A few weeks ago on October 22nd, I participated in an Open Access Week event held by York University’s libraries. A deliberate attempt to generate a lively discussion, this event was titled “The Great Debate: Should the blog replace the book?”, and I was recruited to argue on the “blog side”. The other participants were Ian Milligan (University of Waterloo), John Fink (McMaster University), and Scott McLaren (York University).
This was an interesting debate, though I must say I wish I hadn’t spoken first–I’ve never been in a debate before, and in academic presentations (in my experience) we’re encouraged to focus on content over rhetorical style. So I had too many points and lacked a convincing style of conveying them, partly because public speaking makes me nervous. Needless to say, we were beaten out by the book, but of course now I can turn to my blog and add a lengthy post-script!
I should mention that at least a couple of the participants weren’t particularly committed to the positions we were asked to take. I had difficulty arguing against the book, even as someone who blogs, since I’m quite attached to the (hundreds of) books I have sitting on shelves around my apartment. My co-debaters were similarly positioned: Ian is actually writing a book right now, and on the book side, John Fink is Digital Technologies Development Librarian at McMaster, and he discusses in his blog how he, too, had problems coming up with an argument.
I’m also not very good at responding quickly to questions from an audience. I always feel as if my responses are going to sound uninformed, because I haven’t had time to think them through. There was one question in particular that stood out during the debate, probably because I simply didn’t believe anyone could hold to the opinion expressed. This question was about whether we viewed blogs as “entertainment” (and books as…not?). To me it seemed clear that “entertainment” was being positioned against something else with more inherent value–information, or knowledge, perhaps? I felt like reminding the audience that “Twilight”, too, is a book (with sequels–and I don’t think it started as a blog, either).
In any case, since I never think about academic blogs in this way, I had trouble coming up with a good response to the question. I explained that while I’m happy for people to find my blog “entertaining”–why not?–the actual goal here is to provide some critical analysis of issues relating to the academic research I’m doing. I believe the content of my blog differentiates it from, say, blogs about celebrity gossip or cooking (and the latter are still at least as informative as they are entertaining). And although I loathe the concept of “Edutainment”, I would also question the idea that the difference between entertainment and information is something simple and straightforward.
The problem with much of the critique of blogs is that there are too many generalizations. Categorizing blogs as “entertainment” means generalizing and extrapolating based on aspects of the nature of the medium, rather than on the content of particular blogs. In this debate, our primary focus was on academic publishing. For example, in using the term “accessibility” I was comparing blogs with the most predominant forms of academic publishing, the journal article and the monograph–not with cheaper forms of publishing that don’t require as much digital technology. So when the issue of “entertainment” was raised, it seemed inappropriate to the context in which we were framing our arguments.
A similar problem is illustrated in a recent blog post from Maclean’s, in which the author discusses how she was advised to stop blogging because it could negatively affect her career as a teacher. There is much focus on the form of blogging, but not on whether it was more the author’s writing and subject matter that was deemed problematic or potentially damaging to her professional prospects (as opposed to simply having a blog at all).
In academe, the negative assessment of blogs is widespread. Quite recently I saw one academic on Twitter refer to blogging as “easy” and I winced. I’d argue that like many things, blogging is “easy” if you don’t care about quality–if you don’t want to consider content or audience or style, for example. But anyone who does care about such things is going to argue that blogging well takes as much skill as writing in any other medium. I wouldn’t want a shoddy blog post published any more than I’d want a sub-par academic paper published in a journal, because it’s something I wrote, and it’s in public where people can read it.
Is blogging easy compared to “real” academic writing and its publishing process, perhaps? In academe we have the assumption that the peer review process guarantees quality–and thus blogs, which are not reviewed (in most cases), must be of lower quality than academic journal articles and books. This is tied up with the relative value of different kinds of writing (and indeed, knowledge) in the academic economy, and of course, to the current process of academic publishing.
But does the absence of gatekeeping necessarily mean that the ultimate “product” is of lesser worth? This is not just a philosophical question–how we answer it will play a part in the future of the academic profession, since faculty hiring and promotion depends so heavily on publishing. This is the context in which the question of blogs as “entertainment” was put to us as scholars hoping to participate in knowledge dissemination. This is a political context, a context of institutional change; even if such issues are entertaining, they are certainly not neutral.
I fear, Melonie, that I was the one who said blogging was “easier” (I have said it in the past, or at least something like it). I find it easier because I feel freer in terms of how I write and what I write; the form (which, you’re right, is not peer reviewed and has a much wider audience) allows me to blog about my research in-progress, to reflect, ask questions, get feedback, make typos, and generally doesn’t need the “polish” that we have in our “published” work. I also find that I can more readily use my own voice when I blog, rather than trying to change it for the demands of a publication.
This isn’t to say that I don’t take blogging seriously. And, I should also say, being entertaining is for many of us more work that being informative and insightful. Blogging is easier for me insofar as it is a small piece of a work in progress, not the finished thing. I think there are definitely strengths to this form of writing, as well as strengths in book-length work. I am doing both, too. I’m blogging my progress as I write my book. Perhaps “different” is a better word than easier; it’s a different style of writing that I am more suited for perhaps is a better way to put it.
I don’t think the debate will be settled anytime soon, but I do think academic online publishers could stand to learn a lot about what constitutes decent web content by learning from blogs. Regardless of whether they’re easier to write, I do find blogs easier to read than the average journal.
Conveniently, I’ve just blogged about it. http://bit.ly/SIGXnT
I wonder why there hasn’t been more interest in these issues written about in academic journals? Why, for instance, hasn’t anyone sought to explore issues of knowledge production, social construction of academic knowledge, institutionalization, and legitimation
as it relates to academic identites, organizational systems, or peer review contexts in general? Until someone sticks their neck out in the current “academic mediums” like journals, yearbooks and edited volumes, and voices an opinion that we ought to recognize academic blogging as a modicum of scholarship that has arisen because of social norms in higher education, these debates will remain cast to the obscure discourses of online academic exclusion. Blogging has gained so much footing as a form of praxis – particularly for teacher-researchers – that it seems counter productive to discuss the relevance of something that is clearly rigorous and of the academic world. We ought to be discussing the criteria by which blogs can be brought into academic journal-based conversations. It’s time to figure out how academic blogs count as sources of knowledge in their own right rather than pitting them against other mediums.
Nicholas, I agree, and people have started to do that — I know that, because I am among them (“Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as academic practice”). Other articles in the same issue also address different aspects of social media as part of a scholarly life.
Just as a quick follow-up, the link I posted was to a paper that was open access, by arrangement between the journal and publisher. We are trying to figure out why it appears to be behind a pay-wall now!