This blog post by Inger Mewburn (aka The Thesis Whisperer) is part of a series that asks after new forms of scholarship projects and demonstrates how academic out-put is changing in the digital age.
From blogs like the Thesis Whisperer to Twitter communities like #PhDchat there are a number of ways in which academics are harnessing digital communication technology to support each other and their work within and without institutions. And some are even outright reinventing what academic scholarship might be. We are well beyond the early phase of academic listserves and blogs and into a – perhaps third wave – of digital discourse design.
In this series I’ve invited the people responsible for these types of projects what their intentions where when the established them. How their projects have changed the way they (and we, as participants) work, research, share, support and interact with each other as global colleagues. And how they might describe what the emerging skill-sets are and their benefits and pitfalls.
Recently I changed jobs, moving on from RMIT University to The Australian National University (ANU). For those who are unfamiliar with the pecking order of Australian Universities, this is like moving from an obscure Polytechnic in a regional town to somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge.
It’s hardly suprising then, that my move sparked a lot of, what one colleague called, ‘corridor talk’. I had many curious emails and phone calls from my RMIT colleagues along the lines of “Did ANU employ you because of the Thesis Whisperer blog?”
If the only thing I was capable of was blogging I’m sure ANU wouldn’t have been interested in me – certainly not interested enough to fly me in and out for a year until my son finishes primary school. The blogging merely made my many years of experience in research education visible.
The Thesis Whisperer blog enabled the right people at ANU to notice my expertise at the right time. The fact of the matter is, had I continued to plod away, teaching and publishing in respectable journals (ie: the conventional career strategy advocated in many a workshop), ANU management would never have known I existed.
The move has caused me to reflect on the passive – and occassionally active – resistance I have encountered from other academics about blogging. “A waste of time,” some said “not scholarly” others opined. I’ve noticed that blogging is often framed in this everyday talk as mere self promotion and not the serious, scholarly work I believe it is.
So I hope you’ll forgive me for admitting to feeling a little bit smug about how it all turned out.
Those years of invisible – and unpaid – work have finally paid off, and in the most delightful way. I now have a new job, one which has more scope for me to do the work I love – helping research students finish their PhDs.
When the benefits of blogging to the individual are so clear, why don’t more academics do it?
Many academics tell me they just don’t have time. As Pat Thomson wrote on the LSE impact blog said recently, the question “how do you find the time to blog?” is often a way non-bloggers can indulge a bit of stealthy criticism on the bloggers amongst us. Which is why, perhaps, bloggers like me feel they need to write pieces like this. We feel moveed to defend ourselves about a practice that is seen as a little… unsavoury.
I agree that institutional paperwork can be onerous, research is time consuming and students are demanding, but this has been the case since I started as an academic in 1995. Today we have advantages that were still the stuff of science fiction in 1995: extremely light-weight computers, ubiquitous wifi, tablets and smart phones, google scholar, cloud computing.
While I can understand not writing a blog (sort of) I really can’t understand people who don’t read blogs, take part in Twitter or otherwise take part in the scholarly dialogue which is happening online.
I notice that those who complain about time are usually those who haven’t even tried to integrate this technology in their daily routine. In vain I try to point out that we all have odd bits of time in our day which can be put to use: at the bus stop, on a train, waiting an appointment, a solitary lunch time here and there. All of these moments are an opportunity to fire up an RSS reader on our phone or laptop and learn something new online.
No doubt you, as a blog reader, know this already. I don’t have to point out the benefits to the converted. The question I have for you is, how many of your colleagues are doing the same? And more importantly – why don’t they? It’s a question that is beginning to fascinate me and one which I don’t have a ready answer for.
When Charlotte asked me to write a post about how we can legitimise and encourage this new kind of scholarly practice she gave me a couple of words: hybrid, ‘outstitutional’, feral. I like these words because they make me feel a bit edgy and special. At the same time I think it’s a bit worrying that words like this are used to describe my Thesis Whisperer work. Interesting or not, such words tend to situate blogging as ‘other’ to mainstream academic practice. It’s not the way I want my work to be viewed.
As Martin Weller pointed out in a recent paper about digital scholarship and tenure (and on his blog) blogging is unlikely to become a mainstream academic practice if there are no insitutional incentives to blog. Weller highlights that academics don’t just blog (or research for that matter) to gain monetary reward, but that institutional attitudes to rewarding blogging (or not) have the capacity to influence behaviour.
In a recent article on the Guardian Education network Claire Warwick put forward one of the best explanations I have heard to date. She talked about her friends who don’t tweet and pointed out: “They know Twitter exists, but they are either too busy; can’t be bothered; prefer traditional forms of academic interaction – face to face or via conventional publication; or think that Twitter is too ephemeral a medium for considered scholarly debate: ‘The talk-radio of academia” She goes on to comment: “I think academics, perhaps even more than most people, are driven by the herd mentality, especially when it comes to questions of prestige.”
This is quite true, but I still think the incentive structure is only part of the answer. Reluctance and determined avoidance may have multiple causes. The emotions that surround scholarly work are rarely attended to, but they are complex; ranging from curiosity and excitement to fear and envy and every stop in between. This volatile mix extends into online spaces.
We need to listen carefully to the way people express their reluctance to social media in order to understand what is going on. Recently my friend Joyce Seitzinger, better known as @catspajamasnz, told me about something that happened to her when she was helping to run a seminar on social media. One of the academics seemed very upset, even angry, so Joyce took her aside to ask what was wrong.
“You people make me want to throw up,” the academic said.
I was struck by the violence of this reaction. It is so other to my own attitude to social media, which has always been dominated by emotions of excitement and curiosity. Why would one want to throw up – anxiety? Anger? Or both?
I remember feeling similar, complex emotions at high school towards the cool kids. I was a nerd and I liked being a nerd, but they made fun of me for being who I was. Getting visibly upset or angry only made me more of a target, so I tried treating the cool kids with derision or ignoring them. Inside however, I felt angry and inadequate. I hated that I cared what they thought of me. I didn’t want to be them – not really – but they certainly made me want to throw up.
I wonder: have I become the cool kid? Am I witnessing a similar set of complex emotions, but from the other side?
It is not really up to those who do use social media to try to therapise others. If others don’t want to partake, whether from fear, or disinterest, there’s not much we can do to convince them otherwise. We can only model other ways of being an academic and hope others may follow our lead. So I have changed my standard line on blogging and tried to be less defensive.
When people tell me they don’t have time to blog I point out the time they can save because of the good work being done on so many blogs, Patter, Explorations in Style, The Research Whisperer and LitreviewHQ just to name a few. I highlight how much free labour goes on to produce these blogs. Then I ask: “what do you have to give? How can you make a difference?” Because making a difference, surely, is what being an academic and a teacher is all about.
So I’d be interested to hear what you think. Why do you think academics are reluctant to blog? Are any of the explanations and suggestions here useful? Do you have more ideas?