Moving from peripheral participation to communities of practice: writer’s group in an education faculty

Rowena Murray

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


The background to this topic is the growing pressure on academics to produce certain types of published output. In Education faculties this can create tensions: between having impact on professionals and impact factors of journals, between reaching large audiences through practitioner journals or books and small audiences through journal articles or between profile in the profession and profile in research. These tensions do not make professional and academic writing mutually exclusive, but they can be difficult to resolve both for academics at the start of their careers and experienced lecturers in Education with a profile in the profession. This paper reports on the study of an approach to resolving these tensions: writer’s group.

The context for this work is a UK teacher training college that merged with a university in 1992. In 1994 a writer’s group was established in the new Faculty of Education to initiate writing for academic journals in preparation for the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) of 1996. More than ten years later, this study followed up academics who participated in that group. This study was supported by the university’s Research Development Fund.

Writer’s group has a long history (Gere, 1987), but has only recently been adopted in university settings (Lee and Boud, 2003; Murray, 2005; Elbow and Sorcinelli, 2006). While positive impact has been demonstrated, there has been limited theorising. This study used the work of Lave and Wenger (1991) to explore the processes involved in a non-technicist way.

The focus of this enquiry was the perspectives those in writer’s group had developed between 1994 and 2007. The aims of the study were (1) to explore memories of participating in writer’s group, (2) to discuss writing goals, practices and aspirations and (3) to establish the extent to which they felt writer’s group had affected their writing practice and published output. In addition, this study was intended to stimulate reflection and action and to shed light on the perceived culture for writing. Ethical approval was granted by the researcher’s department.

In order to access memories, recent experiences and current activities, the method used was three one-hour, one-to-one semi-structured interviews. The first interview was a ‘memory jogger’, generating narratives of academic writing over the ten-year period. The second focused on themes emerging from the first interview. The third focused on formative experiences related to writing. Ten academics participated in three interviews.

Interviews were transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were coded for emerging themes and checked by an independent researcher. Second and third transcripts were analysed for recurring themes. Analysis drew on the work of Lave and Wenger (1991), in terms of focusing on these academics’ negotiations of a writing identity. We analysed their accounts in terms of the positioning of research and writing for publication in their careers and their positioning of themselves as writers in their fields and in the institution.

This study provided information about factors that these academics associated with scholarly writing. It revealed motivations for writing and identified perceived ‘micro-cultures’ for research in the faculty and beyond. Although these participants worked in the same discipline – Education – different ‘routes to writing’ emerged.

More specifically, five of the ten had written for publication over the ten years since writer’s group. The others had produced non-academic writing. Strategies used for academic writing included ‘snack writing’, ‘just writing’, goal setting, developing the writing habit, structure, shared writing, developing networks and targeting journals. All these strategies were an integral part of social practice at writer’s group. Differences in perception of writing between academic writers and non-academic writers were identified. Most felt that there was no real culture for writing in their departments. Across the group there was ambivalence towards writing for academic journals.

There were distinct differences between teaching and research identities, and this analysis produced insights into how this tension was managed. For many of these participants, and, by their accounts, for their colleagues, this tension persisted in the build up to RAE 2008.

This study contributes a deepening understanding of the negotiations of the academic writing self; these are not the initial negotiations of new writers, but the complex negotiations of experienced academics over a prolonged period, including three RAE cycles. This study shows how academics, writing activities and the contexts in which they work mutually constitute each other (Lave and Wenger, 1991: 33).

This study has significance for educational practice, policy and theory. In practical terms, this study shows that writer’s group can help academics to negotiate peripheral participation in research (as defined by the RAE). In policy terms, as Education faculties develop research cultures and increase research funding, this study shows the value of not only developing new researchers but also supporting academics throughout the career cycle. In theoretical terms, this study reveals interstitial communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991: 42) where writing for publication may be situated. These points raise questions about how writing is positioned in departments and how it is configured in academic workloads, and there questions about power and control that Lave and Wenger’s theoretical model may not address.

Elbow, P and Sorcinelli, MD (2006) The faculty writing place: A room of our own. Change, November/December, 17-22.
Gere, AR (1987) Writing groups: History, theory, and implications. Carbondale, ILL: Southern Illinois University.
Lave, J and Wenger, E (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lee, A and Boud, D (2003) Writing groups, change and academic identity: Research development as local practice. Studies in Higher Education, 28(2): 187-200.
Murray, R (2005) Writing for academic journals. Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes
EventBritish Educational Research Association: Annual Conference 2008 - Herriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Duration: 6 Sept 20086 Sept 2008


ConferenceBritish Educational Research Association
Abbreviated titleBERA 2008
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Communities of practice
  • Academic practice
  • Academic Writing


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