I was recently invited by Nicole Bush (Northumbria) to chair a roundtable discussion at the ‘Transforming Objects’ conference on ‘Single- and Multi-Authored Blogging Models’ (28-29 May 2012). The speakers were Martin Paul Eve (Sussex), Kieran Fenby-Hulse (Bradford), Charlotte Mathieson (Warwick) and James Mussell (Birmingham). I must admit, I felt both honoured and daunted to be chairing the session. The participants are seasoned bloggers and very experienced in using a variety of blogging models. Some of them, particularly Charlotte and James, regularly use blogging as part of their teaching. On a personal level, the roundtable encouraged me to think more fully about what it means to be a ‘blogger’. In the past, I’ve shied away from the term. I would not have defined myself as ‘a blogger’, nor would I have thought that I actively ‘blogged’. I have attended workshops where knowledgeable people have suggested that academics should start up their own blog, and that having done so, you must blog regularly. At one event, I was told that ‘good practice’ meant blogging twice a week. With such proclamations, is it not surprising that many academics have turned the other cheek, proclaiming ‘I don’t have time’. This is entirely understandable given increasing pressure on us at work and on a personal level to create a life/work balance.
Yet this roundtable highlighted some interesting arguments in favour of scholarly blogging. One of the reasons that scholars are increasingly being encouraged to write or consider writing blogs is for the dissemination of our research to the public. In Britain, this was strengthened by the REF’s Impact agenda. Though we know little about who makes up the readership for our blogs, we largely assume that our audiences are non-specialists. While the issue of impact in the REF is problematic and ill-defined, as James pointed out, the desire to share our knowledge and our findings must surely be at the heart of our endeavours. In many ways, this reminds me of nineteenth-century educational practices: academics were keen to leave their ‘ivory towers’ to lecture or give classes to organisations such as the Workers’ Education Association or in one of Britain’s many University Settlements. Of course, in other ways, the world has changed dramatically. The difference now is that blogs can be read at any time and in a larger geographical region. At the same time, search engines like Google allow readers to dip in and out of blog entries by using key word searches. As Kieran noted, when he blogged on Bollywood, a large number of his readership came from India while his blog entry on country music saw more people, perhaps unsurprisingly, logging in from the USA. We need to think carefully about the diversity and multifarious nature of our blog readership. This means interrogating and celebrating our wider audiences.
Charlotte and James acknowledged that writing their blogs can enable them to think through their research and free them from the constraints of academic writing. This was supported by Kieran, who noted that, for him, the blog entry was a form of ‘splurge writing’ that allows him greater flexibility, both in his subject matter, and the overlaps he can make between his research and popular culture more broadly. This surely raises an increasing tension in relation to the proclamation that ‘I don’t have time to write a blog’, because, as the speakers here emphasised, blogging gives us new and more flexible ways to write about our research which are often valuable in the process of traditional academic writing. It also provides PhD students with a platform upon which to work through not only their research but also what I would label as the PhD blues; those times when you feel desperately lonely and isolated not only from your peers but also from your PhD at a practical and intellectual level.
The problem with blogging, or rather the blogging narrative outlined above, is that you are increasingly told as a PhD student, early career researcher and lecturer that you should be blogging for self-promotion and for your career development. When I was toiling away as a temporary lecturer, it was increasingly touted that I should blog. All this did for me was frame blogging as something that I needed to do (another thing that needed to be added to the list) rather than something I wanted to do.
Perhaps this highlights some of the problems with how we understand blogging; should we always understand it as a single authored endeavour or as something that could do as a collective activity? As Martin and Kieran noted, the single-authored blog replicates 1) popular individual blogs written in a similar manner as ‘Julie/Julia’ or 2) the scientific model of writing a blog as a daily lab report. What, then, should a humanities blog look like? Of course, we could not and did not attempt to answer this question, but it was refreshing to hear Kieran say that he suffers from ‘blogger guilt’ when he doesn’t regularly update. But he also acknowledged that this in itself raised interesting questions about the nature of his blog; its static nature does not necessarily mean its demise or death. Rather, the blog is a digital object that can be returned to and embraced once again by his readership. This resurrection occurs by the posting of a tweet, for example. All of our bloggers acknowledged the significance of social media like Twitter to how they disseminate their entries. Yet James did raise an interesting point in reference to the relationship between the blog and social media, namely what happens when the blog entry is no longer disseminated by the author but fractured through tweeting and retweeting.
Similarly, Martin noted that ownership of a blog is made all the more complicated when people are able to comment on posts and how the veneer of anonymity can led to harsh and personal comments being directed to the blogger. However, Kieran was keen to argue that commenting was something he hoped for because he understood his blog to be a networking tool. Yet this does raise interesting questions about the subjectivity of the blogger and how much the personal/professional interact with one another in this sphere. This arguably centres on questions surrounding ‘what type of academic do I want to be and how do I want to be perceived?’ Beyond this forum, Charlotte has noted that the ‘here & now’ nature of blogging can mean that blogs for some early career researchers become a vehicle for moaning about current academic woes.
This is further complicated when we think about the multi-authored blog. As with single authored blogs, there is a variety of models within this category. ‘The Floating Academy’ (recently included in the JVC bloggers Fair) is a collective of PhD students and Post-doctoral Fellows, whilst JVC online encourages submissions from anybody with an interest in the Victorians. The latter model, I would argue, provides greater freedom, perhaps to people who want to blog but don’t want to personally commitment to a single-authored blog. Yet the multi-authored blog, as Martin rightly suggests, needs to consider its identity and branding just as much as the single authored blog; what is its brand, should there be an editorial board, and if so, what role does it play? Should this necessarily be used to create a single voice? I believe that the tone, or voice, of a multi-authored blog needs to be flexible and varied, in part because it replicates the single authored model which deals with the multiplicity of selfhood.
I don’t want to suggest that blogging is something that everyone should do, and that there are not problems with blogging. For instance, how does copyright work? How can we convince universities of the importance of blogging? Does blogging raise future problems with self-plagiarism? Nevertheless, this panel highlighted the flexibility and excitement that can come with blogging. It also highlighted how academics need to fully consider what blogging means to them and to choose a model of blogging that suits them. This might be by blogging as an individual, or by making a collective of academics that share similar thematic concerns or periodization (like JVC online). So, I finish with this proclamation: ‘My name is Lucinda Matthews-Jones and I am a blogger…well a blogger on a multi-authored platform’.