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?
Laura Pasquini said on February 21, 2013
That’s a sad comment. I find such value in blogging for my scholarly development, reflection and connection to others ideas for my research. I appreciate the digital footprint academic scholars are leaving as it is a new medium to connect to their work and ideas.
I answered a survey from Alice Bell on Education Bloggers (http://techknowtools.wordpress.com/2012/06/08/education-bloggers-research-my-blog-survey) about my experience blogging and other reasons why I blog (http://techknowtools.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/what-prompts-you-to-blog/) – but most importantly it is about connecting to other academics and researchers like yourself & Joyce that keep connect my learning and scholarly practices to more research, publications, and ideas in my work. Thank you!
Rachel Hallett said on February 22, 2013
Many of the social media tools seem designed for academics: using them well requires some research skills – which academics should have in abundance – and rather than taking up time, they often save it by helping with networking as well as pulling in links to pertinent information. But social media has its own rules (Twitter, for example, isn’t exactly intuitive). It challenges not just the individual’s comfort zone, but also the narratives regarding peer-reviewing and academic hierarchies, so is seen as threatening on multiple levels.
Mark Murphy said on February 22, 2013
Thanks for this Inger, I think Claire Warwick is on the money when it comes to the reactions of fellow academics, although since starting my blog last month I’ve also come across a fair bit of enthusiasm for what I’m trying to do. It’s mixed up with some confusion and legitimate levels of scepticism, but once the benefits of online writing are explained, suddenly colleagues lean in a bit closer. For me it all seems pretty obvious, but our publishing culture is so established and ingrained that patience is required from those of us frustrated with the slow pace of change. Which is difficult for me, as patience is like a different planet – Mark Murphy
Charlotte Frost said on February 24, 2013
I have also faced many of the same attitudes you describe. Recently, at a conference, I found myself being told over and over by the same person that it’s ‘generational’, that I ‘get it’, she doesn’t and I (apparently don’t get that simple fact). I thought of my parents, both in their 60s and much older than said scholar, sitting at home surrounded by iPhones, Androids, Blackberrys, Galaxy tablets, iPads and Kindles…. Then I considered whether this scholar and I were actually that far apart in years (I’d say she’s 10 years older at an absolute push). It was only then that I realized just how this ‘generational’ statement was being used as an insult. Sort of like: ‘This is what your type does, but it’s not my world. My more established world. My legitimate and scholarly world.’ It was dismissive to say the least, but I think there was something more like derision going on there. And why was at that conference? To talk – in part – about the impact of social media on the ways we think and write about art!
Although just reading blogs and tweets is indeed a start, the true benefit lies of course in participation. It is in the discussion, when you are an empowered node in a network that blogging and social media really come into their own as spaces of learning and exchange. I always tell people that to really get Twitter, they have to take part, and that means taking the bull by the horns and just talking to others. Projects like #PhDChat work really well as introductions to Twitter as the focused discussion sets some useful parameters. It was great to see that a lot of people joined Twitter to take part in last year’s AcWriMo. I think if nothing else, the project taught several people how to write for Twitter and use a social media platform to build a research community that suits them and their work. I like that it taught them this (new) form of academic writing because I personally feel that will be more valuable to them in the long run – not as a replacement for but an enhancement of all their other academic work.
But oh how it irks me that still, in this day and age, projects like Thesis Whisperer aren’t regarded with all the reverence (and REF points) of a OUP published book, or high impact journal article – just one that is in perpetual motion. Or actually, rather than force this work into existing evaluation models, I hope that we will find a way to see these multi-modal projects for what they are and understand them on their own terms. And that’s one of the things I want to get at through this ongoing series of blog posts. Not just, how can we get people on board but, what is this form of scholarship – the skill, the value… I haven’t followed the advice I was given on career-building. I’m perhaps behind where I should be on REFable outputs. I don’t regret it for a second. But I feel I need to articulate the benefits better than I do. So thank you Inger for getting this thought-ball rolling for me/everyone!
Andrea Kaston Tange said on March 16, 2013
I suspect that much of the reason people don’t have time for blogging is that there is something of a learning curve to setting one up and even more of a lag time in figuring out how to foster online communities and integrate into one so that one actually had readers and followers. All of this requires not only the research and writing time to produce posts but also some sustained time as a read
Andrea Kaston Tange said on March 16, 2013
I suspect that much of the reason people “don’t have time” for blogging is that there is something of a learning curve to setting one up and even more of a lag time in figuring out how to foster online communities and integrate into one so that one actually had readers and followers. All of this requires not only the research and writing time to produce posts but also some sustained time as a reader and commenter. It is hard for many people to imagine investing such time if their current institutional structure does not recognize online work as a legitimate scholarly effort towards tenure or promotion. This is, of course, something of a chicken and egg problem–and more open minded consideration of the excellent efforts out there that do exist would help pave the way for more. But it is a whole institutional change we need, and not just an attitude adjustment (though certainly there is plenty of that needed as well).
Donna Alexander said on March 22, 2013
Well, the reason for not blogging that I have heard the most is, “it’s not scholarly.” It seems that some academics think that blogging would sacrifice their professionalism. They don’t see the benefits of making your work more visible. I also get comments like, “How do you find the time????” Well, you have explained that well in this post – there are many times in the day or week when one can write something up. On the other hand, I must say that the resistance to blogging and social media seems to be subsiding. I hear less of these comments and more of, “Oh, I must try it some time” or, “I must start using twitter more.” I have experienced so many benefits and have been given some really positive opportunities through my blogging and use of social media. I waste no time in expressing this to the most resistant. Thank you for this very interesting post!
Stephen Mugford said on March 22, 2013
An ex academic, I came relatively late to some parts of social media—specifically Twitter (@StephenMugford), SlideShare and blogging (Facebook is easy and I’ve been there a long time, relatively.) Then a conversation with Deborah Lupton (@DALupton), once a student and now a valued colleague really opened my eyes and transformed how I work. (Thanks, yet again Deb!)
I’m now a bit of a proselytiser for this sort of usage and, like Inger and the others how have commented, I’m running up against the same reactions you describe when I talk with my peers who are still in around academia. Because I’m older, they can’t pull the generation line on me but they still run it about others, unaware that in my eyes and I expect yours they look like smug dinosaurs about a week out from an asteroid strike.
It might help to connect this to a couple of people at Harvard. Ronald Heifetz in leadership and Bob Kegan in cognitive development both make the distinction between a technical challenge and an adaptive challenge. In simple terms, the first is a challenge that can be met with a rational response such as finding and applying new knowledge or skills (learning how to wire a plug or cook a soufflé, etc.) while the other involves new ways of ‘being’. The adaptive challenge is much harder: Kegan talks of ‘immunity to change’ and how hard it is to overcome it.
I think the academic sector is in the throes of a major change today in many, many ways and this poses a real adaptive challenge collectively and individually. The world of the internet, of blogs and Tweets is quite different to the way academic life has been done. I don’t pretend it’s more democratic (the idea of followers is hardly egalitarian, even if that is merely semantic) but it is something that cannot be governed by tenure, peer review, etc., etc. This is uncomfortable for a lot of academics and given that they are pressured to publish and improve rankings, they find it hard to rise to the adaptive challenge.
It’s like the overweight person who knows s/he should be slimmer (a nice Kegan example). Losing weight is something that lies in the ‘simple but hard’ basket. It IS simple: you eat better and less, and exercise more. But that which is simple may not be easy (a common confusion). Eating, weight, body image, etc. are all complex topics, laden with emotion, ‘side bets’, etc. And as anyone who has been in this space knows (I have) when pressed one can confabulate a million excuses. Then one day your life changes and what you could not manage before now becomes possible (I lost 23 kilos, relatively easily.)
I think academics face a similar adaptive challenge, and in part this accounts for the excuses and at times the snide counter-attacks. Coupled with the nasty edge to academia which Inger has talked about in her blog, the outcome is the type of anti-social media carping discussed here. It’s a pity because actually there is so much to gain. But is if you can’t see the asteroid coming, it’s easier to do today what you did yesterday. 🙂
Karen Johnson said on March 27, 2013
A research told me recently that, blogging is very old-hat, now. Is this another reason not to try it out or a genuine belief? People always have problems using new communications media. I’d love to know how all of the very competent bloggers who have joined in the discussion here would feel about going to a conference or meeting in Second Life. It is just another communications device but people apparently have real problems taking it seriously and think it is just an online game. What do you all think?