To Blog, or Not to Blog?: Social Media as Academic Practice

 

Originally published as a feature article for the Simon Fraser University English blog

 I’m a writer by profession and it’s totally clear to me that since I started blogging, the amount I write has increased exponentially, my daily interactions with the views of others have never been so frequent, the diversity of voices I engage with is far higher than in the pre-Internet age—and all this has helped me become more modest as a thinker, more open to error, less fixated on what I do know, and more respectful of what I don’t. If this is a deterioration in my brain, then more, please. –Andrew Sullivan

People write about their interests on the internet, so that random strangers will stop by and give them an ego boost. Blogging is the same as fishing for compliments. It’s all about trying to find strangers to pump you up since no one in your real life cares. – Gwendolyn Heasley

In the summer of 2013 I started a blog, https://novelalliances.wordpress.com/. In the last year blogging has become a significant and enjoyable part of the work I do as an author and teacher, but back then I still had a healthy disdain for bloggers and blog culture because, let’s face it, blogging is stupid. I started Novel Alliances because I was frustrated with my writing and frustrated with myself for leaving hours upon hours of work to sit and decay, unread, on my desktop. It wasn’t a labour of love, it was an act of desperation. This is a passage from my first entry (now deleted):

 I am writing this blog for very selfish reasons. You see, I write for a living (I’m a postdoctoral fellow in the Humanities), but lately its felt like quite the labour. It could be a hangover from my dissertation; it could be that I’m the father of two kids and I never really sleep any more; it could be that I just don’t like writing and I should do something else (electrician seems like a good idea these days). Whatever the reason is, I am trying to get my chops back. I need a space where I can attempt to write without spending hours typing, deleting and re-typing the same goddamn sentence for hours on end. I need to open my analysis up a little bit and I need to engage with the arts more than my current research provides for. So this is the venue I have chosen. Perhaps at sometime it will be of value to someone, but right now it is simply a place for me to clear my throat.

Since starting Novel Alliances last year (in fact my one-year “birthday” came up while I was writing this piece) the fourteen articles I have posted have had over 4,500 visitors from twenty-five different countries. Not a huge number, granted, but certainly more than had ever read my work previously with a wider, more specific reach than I could ever hope to imagine otherwise. The blog has helped me to establish contacts across Canada and the U.S. and led to conversations with scholars, artists and community members in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Blogging has also made me a better, more confident writer and provided the space to flesh out new ideas—which, most importantly for me as a junior academic, has led to publication. This summer, I posted a piece on the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission that had been lying dormant on my desktop since I delivered it as a presentation in 2009. A colleague read the post and asked me to revise it as a book chapter for a collection on reconciliation, which we are now in the process of submitting for review with a university press. A post that I wrote on Indigenous narratives in cyberspace received interest from an Indigenous arts Facebook group and was circulated widely among its followers. Through the roulette table that is the Internet, that piece ended up on the desktop of the editor of a high-ranking performance arts journal. Based on that post, the editor contacted me about writing a piece for his publication. Work that I thought was dead and listless was suddenly being read, and appreciated, by people I respected. And not only did that feel good, it gave me the confidence to write more and to submit work that I was feeling shy about to peer-review.

Blogging has brought new vitality to a folder full of work that otherwise would have remained stagnant on my computer, in a folder that by all rights I should have titled “Phantom Zone” (after Superman II)—given the hours of research and academic labour that I’d cast in there never to see the light of day again. I quote Gwendolyn Heasley in the epigram above, because the alienating life of an academic has the potential to make a person feel as if no one cares about how you spend your days, while you, on the other hand, can think about nothing else but your work. Heasley has is right, blogging is like fishing for compliments, but a little compliment goes along way when you feel like you’re writing into a void. The confidence necessary to start (or even think about starting) to get your work out there is a big step towards improving your writing and adding vital lines to your C.V.

At the risk of sounding like an infomercial salesman, blogging works. And I can show you how it can work for you. All it takes is a little cutting and pasting and the belief that somebody, somewhere, might benefit from reading your work.

To begin, it’s important to point out that blogging is still not a “valid” academic process, but that doesn’t mean it can’t help you to accumulate academic capital. English departments all over North America are scrambling to add Digital Humanities hires to their rosters and social media platforms like Twitter, Diigo and WordPress are now mainstays in the classroom, but blogging as an academic publishing practice is still heavily stigmatized. The legal scholar Orin Kerr writes, “relative to other forms of communication, blogs do not provide a particularly good platform for advancing serious… scholarship. The blog format focuses reader attention on recent thoughts rather than deep ones” (1127). More recently, The Chronicle for Higher Education asked, “what’s a blog post worth?” and tenured professor Rob Jenkins answered rather definitively: “the answer to the question posed above—what are blog posts worth in the academic universe?—is “not much.”

For most scholars, blogs remain at the fringes of academic writing because the returns of the work—in terms of academic capital versus the human labour put into a well-written and researched piece—is negligible: “self-published commentary is not ‘tenurable’ work per se” Dr. Jason Mittel states (in his blog), because it is far afield from the peer-review processes by which the academy establishes scholarship. The blog you are reading right now is not a post about the merits of blogging as a “tenurable” process and I am not going to argue that hiring committees and tenure boards need to “get with the times” and take blogging seriously. There are plenty of reasons why they should not and there is already plenty of debate on how the blog can be incorporated into tenure review (Davidson, Jenkins, Mittell). In fact, I argue that the debates over “blogging for tenure” are obfuscating the ways in which social media works to revitalize stagnant pieces of writing while generating serious opportunities for book chapters and peer-reviewed articles—which, along with the monograph, remain the holy grails of the would be tenured.

In this post I’m going to outline three ways that blogging can contribute to a successful academic publishing career by 1) strengthening voice, 2) facilitating revision, and 3) cultivating scholarly relationships. My intended audience is recent PhD’s just entering (or thinking about entering) the academic job market and Junior Faculty looking for ways to increase their peer-review output—but this post is also valuable for anyone struggling with their academic writing or looking for spaces that might reinvigorate their writting practices. At base, I argue that the blog creates a “publishing” space that facilitates writing and dialogue with the unique opportunity to revise without the stagnation of the traditionally published article.

1) Strengthening Voice

Writing a dissertation is important to your career as an academic in a lot of ways, but defining your voice is not one of them. Robert Plant Armstrong makes this case most robustly, if not callously (my apologies to those readers whom are currently in the process of writing) in “The Dissertation’s Deadly Sins:”

Writers of dissertations are expected to undertake a caricature of learned discourse whose sententiousness intimidates them (perhaps it revolts them as well) and whose artificiality of form and rhetoric arouses hostility in anyone who has read real books… The new writer, under the worst of directors, is carefully taught discursive obfuscation and dishonesty; under some others he or she perhaps learns only a slight dissembling; and under the best, no dishonesty at all. But too often straightforward thinking is stultified by methodological, conceptual, and informational prolixity. (12-13)

When you are writing a dissertation you are not only writing within the “artificial” structures of that form, but you are also writing to the critiques and comments of a supervisory committee who may very well have disparate and even mutually exclusive ideas about what your dissertation should be/do. Writing for academic Others and for the University itself leaves little room for an author to express personality in their writing, let alone take creative or methodological risks. Writing within the rigid configurations of the dissertation for the length of time necessary to compose a 200-300 page document seriously impacts the way one writes in general, leading to cramped and uncomfortable articles and conference papers (and even, in my experience pompously cloying emails).

When I started Novel Alliances last summer I was suffering from a severe case of dissertation hangover and struggling to find an antidote, anything that would help the writing feel like it was mine again. Publishing is an act of confidence. It assumes, somewhat disingenuously, that the author feels strongly enough about his or her ideas represented therein to guarantee them with a signature and to send them out to an audience. When you lose confidence, a malady inflicted by the dissertation, publishing seems a long way off.[1] Blogging is a way for academics to write to an audience (an audience that they cannot ever fully contain or predict), but in a space where the stakes are low enough for them to risk introducing “self” back into the writing—meaning that they can allow themselves to write colloquially, to generalize arguments and to speculate on certain ideas free from the internalized mandate to “always be sourcing.”

For me, Novel Alliances was a place to put confidence back into my writing, to make assertions assuredly without paralyzing anxiety over the Others’ opinion. With a blog you “publish” with the option to revise: I often return to my pieces to add a source, or to clarify and idea, or even to delete a whole paragraph. Without being too utopic about it, blogging subverts the anxiety implicit to post-structuralist notions of logos, and the Derridean “dead letter,” making “print” available to the shifting opinions and perspectives of an engaged author—which brings me to the next of my three points.

2) Facilitating Revision

For a new, or even an experienced writer, one of the most stultifying truths about publishing is that scholarly writing, in order to be scholarly, must eventually be taken out of the author’s hands. At that point, the academic’s words must be left to speak from themselves without the author to defend and clarify them. Jacques Derrida perhaps puts this problem most poetically:

The origin of logos is its father. One could say anachronously that the “speaking subject” is the father of his speech. And one would quickly realize that this is no metaphor, at least not in the sense of any common, conventional effect of rhetoric. Logos is a son, then, a son that would be destroyed in his very presence without the present attendance of his father. His father who answers. His father who speaks for him and answers for him. Without his father, he would be nothing but, in fact, writing. (77)

Derrida’s analysis is wrapped up in the Oedipal myth (hence the patriarchal “metaphor”); the prophecy of the son doomed to kill and secede his father, but I’m going to leave that aside for the time being. Writing, in the terms Derrida lays out here, is slightly different than those proffered by Roland Barthes in “The Death of the Author,”[2] but the key idea is the same: for better or for worse, writing, as such, exists without writer. This is an intimidating thought, if not simply because as academic we are perennially confronted with new ideas that fundamentally alter the ways we think about things and articulate ideas and the desire (if not need) to appear to be on the cutting-edge of our chosen field. Coming to terms with the fact that our “children,” our logos, is no longer in our control is sobering. As a graduate student, the first book chapter I ever had accepted for publication was about the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a prominent Judge’s resignation from the governing committee. Because of issues with the press that article wasn’t published until I had completed my PhD and finished the first year of a postdoc—six years after I had written it. Of course by this time, my ideas on the subject had shifted significantly and further information regarding the details of the resignation had come to light. Once I finally brought myself to read it, I realized that the chapter wasn’t really as bad as I had feared, but it was nonetheless unsettling to see words on the page, representing me and my research, because those words were now closed to me.

Far be it for me to suggest here that blogging somehow solves the problem of logos, but I will suggest that it exposes a few slight, if not entirely new, cracks in the ideology. Of course, hitting the “publish” or “send” button on your computer still transports ideas out into the world, away from the protective embrace of the author; in fact, there is an argument to be made that cyberspace and the Internet expedites the centripetal force of writing, providing for a logos that is even more radically alienated from its “father.” The Internet is, according Associate Professor of Communication, Dannagal Young, “an overabundance of decontextualized snippets of info” (qtd. In Dahl) and the salve of your words can become the sword of another author from one second to the next. That being said, blogging does provide for a space in which one can “publish” (that is disseminate) but then bring writing back home to be adapted, refined, clarified and re-published. Blogging, as a low-stakes form of publishing, generates a productive form of writerly pressure with the forgiveness of a document that is always open to amendment. Have your cake and eat it to. That is to say that if you find an article that really adds weight to your argument, or if you decide that a paragraph is actually detrimental to your overall thesis, you can, in a way that traditional publishing cannot provide for, go back—after publishing—and change it. Blogging allows you to “defend” your writing: you can actively respond to criticism and incorporate feedback as if you were giving a presentation. As I mention above, this is not an entirely new idea. The act of writing and re-writing is something that poets have been exploring since at least the sixteenth century. Freud’s “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad'” (1925) is a reflection on the possibility of an infinite space of inscription and reception in which one can record an inestimable amount of information while remaining “new.” In many ways, the blog is a mystic writing-pad, but with the added benefit of instant and widespread dissemination—and it is these elements that provide for its possibility as an academic tool.

The kind of dynamic revisioning afforded by a blog provides the space for authors to refine and adapt an article before it goes to peer-review and to test the waters for an idea before he or she sends it out on its own. As such, a blog is an excellent space to publish and workshop those conference papers you slaved over for a tepid audience of six. Logos that never again saw the light of day after you uttered your concluding sentence. In this technological epoch there is no excuse for leaving your hard won words to stagnate in a folder on your desktop—aside from being afraid of what might happen when you inscribe them on the mystic pad. Getting your work online (and thus susceptible to even the chance that it might be read by someone else) is a great way to get over your fear of the reception of your work, thus putting you on the path towards “real” publication. Clearly Freud would not approve, but try to think of the blog as a form of Exposure Therapy and the blog as a safe version of a fearful stimulus that you can engage to come to terms with your trepidation.

Of course, publishing in itself is not going to get you any readers. Blogging works best when you’re part of community of like-minded individuals to whom you feel responsible to and who will offer feedback. This leads me to the final point I’ll make here about blogs and their potential as academic tools.

3) Cultivating Scholarly Relationships

There is plenty of research out there about how the Internet and Social Media create community and expedite the flow of information. The Deutschland Alumniportal (a worldwide academic social network) writes, “as well as the aspect of ‘seeing and being seen’ and the ability to receive direct feedback, social media also enable users to send invites and add colleagues from around the world, and expand international knowledge networks.” Blogs have also been identified as a necessary means to an end for research that simply does not fit within the confines of an academic monograph or a peer-reviewed article. Jason Mittell explains how today’s academic authors need to do more to justify the form in which they choose to publish their work:

If the university press book is the best way to reach a project’s ideal readership, then explain why; if another format is better, make that case. I think this is particularly important when the topic and/or method is potentially multimedia, whether dealing with audio-visual material as analytic object or digital methodologies – the reasons why a print book/journal is the best way to disseminate such scholarship seem more tied to precedent & norms than actual best practices for scholarly dissemination, and candidates should either be honest about those pressures & concerns, or reviewers should be open to the riskier forms of digital publication.

Simply because of the ways in which technology is being incorporated into teaching and research, it seems inevitable that universities at some point must re-address their policies on digital publication, not to render the book or the print journal obsolete, but to acknowledge cyberpublishing as valid corollary to traditional print. However, as mentioned above, that is not the point of this particular blog. The argument I am making here is that blogging can improve your chances to publish peer-reviewed articles and book chapters—which, at this point—remain the primary currency in an academic economy. I have illustrated above how blogs can improve your writing, giving you the space to (re)claim your voice and the opportunity to “revise and resubmit” in a low stakes environment. Now I’m going to be a little more technical about getting your work onto the desktops of people who can help you turn a blog entry into an undeniably scholarly line in your C.V.

My opening advice in these regards is to write like an academic, not like a blogger. This may seem contrary to the advice I give above about finding your voice, but when I say “write like an academic” I simply mean that you should bear in mind, if only deep within the shadows of the frontal lobe, a scholarly audience: flesh out your examples, source and cite where necessary and proofread, always proofread. Blogging does not have to be synonymous with sloppy and underdeveloped ideas. This is not to say that you should let perfectionism get in the way of getting your ideas on the (web)page. Remember: blogging is a forgiving medium. Before you are ready to give a heavy social media push to your piece, just leave it floating on the blogosphere for a few days. Comments and even views from your readership will allow you to see the piece in a new light and the Internet (the pedant’s paradise) will help with those typos. Even looking at the search terms people used to find your piece can help you better understand what your writing is doing and/or what it could be doing. If a person stumbles upon your blog on typography by searching for “creative representations of ideology” (something the analytics of most blog sites will tell you) then you might think more about how your work responds to that search and how you might shape the piece to respond to that audience.

When you have a document that you feel reasonably comfortable with (there’s no such thing as true comfort in writing, so at some point you’re just going to have to just let it go) start targeting your work to specific audiences. Twitter is the best way to start doing this. Learn your way around hashtags and use them to your advantage. Find people who are interested in your topic and tweet you post directly at them. And don’t assume that one post is going to do the trick. Tweet and retweet links to your work at different times of the day using different hashtags and different introductions to draw readers in. There’s a method to this beyond marketing: like devising a title, re-framing your piece in 140 characters can give you new insight into the core of your argument. If you can’t say it in 140 characters, maybe you need to think more about what your message is. If you are uncomfortable “blasting” your own work from a personal Twitter account, create an account specifically for your blog. The marketing aspect of blogging is an exercise in learning to sell yourself and making your writing appealing to different audiences; if you are planning on going on the job market, or, if you are putting together a tenure review packet, its an invaluable skill to have. Facebook is also a great place to disseminate work: find a an FB group devoted to an area of interest that you are writing about and post a link on their page. Be friendly and humble, but explain to them why you think your blog might be of interest to them (another good exercise in marketing yourself). Some of the best feedback I’ve gotten has come from Facebook groups, the members of which are often amateur critics with huge amounts of knowledge and the time to share ideas and give suggestions.

Finally, get a link to your blog on your C.V. and business card. Put it in your bio and share it with people at conferences. Your blog is a great way for prospective employers to get a deeper sense of your research interests and writing abilities, and blogging demonstrates an ethical commitment to the distribution of knowledge beyond the ivory tower. If you are using WordPress.org, or another blog in which you have access to the PHP source code, you can install an analytics plugin that allows you to see who is looking at your blog when—invaluable information to have when you have hundreds of resumes in circulation. If you get an interview at a particular institution you then have an inside view into the search committee’s interest in your work and you can better tailor your job talk to match their interests. It all begins with taking advantage of technology and putting your work out there. Use the power of social media to get your writing into the hands of people who can help you move towards traditional publication and continue to use the blog as a space to generate and refine ideas.

Conclusion

If you stop struggling with the system to recognize blogs as scholarly writing (something which remains, indefinitely, on a messianic horizon of a Digital Humanities postdoc) and start identifying the ways in which a blog can improve your writing, locate supporters and lead to publishable forms that add irrefutable weight to your C.V., blogging and social media can become a vital part of your academic practice, be it in the hunt for that first academic job, or in the push towards tenure. In one year, my blog led to two publications and put my ideas in front academics, high school students, publishing houses, and even some of the artists I write about (a scary prospect, but one ultimately gave me a huge amount of confidence in my analytic choices). Given the choice to blog, or not to blog it seems readily apparent where the engaged academic should turn, not because of what it represents in the academic community, but for what it can do for you as a career academic and committed author IRL.*

 

Works Cited (Print)[3]

Armstrong, Robert Plant. “The Dissertation’s Deadly Sins.” The Thesis and the Book:

A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors. Eds. Eleanor Harman et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. 11-19.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Hopkins Fulfillment Service; Corr

edition, 1998.

—.“Plato’s Pharmacy.” Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson.

Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981. 65-117.

Heasley, Gwendolyn. Don’t Call Me Baby. New York: Tween, 2014.

Kerr, Orin S. “Blogs and the Legal Academy.” Washington University Law Review 84.5

(2006): 1127-1134.

 

[1] As Armstrong argues, “the dissertation uses more conditional sentences than does any other prose form in the language” (13). The “pusillanimous passive,” as he puts it, does not make for compelling reading.

[2] Derrida’s insistence on “the dead letter” begins in his first major work, Of Grammatology. There he connects writing qua death more explicitly to the Western tradition: “writing in the common sense is the dead letter, it is the carrier of death. It exhausts life… It has always been considered by the Western tradition as the body and matter external to the spirit, to breath, to life, and to the logos” (35).

* In Real Life

[3] All digital citations are linked via hypertext in the above document.

5 comments

  1. […] Gaertner, “To Blog, Or Not to Blog? Social Media as Academic Practice” […]

  2. […] Gaertner, “To Blog, Or Not to Blog? Social Media as Academic Practice” […]

  3. […] Gaertner, David. “To Blog, or Not to Blog?: Social Media as Academic Practice.” Novel Alliances. Accessed March 3, 2015. https://novelalliances.com/2015/01/13/to-blog-or-not-to-blog-social-media-as-academic-practice/. […]

  4. […] and New Media and to create a safe space for emerging authors to find their feet in the world of academic publishing. We also encourage collective statements of learning from Indigenous Studies and New Media […]

  5. […] parts of academic practice is one that is not always accepted by the academic community. Reading To Blog or Not To Blog and The Impact of Social Media on the Dissemination of Research: Results of an […]

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