Being a sharing academic

Recently I compiled a list of active (i.e. regularly updated) geography blogs and it got me musing about how we variously construct and perform our academic identities. These are some half-formed thoughts on a train about this in relation to uses of blogging [then edited in my office…].

It was a surprise to me how quite a few of those blogs, with some honourable exceptions, are tightly focussed conduits for personal research and are not participating in wider online/offline conversations. One of the big claims made for blogging in the noughties was, of course, that ‘social’ media precisely enable broader conversations. While the majority of those active geography bloggers I found use for their blogs they do not seem to use the ‘social’  functions such as ‘reblog’ and other conversation tools on the platform.

Now, I recognise that I am just as guilty as any in this (although I don’t use  I do, at least, try and share other people’s work – especially cos this blog cross-posts to Twitter. That multi-platform-ness is also important, blogs aren’t the be-all-and-end-all of convening such conversations. For example, while it is persistently bemoaned, the JiscMail list ‘Crit-Geog-Forum‘ has hosted some interesting discussions amongst anglophone geographers.

There are, of course, lots of resources, endorsements and manifestos for academic blogging within and beyond a variety of disciplinary contexts. On this, I heartily recommend reading The Virtues of Blogging as Scholarly Activity (in The Chronicle) by my former boss Martin Weller, and his open access book The Digital Scholar. See also, for example, the posts about blogging on the LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog, and this piece on what makes a successful research blog by Pat Thomson in particular.

This leads me to the perpetual tension between two, often-opposing, pulls on how (in very broad terms) we perform academic identity: the ‘lone wolf’ syndrome of career progression and the aspiration to contribute to the collective production of knowledge.

On the one hand, to progress, especially as an early career academic, it is (sadly) important to develop a recognisable ‘project’ or ‘brand’ to allow employers to easily categorise you (probably to slot you into a REF submission), and this more-often-than-not involves ploughing an individual furrow – writing the position papers, getting single author papers published for a REF submission, applying for individual funding (such as the ESRC’s ‘Future Research Leader’ scheme), and attempting to speak to the fashionable debates (e.g. the ‘anthropocene’, ‘mobilities’ and ‘neoliberalism’). I am by no means against such actions (apart from the instrumental logics that sit behind a lot of it), these are part and parcel of being an academic, but it often feels to me that this leads to a lot of individuals talking past one another.

On the other hand, we all (I hope) aspire to advancing knowledge around those things about which are passionate and this must surely be a collective endeavour. Some of the very best events I have attended have been the small workshops where people present ideas, not in a scripted and tightly timed presentation, but in more discursive, less-pressured ways.

Surely blogging can address both of these drives: you can promote your work, but (and for me – more importantly) you can contribute to conversations and celebrate one another’s work. This is, broadly, what it can mean to participate in a community of practice as Lave & Wenger suggest (although–I don’t agree with everything in the linked piece).

We could all, perhaps, take a few more ‘risks’ and put our ideas ‘out there’ a little more to involve people in their development, rather than simply present our polished final argument/ results. My own academic hero in this regard is Anne Galloway, who’s intellectual curiosity and generosity has been an inspiration to me. From her PhD-related blog PLSJ, through to her subsequent blogs/projects the design culture lab and the more-than-human lab, Anne has offered insights, provocations and opened conversations. Indeed, Anne’s chapter on blogging in her PhD thesis is a really interesting and helpful (and probably more rigorous!) way of thinking about what I’m trying to get at here.

I recognise that for those early in their careers and those that feel embattled and under increasing institutional pressure this feels almost impossible, but(!) –I’d argue that the potential gains are worth it. I’ve found fantastically generous colleagues across the world through social media, who have profoundly enriched my work and I heartily recommend it.

I’ll conclude this post with (celebrating/advocating) some excerpts from Mel Gregg’s article ‘Feeling Ordinary: Blogging as conventional scholarship‘ that sum up what I’m trying to say better than I can (especially after lots and lots of marking!):

The participatory nature of writing, response and counter-argument on blogs allows for ongoing debate, critical refinement and thinking-in-process. In this sense, what is rarely acknowledged about blogging is how much it contributes to and mirrors traditional scholarly practice rather than threatening it. (p. 154)

Blogs are a modest political tool in that they can help overturn the hierarchies of speech traditionally securing academic privilege
Blogs allow us to write in conjunction with non-academic ‘peers’ and ‘colleagues’ who not only value and improve our ideas but practice their own rigorous forms of assessment, critique and review.
Blogs are counter-heroic in that they expose the life of the academic as banal. They help lay bare the fallacy of the ivory tower scholar secluded from the concerns of the ‘real world’ (pp.157-158)

If the grandiose aspiration of ‘making new contributions to knowledge’ is to hold any truth it surely has to be a collective endeavour. To misquote Beckett: ‘Share again, share better’.

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