What is academic blogging?

Blogging has been on my mind recently. One reason for this is that I’m responsible for posting a series of blogs written by Oxford graduate students on the Great Writers Inspire blog, so I’ve been spending a lot of time in the WordPress interface. I’ve been impressed by the blogs that my peers have written – and I do think that the blog form still represents one of the best and most democratic ways of communicating literary and non-literary ideas.

Mark Carrigan, on his blog, recently asked ‘What is “academic blogging”?’, the same question I’ve asked here. He quotes Professor Martin Weller (who incidentally will deliver the keynote at an event on digital humanities I am organising in Oxford in June 2013). In his work The Digital Scholar, Weller suggests that ‘a well-respected digital scholar may well be someone who has no institutional affiliation. The democratisation of the online space opens up scholarship to a wider group, just as it opens up subjects that people can study beyond the curriculum defined by universities’. Given that a recent Guardian article suggested that more than a third of academics are now on short term contracts, it seems that unless institutions properly invest in people, they may in fact miss out on the benefits of digital scholarship as researchers become well known bloggers, rather than well known institutional academics.

Carrigan in his post comments that there are ambiguities which the term ‘academic blogging’. ‘I guess my fear is that that, unless this is more widely recognised, certain possibilities about what it could be taken to entail might be foreclosed i.e. “academic blogging” comes to be defined as only one of the many specific activities that are currently subsumed under this rather vague term’. I quite agree. What used to be a relatively individual activity is now entering the mainstream as institutions offer ‘how to’ workshops on academic blogs. Blogging is even, I hear, an assessed part of undergraduate courses at institutions at which some of my colleagues tutor.

While academia has for years been defined mainly by ‘traditional’ outputs – monographs, journals, students successfully getting degrees – as academic blogging develops as a discipline, many different outputs are now happening in that form. None of the blogs I read regularly are doing the same thing in the same way. Dr Nadine Muller from LJMU is combining advice for graduates and early career researchers in The New Academic with personal musings on being just one such new academic. Professor Elizabeth Eva Leach from Oxford blogs about her research into medieval musicology, but often also reflects on the ways in which the work of the contemporary scholar is informed by technologies and changing knowledge frameworks (including blogging). My digital friend Maeve O’Brien, like me, is reflective on the thesis writing process – although she occasionally posts about issues in Plath scholarship (including a recent post on The Bell Jar cover controversy). My PG CWWN colleague Emma Young from Salford is experimenting with the blog format in her new e-portfolio, a part of her PG Certificate in Academic Practice. The Great Writers Inspire blog has always been about using the form to introduce readers to the themes of the main project (enticing people to explore the thousands of literary resources). Politics in Spires, an Oxford and Cambridge OER project from the politics and IR departments, invites the critical exchange of ideas about politics between academics and the public as these things are happening. This blog, for what it is worth, started as a way to reflect on my MA dissertation, but now is ‘about writing a thesis’ – although increasingly I am finding that what that involves is more complex.

Wikipedia defines ‘blog’ more helpfully than the OED. Wiki claims it is ‘a discussion or informational site published on the World Wide Web and consisting of discrete entries (“posts”) typically displayed in reverse chronological order (the most recent post appears first)’. As a description, this is as open-ended as the description of ‘book’ as a ‘set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side’. What blogging means for academia is still in flux – there is no clear cut example of what an academic blog is. What there are, instead, are academics who are blogging in different and interesting ways. Just as academics are rightly reflective on their other practices, the self-reflective vein in many academic blogs is important. What is academic blogging? What are we doing?

The Hashtag Academic Community (#phdadvice)

Within days of beginning my first term as a graduate student in October 2009, I was told by peers and mentors that being a graduate student was isolating. I hadn’t really considered this before – I certainly hadn’t found any aspect of my undergraduate study isolating. Even a few months later, as I started to submit PhD applications, there were well meaning friends and advisors telling me that doing a PhD would be lonely. By this time, the chorus of voices was joined by some nagging doubts of my own.

The main thing that worried me wasn’t necessarily being alone per se – I was well aware that individual work is central to literary study. I didn’t worry about not having friends because I was lucky enough to have besties behind me. Obviously there were lots of niggling concerns like if I had the ability, if my topic was ‘good’ enough, if I could afford the time and expense, and what I would do at the end of it all. However, what concerned me the most, entering this apparent wilderness, was that if PhD research is so isolating, who could advise me?

Over 2 years on from the PhD application process, I’m happy to report that I’ve found advice and support in some likely and unlikely places. I have peers here in Oxford, and the companionship of others in my field from a research network – this much I might have hoped for. At the time, this fair blog was only a glint in my eye, and engaging with readers through this and reading other blogs (such as those in my blogroll) during my work has also been a source of support.

Increasingly, though, it is Twitter which is my most prevalent academic comfort. In the past year there has seems to have been a boom in academics and students using the network to discuss aspects of their work. I can post something about my working day, ask a question, make an observation, and receive almost immediate feedback. Yesterday, I noted that I was starting work on a conference paper in order to free up time for actual thesis writing at some stage. @EKSwitaj from QUB tweets back ‘See, that’s why I don’t write conference papers anymore. I just get up and blag.’, and @DrMagennis agreed. This, I hasten to add to any budding academics, is not exactly wise advice (but full time wisdom is time consuming and boring).

Better advice is currently being dispensed with great fervor, tagged #phdadvice. Initially started by @Nadine_Muller from the University of Hull, flagged up by mailing lists and spreading like wildfire, this hashtag has prompted questions and varied responses from those considering graduate research and from those of us already engaged in it. Such is the speed and appeal of this simple tag, that I see (on Twitter, naturally), that Nadine has already been interviewed by THE about it.

I already felt quite strongly that social networks were providing me with a very fruitful and engaging community, but this recent hashtag has me even more convinced that we can strengthen our working relationships and academia more widely by our participation and awareness of each other. Isolation isn’t trending, but #phdadvice is.

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