Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

My Space

It’s always interesting watching people who aren’t familiar with academic blogging try to come to terms for the first time with what an academic might do with such an online space. One of my first-year students heard about the blog for the first time yesterday, and blurted out: “Oooh, cool – so it’s, like, your MySpace site!” (Given how greatly amused other students were by this comment, I gather I’m not commonly perceived by students as someone who might have a MySpace site…) I think some faculty colleagues have similar assumptions – I have the distinct impression that certain specific staff members think a blog is a chat room: they make comments that suggest they visualise text streaming past, and wonder how I could possibly write anything serious in such a format.

What’s a bit more odd to me are the disparaging judgments that periodically crop up on academic blogs themselves – there seems to be a common judgment that discussion that happens on academic blogs can never be properly academic – that academics may happen to blog, but that the notion of an “academic blog” is an oxymoron. I always find these observations somewhat odd – among other reasons, because they imply that only a very specific type of reflection or speech or writing “counts” as academic – specifically, the kind of reflection and writing possible in a lengthy, peer-reviewed academic journal article.

What’s odd to me about this truncated definition of academic speech is that, if anyone were to apply it seriously to contexts outside of blogging, it would exclude the overwhelming preponderance of the kinds of reflection and discussion that academics actually do – journal writing and field notes, water cooler discussions with colleagues, conversation and writing for seminars and many conference presentations, teaching, supervision… I assume that other academics learn and refine their thoughts through these looser, more informal kinds of academic reflection, speech and writing – that these activities are, in fact, part of the way we all prepare for the more formal kinds of writing that is expressed in peer-reviewed journals, part of what helps us lift our game for serious scholarship. It’s fairly easy to see how something like academic blogging “fits” into the context of these more informal, but common and important, academic activities. And yet, for some reason, academic bloggers themselves often single out blogging – of all the less formal media for academic exchanges – for criticism.

I wonder at times whether I react differently from some other academic bloggers because I never expected academic blogging to be anything other than what it is – a medium for less formal intellectual exchange, appropriate for refining draft ideas and writing, which introduces a useful incentive to raise your game a bit because it is possible for unknown and unanticipated readers to comment on your work… I see academic blogging as fitting somewhere between the informal conversations in which we solicit feedback from academic colleagues, and the seminar or less formal conference presentation at which we solicit feedback on draft writing… For this purpose, I think, the medium is really quite good…

8 responses to “My Space

  1. Sarapen October 26, 2006 at 2:22 pm

    How odd, I’ve recently been blogging about the exact same thing. Mine is actually a research blog dealing specifically with my work on Filipino bloggers but which has (inevitably?) morphed into a blog about some of my intellectual preoccupations. It’s kind of funny how often I keep apologizing for the unpolished nature of my writing. I really should stop being so self-conscious. Besides, if I’m not being paid or graded for it, then I should damn well be able to blog about comic books and tv shows.

    Don’t feel bad about not having a MySpace, though. I research blogs and I don’t even have one (I just think the design is really ugly). However, I do have a Xanga and a LiveJournal, and I even occasionally use the latter to discuss theory.

  2. N Pepperell October 26, 2006 at 7:18 pm

    Oh I don’t feel bad about not having a MySpace “presence” – and I think it’s generally a good thing for my students to be so certain in their convictions of how uncool I am… ;-P

    On the polished/unpolished writing thing: that was actually probably the main reason, initially, for me to start this blog – to force myself to expose draft-quality writing (and draft-quality thinking) to other people. I had a strong tendency, previously, to wait until everything essentially was publication-ready before anyone saw or heard it. The results weren’t bad, but I actually like the creativity that results from sharing ideas while they are still in the process of formation – I think that concepts come together faster, and are generally more robust, from having emerged through some kind of interactive exchange. The blog was my way of forcing myself to overcome a kind of underlying shyness about my ideas…

    The impulse to apologise for the roughness of the content and presentation remains (it’s built in, after all, to the name of the site…), but this doesn’t reflect, for me, any uncertainty about the value of blogging as an academic activity.

  3. Victor October 28, 2006 at 12:26 am

    Myspace…I do have one, created about a month ago. If you do happen to visit my site there you would find I don’t have much stuff on there, and apparently it’s not an academic site, to start with.

    I have to agree with you on that blog is really useful for one to expand his.her thoughts, academic thoughts inclusive, and receive feedback.

    I want to, however, elaborate on where a class discussion fits compared to an online blog like this. The basic way I can explain my thought is by using this following analogy: An Asian might not be comfortable of walking into a room and speak to a group that he/she is not known to, and in this case, blogging might be a better ground for this person to expand the thoughts he/she has, and solicit feedback. In respond to your view, I do not see that in terms of formality, blogging is necessarily sitting in between a formal discussion and a seminar as such. Using the example I gave, how comfortable one feels about the setting almost determines how formal one perceives the setting is. Obviously, it is used to determine not only formality, but along with some other things.

    By the way, I am not talking about comfidence. For people like me, I guess it is crucial for them to feel they are listened to, and respected. The hard truth is, such an ideal environment doens’t always prevail nor is present, and we just have to cope with it.

    One fear that I personally might have, is it is hard to fully “throw ourselves out there” when we are not convinced that people will understand where we come from.

  4. N Pepperell October 28, 2006 at 2:30 am

    Your course offered an online space for student contributions to provide such an opportunity.

    The discussion of formality in the post above relates specifically to how blogs compare with peer-reviewed academic journal articles, as forms of professional communication, so it’s a bit different from the issues you raise.

    All educational environments in which student work will be assessed – whether these are online or in-person – require a level of formality as the interaction is fundamentally a professional, not a personal, one.

  5. Bruce October 28, 2006 at 10:38 pm

    As a non academic may I suggest that the reticence of some academics about “academic blogging” has a number of aspects to it. Firstly, as you point out, blogging is a medium that it is not subject to peer review in the same way as publications in academic journals are. But as you also point out there are other forms of academic communications that also does not have peer review. However the difference to blogging is that other forms of academic communications are still usually with other academics (or trainee academics) – the people at university around the water cooler are most likely going to be other academics. This is not necessarily the case with the blog – the blog is available to the wider public (and wider academic circles) without any filtering process to ensure standards and or orthodoxy is maintained. The other aspect which makes it different to the water cooler conversation is it is not just passing. The blog is written word and while it has elements of transience it is available for quite a while in the site’s archives.

    The internet has posed problems for a number of industries and professions. Travel agencies are suffering as people book directly online, classified advertising is moving on line as just two examples amongst a myriad. Prior to the internet who got published and who did not get published was determined by a small subset of the academic’s peers. What options were there if deemed not worthy of publication for whatever reason (even after rewrite) – as far as I know none. Internet comes along and now it there is the option of publishing a rejected article onto the person’s internet site or blog. Perhaps next time they will skip the peer review process altogether, publishing straight online.

    Also now non-academics can publish online too. Previously if a non-academic had what they thought might be a useful contribution to a field of knowledge there were few options (letters to the editor – might not be published, go to university study for 8 years or more then try to publish – I think not, write a book – again might not be published). With a little skill they can now set up an Internet site (or a blog) and publish for the world to read. There is no peer review process. It may be difficult for lay people to even differentiate an academic blog from that produced by the non-academic. Is this good or bad? Probably aspects of both. Surely it could be conceded that not all wisdom comes out of academia, in which case that this work can now be made available, where previously it may not, must be seen as good. On the bad side what is thought to be wisdom by the author may well be drivel – I am sure I don’t need to tell you there are many examples of this on the net – many more than examples of wisdom.

    So you have two mediums for publications: – 1 – peer review journals which are exclusive to academics and whose content can be controlled by academics; and 2 – the Internet which can be “published on” by both academics and a non-academics with equal ease and prominence, and which no-one controls.

    Perhaps therefore academic blogging (and Internet publication as a whole) may be seen by some academics as “the thin edge of the wedge” leading to the ultimate break down of the peer review process and perhaps even the special place held by academics in society as the holders of knowledge.

    However this is a very narrow view of the possibilities of blogging for academics. Whatever happens the Internet and blogging is not going to go away. Academics need to embrace the new technology and grab its opportunities (as you have Nicole), tackle its perceived problems for their profession and get on with it. An “Academic Blog” is not an oxymoron (I love that word – I must look up its derivation sometime), it is a new form of academic communications, within the continuum of other communications options, which can embrace a community wider than academia.

    And Nicole – keep up the good work – I enjoy this Blog immensely.

  6. N Pepperell October 29, 2006 at 12:31 am

    Hey Bruce! Good to see you posting!

    There’s a wide-ranging debate over the value – and the future – of peer review, and you’re right that academic blogging attracts such strong emotions, in part, because of its potential or perceived connection to this wider debate.

    Part of the problem, I think, comes from viewing blogging as a form of “publication” rather than, for example, a form of conversation. When you view blogging as a form of publication, then the obvious analogy is to a vanity press: as you’ve said, something someone might resort to when their work has already been rejected by more reputable presses… So there’s an immediate unsavoury association…

    There’s also a potentially more valid fear that blogging makes it easier for academics – who as a rule have properly “academic” expertise in only a very narrow area – to cast the “aura” of academia over a wider range of positions, in which they are no more qualified than any decently-educated non-academic.

    I acknowledge this risk, of course – I just don’t believe it’s specific to blogging. Among other things, almost all academics end up in this situation to some degree when they teach (very few people can get away with teaching only in their narrowly-defined specialisation), and we teach before an audience far more structurally vulnerable than a blog reader is going to be…

    But teaching beyond specialisation is such a familiar dimension of academic work that it simply isn’t problematised, while writing outside of specialisation – whether in the popular press, public intellectual writings, activism, etc. – has a long history of being looked down on to some degree within the academy.

    Personally, I think it’s very important to distinguish when you are speaking from a level of academic expertise, and when you are speaking in a more exploratory fashion, or drawing on academic expertise to explore a non-specialist field. I think, however, that it can assist this goal to admit that academics in practice do engage in a rather wide range of speech and writing – only a very small portion of which meets our own conceptions of “gold standard” peer-reviewed publication.

    To me, the appropriate way of managing these concerns is to become more aware and more explicit – across the range of academic speech and writing – of the potential ethical implications of claiming academic authority. I see academic blogging as an opportunity for specifically non-authoritative academic speech and writing. In some cases, we may be then be able to develop from draftlike blog discussion into something better grounded and more formal; in other cases, we may be undertaking the equally valuable task of refining our sense of what we still don’t know…

  7. Russ November 1, 2006 at 5:30 pm

    There are a couple of things I find interesting here. I’ve written about them before, and would like to do so again, when I’m not both insanely busy and coughing up objects that look like swamp creatures.

    The first is the way universities periodically reposition themselves in relation to the community. Not often mind. But there have been several periods where universities became so hide-bound that their role in progressing and debating knowledge was taken over by others (from both within and without the academy) – particularly when some means to do so had become more readily available. The “men of letters” that made up the Reformation led to much more open fields of inquiry during the Scientific Revolution, much as the salons and societies of the French and Scottish Enlightenments led into the German doctoral thesis of the late-19th century till today (to be extraordinary rough with history). If sufficient numbers of academics were publishing on public blogs, the way students and society access university scholarship could change quite substantially.

    Secondly, the way knowledge is disseminated and debated within academia. Fields with a dozen scholars can be managed through personal correspondence; with more you need institutional structures, journals and conferences. As the number of scholars continues to expand further, the number of really new ideas that should be read widely is being swamped by the publishing of interpretations and evidence that is specific to a field. In this respect, blogs offer an interesting way to discuss ideas without publishing formally. Perhaps in the future, substantial levels of collaboration and debate will precede actual publication (and hopefully the number of actual publications will vastly decrease).

  8. N Pepperell November 1, 2006 at 6:21 pm

    Hey there you – always good to have you around, but I wasn’t expecting to hear from you until things are calmer on your end.

    I doubt that a bit of rough history will hurt the rough theory normally discussed around these parts…

    A very good friend from a certain previous university used Eisenstein as a jumping off point for his early work – it’s been a while since I’ve thought of her writings. There are similar patterns (openness and experimentation, followed by professionalisation and closure) mapped in many works on the sociology of religious movements – we used to discuss to what degree the recurrence of this theme reflects how scholars are drawn to finding these sort of patterns (e.g., because they reflect certain quite visible recent historical trends to which we are somewhat highly sensitised at the moment), and to what degree one could tease out more transhistorical patterns… It was a nice bit of metatheory on how best to conceptualise complex layers of historical causation, useful to distract us when we were procrastinating on our theses… ;-P

    I have a long-term interest in the strange faith that is periodically placed in technology as the driving force of social change – I’ve written a bit on (and would like to revisit more systematically) the issue of how faith that a technology will force a particular social or political outcome can serve to work against whatever outcome people believe the technology will drive… But this is potentially a somewhat involved issue – it can wait for another time.

    Feel better. Get things done. If there is any way I can be useful, let me know. (People do, very occasionally, find that I can be useful… ;-P)

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