I had an email today from someone wanting to talk to me as an academic who blogs and asking how blogging might help with my work. The amusing aspect of this request is that in the past week I have taken down my work blog on the basis that I am generally uncomfortable posting anything even mildly controversial to it, and the wider its readership (currently not wide because I don’t actually advertise my blogs anywhere), the less controversial I would be willing to be.
This is more of a reflection on my perception of my workplace than on whether or not anything I say is truly controversial or whether or not management actually has a view on blogging – but it is a still a disturbing aspect of the “new academia”. I am not comfortable having a blog as my personal commentary on issues of the day. I suspect part of my lack of comfort is because it would not have the balance of a range of other commentaries on the same issues when few other academics at my institution blog. Also in the field of online learning, it is not clear who are the “experts” since online learning is still relatively new.
But there also seems to be less of an ability or willingness these days to distinguish “role-based professional views” (me in my organisational role) from “professionally-informed personal views” (me as an academic psychologist) from “personal views” (me). My views on blogging and on online learning and the world in general differ in my recent role as Head of an Online Learning Unit, versus my academic role as a cognitive scientist / IT specialist interested in forms of communication, versus as me unbeholden to anyone else.
I would love to be able to say that blogging has allowed a return to the more collegial aspects of intra- and inter-disciplinary engagement, providing an avenue for sharing informed but relatively informal perspectives on current topics despite the busy-ness of the academic day compared with 20 years ago. I would love to be able to say that I have got to know a range of my colleagues I would otherwise not have known by reading their “conversations” on their blogs or having them interact on my blog. But in fact, through blogging, I have got to “know” a range of people from across the world rather than from my own location – this is good, but it is also a bit disappointing. All my previous forays online have primarily involved maintaining social networks that exist face-to-face rather than meeting new people. I have spoken on a number of occasions formally and informally to colleagues about blogs, but the response has been luke-warm at best.
The main reason I blog as an academic is that it forces me to think through what I write at a sufficient depth to “put it out in the world”. I tend to blog longer pieces on a particular idea rather than shorter commentary on issues of the day. It may be a quirk of my own style that I need a potential audience to clarify my academic thoughts, or it might just be a quirk of being an academic in a non-teaching role … perhaps as a teaching academic, the audience of students continually tests one’s thoughts. Then again, as a teaching academic, I would be much more likely to blog regularly to round out the topics being taught beyond the formal curriculum. I would also encourage students to blog and to share bookmarks.
I originally got into blogging as a way to store annotated bookmarks to things I’d read online – still at bloki.com from 2003-2004 but I now think that something like MediaWiki offers a better solution. The blog version allows me to find things that I read in passing and deserve a closer look, whereas the wiki version allows me to keep the most up-to-date view of what I’ve read prominent, and lists articles by topic.
I’d have to add that another reason I blog is that I think scientific publishing is struggling. In the attempt to quantify research quality by counting publications, academics responded by publishing every idea as a separate little paper rather than saving things up until there was something worthwhile to publish. So it is very hard to read “the literature” because it is heavy with quantity but light on quality. It is hard to find “seminal works” in an area over the last 20 years because everything comes out as drip feeds to ensure maximising publication quantity. Blogging allows a constant feed of fresh ideas without burdening the academic publishing system, and I would rather publish regular blog articles online while I write a substantive book than churn out a series of low impact publications, each of which says very little. Blogging ensures that I am contributing to the general knowledge base if people want to read what I have to say, but I’m not forcing my views on anyone who doesn’t want to listen.
The major difference between “blogging” and maintaining a personal website is the fact that blogging is based around date-based entries whether or not the temporal aspects are important, but that distinction is blurring. The ease of use of blog tools makes them a tool of choice for webpublishing irrespective of the “bloggyness” of content. The best improvement in WordPress (my favorite blogging tool) is the ability to create static web pages as well as blog pages, although I haven’t really played with it much. The best improvement in MediaWiki(wikis being the obvious alternative to blogs as an easy web-publishing tool) is the new focus on allowing restrictions on authoring – this is against the true web spirit of total openness, but much more realistic in terms of understanding human nature (there really are people out there who have nothing better to do than deface other people’s work) and accepting that it takes time and a certain degree of exclusivity to build online communities.