Academic Blogging

An edited version of my contributions to a June 2002 Blogroots thread on the use of weblogs in academia.


As someone who has had a weblog for two years and is now working in academia after a few years away from it, I'm finding the internal conflict between my old research writing instincts and my new blogging instincts quite a challenge to resolve. Blogs can certainly play a useful role from a technical point of view—CMSs have plenty of academic applications, just as they have commercial applications—but for those who become thoroughly immersed in the blog way of thinking and writing, it can be hard to switch back to the traditional academic (humanities/social sciences, in my case) way. By which I mean "short posts written on the fly as part of an ongoing conversation with other bloggers" is not particularly compatible with "long papers written carefully for solo publication".

After you become hooked on the blog style of writing, you might not want to switch back to "5,000 word paper, 80,000 word monograph, or nothing". It's easy to become addicted to expressing ideas in 500 words, 50 words, whatever it takes—and to building up the larger arguments (often in collaboration with others) post by post over time. That's definitely a shift in style from the old ways—a positive shift, in my view. I remember following some obscure academic debate in my postgrad days that was sparked by an article (published with one or two years lead time, no doubt) followed by letters in reply in the same journal (another year or so) followed by letters in reply to those (another year) followed by a book about that particular academic controversy (a year or two for that). How much easier and more productive it could have been to thrash that all out in a few weeks or months online; and books and articles could still have resulted, for those who wanted to sum it all up in one easily accessible tome.

Blogs will surely play a part in the web-driven transformation of the way we write and research in academia. But the old ways aren't going to disappear overnight, and students who find themselves "addicted to blog" may find it harder to switch modes between courses than those who know only the traditional ways.

Still, it's going to happen whether academics like it or not, as more and more students arrive at university with a LiveJournal or two under their belts and are already used to thinking and researching in blog-driven ways. So we might as well try to harness the tools now and figure out how to make them fit into traditional teaching and research.

However: academic performance—the basis of promotion, tenure, renewal of contracts and so on—is largely based on research output. The measures aren't perfect, but they at least give some sort of rough standard of equivalent worth (X journal articles equals Y books, etc.). How do you measure the academic worth of a blog, or a blog entry? Until there's a reasonable and reliable way of measuring that, the "ivory tower" will ignore blogs (or any sort of web activity) for research measurement purposes, and academics will have to keep churning out papers and books. Training students for a blogging academic future won't be doing them any favours if that future never arrives, or arrives too late. Bureaucracies, in education as elsewhere, are notoriously conservative.

15-17 June 2002



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