No Academic is an Island

Academics are increasingly becoming involved with blogging, but how effective are we at it? Are we using blogging as productively as we could, and if not what can we do to improve how we blog and use blogging.

I should say right now that I’m not going to get into the arguments into why academics should blog here. There has been plenty of discussion already about the merits and problems concerning blogging for academics. Some deriding them for not having a through editing process, and others praising them for getting scholarship into a wider forum. I am simply going to echo the words of Patrick DunLeavy and Chris Gilson who said that:

Blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now.

What I am more concerned with is the poor state that academic blogging seems to be in. Yes we are starting to blog, and yes there are many good posts that are being written, but we could have a far better blogging community. Two things have highlighted this to me. One is the comparison between academic blogging and my own personal blogging history within the Mormon blogging community, and secondly a recent post by ThonyC at Renaissance Mathimaticus that spoke about the difficulty in organising a monthly blog carnival for history of science.

It was ThonyC’s post that was the catalyst that made me consider the state of academic blogging, as I have only recently started to become involved with academic blogging. ThonyC remarks that he has found it very difficult to get people to gather posts for the carnival, as he dejectedly says:

What should be more obvious are the extreme problems that we have had finding bloggers every month to host the whole show.

The plight of ThonyC is not unusual for bloggers. ThonyC is waging a war on his own, and there is only so much effort you can put into by yourself before you start to feel as he does that:

If I’m almost the only person nominating posts for the carnival then I have to ask if anybody else is really interested in maintaining it.

The fact that he has been able to do it for so long is impressive, as the truth is that most blogs and blog carnivals die within the first few months. It is quite difficult to sustain the motivation to keep coming up with content and the time to write posts, or collect them for a blog carnival when you are on your own in preserving it. ThonyC is not on his own in his solitary struggle, one of the things that has really struck me is the bewildering solitary nature of academic blogging. It seems that for the most part academic blogging consists of individual bloggers with their own blogs, and whilst they do link to each other it is generally very fragmented and chaotic. Academic bloggers are on their own to establish themselves it seems. This picture demonstrates what the situation appears to me:

Academic blogging seems right now to consist of blogs all over the web with no clear links between them. The fragmented nature of the academic blogging world reminds me of the famous Rodin sculpture: the thinker. This is the model which we tend to think is how most academic work is produced, that it is a solitary figure lost in their own thoughts and then they produce articles, blogs and books from this cloistered space.

However, I don’t really agree with this. I tend to think like Hobbes that man [and women] are social animals. We are not isolated creatures, but we are all connected as John Donne said:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

The situation within academic blogging seems to be that we are currently a bunch of islands that are vaguely connected but not really arranged into continents and groups. We are all spread out across the digital world with a fragmented network between us. This is why I think that academic blogging is not the lively and interesting community that it could be. What we need is a better framework and structure within which we can blog. As a recent article by LSE points out:

We don’t think single-author blogs are a sustainable or genuinely useful model for most academics – although all praise to the still many exceptional academics who can manage to keep up the continuous effort involved. By joining together and forming multi-author blogs, academics can mutually reinforce each other’s contributions.

This hits upon the problem that academics are facing. It is that we are simply making blogs but we are not structuring them so that they are as effective as they could be. We all make our own blogs and then write and write and write for them (unless we run out of steam and ideas for posts). But if it is ineffective at the start doing more of it by more of us is not going to make it more effective. I for one am guilty of making this error starting this blog on my own and perpetuating the fragmented nature of the blogging world. However, what I think academic blogging needs is a better infrastructure within which we blog. We need to organise our blogs more like this:

We need to start to form academic blogging communities and working together to create an online community so that blogs can coalesce around each other. We need group blogs that cover a theme that are in turn linked to other group bloggers. We need to get in contact with other bloggers and develop networks between us. By creating better online communities we can help develop links between disciplines and subjects, that in turn can be a catalyst for interdisciplinary discussion. By gathering bloggers into places it brings together readers and writers and helps to foster a climate in which ideas can be expressed, questioned and developed. It creates a space in which all the various ideas and posts created by academic bloggers from across the globe can have sex and spawn new and interesting ideas and cross fertilisation. Ideas need to meet other ideas to produce better ideas, and blogs need to mate with other blogs to create better group blogs.

The need for this is stark after coming from a mormon blogging background. It really highlighted the difference between my past blogging and academic blogging. For instance, the Mormon blogging community has clear websites that list the major blogs and aggregate the posts within them to help people orientate themselves to the massive amount of blogs that exist. Anybody wanting to enter the mormon blogging world is easily able to find a blog that interests them. Many of these blogs are group blogs that have a set of permanent bloggers who contribute on a regular basis. The result is a community that has a lively discussion and interesting posts that interact and communicate with each other. Blogging within it was both rewarding and enjoyable. Academic blogging in contrast has seemed to be a desolate wasteland in which your blog is destined to fade away as the statue of Ozymandias did. As Percy Shelley described his fate:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

If our blogs are not lost in the lone sands of the world wide web then it seems that we write for an audience of one self, friends and family, and perhaps a few wonderers who chance to come upon your blog. Now I am not suggesting that we don’t have any group blogs or blog aggregators when it comes to academic blogging (as we do have some) but that we need to use them more and work on creating a community. For example, we have the group blog on early modern experimental philosophy, and the Longitude board project blog and even the collection of historical fictional writers blog at Hoydens and Firebrands, but none of them really generate much discussion or debate. For an aggregator we have the Early Modern Common that aggregates a few early modern blogs together. However, it only has a small selection of blogs and little to orientate the reader. When compared to LDSblogs.com and wheatandtares.org our blogs and aggregators just seem lacklustre and lacking any buzz.

An exception to this is the British Politics and Policy blog run by LSE which is highly effective and attracts a wide readership. Personally I find the sheer number of posts that comes from having 350 bloggers rather unpersonal and overwhelming. What is needed is a medium between the solo and empire blog. As academic bloggers we have no infrastructure to blog within and we need to create one. The tragedy of the situation is that we have some incredible bloggers such as the consistently funny Avoiding Bears, ever insightful Anchora, the sporadic but good Wine Dark Sea, the informational Early Modern Online Bibliography and blog that inspired this piece of navel gazing Renaissance Mathimaticus. Each of these have create blogs, but none of them generate discussion and dialogue between them which is a great shame. Yet, if they were brought together it would increase the chance of fostering a dialogue amongst early modern scholars.

Of course I could be completely mistaken in this evaluation of the current state of academic blogging and that out there in the vast world of the internet is a lively, interesting and cohesive academic blogging community. I just have missed it, or perhaps it’s just that I have not been invited to go party with the cool kids (which seems to happen a lot). But then that is the precise problem if I, a keen blogger who is seeking for an academic blogging community can’t find the academic blogging party then what chance does anyone else have of finding the invisible college of academic blogging? If the very people who want to get involved and create discussion online concerning Early Modern research struggle to get involved then it is an indicator that something needs to be done. My suggestion is that academic bloggers need to stop being islands and start becoming continents.

This leaves me to ask the following questions and look for answers from anyone whose eyes come across this page:

Are my observations concerning academic blogging correct? If I am wrong please direct me to the blogging community because I want to party with the early modern bloggers.

How can we improve academic blogging?

What infrastructure do we need for academic blogging?

And does anybody want to form a Early Modern group blog with me?

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10 responses to “No Academic is an Island

  1. I’m a former academic in the physical sciences who came to blogging after I left. Were I back I would be blogging, I’d be getting my students to blog. In fact some implementations of electronic lab notebooks are basically blogs.

    I’ve admired @rmathimaticus’s work on the #histsci blog carnival but I wonder whether automated tools are better suited to the task? Or collective blogs such as occamstypewriter.org?

    A second issue is that the uptake of blogging and social media by academics is low in absolute terms (the same is true in corporate environments). So a departmental blog would not work because it would end up being the personal blog of the one academic in the department who was interested.

    • I agree more should blog and that blogging should be like a lab book. A catalogue of findings and thoughts. Although blogging is not for everyone. There is the danger of over saturation of blogs. Perhaps the problem is that there is no clarity on how they should be used.

      I too have admired his work. But yes, I should certainly be done by an aggregator rather then by hand each month. Personally I think that collective blogs is the way forward, or individual blogs that are linked to a group blog.

      That’s an interesting point about departmental and institutional blogs. I think that they have their place even if there is a danger that they could turn into personal blogs endowed with a instructional seal of approval.

    • I’m trying to do my bit when it comes to “automates tools” – http://twitter.com/renaissance_hub – which I might extend into a website that gathers some or all of these early modern blog posts together, perhaps highlighting the most-clicked or most-retweeted ones.

      If the response to the present way of doing things is underwhelming, then it seems to me that a productive way forward is to experiment with new methods. @Renaissance_Hub runs off an app I built and requires little work, but in return I’m getting a good (direct) response from the bloggers themselves.

      As an afterthought: it seems to me that being on Twitter is just as an important as blogging for an academic now.

      • I must say that I do love your renaissance hub twitter feed. It is very useful in seeing what is going on. I agree that it seems to be that twitter and blogging are two things that academics should be doing.

  2. Very interesting. When I started up on Twitter and my blog in May I was surprised at how difficult it was to find academics whose work I could follow and learn from. I’m a mature age early modern history student planning on becoming an academic in my long-term future and want to read academics’ blogs to learn as much as I can about this type of work and what research projects they are working on. I would welcome anything that made it easier to identify academic blogs. Twitter has been a huge help in finding academics but, as you say, not many have blogs. I feel like I’m outside the ivory tower, scratching at the walls trying to get in! My own blog is more personal – more about my journey of being a mature age history student and some on what I’m learning and researching myself. I’d love to learn from those who’ve gone before me.

    • I have started to use twitter more and that has helped to feel more of a community. Yet, as you point out it still feels that you are scratching at the walls trying to get in. I am coming to the conclusion that there is in fact no digital tower to get into in the first place.

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