Having attended a workshop on academic blogging hosted by the Faculty of History, University of Oxford, helped me to define my own attitude towards blogging and clarify some doubts which I had about the activity. Meanwhile, the workshop, and especially the discussions, revealed a number of ‘grey areas’ which still exist in academic blogging. While the participants agreed on a number of issues, such as the ambiguity of the term ‘public’ as used in ‘public engagement,’ there was no definitive answer to a number of other concerns, including the vexed issue of copyright. Moreover, the workshop raised the more general question of the tone and purpose in academic blogging, and it is this question which lingers in my mind.
My own involvement in academic blogging began a few years ago, when I had to write a paper for my home university (the University of Latvia), on academic blogging from the point of view of linguistics. I should mention that our linguistics department even then was strangely attracted to researching all kinds of weird issues that went with the WWW. Or I thought them to be weird issues, before I found myself faced with the wealth of blogs on history by postgraduate students and researchers. It was an eye-opening experience, and I decided to start blogging myself. One day…
So the day has come. I have tried blogging before, but I was hampered by the questions of language (should I blog in English or in my mother tongue, Russian? A mixture of both in one blog did not seem to work well); of subject (should I blog only on my academic progress or on the day-to-day, too?); who (if anyone) is going to read my blog?; and how should I engage with other bloggers (and do I want to do that?)
The workshop helped me with some of these questions. Thus, I have decided that there is no point in having one blog that will be a mixture of languages and topics; so I will try to maintain an English workshop for my English colleagues and a Russian one for those of my Russian and Latvian colleagues who are not fluent in English.
As to the content, I should try to concentrate on my academic work and post on the issues that contribute to it. The opening presentation by Yolana Pringle, which provided a classification of blogs according to their content and purpose helped a lot to clarify my thinking. Though, again, everything can potentially contribute to one’s academic work, from current affairs to holidays. More particularly, I hope that blogging can contribute to a public engagement project which I current direct and which aims at helping a group of participants experience the Grail quest romances and the Middle Ages in general; more on the Quest project can be found on my website or on the project website (Russian only).
So we come to the term public. It is inevitable. Who is my public? We raised the question with my discussion group and came to no agreement. Most academic bloggers can hardly aspire to have ‘the general public’ queuing to view their latest post – and many people may be wary of this kind of ‘success.’ However, it is nearly impossible to predict beforehand, for someone who has little or no previous experience of blogging, what kind of audience the blog will attract. And we may even never know who is reading the blog, unless people comment. Blog hosts offer helpful tools for analyzing the flow of viewing, and it is possible to prohibit anonymous commenting (which is also a useful implement for controlling spam), but it does not answer fully explain why particular readers are attracted to this blog nor who these readers are.
Hence, the question of tone in academic blogging. Should we try to popularize and make our blogging friendly to this great unknown, the ‘general public’? Should we try to imitate the style of popular magazines, books and TV programmes on history? Should we be objective or subjective?
As to the last, it has been long argued that ‘objective’ perspective is impossible, particularly in writing history. Academic papers, as we all know, try to maintain the illusion of objectivity by making use of previously approved academic research and supporting theory by data. Avoiding the use of personal pronouns and informal language enhances this illusion. But we cannot be entirely objective, because without raising contentious issue the entire purpose of research is lost. Saying ‘cows give milk’ or ‘the sun rises in the east’ is not a hypothesis, it is an observable fact. So we need to put forward something arguable in order to discuss it. So academic research is subjective, but this subjectivity itself is subject to strict rules, as it is always possible to tell where the author’s private view (‘hypothesis’) begins and ends.
Here is the bone of contention which we could not resolve at the workshop. Probably, as one of the participants, Anthony Ridge-Newman commented in his post, we should agree to disagree. Should we put forward our views as if our views had been representative of the academia? Is it enough just to make a little note in the corner ‘my views are (largely) my own’? Are we not deceiving the naïve general reader? Conversely, the other side argued that the ‘general reader’ should not be subjected to the stuffy ‘academese’; that references are never used by blog readers and therefore have no use; that established academics do speak in popular shows and write books for the general reader without losing their place in the academic world.
So we cannot, and maybe even should not, give one answer for all times. Blogging is a flexible media, and each blogger should find the balance between academic and personal/activist/popular, whatever you may call it, approach. I believe that the keyword here is honesty. Blog is a place where we can express our view, a subjective opinion or just a hunch that we cannot put forward in academic writing because we have little or no evidence to back them. However, we should be entirely honest about it and make the reader aware where our opinion is coming from. As a result, we do need references. Links is an elegant solution, but even a traditional list of sources or bibliography at the end of the post may serve its purpose. I do not think we should be afraid of the ‘general public’s’ mental capacity. From my experience with the Grail Quest project, the people who are interested in history usually have a strong opinion themselves, and they are not easily caught in the tenets of ‘activist propaganda.’ The downside of this critical capacity is that people are rather unwilling to change or even review their opinions, and taking the reader back to the source is one way of doing it. Whether people actually go and read the sources is another question, but I believe that we, as academics, are responsible for providing the reader with the tools for their own research. If we are going to feed kids milk and porridge all their life, how are they going to accept solid food?
As a final thought, I believe that the main difference between academic blogging and just blogging lies in the degree of responsibility that the blogger takes for the contents. We cannot be always sure that our opinion is entirely right, and we should not suggest so by the tone of our blogging. Another point, and that is something that was mentioned by several of the workshop participants, is that academic blogging implies a certain standard, an ‘academic netiquette.’ What this standard is and how it should be measured is the task for future discussions.
These, of course, are very initial and rather obvious thoughts. I will be very grateful for any comments and criticism on them. Particularly, do you think there should be any advisable standards for academic blogging?