26 April 2011

Why Academics Should Blog: A College of One’s Own

Every now and then I make the mistake of confessing to a colleague that I blog. They usually greet this confession with an uneasy smile and follow it with a look that says: “do you really have time for that?” I understand what they really mean: a serious tenure track assistant professor does not have time for blogging. With respect to my colleagues, they’re wrong: graduate students, post-docs, young faculty, and senior faculty too, should do more blogging not less. And, moreover, institutions of high education ought to start recognizing such work as an important component of a scholar’s profile.

An amazing teacher taught me the form, mechanics and sweat of composition in high school. I deserve credit for the grammar and spelling errors - they are all mine. But he helped me to understand the art and tone of truthful writing. He encouraged me to rewrite drafts completely. He suggested ways of outlining essays, showed me essay styles, and always argued for the importance of pre-writing. He also showed me that writing was one of those activities that required diligence, persistence and above-all continual practice. Those last qualities are the ones that I think deserve further consideration, as they are undoubtedly the best reason to blog. But let’s take those as given and begin by asking why people are suspicious of blogs. After that, I will suggest reasons why instant publishing should be given greater respect.

The New Is Suspicious: A History of How We Got Here

It’s probably worth pointing out that in most fields (math and physics might be exceptions) when a young academic departs this earth prematurely the loss is one of potential. Academics at the end of their careers – provided they have continued active scholarship, research, and contemplation – possess a finely honed expertise. They are solid, knowledgeable, deeply-grounded and for these reasons they often eschew new developments in their fields – be those intellectual, technological, or institutional.

Young academics often mistake this attitude for complacency, conservativism, or, at worst, cynicism. For the serious senior academic, however, their resistance is simply more complex than that. Ultimately, the work of scholarship requires (to borrow E. P. Thompson’s phrase) task orientation, which ironically requires time, work and discipline. No amount of technology or fad will change those facts. Young scholars have only their creativity – they do not have the luxury of experience. When an old academic passes away, it’s a tragedy. When a young academic dies, the lingering question is “what if?”

Now this attitude might seem wholly backwards given the title of my essay. Firstly, I am arguing that scholars should use a new technological medium. Secondly, especially in the sciences, isn’t it the young scholars who are in the vanguard of progress? The latter observation is easier to tackle than the former. In the sciences, young scholars often possess knowledge of new techniques. Unfortunately, these new techniques usually only lend themselves to the exploration of old questions, and despite the overconfidence that comes with new measuring sticks, we usually find that our knowledge has been but a little improved. Putting it differently, after forty years of research, many academic scientists will discover that they have inadvertently become historians. I say this with no trace of irony.

So much for the latter argument. But what of the former? Are there any reasons to blog that can escape the scrutiny of our senior, wiser colleagues? Let me offer some by way of a brief history:

Universities have traditionally been communities of scholars. In their older forms, those wonderful institutions had modes of practice that aided scholarly engagement, especially across the so-called two cultures. There were debates, competitions in oratory, and professors offered lecture series (usually to their students and colleagues) that served after criticism as the foundation for a series of articles or chapters in a monograph. In addition, many universities had faculty clubs or dining facilities. And the institution of the pub was never far off in many an academic’s mind.

But for many very good reasons, those institutions began to change in the 20th century. In some sense, each was evidence of the non-democratic nature of the university. The pub, of course, was self-evidently a chauvinist institution (and in some sense still is), but many of the academic clubs and dining facilities were largely the domains of confirmed bachelors. And in the case of family men, those university facilities were largely structured around the lives of scholars who were dependent upon a division of labor in their households that by the 1950s was beginning to dissolve and by the 1990s had vanished. Many of those university institutions depended upon the ability and desire of faculty to participate in them. To say that it had become impossible for many of those institutions to survive would be understatement. They were, in effect, anachronisms of an older age.

There were other social pressures as well. The opening up of the universities from the 1950s-on had several implications. One was that universities became more democratic institutions, and in the 1960s and afterwards, many academics pushed back against the culture of privilege that had seemingly thrived in the centuries before hand. If the university was to be open to all irrespective of race, class, and gender, then the old stuffy bastilles would have to be transformed into institutions not only able to cope with the change in student diversity but also openly welcoming of it. A number of very positive developments occurred in administration and student engagement. Alongside the sports, philosophical clubs, biology reading groups, chess leagues, and the Friday night astronomers, were new offices and groups devoted to encouraging diversity in taste and tradition. Faculty options for engagement in their universities proliferated.

These were good changes. They were modernizing changes. But they carried one cost. Increasingly, there were few facilities beyond the regular colloquium (cookies, tea, and coffee inclusive) where young faculty could engage with senior faculty within their university. The disciplines became bizarrely more disciplined. The reading groups within departments often found themselves short of faculty. Cross-disciplinary work became harder to maintain – especially as the universities began to adopt corporate models of scholarly production that quantified output in teaching, research, and grants.

Strategically, young scholars and scientists saw that it was in their best interest to look outside of universities to likeminded partners who could carry on the business of collaboration (which was often intellectually fulfilling even as it was productive in research, grant success and citation). In other words, further social pressures pushed colleagues apart. It became harder and harder to ask colleagues: “will you read this article” or “do you have time for lunch to discuss ideas.” Not that the answer was invariably no – it wasn’t. But because it had become evident that what most academics required was a ‘college of one’s own’ – yet the pressures of teaching, engagement and productivity within the university were headwinds against the formation of such a culture.

The Problems of A New Culture: Why You Should Blog

But a college of one’s own is essential to scholarship. Sometimes we get lucky and our collaborators are able to participate in that world, but more often they need us for narrower purposes: our technique, students, or grants. Who then to bump ideas off of? Who to share our latest little discovery or epiphany? How to communicate the interest of an article or book? Where to find a reader? Who will forgive us our latest and dumbest ideas? How to feel that slight flare of getting the last word in a debate among learned colleagues. A blog can provide those things, and more besides and that’s why we need more blogging, not less.

The amazing thing about blogging is that an author can capture all of those feelings that sustain scholarship – that make a college of one’s own. With a blog an author can publish small pieces of information that are necessary for the development of his or her writing but are not essential features (example here) and will never see the light of day otherwise. Such pieces of information can sometimes form the backbone of a steady blog readership. Moreover such information can help communicate empirically to a potential press the size and variety of audiences, and, in turn, publishers can use the existence of the blog as a means for promoting new volumes. “Mind Hacks”, for instance, has done this very well.

Blogs are also a fantastic motivator to further reading. A blog author can publish reflection pieces that critique recent articles or books and thus develop a perspective on recent arguments that can be tried out on an early audience – who will (sometimes) even spend the time to comment on the views. Blogs can also publish book-reviews, which means that the savvy blog editor can request review copies from publishers and in this way keep current without incurring costs. Usually journals offer volumes to experts with the most knowledge. This service may be great for senior scholars but usually disadvantages young scholars who often cannot afford the volumes but nevertheless may need to read them and own them. Publishers ought to love this mechanism, because blogs publish instantly, which means that news of the volume spreads more quickly than the usual cycle of quarterlies.

But there are still further advantages. A well-kept blog develops a following of unlikely and often-highly educated readers with a variety of professional experiences. They will sometimes send letters with observations or reprints and these can deepen the scholar’s perspective. Alongside twitter, a blog can also be quick way to assess recent literature that may be of some use and thus promote continual reading. Everyone knows the risks of reading less, and everyone also understands why reading can sometimes wane as a career matures. Since I started this blog, I have kept reading not only academic journals in my fields, but other journals, long-form journalism, and general blogs by some of the best bloggers in the trade, figures like Andrew Sullivan and Paul Krugman. I have also started following blogs by some amazing scholars in my own areas of research and professional practice – it is hard to think of blogs better than “Biomedicine on Display” or “Ether Wave Propaganda.”

But most importantly, scholars need to make everything they do count in multiple ways: those blog book reviews can become the foundation of essay reviews or serve as literature reviews for new articles. They can also act as brief and searchable notes for teaching purposes that help to maintain a critical and cutting-edge classroom. Similarly, brief critical reflections on recent articles and books can develop with time into abstracts for conferences and workshops, which can become the basis for further grant applications or new articles. The joy of reading a new primary source can be shared with others who have read it and also enjoyed it. And the little things matter too: blogs come equipped with the capacity to tell you that a reader came to your site and read a page from your blog. Sometimes that reader stays for less than 10 seconds. Sometimes they stay for an hour and 1 page turns into 17 pages.

My argument is not a plea to replace peer-reviewed articles, scholarly monographs, bibliographies, translations, and scholarly editions with self-publishing. Far from it! I am saying that as the university has changed – changed for the better! – some of the necessary features of university culture have not yet found a new formulation. Scholars and scientists need spaces to debate, to exchange the pleasures of discovery, and to communicate with each other. They need places to talk about books, articles, experiments, and technologies. Such spaces foster rigor and discipline and openness. And for those of us who teach many courses every year, blogs additionally provide us with a place to give writing its required diligence, persistence, and above-all continual practice. While the detractors of blogging might point to less public venues for this activity – journals, diaries, or letters – they forget that an audience of one or two can be profoundly limiting. A college of one’s own, by contrast, can become a lifetime of opportunity and passion.

12 comments:

  1. I agree that we should blog, and not just for the reasons you suggest. What has happened over the last twenty to thirty years in both the US and UK is the almost total exlcusion of the expert voice from popular political discourse. It sti...kes me, then, that as adademic we should take advantage of the incredible power of the online community and use it as a means of intelectual and polticial expression. What had been remarkarble about many of the student and anti-cuts protests over here in the UK is the way in whcih bloggers have become virutal clelebrities. Indeed, some 'intellectuals' seem to be forming complelety beyond the boundaries of the academy. I think we need to jump on board lest we be left behind. Now, once I grade these papers I will almost certainly make a start. Well, after I finished that book review anyway ...

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  2. Brilliant analysis. As a sociologist I particularly like the way you pull the history together. I agree that blogs can fill the void left by senior common rooms (at their best) and faculty clubs. Though I also think there is a good case to be made for common rooms and coffee breaks.

    Anyone who thinks that the kind of complex analysis and writing necessary for a formal journal article can be produced without considerably discussion of work-in-progress (by whatever means) beforehand is deluded. Blogging is not a drain on productivity but potentially a boost.

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  3. Blogging and social media in general (FaceBook, Twitter, Linked In, etc.) are important tools of the modern age. Social media's intent is to share knowledge and provide opportunities to connect with the holders of that knowledge in a more direct form. We can "friend" or "like" or join a "stream" of information that seems to be tailored to our direct needs.

    Social Media also provides us with an effective tool to share our knowledge...disseminiate it amongst the community. This, in my opinion, is an important aspect of academic research. Ultimatley, most researchers want their research results to end up in the hands of those who can use them, right?

    Social media, especially blogging, allows us to share our knowledge in its most pure form. We are free of editors who need to tailor a message with the publication in mind. When we blog that information the only filter is our own. We can speak directly to our audience and provide information they are looking for directly to them.

    Ultimatley, social media is born of a new age of technology. It is not a fad. It will not pass over into the history of the internet and be forgotten. It is a known fact that today's generation seeks out information and news via Twitter, Facebook, and their favourite blogs. Social media provides direct access, quick access, and allows the user to tailor the information to their own needs and wants.

    Make no mistake, social media is not a passing fancy. It is fast becoming main stream. As an academic, you are most likely an expert in your field. Why not open up your research and knowledge to the masses and allow us the opportunity to learn directly from you?

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  4. I agree, i believe every academic / researcher should have an active social media profile. I am currently running a series of blog posts on www.phd2published.com on social media and I am creating courses on using social media for research and researcher development for King's College London. As well as developing a site to support the project.

    I will add a link to your post on PhD2Published

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  5. This is a comment to Mike as much as anyone else.

    Firstly, hi mike, small world.

    Secondly, why don't you blog that book review, or at least notes you've made around it that won't quite fit in the review itself but I know you'll be bursting to talk about.

    Treat blogging as an open notebook. Each post doesn't need to have a huge audience.

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  6. "With a blog an author can publish small pieces of information that are necessary for the development of his or her writing but are not essential features"

    This is so true ! With the publish or perish policy, a lot of researchers publish useless articles, or unfinnished work, but to have more publications. I guess that blogs offer a nice alternative... One can post pieces of research, or elements that can be discussed before thinking of publishing them in a peer review academic journal !

    Anyway, it is always good to see that all of us have the same comments and remarks from our colleagues...

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  7. Excellent comment, Stephen, I've furthered it to my colleagues and postgrad students

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  8. It's not wrong spending such time in blogging in fact it is considered as a hobby and even a good way of sharing one's thought to another. .

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  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  10. Thanks for the post,

    My colleagues and students often ask me why I blog; now I can tell them. For me personally, I don't see the time issue as a big deal, as long as you enjoy writing for your blog it becomes your hobby. I also find that I tie it into current projects and presentations so that it enhances my academic work, rather than detract from it.

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  11. Hmm it seems like your website ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I'll just sum it up what I wrote and say,
    I'm thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I'm still new to everything.
    Do you have any points for inexperienced blog writers?
    I'd definitely appreciate it.

    andrew ting md

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