Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

“Mainstreaming” Academic Blogging

I have all kinds of responses owing to various people – apologies for this: I’m booked absolutely to the gills this week, conducting field interviews for a community development project, and then involved in an annual planning process within my university. I really do want to pick up on the various hanging threads, but may not find the time to do this for several days.

Evidently, I don’t believe that my comment debt has grown large enough, however, because I did want to toss up one new question for consideration. I just received this from my university:

The project we’re working on is an amalgamation of current blogs produced by academics into a best of the best style tumblelog (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tumblelog) that can work as a place where people can see the ideas coming out of the University.

This is the first step in creating an atmosphere of blogging throughout the University to help build a community based around academic thought and its relationship to the world. It will help to build a reputation … as a place for experts.

This is an achievable goal but only with your participation.

In this first stage, the tumblelog will link directly to existing blogs and feature posts from those blogs as they are updated.

My impulse, I have to admit, is to decline to participate in this project. I feel somewhat perverse in saying this, as I’ve put some effort into promoting the concept of academic blogging within the university, and defending the potentials of the medium for serious intellectual exchange. I have no idea how widely read my blog is within the university, but most people who know me, have probably heard that I maintain an academic and a course blog. So it’s not as though I’ve kept the blog secret, or assumed that what I write here would have no ramifications for my professional work. I think it’s generally a good thing that blogging become accepted as a potential medium for serious intellectual exchange, and I personally use blogging to try out most of the concepts I later use in more formal work. All of this suggests, I suppose, that I should be comfortable with the idea that my posts might be syndicated through something like the project above.

Strangely, though, I’m finding myself having a negative reaction to this request.

A large part of what makes blogging valuable to me is precisely that difference in style, tone and content that differentiates it from other forms of academic writing. And I find myself wondering how that difference in style, tone and content meshes with the notion that the blogs of university academics will somehow showcase the university as “a place for experts”. Something about this formulation sits very poorly with how I understand blogging – which, among many other things, I value for its (occasional and partial, but still important) puncturing of claims to expertise. And not simply due to the risk that someone might leap from the ether with some kind of devastating critique, but also because the sort of intellectual production that takes place via blogging is often raw, and dynamic, and strangely collective in extremely complex ways – my felt experience of blogging, and my personal motivation for persisting with the medium as a major medium for my intellectual work, don’t mesh well with the notion, tacit in the formulation above, that blogs might be a means for experts to disseminate their views to a broader (passive?) audience.

I may be over-emphasising the focus on expertise in the invitation above – this may be more of a throwaway line, with unfortunate unintended connotations.

I am curious, though: how are other people struck by this notion? Would other bloggers be happy for their posts to be syndicated on a university-branded site? What impacts would you expect such a formalised syndication arrangement to have on your writing? What problems – and what benefits – would you anticipate?

16 responses to ““Mainstreaming” Academic Blogging

  1. Kauders October 31, 2007 at 12:10 am

    I’m with you on this one. Actually, for me, the appeal of a blog declines proportionally to how many readers it attracts. My own has no readers at all, which is how I like it.

  2. Joseph Kugelmass October 31, 2007 at 5:51 am

    NP,

    I’m in the middle of this-and-that, helping my students get ready for their midterm, but I wanted to quickly point to an answer I hope to more fully develop later.

    You do have a great deal of specialized knowledge; the fact that you’ve worked so passionately on your series on Marx is testament to that fact. Most people simply do not know Marx at any level of detail, much less through a process of methodical close-reading. So, in that sense, you can legitimately lay claim to the mantle of expert — in fact, you can hardly refuse that title. :)

    At any moment where the university comes to expect a certain recompense for the attention it gives your blog, you have the right to refuse — for example, you can refuse to be more muted, you can refuse to limit yourself to certain subjects, and so on. However, taking at face value the possibility that the institution genuinely wants to embrace certain versions of the blog medium, it is an opportunity to expand the collectivity upon which all our blogs are founded; it is another kind of association to which freedom dialectically submits itself in order to be real freedom.

    Of course, there is an intuitive way in which we know that such projects always contain hidden expectations, or at least bind us to what has already been our habit. In general, I try to deal with those things as they come (“working through” them, if you will). A willingness to allow the possibility of an eventual confrontation seems most proactive and progressive to me.

    But what do I know? I wasn’t invited to the UCI Blogging Panel happening tomorrow, and so must shed bitter tears.

  3. N Pepperell October 31, 2007 at 8:35 am

    Kauders – lol! Yes – that would solve my problem.

    Joe – Yes – you hit on what I’m worried about (and also on why I might still consider participating, in spite of those concerns).

    My worry is that, if the university begins to re-present blog content under its own “brand”, in some sense, as an aspect of its formal promotion to the broader community, that there could be some pressure to write on topics, or in styles, that somehow “reflect well” on the university.

    I haven’t been concerned about this happening simply from the fact that people know my university affiliation, and also know that I have a blog, and I also wouldn’t be worried about this happening if this were simply a matter, say, of listing the blog on my own staff page – or even listing a link and a blurb about the blog on some central list of faculty blogs. It’s the specific notion that, effectively, any new post here will automatically be featured (at least in its title) on a university-branded space, which seems to be being understood as part of the university’s, if you will, marketing and promotional strategy – particularly when that strategy seems to be conceptualised in terms of showcasing our expertise.

    The issue isn’t so much that I don’t think I have any expertise – although, again, if this is being thought of as a marketing exercise, has the university thought through how that “expertise” might appear when, for example, someone clicks through to one of my posts about Marx, and sees other people debating or querying ideas in a post: this is what I actively want from blogging – this is why I do it – but the activity intrinsically involves opening yourself to contestation. I think this fits very, very comfortably within the ideal of the academy – I’m very comfortable defending this as academic work. But I regard academic work as a collective, contentious, somewhat raw enterprise – and I like exposing some of the actual process of thinking and contesting ideas, among other reasons because I think this process is often edited out and rendered invisible in the polished forms in which most people encounter most academic writing.

    But in a way, this is a specific kind of political position about academic production (without claiming there is any earth-shattering significance or impact to this politics, but just to capture that I wouldn’t expect everyone within a university to agree with this kind of goal) – and I’m therefore not sure how well it sits inside a marketing framework for the university. And I’m particularly unsure that this is what the university thinks it will be getting through this kind of promotion – I’m wondering, I suppose, whether they’ve thought through the kind of image the promotion of this medium might give them. If they have, and they are comfortable with that image, then of course I’m more comfortable with the concept.

    At the same time, although I have areas of expertise, a great deal of what I write here lies outside those areas – and, although recently the blog has been more focussed on issues more central to my own work, because I don’t have as much time to explore other things due to other work pressures, I don’t intend to approach the blog as a place I can only write about things I know well. Even where I do write on topics where I have substantial background, I’m fairly open about the raw edges and gaps within that background – I’ll ask people for reading recommendations, admit that I haven’t worked through problems completely, etc. Again, to me this is an essential part of what I “get” out of the medium – any expertise is, in a sense, incidental to the process – what I already know or have already mastered to some degree, becomes a sort of foundation I need to lay out, in order to reach what actually interests me, which are those areas of intense uncertainty that I need to work through with others.

    Again, I think there’s an important purpose to be served, in exposing this dimension of intellectual production. But it’s not as though I write what I write, the way that I write it, thinking all the time about this, as it were, rationalisation for why it might be a good thing to do: although I can defend what I do in these terms, the reality is that I do it because this is what my work process at this point requires – what helps me to work through complex problems whose solutions really do require a fair amount of collective effort. What I’ve learned, not just about what’s out there in the rest of the world, but about my own project, through blogging, has been simply irreplaceable. I have literally no idea how I would have done the work I’m doing now, without the sorts of critical kickback I’ve been able to receive in this online community.

    But this raises another point: that blogs, when they work well for intellectual production, often do take on aspects of a community – and, as in other communities, conversations and activities take place that don’t have anything directly or formally to do with what brought the community together. Scott has been recently discussing using his blog as therapy – things like this happen – you share jokes, or despair, or personal idiosyncracies: does the university want my random reflections on klein bottles to pop up on its “experts” page? More seriously, does it want, say, the “Am I an Academic?” discussion to pop up? Or one of my discussions on gender issues that persist in the academy?

    Again, I think there are some potentially important issues of academic politics (and, in a more mundane way, academic identity) involved in these latter two posts – and I think people in the sector should be discussing such things, and that these are proper topics for professional attention, but I wouldn’t myself raise them in a marketing brochure, and my concern is that this project is being conceived as a form of promotion, without prior discussion of whether the university has a commitment to promoting anything like the network of values that informs (or rationalises…) this and other blogs…

    So I’m torn. On the one hand, I have been very open about these precise aspects of the medium, as I have promoted it: I’ve been fairly clear how I use blogging – but I also haven’t promoted it as a medium for everyone (I don’t really think it makes sense, for example, to seek, as in the project above, to “creat[e] an atmosphere of blogging throughout the University”), and I’ve tended to conceptualise it, more as a medium for intellectual exchange, than as a form for advertising the sorts of things someone has been thinking on a topic…

    If the project were framed differently – less interested in getting everyone to use the medium (a framing that, to me, implies that the medium is being conceptualised as a very neutral form of dissemination of information, rather than as a platform for discussion and debate on potentially very contentious issues), and less oriented to expertise (a framing that, again, implies some sort of distribution of polished and finished pieces, from a secure foundation), I would be less worried that this might lead to a train wreck of clashing expectations down the track. And, while it’s one thing if such a train wreck leads to a simple withdrawal from this project, the worry, of course, would be that it would lead to something more serious: to some sort of notion that any public presentation in some way represents the university, and therefore should conform to certain standards for neutralised professional exchange – it’s this potential for kick back against the medium in a broader sense that most concerns me.

    There are some practical strategies that could at least reduce this risk: the most obvious one would be allowing bloggers who participate to “opt in” on a post-by-post basis, rather than (as is currently proposed) having the university site syndicate everything that goes up from selected blogs. This allows for some differentiation between blog posts that are written more for the regular community that gathers around a blog, and blog posts that are more reflective of mainstream academic production (somewhat, perhaps, the notion you might use in deciding which of your posts to reproduce on The Valve). While the syndication might, of course, draw traffic over to the original site, that still seems better than having literally everything posted here, immediately draw attention to itself on a university-branded space. Of course, this might provide further grounds for a complaint, if something does come to be voluntarily cross posted, which is then deemed inappropriate in some way…

    At any rate… too much blather from me… :-) I haven’t decided what I’ll do other (other than, as I said above, suggest some potential tweaks that would at least open the potential for a distinction between the originary blogs, as personal spaces of intellectual production, and the syndicated collection on the university-branded site). I am, though, very interested to hear how other people think through these things – for whatever reason, it had simply never occurred to me that the university might try to get a project like this underway…

  4. SEK October 31, 2007 at 9:04 am

    N.P., I’m with you about not wanting the university to publish a direct feed of my blog, but I could imagine a system whereby posts marked with the equivalent of this badge would be included in a university-based blog of some sort. That would allow you to retain the feel of your blog while affording the university the opportunity to showcase some of the behind-the-scenes intellectual work that goes on in a university environment.

    Joe, you’ve been invited to it, you’re just not on it. You should be, but I didn’t have any input into the participants.

  5. N Pepperell October 31, 2007 at 9:08 am

    SEK – Great minds think alike? ;-) I’ve suggested something like this in my initial email exchange with the folks organising this project – although I hadn’t seen the icons – many thanks (will give me the ability to say that this is the done thing ;-P).

  6. rob October 31, 2007 at 9:30 am

    Hm. I don’t know how much this comes across in my comments here and elsewhere, but I’m actually rather ambivalent about academic blogging — at least, for myself. It’s not a question of the so-called “nature”, hence limits, of the format or medium (etc.), nor of the lack of any real protocols for ensuring or registering “quality”, nor of any other stock-standard criticism of blogging. It is straightforwardly a matter of style, in the sense of “I’m sorry, but I don’t do blogs”. I prefer to heckle from the sidelines.

    Having said that, the second that the University/Faculty agrees to count blog publication as a mark of research activity (i.e. “productivity”), I’ll have a shiny new blog up and promoted and filled with bite-sized commentaries on whatever happens to take my fancy.

  7. N Pepperell October 31, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    rob – This was part of my reaction to the project proposal, as well: I’ve never understood blogging as something that would need specifically to be driven by a university (although I’m happy to have it supported, and obviously it would benefit me enormously to have the blog considered part of my formal research activity). When I’ve discussed blogging in academic contexts, it’s not been with any notion that everyone should run a blog as a matter of course: some types of research interests probably won’t suit the format, many people are uncomfortable with the notion of using the medium – and many people simply lack interest. I don’t see blogging as something that everyone needs to engage in the same way or to the same degree.

    Although my bigger worry, obviously, is that it might not have been thought through, whether the university wants to “brand” the sorts of discussions that take place in settings like this…

  8. Andrew October 31, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    I think you’re right to take a cautionary stance toward this enterprise – though as someone who’s studied/worked/lived in and around higher education for many-odd years, it’s probably just my cynical streak at work.

    Still, the endeavor as you’ve described it doesn’t seem fully or particularly well thought out. It’s not the first time that a well-intentioned institution has considered tapping into the latest technology to demonstrate and take advantage of the fact that they’re up to date with the ways people are now communicating with one another. But this can backfire, a bit: the kind of rawness, as you say, and occasional misunderstandings that occur in conversation are what gives blogging at its best its immediacy and vitality, but may not provide the best resources for institutional self-promotion. It’s these quasi-conversational elements, I too worry, that might disappear a bit when even a well-constructed, deliberately crafted post is taken out of the sometimes speculative and ruminative contexts in which they were generated and presented as an example of the institution’s stock of expertise, however expert the post may be.

    I suspect your blog attracts the reliable readers it does not only because of the topics covered but because of the erudition, elegant prose, and good manners – all carried out even in the context of struggles with difficult material. But as you suggest, neither the material nor the medium may be for everyone, and I’m not sure purposes of communication or understanding are served by choosing a post here or there for public consumption. Even a labeling or badge system doesn’t remove this problem, at least as I can imagine it: does this one get the star, but not that? Hm. Everything here seems of a piece. This may not hold true for other kinds of bloggers or bloggers, though, so for them participation in such a project may be more congenial to and consistent with their own understanding of what they are up to.

    That said, I still feel that academics may serve their institutions better by keeping their blogging activity just a bit in the shade (though perhaps not the full depths of darkness, where Kauders seems to like it!) – a public corner of private exploration, or is it the other way around? If a university wants its bloggers to show off their expertise, they should create an on-line magazine and have them take turns guest blogging on specific topics, for specific purposes. That’s my off-the-top suggestion, at any rate.

  9. N Pepperell November 1, 2007 at 7:58 am

    Hey Andrew! – The online magazine concept (or some kind of formal faculty group blog, or similar) is probably the safest way for the university to approach this – although, of course, that would basically end up being an online version of some of what they already do to promote research being done by the university (something which doesn’t bother me, but might well strike them as though there wouldn’t be any “value add” from the concept of tapping into blogging). And, of course, this would then make the project something that requires additional work from faculty, when I’m sure they were hoping to sell the project, in part, on the grounds that it wouldn’t require anyone to do anything they weren’t otherwise doing.

    All that said, I’m inclined to agree that blogging, although it’s technically accessible to “everyone”, in practice heavily self-selects, at least for its regular audiences. This self-selection crosses many internal academic boundaries, and some of the boundaries between the academy and other intellectual spaces, which is one of the reasons the medium can help people to stretch out a bit, but the element of self-selection – of people looking for, and lingering in, online communities in which they have some sort of ongoing interest – is also part of what makes the medium useful: even where there isn’t sympathy, there is at least a level of long-term familiarity that makes certain kinds of high level intellectual exchanges possible. And, of course, also provides a context in which less intellectual moments within blog conversations can be situated…

    All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I’m concerned, as well, about how posts and conversations could be taken, if lifted out of their communal context. I recognise, of course, that there is always some chance that this might happen – that anyone in principle could stumble across what I write here, or deliberately set out to trawl through the archive. And I’ve obviously decided that I’ll deal with those situations if and as they arise – that the value of the medium, to me, is worth these sorts of risks. I just think misunderstandings are far more likely to take place, and also far more likely to have some impact on the university, if something from here is featured under a university banner in some way.

    On a more mundane level: I was noticing that the banners SEK linked to said something like “blogging about peer reviewed research”. I actually rarely do that here… ;-P Almost never, in fact. Although what I eventually submit for peer review has been and will likely continue to be based on concepts that I played with first around here. So if the standard were that I might push across content for a university blog that related directly to peer reviewed material, this actually inverts the order in which I use the blog for my personal research.

    (It’s funny: I was approached a while back by a group of folks who circulate their research with one another privately prior to publication, asking if I’d like to join them. I responded by saying that I was happy to be cc’d on material on which they thought I could reasonably comment, but that I would be unlikely to circulate my own work in that context, as I already have an established community here where I seek out feedback. One response was that I could use the group for material that wasn’t “ready” for the blog. Somewhat to my embarrassment, I had to admit that I’m not… er… that selective about what goes up here – I’m not sure, at this point (early on, it would have been very different), that there is much content that I would consider unsuitable for the blog – I do an enormous amount of thinking on the fly here: if it can’t be written for the blog, there’s a really good chance I’m just not ready to articulate it in written form – in which case, I then pick on members of the reading group who can be made to listen to me in person… ;-P)

    In any event: I haven’t yet received a response to my email expressing some of my concerns about the project. Too early to tell whether this project will go anywhere, in its proposed form or some other…

  10. Nate November 1, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    If this was at my U, I’d decline without a second thought. Writing text for the university with the university’s name on it in anyway strikes me as just asking for the university to start having expectations about the content or style.

    I would however be tentatively interested in having a really academic (in the sense of institutionally affiliated) blog other than my personal (mostly but not entirely) intellectual blog, perhaps as a means for sharing research, coordinating reading, etc.

    I think there’s a sort of parallel between blogs and in person groups (reading and writing and discussion). I wouldn’t want university officials inviting people to my reading group and occasionally asking to sit in (with the expectation of being told yes). By the same token, I’d be more excited to be invited to a really good reading group than to take a really good class or attend a really good lecture or roundtable or similar thing, presuming content being roughly the same. Same deal w/ my blog and the blogs I most like. The informal quality is part of the attraction.

    take care,
    Nate

  11. e November 1, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    One issue is with the temporal location of blogging and the context that blogging occurs in. I see certain posts as being far too easy to be misinterpreted/misrepresented outside the overall context of blogging, which is often more like an informal online conversation, than it is a polished academic piece. I also see it as being a bit risky for younger less tenured/secure academics to shot themselves in the foot, and have something that they wrote be stripped of overall context and brandished against them with cries of ‘But you wrote this!’

    Without consideration of mood, or time at which it was written, etc, etc.

    It is far easier for certain posts, critical of the university or cries of despair over the overall state of ‘the university’ to be ripped out of context and used as weapons to bludgeon bloggers.

    My overall concern is also the amount of surveillance that can also be carried out by management within ‘the university’. While ‘openness’ sounds great, in theory it may also have other power relations/affects wrapped up in it.

    I agree somewhat with a previous poster’s proposition of asking particular people to contribute to a school/faculty/university blog. But this does not remove all of the problems regarding temporality, the context of blogging, the largely informal nature of electronic communication mediums, and surveillance of workers. It does however seem to be at best an awkward compromise.

  12. N Pepperell November 1, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    Nate – I think the reading group analogy is a good one: not sure if you had seen this, but I’ve actually blogged here before about my irritation of having some folks at my university do exactly this with my reading group (such that students have approached me, in one case on the street as I was travelling from one of my classes to the next, saying that they had been told I was running a group they could join, as though this were some sort of official university activity, rather than something that I and some friend had put together on our own time, completely independently from the university…).

    But yes, a university-affiliated blogging space might have some potential – although I think this would be most effective if it weren’t school-wide: so perhaps something could be established between faculty and student groupings who have some research interests in common, such that the blog might conceivably attract a readership. The school as a whole is too disparate (in our local case), I think, for a single blog to make sense (not that you were suggesting this – this is just the impression I got from the limited amount I know about the blogging concept being proposed).

    Even here, though, I think there would need to be some serious discussion about whether, and to what extent, the university is truly comfortable with what blogging is: is it looking to showcase synopses of formal research? does it want academics to stick to their own specialisations? is it comfortable with discussion and debate? within what limits? etc.

    But yes, in terms of my own blog: it’s the informality and hybridity of the medium that engages me, and the medium would no longer be useful to me, if this sort of informal exchange weren’t possible.

    e – This is of course the issue that has prompted concerns over whether pre-tenured academics ought to blog under their own names. It’s a serious question.

    Prior to starting this blog, I had generally participated in online discussions pseudonymously – mainly, to be honest, to conceal my gender, in order not to have to deal with petty harassment (not to mention the occasional out of the blue marriage proposal from European physics professors – but perhaps this latter experience was unique to me… ;-P).

    It was a serious dilemma for me, when starting this blog, whether to attach my name to it. On the one hand, I always had some notion of putting my work up here (although I didn’t, at the outset, expect to be doing anywhere near so much thinking out loud on the blog), and it’s at best awkward to put up your own work pseudonymously. On the other hand… it restricts (although, again, probably not as much as I initially expected it to) what you publish, if it’s attached to your own name.

    My initial compromise was to use my initials, and provide enough information that someone could figure out who I was if they were particularly determined, but not to provide any other identifying details. Then people started quoting me on other sites, and I felt stupid being quoted by my initials or by the website name, so I added the last name. Then I eventually outed the gender as well, because a discussion took place where I felt it was important. etc. And, as a community has gathered around this place, and as I’ve become active in a network of other blogs, various bits and pieces of background have entered the public sphere… So I’ve gradually peeled back layers of anonymity. There is material here that I wouldn’t be particularly thrilled to discuss in particular professional contexts, but the dividing line, for me, has been the question: “let’s say [worst case scenario person] reads this, and calls me in to discuss it, can I handle the fallout?” If the answer is “no”, then the post doesn’t go up… I probably answer “yes” more often than some other folks would – but, again, these are personal standards for how much flak I’m willing to take, if it comes to that – I don’t hold out what I do here as anyone’s ideal practice.

  13. Nate November 1, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    heya NP,
    Yeah, I was thinking of that post of yours when I wrote that. I also should have said, the university sponsored blog thing would really be like bl-ging or something … which is blogging missing some of its elements. Like … diet-blogging, blogging with artificial sweetener instead of real sugar, know what I mean? It’d be only a part of the elements that I really like about reading blogs and having a blog.
    take care,
    Nate

  14. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … is univerity ettiquette? :: November :: 2007

  15. N Pepperell November 1, 2007 at 8:03 pm

    I had been thinking it sounds rather like the sort of research newsletters they already produce… ;-)

  16. Pingback: Academic Blogging Revisited « The Kugelmass Episodes

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