Last week the Guardian had an interesting piece on academic blogging. The authors, academic bloggers themselves, conducted a small-scale study with 100 academic blogs as their sample set, in order to identify the main trends in what academic bloggers really write about. It is often said that blogging is an outreach/impact tool for academics, to reach out for the educated public at large, but this is not what came out of this study. The results were interesting: 41% of the posts were on what the authors call ‘academic cultural critique’, i.e. “comments and reflections on funding, higher education policy, office politics and academic life.” A similar number (40%) were dedicated to communication and commentary about research. The remainder 20% focused on other aspects of academic practice, such as teaching and career advice.
Now, clearly the wide majority of these posts were not written for ‘the public at large’ as their target audience. While some of the research communication (40%) could well be geared towards non-specialists, the authors of the piece seem to suggest that most of them were of a ‘researcher-to-researcher’ kind of communication. Is this worrisome? Does this mean that academic blogging is failing to deliver?
Superficially looking at the NewAPPS posts, this distribution seems to reflect our own blogging: a lot of posts on issues in the profession and ‘academic cultural critique’ in general, a very substantive amount of research communication (though perhaps not reaching the 40% mark), and a number of other categories (including philosophical commentary on current events, career advice etc. – and music!). So NewAPPS seems to be falling squarely within the main trends in academic blogging as identified in this piece – whether this is good or bad is open to discussion!
Ultimately, and as often the case, there may be various answers to why people blog, even if there are some general trends to be identified. This piece did get me to think about why I blog in a more systematic way, and here are some of the reasons:
- It’s fun! Those who know me personally know that I am an extrovert: I talk a lot, and do a lot of my thinking while talking. I love to exchange ideas with people, and blogging has significantly increased the number of people I can start a conversation with.
- It’s good for my research. This manifests itself in many ways, but most importantly in terms of the feedback from readers on ideas that are just beginning to take shape. I see this as a great way to ‘think collectively’, which helps me mature my ideas -- something like a huge seminar room.
- It’s a great way to campaign for the causes I believe in. I’m not sure how much of this goes on in other disciplines, but in the philosophical blogosphere at least there is a good deal of healthy activism going on. The Feminist Philosophers may be the best example, as they are undoubtedly responsible for much of the progress that has been achieved with respect to philosophy’s gender problem in the past years.
- It’s democratic: on blogs, the content is there, available to anyone with an internet connection. Moreover, anyone can join the discussion (though in practice mustering the courage to expose oneself by writing a comment is not always straightforward).
I also try to make the content of my research more accessible to people outside the discipline, but I’m not sure to what extent I’ve succeeded in communicating with the non-academic audience; in that respect, people like Brit Brogaard are much more successful. (I did develop closer contacts with mathematicians through M-Phi, so that’s something.)
What are the downsides? Well, for starters it can be quite time-consuming, depending on one’s posting regularity; but this seems to me to be a small problem, easily compensated by the above-mentioned advantages (especially the part of it being fun!). Moreover, while one admittedly may get quite some positive exposure through blogging, one also gets negative exposure and may make some enemies in the profession along the way.
However, there is a downside to blogging that I hadn’t yet considered, and which is mentioned in the Guardian piece: censorship from one’s own institution.
There are signs that the kinds of freedoms brought by publishing, and enjoyed by bloggers, may be under threat. Some universities, particular those in the UK, are keen to harness bloggers to their marketing drives and the impact agenda. They want bloggers to use official platforms and confine their discussions to research and nice posts about academic life.
Discussions of higher education policy and performative management won't go down well in such arenas. Other universities – more in Australia than elsewhere – are creating regulations about what academics can and can't say in public, about their universities and their working lives. In this turn blogging is seen to present a reputational risk to the university and its management.
Needless to say, this is a very worrisome trend, and we can only hope that it will lead nowhere. In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy the freedom of blogging and all the good things that it brings me, and perhaps try to find ways to reach audiences outside of academia as well. But even if we are failing in this respect, in most other respects it seems that blogging is very good for academics and academia in general, as it enhances the collective nature of the whole enterprise.