the place of blogs in the academy 08.26.2007, 5:40 PM
posted by bob stein
danah boyd has written a response to all the conversation generated by her 24 june blog post in which she tried to interpret usage patterns of facebook and myspace in terms of class. i'm not particuarly interested in the original post or her substantive responses but she makes some interesting comments about the difference between traditional academic writing and blogging.
as i see it, danah sadly bends over backward to distinguish the blog post from serious academic writing. she says, "In academic writing, I write for posterity. In my blog, I write to get an issue off my chest and to work things out while they are still raw." what i find significant though is that this blog post has, according to danah, generated thousands of quotes and references. either the blogosphere is just filled with meaningless back and forth banter or the blog post launched what could be or could have been (if handled better) a significant public debate. for argument sake, let's assume the latter, in which case, it seems a shame that there is such a strong tendency to devalue a new form of writing which is proving to be such a powerful engine of serious discussion.
yes, blogs are not the same as formal academic papers, but i'm not sure that is the same as saying that they can't be as valuable within the universe of scholarly discourse.
can we imagine a universe where blogging is not automatically put into a "not-really-up-to-par-for-the-academy" category.
Gary Frost on August 26, 2007 11:11 PM:
The listserv is preferred academically because the initial query term aligns exchange and the participants self select accordingly. The blog provides initial keyword tags but invites any participation while actually tabulating participation rather than tabulating query resolution.
Academics look for efficiency in face to face meeting and on-line.
Georgia Harper on August 28, 2007 9:39 AM:
Things change slowly in academe, but they do change. There has been a lot written on the subject of blogs as scholarship. Your own contributions to the evolution of alternative forms of scholarly communication are taking hold nicely. So will blogs. Not necessarily in their current form, but the elements of informal, speedy interaction they afford are being adopted. I posted on this subject yesterday at The Scholar's Space, actually, it was in response to your post which mysteriously disappeared as I was trying to comment on it. I'm glad to see it back today.
James Smythe on August 28, 2007 2:15 PM:
Couldn't agree more with Danah: I've got my PhD thesis to write as I write this, and I have found that a number of the ideas that will move to the thesis have been worked through first on my blog. Its far more roughshod, and there is no way that I would attempt to publish the blog writings, but they do allow me to see how thoughts and opinions stand on the page (screen/whatever) before they actually find themselves presented as something representing an authoritative fact. I think, however, that a blog can be invaluable - let's face it, a blog tends to be the only place on the internet that people do put their unedited opinions to the public, as the rather stuffy concept of 'the academic paper' does lend itself to a language of academia that not everybody is comfortable reading and/or writing.
And I am finding the the problem has spilled over into the thesis. I have written thoughts and opinions on my subject matter for a long while on the blog and found no reason to not write it as I feel free, whereas there is a pressure to hit some lit. crit. buttons in the thesis itself. My thoughts, opinions and findings (such as they are) are somewhat hampered by the language that I am (semi) forced to use. Interesting.
As I've written this, it's gotten me wondering: Maybe blogs - including the freedom of language that they proffer - are more pertinent now than the formal academic paper, even?
jeff drouin on August 28, 2007 9:04 PM:
I think the common argument against blogging and online writing for academic discourse is that sustained analysis is difficult to achieve (and read) within the format as it stands now. What I like about traditional academic discourse in books and journals is that the slow response pace allows for thorough research and think-through, resulting in more productive responses (generally speaking). In my experience, conversation threads or post comments don't last longer than a week or two, but that depends on how we use the tools.
Blogs and other networked media foster a different kind of discourse. Yes, it's faster and less formal (so far), but with a disparately located yet focused participant group it could really make efficient advances in a way that print discourse could not. Though I'm not up to date on the scholarship of academic blog writing (Georgia, perhaps you could give us some citations), I think one of the main issues is institutionalization.
I'm dealing with institutionalization in one of my current online academic projects (when I have time). I actually had lunch at the Institute last Winter (great guys!) to talk about how to form a community around an academic project, and what became clear to me is that the quality of the discourse will depend in large part on the logistics and structure of the online tool(s): how are they and the participants funded, what are the principles on which queries are devised and answered, discourse moderated, etc. In other words, how do you create the space -- intellectual and practical -- in which a subject can really be plumbed to its depth? Related to that would be, How do you ensure that access to the parts of the discourse is thorough and reliable?
But then, once the subject is nearing a state of completion, how do you present the results? When I approached if:book last Winter I saw this blog as a model for the kind of discourse that could happen around an academic subject. It's vital, of excellent quality, and so on. But what's the result? Are you going to publish a study of what we've studied in print book format? An electronic book (whatever the hell that is)? An organized and somewhat static website, where you can hang contributors' "papers"? A wiki? Or just let the blog stand alone as a searchable and navigable palimpsest?
It's an exciting question (or several). In the end I think the value of academic blogging is going to depend largely on the longevity of the media. In my field, old academic discourse (i.e. from the 1920s and 30s, and even earlier) is still valid, sometimes in itself, sometimes as an artifact to shed light on our current practices. So what happens as hardware dies, formats change, and backwards compatibility meets its limits?
One of the smartest comments I heard at STS last March was from Barbara Bordalejo, who said that digital editions will eventually become even more rare than the rarest print book -- making physical travel more necessary -- because the hardware and software for running them will have to be preserved in a library/archive by people who know what they're doing. How will textual scholars examining the ascendancy of digital media read this blog 300 years from now?
Gary Frost on August 28, 2007 10:09 PM:
blogs are manuscripts. (We should not be deceived by their typographic appearance.) As such their preservation reverts to authors, not to institutions. This circumstance of distributed preservation needs both new advocacy and new methodology in the context of blog communication.
One barrier to convenient print backup is the need to render the URL (not just the conversational pseudonym). Another is to aggregate and cross reference the tags and categories more effectively. (There is a bit of a hot mess in the right column at if:book) There is an expository skill that uses metatext of content tables and index to construct abstracts of the whole of the content, but this approach is forestalled by the endlessly linear blog. "Ceaseless periodical reading fosters passivity."
jeff drouin on August 28, 2007 11:50 PM:
Well, if blogging is to attain a lasting influence in academic discourse, particular blogs (whether written by an individual or a group) will have to become differentiated and remembered somehow. It's not so much about the mechanism for abstracting a blog's content (which is however crucial) but about its mass in the academic field. And that mass will be the result (or cause?) of how it is institutionalized because, generally speaking, institutions live longer than authors.
Eventually, someone will have to decide which blogs get preserved. On what criteria will such decisions be made?
Gary Frost on August 29, 2007 8:00 AM:
"Eventually, someone will have to decide which blogs get preserved. On what criteria will such decisions be made?"
Perhaps blogs can themselves become institutions. SHARP-L and ExLibris would be examples. Otherwise the criteria for blog preservation would not be too much different from selection for print publication with the selective influences of readership. The mode transition, now blurred, between manuscript and print is still at work.
Perhaps the blog mediated currency itself is also a barrier to preservation. Preservation is a retrospective activity; we preserve old things. Time as selector is very efficient both quantifying and curating survivors. Fanzines come to mind.
jeff drouin on August 29, 2007 11:00 AM:
Yes, I often imagine a future in which blogs are like academic periodicals -- discipline-focused, more or less regarded in the professional hierarchy based on the quality of contributions and reputations of contributors, etc. There could be X Blog on Narratology, Y Blog on Biblical Hermeneutics, Z Blog on 19th Century French History. They might be stand-alone institutions funded (or not) by grants, or attached to universities, publishing companies, or municipal libraries.
Due to the sheer quantity of blogs, there would need to be bibliographical mechanisms to guide researchers efficiently, as we have now for print and digital periodicals. Such a mechanism could use metatext to search well-regarded blogs alongside the journals and books databases (i.e. add a "search blogs" option to the MLA bibliography).
Regarding preservation, a blog can updated technologically by its editors over time but will eventually close, like most periodicals. Perhaps we should be archiving academic blogs and contributions (including comments) and make them searchable in a database. It would be like going to the library to look up old numbers of The Athenaeum or The Listener, but instead you're pulling up if:book posts from 70 years ago.
What bugs me sometimes (though it probably shouldn't) is that the above merely applies the same way of thinking about traditional periodicals to blogs. If they're assimilated in that way, would the form be constrained from developing into its full nature?
bowerbird on August 29, 2007 12:20 PM:
especially compared with the listserves of old
-- where there was a communal understanding that
everyone involved was reading most all the posts,
creating a shared level of mutual understanding,
and one grew to "know" the vocal participants --
it seems (to me anyway) that very few blogs have
anything more than a "drive-by" community today...
Ed Gallagher on October 8, 2007 3:27 PM:
On Aug 28, Jeff asks Gloria for more citations on the blog as scholarship topic. I too would appreciate the same. I've been charged by my chair with helping my dept evaluate a blog as part of a tenure file, and I'm trying to gather info so that we do a fair job.