Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Blogging in the academy
I wonder if this is true: Martin Weller (professor of educational technology at the Open University) in today’s Guardian:
“People like me try to encourage people to blog,” he says. “Universities as a whole are moving to recognise digital scholarship as a valid form of academic activity, and starting to recognise things in promotion criteria such as blogs and being part of an online community. We’re trying to encourage that, particularly for the OU,” he says. “TV defined us previously and digital is going to define us now."
Universities recognising digital scholarship as a valid form of academic activity? Counting blogs etc in promotion criteria? I have my doubts.
If those are separate, then I bet that’s true. Some kinds of digital scholarship (NINES, et al.) surely count.
And depending on how “promotion criteria” are defined, and depending on the kind of blog, blogs/online stuff could certainly count. (Community engagement, professional service . . . at some schools, these are part of promotion criteria, too. Some random low-traffic blog shouldn’t count toward *research*--but anyone in charge of The Valve would have a case for including it in their portfolio under these other criteria. And even I talk about things like hosting Teaching Carnival episodes in the teaching part of my portfolio.)
I’d agree with Jason that blogs could easily count as forms of community engagement or even professional service. Hosting a Teaching Carnival would certainly be a good fit, but so would activities such as The Valve’s “Theory’s Empire” discussion.
This is one of the perennial Valve topics. Assuming that it will come up every year, I’m waiting to see some trend in how conversation about it changes.
My unscientific impression: more and more perfunctory, as the ground changes to:
1. Everyone blogs;
2. No one cares whether you have “a blog”;
3. Digital scholarship done on blogs get re-written into whatever form of scholarship actually counts;
4. The top fraction of a percentile of bloggers gets some career boost from their popularity, but its a very small fraction. Essentially you have to be the academic-blogger equivalent of Atrios.
You can flip this around a little, too:
... “journals will become something like blogs with footnotes: unedited texts, glittering with insights, but also blemished with errors that no informed eye has picked up, and succeeded by angry, scatological discussion threads.”
-- Anthony Grafton’s prediction of intellectual work in a Web-based world, in Worlds Made by Words.
This is one of the perennial Valve topics.
Well, I can see why it would be.
Adam, I have my doubts too--except that the longer the conversation goes on, the more inclusive it might become. Motivated in part by the MLA’s recent report on scholarly publishing etc., for instance, my own department has recently revised its guidelines for tenure and promotion to, among other things, encourage a more flexible range of measures for scholarly contributions. I expect the MLA report, along with other factors, has stimulated a lot of conversations, from informal chats among colleagues to departmental or even decanal discussions. It will be interesting to see how things develop.
It’s probably going to be up to people who are active in unconventional forms of “knowledge dissemination” to make the case for their value in the way they think best for each particular example. While I agree with Jason that it is dicey to argue for (most) blogs as “research,” it also seems inadequate to consider a lot of them forms of service, or even outreach--though that might be part of their purpose or value. A lot of the value supposedly attached to conference-going comes from relatively informal things like airing and hearing new ideas, getting some give-and-take on work in progress, and so on: isn’t (some) blogging about just the same things--only cheaper and open to a wider audience?
In any case, I think to keep talking about these questions (even at the risk of boring Rich) is important because they haven’t been answered yet.
What is that guy talking about with TV?
The widespread incidence of transvestitism in academic environments, I assume.
By writing that it was perennial, I didn’t mean that I was bored with it. But the direction of the repeated conversation indicates, I think, that the bloggers both “have won” (in that blogging has become much more routine) and “have lost” (in that blogging doesn’t really count for much).
The Open University used to deliver courses in part through TV, so if you were studying with the OU there would be a programme related to your course on TV (often in the middle of the night), so TV defined the OU for the UK public (the writer thinks).
These days that kind of content is delivered on the OU website, including wikis, blogs and other forms of electronic communication.
I think that’s right. I think there’s also a danger that discussion of this topic, especially amongst academic bloggers online, is informed by a kind of wishful thinking. ‘I’ve written all these thousands of words ... I’ve put all these readings and clever critical points into this medium ... surely it must count for something.’
(My ‘that’s right’, there, related to Rich’s comment)
I think the degree of adaptation to the digital age varies dramatically from place to place. It sounds like Open University is taking a very radical approach.
My own university did not consider any of my blogging as “research” in my own tenure case. Luckily I had enough by way of conventional, peer-reivewed publication to squeak by, but my 100,000 or so words of literature-oriented blogging, some of it on the meaty/serious side, did not help me.
It was understood as “service” in the sense that this kind of writing can be a way of raising a scholar’s individual professional profile (very slightly) as well as that of the university itself (again, very slightly). So it’s service; it still counts, doesn’t it? Actually, not so much. Many research universities only play lip-service to service (and even teaching).
“Digital scholarship” is being counted and accepted many places, but it helps if there is some kind of external funding or conventional external review process. An NEH grant to do a digital archive will easily count as “research”; reviewing books on a literary studies weblog may not.
Junior faculty who are bloggers should talk not just to their department chairs and senior colleagues (who, as friends, might be overly generous in their assessments), but their *Deans* to find out what the prevailing attitude about online writing might be at a given place. Adam’s comment about “wishful thinking” hits close to home for me…
Is it “wishful thinking” that this activity should in fact be valuable, or “wishful thinking” that its value be recognized by chairs, colleagues, and deans? I think that makes a difference. If in our hearts we know that blogging is just something we do for our own interest (and perhaps because it gives a little momentum to our “real” work), that’s one thing. If we believe academic blogging is of at least as much professional value as some of the other activities for which we do get some credit or recognition, but other people don’t understand this, then it makes sense to keep educating them about it. I have found that most people (in and out of the academy) have no idea that there are blogs that include anything more substantive than cute cat photos and personal trivia. Those who take the trouble to look at a wider range of blogs tend to revise their own initially dismissive assumptions, at least a little.
Rohan, I think I am at heart someone who does believe in the potential professional value of academic blogging. I agree that supporters of this mode of writing and online community building do need to keep educating others, but I think people should also continue to think seriously about how they want the non-blogging world to assess writing published on the internet.
I think the value of self-published writing on blogs might be objectively assessed on a “piece by piece” basis, rather than a categorical basis.
That is to say, an intelligent model might involve a blogger-scholar who wished for blog-writing to count could pick out a “10 best post” list for outside reviewers, a department, and the administration to read. It’s not “blogging” as a whole that might count or not count, but actual specific pieces of writing.
I think it might also be worth thinking about whether, in addition to normal outside reviewers (within a given field or period), blogger-scholars might want to find “senior” blogger-scholars who could be asked by a department to assess the scholarly value of someone’s blog writing.
The language of “value” in this conversation is interesting, since one of the things this conversation reveals is differing notions of what is valuable scholarly work.
For one thing, a scholarly journal article will be read by a very particular scholarly audience, while blogs can be and are read by a still-particular but differently-so subset of the total human population. The assumption is that the former is more valuable in a scholarly sense, but it seems like this is one of those taken for granted but not really examined assumptions that’s this kind of conversation forces us to rethink a little.
For another, as someone who has fully internalized the time frame of blogging—in which events in “the real world” and new ideas can be and are incorporated into the conversation almost immediately—it is shocking to realize how incredibly slow journal based conversations are. An argument that emerges fully formed from my brain today will likely not end up in print for years, meaning the first journal based response to it will not occur for twice that time period. This, I think, is why so much of what was cutting edge in the 80’s is still so imperfectly incorporated into “the” larger academic conversation, why posts like Amardeep’s on hybridity are still necessary and useful: academic publishing moves at a snail’s pace, and not in a good way.
Yes, the academic blogosphere really does have intellectual benefits along the lines that Rohan and Aaron are suggesting. Here’s an example from right around the corner. I post a longish note on Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. But, while I certainly liked the post, still, I had a sense that I’d been aiming for something and had missed. Adam comes along and reads it (as I had hoped) and appends a passage from a blog-post he’d written on Conan Doyle’s Lost World. Wouldn’t you know, he provides just the corrective I was looking for. That exchange would have taken two or three years in the world of print publication, if it would have happened at all.
Amardeep’s suggestion of a 10-best post list for review purposes is helpful, but I think something’s missing. Imagine that you’re on the evaluating end of that list. You read one of the posts and found it quite interesting and thoughtful. But, you don’t know the literature in that field at all so you have no idea whether or not the post is a contribution or simply an elegant rehash of existing work. If that same work had appeared in a reputable journal you have some assurance that it represents a contribution.
Beyond that, if someone has half a dozen articles in good journals, that in itself says something that you can consider without reading any of them. Lazy? Sure it is. But that’s how it is. Lots of work, little time, so we need quick fixes.
These comments are all helpful for me to think about right now as I’m hosting a brown-bag session on academic blogging at the annual ACCUTE conference this weekend (for you Yanks, that’s the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English). If anybody else actually shows up, we’ll have at least these issues to discuss. If I’m there all by my lonesome, well, it will give me something to blog about…
The big issue for me is that if blog work isn’t formally counted i can’t currently justify taking time from refereed pubs and other brownie points accrual activities in order to write blog posts that are worth reading. Maybe in a couple of years, if blogs are still around then, but not now.
I still think that good blogging is actually worth a good deal more, in the ways that actually matter, than many other status-oriented types of writing and publication, and I don’t want to believe that the intrinsic worth of blogs like Rohan’s and Amardeep’s isn’t immediately apparent to everyone who pays attention to them. But I’m not capable of being adequately productive in too many directions, so for now, I’ve got to concentrate on the safe stuff. Although sometimes when I think about what my own blog has degenerated into I feel guilty of potentially bringing the entire cadre of academic bloggers into disrepute.