Considering Blogging as a Scholarly Activity


A few weeks ago I was invited to blog about blogging.

I have had a number of responses to the post and in this post I want to share points made by a colleague, Scott Fleming.

Three other contributions have prompted this post:

I liked Stephen’s observations about blogging including the point that “blogs have a readership to which you have to be accountable”. He argues that:

Sometimes they (blogs) set the scene, define terms, flesh out detail, and a host of other non-persuasive tasks such that, once the reader hits a blog post intended to persuade, they have some sense of where the author is coming from. And a blog might not even have a point it is trying to make; not everything in the world is about persuading people. Blogging is more complex – far more complex – than the simple persuasive essay, because a blog is not a single blog post, it is a totality of blog posts, with a myriad of purposes, all blended together. (My emphasis)

In their discussion of connected learning, the Digital Media and Research Hub suggest:

Connected learning builds on what we’ve long known about the value and effectiveness of interest-driven, peer-supported, and academically relevant learning; but in addition, connected learning calls on today’s interactive and networked media in an effort to make these forms of learning more effective, better integrated, and broadly accessible. (My emphasis)

The configuration of these ideas provide a context for the sharing of Scott’s ideas below. Before I present them I would like to add a footnote from Alfred Schutz.

In The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz writes:

As we have said repeatedly, the structure of the social world is by no means homogenous. Our fellow men and the signs they use can be given to us in different ways. There are different approaches to the sign and to the subjective experience it expresses. Indeed, we do not even need a sign in order to gain access to another person’s mind; a mere indication can offer us the opening. This is what happens, for instance, when we draw inferences from artifacts concerning the experiences of people who lived in the past. (Walsh, G. and Lehnert, F., 1972. The Phenomenology of the Social World. Northwestern University Press, p.132.) (My emphasis)

A Comment on Blogging About Blogging

With Scott’s permission I am posting his comments about Blogging About Blogging here in full. They are:

I am not a blogger, and a bit like the way I use Twitter, I’m a lurker (though that does seem like rather a sinister description). But for those who have the skills blogging is a rich medium – and writing a good blog is every bit as demanding as writing for other purposes.

One of the bloggers I do follow is Tom Watson MP, a friend from my youth. Tom’s blog is interesting in all sorts of ways, not least because of the way that he and it have provoked reaction from other bloggers. One political blogger in particular has explained that the motivation for his blog is to “make mischief at the expense of politicians and for the owner’s self gratification”. Public accountability of the powerful is highly desirable – especially when they are elected representatives. It’s also good fodder for political satire. But how do readers know the status and authority of the blog? How do readers know whether the criticism of Tom and his work is fair and reasonable?

In a clumsy way this example illustrates what I think are thought by many to be the two main objections to blogs and blogging in academic work:
(1) the rigour of the blog is sometimes unclear;
(2) the ways that blogs are used are not quality assured.
Keith’s post from a few weeks ago opens up debate about these (and other) matters.

Here are some further thoughts:
• In keeping with many contemporary debates about active engagement in the generation and sharing of knowledge, blogs are participatory and interactive. There’s an important point here. Podcasts, for example, might be more user-friendly to many technologically sophisticated young (and no-so-young) adults at modern universities, but they are still essentially instruments of information-giving. Blogs, like tweeting and other social networking media do create a real forum for dialogue.
• Blogs are immediate and accessible. In some areas of academic life progress can seem painfully slow. By the time research is in the public domain it’s already out of date or even obsolete. By using a medium that allows instantaneous sharing of information, some work can have influence without delay.
• As in other walks of life, blogs cultivate criticality and accountability about research. There are probably more opportunities for researchers to be held to account through an exchange of views or interrogation using blogs than in the system of so-called ‘blind peer review’ that many academic journals use.
• Within certain parameters they grant a freedom of expression that is fair, democratic and respectful. This doesn’t mean that all views expressed are held in the same regard. Reputations do count. But so too does the opportunity to establish credibility. I noticed recently a blogger being asked to make his credentials clear to provide authority for the opinion expressed in his blog.
• There are codes of conduct (as well as the law of the land) to guide and constrain bloggers, but there are fewer ‘rules’ to follow. There isn’t (yet) a way of blogging that prevents those without the know-how from participating. This is liberating and even emancipating for people with something of value to say who can’t say it using other media.
• Blogs are often personal opinions. As reflective practice gathers momentum in many different contexts (not least for research, learning and teaching), opportunities to share opinions with others are valuable in themselves and also as a stimulus for others.

It’s not all good, of course. As well as the caution about validity and reliability of information shared through the use of blogs, there may be concerns that the medium is deliberately misused. But if we start denying the usefulness of anything to which these criticisms might apply, there would be many other forms of sharing research that would be brought into question.

So here’s my take-home message: blogs can make a useful contribution to academic debate too. (And perhaps I’m now ready to ‘de-lurk’.)

In Response

I am delighted that Scott and I have exchanged thoughts about blogging. I was fortunate to be a colleague at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff (now Cardiff Metropolitan University) and have been an admirer of his work for two decades. I think his comments demonstrate an openness that is the hallmark of exceptional scholars.

The points that resonate with my experience in Scott’s comments are:

  • writing a good blog is every bit as demanding as writing for other purposes
  • blogs are participatory and interactive
  • Blogs, like tweeting and other social networking media do create a real forum for dialogue
  • Blogs are immediate and accessible
  • blogs cultivate criticality and accountability about research
  • There are codes of conduct

Unsurprisingly, I liked Scott’s concluding observation that “blogs can make a useful contribution to academic debate”.

Earlier in this post I mentioned Alfred Schutz’s assertion that “There are different approaches to the sign and to the subjective experience it expresses”.

I feel very strongly that the emergence of user friendly blogging platforms transformed the possibilities for scholarly communication. I believe that the freedom these platforms brought has created a very important sense of responsibility and accountability. I think there is an awareness of the fallibility of this enterprise too.

Blog posts are very public statements and the digital memory created by posts is a wonderful exhortation to address the rigour and quality assurance that Scott mentions in his comments. These points made by Scott reminded me about The Scholarly Kitchen’s discussion of Can Article Retractions Correct the Scientific Record?

I think blog posts are a very effective way of sharing scholarly endeavour. One point I am keen to explore with Scott is the ideas of an infinite paper and refining scholarship. My example comes from my research into the life and work of Charles Reep.

I wrote about Charles in February 2011. A year later Neil Lanham asked me to correct the article and I did so with information he shared with me. Last month contributors to a Brentford Football Club forum pointed to some issues about Charles Reep and Brentford. I addressed their points in a specially researched and written post. My original post now has these corrections included with a note about the change. These changes are not marginalia they are text corrections and updates.

The idea of a blog post as an emergent set of ideas and empirical specification is very attractive to me. My own thinking about this was transformed by the appearance of Commentpress from the Institute of the Future of the Book. Their mission statement in part is:

Academic institutes arose in the age of print, which informed the structure and rhythm of their work. The Institute for the Future of the Book was born in the digital era, and so we seek to conduct our work in ways appropriate to the emerging modes of communication and rhythms of the networked world. Freed from the traditional print publishing cycles and hierarchies of authority, the Institute values theory and practice equally, conducting its activities as much as possible in the open and in real time.

My involvement in a wikipedia project in Paralympic sport has encouraged me to think carefully about shared voices in academic discourse. I am very comfortable with the likelihood that Wikipedia articles will change for two very important reasons. Firstly, there are custodians in the Wikipedia community who monitor the quality of articles. Secondly, the articles themselves have very clear logs of contributors and changes made.

I do see blogging as a vibrant commitment to open access to ideas and data. I think we can be vigilant and employ the criticality Scott mentions. We can do so in near real time and without paywall exclusion.

I am heartened that there is a growing community of bloggers that trust each other and through the ensemble of their work exhibit a distinctive blend of ideas and scholarship.

I am immensely grateful to Darrell Cobner for the opportunity to blog about blogging and the Scott for sharing some challenges to the art of blogging. I note that the opinions expressed by me in this post are mine alone except where I have made explicit reference to the work of others.

Thank you for reading the post.

Photo Credit

Scott Fleming

5 thoughts on “Considering Blogging as a Scholarly Activity”

  1. Maybe I could start a blog to try out ideas and invite comment. I wonder if this could be helpful as a way to smooth, sculpt and refine the essays I plan to write….

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