The End of the Golden Age of Academic Blogging?

January 9, 2012 § 3 Comments

This pas week there was an interesting article on academic blogging by Andrea Doucet in the emChronicle of Higher Education. Doucet is a “midcareer” scholar, securely tenured, at a research school who decided to take up blogging.  The article reflects on her decision to begin blogging and touched on many of the common reasons for wanting to try a new medium. She wanted to expose a wider audience to her work, cultivate the reader-writer audience, and get works into the public eye in a more efficient and timely way than allowed by the traditional peer review process. These are all noble goals and are probably common to most academic bloggers right now.

Where her article becomes interesting, however, is in her experiences blogging.

First, she made the somewhat unusual decision to limit the length of her blogs to 1000 words. While I have to admit, a 1000 word blog post does hit a kind of sweet spot in terms of web writing (tucking in right beneath the floating “tl;dr” barrier), it is not at all cast in stone. Numerous, famous bloggers write much shorter posts or much longer posts depending on their intended audience and personal style. In fact, there is an entire culture that has grown up around long form writing on the web. Moreover, scholars frequently write at varying lengths. A conference paper might not exceed 2500 words, a book review 1500, an article 10,000 and a book 120,000 words. Older forms of scholarly writing, like notes, correspondences, and comments, could be less 1000 words in length, yet still contribute to ongoing scholarly discussions. Ironically, these shorter forms of writing have declined at just the time when technologies have made it issues to overcome issues of efficiency and timeliness.

Next, she notes that bloggers are like hares, whereas scholars “are like tortoises” who “plod along” through their in-depth research. She goes on to describe her own struggles to write posts quickly. Moreover, she noted that her greatest challenge was to make sure that her work remained high quality and complex while still being clear and concise. I certainly sympathize with her struggle, but I wonder if the distinction between the pace of academic writing and the pace of blogging obscures the real advantages of academic writing in a blog format. Most academic bloggers combine timely commentary with their own, usually pre-existing research.  In other words, blogs provide opportunities share the research produced in a plodding, thoughtful way, but, at least from my experience, rarely lead scholars to do new research.  What makes academic blogs valuable is that our perspectives are grounded in the tortoise-like research. Blogging, on again, fits into well-established academic traditions such as academic conversations, comments on papers at academic conferences or panels, quick reads by colleagues, and peer reviews. This kind of writing and speaking tends to be shorter in length and less complex than an original article or book destined for peer reviewed work, require a kind of timeliness, and draw upon research expertise acquired from years of plodding.

Doucet’s commitment to blogging as a medium that requires simplified argument and writing perhaps derives from her expectations that blogs “implore people to read quickly, to “Like,” to share, to comment.” going so far to ponders whether it is “possible that the move from scholarly writing to blogging constitutes a fundamental ontological shift in who we are as writers and readers?”

At this point, I must admit that I’m at a loss. I am not sure how a blog as a medium implores the reader to read quickly any more than a book or article demands careful attention. No scholar would deny that it is possible and often preferable to read articles and books quickly looking for particular ideas or arguments. At the same time, there are blog posts that I read slowly, think about for weeks, and return to for inspiration. That being said, it is probably safe to say that blogs are read more quickly, but if authors’ write quickly and simply, what is the motivation for me the reader to lavish more attention on the work?

Interesting, even if we accept that blog posts reward quick reading, Doucet goes to suggest that the experience of blogging and reading blogs seems encourage a dangerous and distracting kind of immersion in the network of links connecting one posts, commentary, and idea, with one another.  “When I blog, I find myself getting caught up in that web of “likes” and “tweets.” On the one hand, it can feel like an exhilarating roller-coaster ride; on the other hand, it strikes me as completely and uncomfortably at odds with how my work is usually received and appreciated.”

This, again, strikes me as strange. After all, when I read an article, I often pay as much attention to footnotes and citations as the article’s text. I frequently loose myself in the web of associations especially when fortified by a good library where it’s easy to have access to a range of periodicals and books. And, while I am not a huge proponent of measuring “scholarly impact, based on citation counts, it is always gratifying to see an article cited by another scholar whose work I respect.

Despite the opportunity for immersion, Doucet ultimately concludes that “blogging is fast and thin; the process of academic writing is slow and deep.”  This is disappointing conclusion. I have always supposed that blogging is what we as scholars make it.  If we see it as a place to write quick, easy to digest notes, then I suppose the best we can hope for it providing our readers with a quick, cheap intellectual high. The best we can hope for is that blogging will be an academic gateway drug leading someone’s interest toward the harder more life consuming and habit forming drug of full on academic culture.

On the other hand, I’m not sure there is anything intrinsic to blogging that insists that it limit its influence and power to being a quick, superficial high. In fact, it seems like most of the criticisms Doucet offered were grounded in her approach and expectations of blogging rather than a technical limitation to the medium or the limits imposed by a strictly enforced generic standards (e.g. like academics tend to enforce on an academic book reviews or certain kinds of conference papers)./p pIn the end, Doucet’s reflections made me sad. I suspect her work reflects the narrowing of the horizons of what blogging could be; expectations are becoming ossified. As any number of writers have suggested, the golden age of academic blogging may be behind us, perhaps ushered out by honest reflections like Doucet’s.

§ 3 Responses to The End of the Golden Age of Academic Blogging?

  • I have to say I am completely agree with your critique of Doucet’s post. Though I would say that it is not the end of the Golden era of academic blogging, as blogging has always had to deal with the problem of being pigeonholed. The general perception among non-bloggers is that ‘general’ blogging is a board housewife blogging about her cats all day.

    It seems that Doucet has simply taken on the persona of “Academic” blogging as “true” academic blogging without exploring the other possible avenues. A shame really but one that I think happens quite a bit. Considering the amount of work that goes into blogging unless someone explores and moves outside the shell of what they think “academic” blogging is they will probably lose interest and thus not create a pigeonhole effect.

    Hopefully, I tend to be an optimist.

  • I also read Doucet’s musings. Didn’t make me sad; I just thought “another academic who missed the boat.” The last few years have been a golden era only if gold is defined as everyone rambling online. The “hare” and “shallow” comments reflect an very narrow view of blogging. The better bloggers blog for their peers, and also a larger audience. The longform stuff out there is astonishingly good.

  • Jim Newhard says:

    I agree with Richard. Totally missed the point. One can be thoughtful and succint simultaneously. It’s not an either/or position.

    There also seemed to be an anti-intellectual bend to it as well – as if writing for a more transient medium was less thoughtful or meaningful. I thought it odd.

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