Thursday, 5 July 2012

The ghost of Vole Future

To justify my reduced but still prodigious blogging output, I drank from the well of Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson, doyens of politics and social science academic blogging. Apparently I'm not wasting my time at all: I'm on the cutting edge of the public's thirst for enlightenment (though they're probably thinking about more serious academic blogging than Vole Towers).

One of the recurring themes (from many different contributors) on the Impact of Social Science blog is that a new paradigm of research communications has grown up – one that de-emphasizes the traditional journals route, and re-prioritizes faster, real-time academic communication in which blogs play a critical intermediate role. They link to research reports and articles on the one hand, and they are linked to from Twitter, Facebook and Google+ news-streams and communities.  So in research terms blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now.
Actually, over the past couple of weeks I've assisted an historian at Manchester University and discussed some joint writing with an academic at Salford, and directed someone whose name I don't even know towards some obscure German masculinity theory - all via Twitter.

This is one of the key points for me:

But in addition, social scientists have an obligation to society to contribute their observations to the wider world – and at the moment that’s often being done in ramshackle and impoverished ways, in pointlessly obscure or charged-for forums, in language where you need to look up every second word in Wikipedia, with acres of ‘dead-on-arrival’ data in unreadable tables, and all delivered over bizarrely long-winded timescales. So the public pay for all our research, and then we shunt back to them a few press releases and a lot of out-of-date academic junk.
Blogging (supported by academic tweeting) helps academics break out of all these loops. It’s quick to do in real time. It taps academic expertise when it’s relevant, and so lets academics look forward and speculate in evidence-based ways. It communicates bottom-line results and ‘take aways’ in clear language, yet with due regard to methods issues and quality of evidence. (Twitter is a huge supplementary help, in forcing academics to communicate key messages in 140 characters!)

Or it would be if I had a journal publication history to boast about and then reject. Peer-review is really important still, and speed is less of the essence in literary studies than social sciences, but I'm very conscious that my time is paid for by trash collectors (ironically), nurses and data entry clerks via their taxes, so the least I can do is show them what I'm up to, rather than hide it away in a low-print run, expensive journal. They've already paid for it.

Although I'm firmly convinced that my research interests excite precisely 1 person, with perhaps 5-6 who'd be vaguely interested, it's an academic's duty to behave as though the entire world wants to know.

The only point at which we part company is this: they think the future's in multi-author blogging.
According to some good estimates, perhaps 80 per cent or more of the single-author blogs on the web are currently inactive, or are ‘desert blogs’ that very rarely updated. And this is because people start them with high hopes, in determinedly individualistic mode, but find that hard to sustain after a while. Coming up with fresh content, day after day or week after week, is hard work for any academic, especially in the current climate where there are so many other demands on people’s time. But if you don’t post regularly, in a rhythm that is clear to readers so they know when to come back, then it can be hard to keep things going.
I agree to some extent: if there was a circle of people into the same thing as me, we could get it going, but online social networks are extensions of offline ones. There's one in my field - the CREW blog - but it's geographically determined and not updated very often. I also quite like running my Blog of Random Stuff, though it's a bit rubbish compared with the ferociously intellectual and single-minded ones written by many of the Serious Academics I follow.

So anyway, whenever you groan at my puns or moan about my attitude, remember this: you're looking at the future, pal. Say thank you.

Anyway, despite the essential nature of academic blogging, I'm having a day off tomorrow: going to That London for Olympic meetings. Deep joy.

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