Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Keyboard warrior offers truce

It seems like every time I use this blog to think aloud, to consider the wider contexts of events in the news, or to discuss the highs and lows of my job, some weasel makes hostile hay with it, either about me, or about my job, colleagues and students. Which is a shame, because we need to be honest about these things. For instance, yesterday's lecture and seminar was really difficult because only a small number of students engaged with the material. The rest reminded me very much of this:

But going by recent experience, this will appear somewhere as either 'Students Are Morons Compared, Not Like In Our Day' or 'Subversive Lecturer Slags Off Students', whereas I'd like to exchange ideas with readers about why some classes work, and others don't, about what I might be doing wrongly and what I might do instead, about whether lectures still have a place, for instance. This rather saddens me. My experience of the internet is that despite the occasional troll, it's a place in which intelligent people can discuss ideas and situations in an informal but informed fashion. People comment on my pieces critically; they bring opposing or divergent views and I enjoy the debate. Very few people are simply abusive. This is great: I've learned from opponents and gained pleasure from the exchange of views even when I haven't been converted or converted them. It's the same on Twitter: I follow and am followed by people like @KateMaltby who describes herself as a 'Tory feminist' because she's interesting and thoughtful. I don't follow @ToryEducation (apparently run by Michael Gove's advisors) because it eschews discussion in favour of abuse.

It's just a shame that some in the media have failed to keep up with the times. The joy of new media is that we can all exchange ideas with a wider network than ever before. As you probably know, I'm a newspaper addict. I deliberately spend money on print media because they're essential to a functioning democracy, which is why David Cameron's threat to punish the Guardian is such a frightening thing. I get frustrated with my chosen papers (The Guardian, The Observer, Private Eye, the London Review of Books, New Statesman, The Sword, New Welsh Review, The Irish Times) at times, but no other organisations have the scope or the resources to conduct serious news gathering and commentary. The internet resembles Metro: cheap, simplistic, often 'human-interest' stories in bite-size chunks, derived from the wire services and PR releases. There are exceptions, of course, such as Politico (which has interestingly launched a print version) and Glenn Greenwald's new venture, but on the whole print media are still the go-to outlets for long-form investigative journalism and commentary. Andrew Rawnsley and Nick Cohen, for example, are the highlights of my week. They make me grind my teeth regularly, but their work reflects decades of expensive research, hard work and careful thought.

Yet where some outlets have failed is the reciprocal nature of new media. Rawnsley and Cohen are to varying extents responsible in the technical sense: they engage with their readers and see no contradiction between justified pride in their own expertise and the need to draw on the skills, knowledge and experience of their readers: we learn from each other. This is the utopian side of the social media revolution: billions of people in mutually enriching conversation. There are dissenters, of course. Plenty of old media figures jealously protect their occupation of the bully pulpit: like fundamentalist preachers, they see us as a barely-restrained mob of barbarians requiring their professional enlightenment and discipline, and they get very shirty when their work is critiqued or dissected in public. What could they possibly learn from us? Actually, quite a lot: while professional journalists have the funding, time and training for serious in-depth work (stop sniggering, it does happen), we keyboard warriors have the obsession to stick with particular stories, the weak social capital that comes with particular interest groups, and skills derived from our offline lives. As a trained literary critic/scholar, I bring wide reading, background knowledge, an eye for the wider context and significance of local or limited events, theoretical knowledge and critical skills to bear when I write about literature, politics, popular culture and whatever else catches my eye.

My audience is different too: a journalist has to write for a section of an idealised general public; I write for a group of people drawn to my blog voluntarily. The journalist has a captive audience of readers who may or may not care about that particular writer's views or interests (they may just want the racing tips); I have to compete with and connect to millions of other amateurs, but I don't depend on blogging to make a living. This means I'm free to some extent. I don't have to whip up outrage or air extremist views simply to sell copies (Stewart Lee describes Jeremy Clarkson as cynically 'having outrageous opinions for money'), or pretend that the world is simple and comprehensible. The worst that could happen to me is that my few readers dwindles to no readers – matching my peer-reviewed publications! I'll still have a job.

I couldn't write anything without the resources of the professional media to draw on: through them I learn new things, hear about new outrages or recent books to read: from people like me they occasionally pick up new stories and new ways of thinking outside the Westminster bubble. I think of us as complementary rather than oppositional.

In my own field, social media has widened my intellectual horizons. Before its advent, new developments in literary criticism depended on the slow process of journal and book publication, and the inherent costs thereof: some academic books now cost hundreds of pounds. There are queues to get published and impossible quantities of material to get through in the quest for useful work. Now, I can go to Academia.edu or Twitter and find an expert. And unlike the old days, I know that anyone I approach is happy to talk about their work: otherwise they wouldn't be on there. The same goes for authors, most of whom are really eager to talk rather than behave like gods passing down tablets of stone and not to be questioned: Iain Banks (as @amendlocke) was particularly enthusiastic. It's a democratic space: except for some mega-celebrities such as Fry or Gaga, you're only as good as your feed: any unknown Tweeter can be as witty or informed as a professional pundit or comic.

The professional boundaries are now porous in a good way: expertise is strengthened and disseminated more widely, at least amongst those privileged enough to have social media access. I publish work in peer-reviewed journals for one professionally-accredited audience and to further what might laughably call my career: I write Vole to air ideas I'm not ready to publish, and to apply things I've learned professionally to different contexts. I'm also on here to engage with people I wouldn't ever meet: fellow professionals in my field, but also anyone with an interest in the same sort of thing: I don't see the point of doing all that research and cogitation simply to talk to the three people who'll read my journal articles.

My attitude in lectures is that I'm no brighter than my students (sometimes much less bright) but that I've had a head start in years and resources on which I can draw to help them: it's a way of recognising and countering the inherent power imbalances encountered in education. My online existence is hopefully an extension of this – a way to engage and be engaged by the outside world, to demonstrate the relevance of my niche to the wider culture, to learn new stuff and to have some fun along the way. There's also a therapeutic aspect to it: I find academic writing difficult intellectually and psychologically, and thinking aloud in this way is helpful. I also passionately feel that academics, particularly in the humanities, get a raw deal in public discourse: there's always some blowhard politician or commentator slagging off medieval history or media studies, and the more of us who engage in public debate, the better. In fact, looking at Inger and Thomson's recent paper 'Why Do Academics Blog?', my motives are pretty much exactly those of my peers. Plus, it's a way to show off, not something I do 'IRL'.

Having been through the mill a bit recently, what with the Sun on Sunday trying to get me sacked, I'm conscious of having internalised a little of the hegemonic structures' disciplinary power. Should I talk about difficult teaching sessions? Am I allowed to have political opinions, or make tasteless jokes? How far off-piste can I go without my writing sounding like a drunk know-all with the in-depth knowledge of a pub-quiz champion? It's hard to honestly and openly discuss things - which for me is the essence of social media culture - if I'm aware that anything I say is likely to be used to attack me, my peers, my institution (which has been unfailingly kind to me) and my profession.

Answers in the comments box please!


Ghislaine Dell said...

I'd have thought your students woudl rather know you tried hard at your job, and felt bad when it didn't go well, and were elated when it did. The alternative is to be taught by an unfeeling machine who has unbending rules and no lightness of touch. That won't develop nuanced critics of the media/cultural world, will it?

Samantha Fleming said...

I think, for students anyway, it provides a pretty useful insight into "how the other half lives" - for want of a better phrase - and detracts from the fear factor by making you seem a bit more human (whether that's a good or a bad thing is up to you!). The point of any blog is air your thoughts freely (and encourage healthy debate, I suppose) and if the Sun on Sunday want to sack off academics or bloggers who disagree with their opinions then they may as well perform a ring around at rival newspaper outlets that are at the opposite end of the political scale to try and get their journalists sacked too. Either everyone has an opinion, whether it's in a newspaper or a blog, or no one does...

Charles Sibthorp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arron Hook said...

About the Sun On Sunday, don' let the bastards grind you down. They're just trying to divert attention from the fact that the paper's just the New Of the screws renamed.

Also if they didn't know that British academia was packed to rafters with socialist, lefties and reds of all shades, they're thicker than most of us believed Murdoch's tabloid journalists were already.

On giving your opinion, forget the critics. As long as you define it as your personal opinion, the university can't blame you and, since you're a socialist, you take attacks from the Murdoch press as meaning you've done something right.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks all. I'm just perplexed by the hypocrisy of the tabloids at the moment: calling for maximum freedom of speech for them, while working hard to end it for the rest of us.

Sarah Orton Nash said...

I find you engaging, fascinating, educational but most of all human. I read your blog from afar and often use extracts of it to show my GCSE students. This post included! It opens up a lovely debate about freedom of speech and the differences between a a blog post and a newspaper article (this just happens to be a gcse coursework task this year where students choose to write an article or a blog). Your blog has reached people in many ways Vole and I for one would miss it if you stopped being so honest and human. You have taught me so much in past lectures but I would argue more through your thought provoking posts which offer me a viewpoint to agree with, disagree with or to do further resesrch. Many thanks to you and keep up the good work.