be applied more widely in scientific writing. They suggest that presenting research as an illusionist might do could engage wider audiences far more than the “cold lists of data and conclusions” in many scientific papers.

Burnard said she fully expects the book, which features plenty of other, different examples of rebellious scholarly writing, to be “written off” by some scholars. “Our ideas and intentions are challenging – but that’s something that academics are meant to be,” she added. “The emergence of unimagined possibilities should be celebrated.”

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