“Academic blogging holds out the possibility of extending the role of the academic, rather than threatening its diminution. It allows for discoverability, less specialised communication, and a degree of space and freedom to extend beyond the realms of research.” – Mark Carrigan (LSE Impact of Social Sciences)
Since I started this blog six months ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the act of blogging itself, and the role it plays in academia. I’ve found myself reading blogs by scholars across a variety of disciplines and asking questions like, “Why do some faculty members blog, and others don’t? What do they get out of it? How is it seen by their peers? How is it seen by the university? Who is blogging here at OSU?” Since blogging can be a form of digital scholarship, it seemed worth taking the time to read what other folks have said about these issues and share some thoughts here. This post is the kick-off for a new category on the blog – Scholarly blogging – and a series of posts on the topic.
One of the first things you notice when you start reading about scholarly blogging is that it is a polarizing activity. Those who do it frequently see it as vital to their work, while those who don’t often view it as incomprehensible at best, and a frivolous time sink at worst. Given the wide gap between these two points of view, I think it’s worth starting off this series with an exploration of the reasons scholars blog. In brief, those reasons are impact, engagement, freedom, and improvement.
“Lets face it, not many people really read papers.” – Mathias Klang, Social media and academia: notes from a lecture (Sound & Fury)
I should apologize to Dr. Klang for pulling only one short, rather flip, statement from a thoughtful post on blogging for academics, but…he’s right. Most people don’t read scholarly papers. Non-academics don’t read them much at all. Academics read a carefully chosen subset of them. There isn’t enough time and attention in the world for everyone who might be interested in a topic to read every paper on it, especially when those papers are spread out over a variety of publications and, often, across disciplines.
Blogging is a powerful tool for scholars to bring their work to the attention of potential readers. Blog posts can be used to talk about research in a way that is accessible to non-specialists, or to provide a summary of an article for those who can’t afford a journal subscription. Blogs allow academics to tell the stories behind their research, and to explain its importance to colleagues and funders. For students on the job market, a blog can function as a research portfolio and present a holistic view of their work. All of these extend the impact of scholarship beyond what is possible in a traditional article or book.
Blogging is awesome! My review of Mitzi Morris’ stylometric murder mystery was just commented on by… Mitzi Morris! dragonfly.hypotheses.org/225
— Christof Schöch (@christof77) March 27, 2013
The Tweet quoted here appeared in my feed in March, and I flagged it as a pithy example of the kinds of serendipitous connections made possible by blogging. The possibility of engaging with colleagues and readers in an informal setting is one of the biggest draws of blogging for academics. For the highly specialized, there is an appeal to easy interaction with the small number of people around the world who do similar work. A blog can also surface potential collaborators, or build a network of peers to be called on for feedback or inspiration.
In a well-written narrative, Professor Stephen Curry of Imperial College London describes his journey through blogging into advocating for funding and free speech protections for scientists, and to a curriculum redesign. The kinds of engagement enabled by blogging can be difficult to anticipate, but the opportunity to interact directly with others is one of the most commonly cited motivations for writing a blog.
“As it turns out, blogs are perfect outlets for obsession. Shaped correctly, a blog can be a perfect place for that extra production of words and ideas.” - Dan Cohen, in Hacking the Academy
Not every idea is ready for (or worthy of) the peer-reviewed article treatment. Some are half-baked, some are trivial, some are outside your current area of focus. Writing about those ideas can help with their development, or connect them with the right person, or just stash them on the shelf for later revisiting.
Blogs also provide a place to experiment with heretical ideas or new writing styles in a low-pressure environment. If the experiment fails…well, it was only a blog post.
“…Blogging gives us new and more flexible ways to write about our research which are often valuable in the process of traditional academic writing.” – Lucinda Matthews-Jones, in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online
Academic writing is constrained by convention, journal guidelines, the need for precision, and a variety of other factors. Operating under those constraints, it can be easy to forget that the ultimate goal of writing is to be read, and to communicate something to the reader. Blogging is not only writing practice (a valuable activity in itself) but practice writing in a different style. Blog posts tend to be more informal, more immediate, and more concerned with storytelling than minutia. Accessible writing is a skill, and blogging is a way to develop it. Once acquired, however, the ability to write accessibly tends to bleed over into non-blog writing.
The next post in this series will explore some of the common arguments against blogging for academics.