Saturday, 5 May 2012

Blogging: my route to the top?

Ah, here's a debate that's - for obvious reasons - close to my heart:
Logistics and institutional issues: how do you find time for it, where (if anywhere) should it go on your c.v., and how should tenure and promotion committees evaluate it?
How do I find time for it? By being a full-time slackademic: I stay in the office for ten hours a day but spend rather too much of it blogging, and not about academic things most of the time. I really admire the academic blogging community out there: they do fascinating research then share their ideas with like-minded colleagues. I don't get any research done but do find the time to rant about Paul Uppal, Stoke City and mediocre indie bands. I wonder if these two facts are connected. I even manage to fit in some teaching occasionally

Rohan's questions presuppose an institutional culture well in advance of the one I move in. My blogging is personal rather than professional, and British academia certainly hasn't worked out how it fits into the assessment frameworks we're fitted into. Blogging isn't peer-reviewed, so it's not research. I doubt many of my peers will offer me a promotion on the back of this stream of tedious nitpicking, and tenure doesn't exist over here: we're all pretty much expendable (though I've been invited to undergo 'coaching' for people whose careers are 'in transition' - in transition over a cliff, I suspect).

In a sense, although I fantasise about gliding smoothly through a world of adoring and admiring peers who've found the answer to all extant research questions in one of my tweets, I also rather like Plashing Vole's slight separation from work. Unlike many of the most prominent academics I know, I'm a mediocre bloke with a wide range of interests outside my work, and I like - as you'll know if you're a regular reader - to witter on about them without worrying whether I'm going to be judged for it by my line managers. I'm too shallow and lazy for the very serious and learned debates my peers engage in. Apart from anything else, my field (1930s Welsh political novels) is pretty small and I doubt I'd get many readers sticking entirely to that subject, fascinating as it certainly is.

When I talk about academic matters, I like the freedom to think aloud rather than having to ensure that every sentence is duly footnoted. Obviously that's the case with strictly academic blogging too, but the job market is so cut-throat that I wouldn't be entirely comfortable with putting too much out there. On the other hand, there's a massive queue to get into the journals on which continued employment relies, and posting work-in-progress is one way to contact readers and engage in academic debate.

So for more dedicated people, academic blogging is brilliant: it reaches beyond the closed world of esoteric studies to reach the public. Even for me, Twitter and blogging have got me the occasional spot in the education press, a bit of book reviewing and other things. I just need to crack radio and TV (crack the screen, more like) and my rise to power will be unstoppable. We can use new media (what an embarrassing term) to communicate ideas far more quickly than writing a paper, rewriting it, sending it to a journal, getting it anonymously reviewed, rewriting it, then publishing it to a readership of 12. Whether it's me being snarky or people like Kate being serious and important, the joy of social media is that we're talking and listening to everybody (in theory) rather than circulating views round a very, very tight circle.

I dream of having a book with my name on it adorning my shelves (maybe even others' too) and maybe I'll manage it, but the sad fact is that an academic book costs £80 and won't be read, whereas if I come up with an outrageous pun, a picture of Katie Price and a tweetable line, I can get an idea out there quickly and widely. The sticking point is credibility. If I write an expensive book that nobody reads, I keep my job because it has the imprimatur of the other three people in my field, whereas a widely-read blog is still seen as a bit frivolous (rightly so in my case, but not for others). There's an element of gatekeeping here too: anyone can write a blog on my subject and it won't matter whether or not they're 'qualified': only the writing matters, whereas it's the other way round in the university - students listen to me because they've paid to hear a professional and assume I know what I'm talking about (shhhh). Blogging is democratic, and that scares those of us who turn book-knowledge into dinner on the table. It's also ruthless: a crap blog doesn't attract readers. Hence the electronic tumbleweed round here.

The other thing I really like about blogging and Twitter is its randomness: I've learned loads about related and unrelated fields from other academics, let alone from the hundreds of other people I follow and who follow me. I don't care who you are: if you inform, educate or entertain me, you've added to my world. This may not sound controversial, but too many academics are inclined to assume that the Great Unwashed have nothing to say to us or we to them. I dread researching and teaching into a vacuum like that. So I guess Plashing Vole is here to stay. Keep reading, but start reading others - like Rohan and her colleagues.

Rohan's presentation to her colleagues is here, and it's hugely impressive.

1 comment:

Rohan Maitzen said...

Oddly, given the way I end up speaking out about academic blogging, I don't consider my own blog an academic blog. I label myself "an academic who blogs." Like you, I appreciate the distance between work and my blog, except I think in my case the distance is less, or more occasional.

I agree that blogging isn't itself "research." But it can be closely related to research, it can advance research, it can involve collaboration of the kind that is fostered through other venues such as conferences, etc. So institutions will increasingly be challenged to fit it into some kind of framework, but also, given the enormous variation among blogs themselves (more, don't you think, than between specialized academic monographs, which at least all look and, sadly, sound more or less the same) there's no way to standardize evaluation, I think. Peer review outsources the labor of evaluation from a committee, but I really don't see how there's any way to grasp the nature or quality of an individual blog except to tangle with it individually.

I have a book with my name on it on my shelves. Ironically, the article that anticipated its central findings is cited far more often than it is. But the book has a very nice cover!