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Academic Blogging: The Value of Conversation


by Frederic Stutzman - October 31, 2006

As academics, we are educators and communicators. For this reason, the ongoing debate over the role of blogs in academia is both illustrative and confounding. Fundamentally, blogs are communication tools—ones that when used in context become powerful tools for digital learning. Many in academia have effectively leveraged blogs to share their work and connect with students and colleagues, all the while spurring conversation and research. Why is it that so many of us are apprehensive about the role blogs play in academia, and particularly, the role blogging may play in our careers?

As academics, we are educators and communicators.  For this reason, the ongoing debate over the role of blogs in academia is both illustrative and confounding.  Fundamentally, blogs are communication tools—ones that when used in context become powerful tools for digital learning.  Many in academia have effectively leveraged blogs to share their work and connect with students and colleagues, all the while spurring conversation and research.  Why is it that so many of us are apprehensive about the role blogs play in academia, and particularly, the role blogging may play in our careers?


It might be useful to first parse the overarching value-laden notion of blogging.  A blog is simply a piece of software that lets an individual publish content to the Internet with the click of a button.  In this sense, a blog is little more than a populist follow-on to the self-maintained HTML page—one that often grew stagnant due to the complexity of the update process.  As we discovered blogs, we socially constructed uses for the software.  Popular themes that have emerged include personal blogging and political blogging, while many other bloggers have picked up areas like food, sports, or literature.  Consistent among bloggers is that they are using their voice to share information about a topic in which they are interested or have expertise.  


While it is effective to separate the software from the act of blogging, the unfortunate reality is that many observers are not able to understand that a blog has many uses.  Because we gossip on the telephone does not mean that all phone conversations are gossip; unfortunately, the notion pervades that all blogs are simply pulpits for one to spill mundane details from one’s personal existence.  Perhaps nowhere was this line of thinking more obvious than the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article “Bloggers Need Not Apply.”  In it, the professor Ivan Tribble (pseudonym) drew upon a small sample of job applicants to raise a specter of fear–that in the job application process, “more often than not, however, the blog was a negative.” (Tribble, 2005)


We all have digital identities.  When we are researched in search engines, a wide range of information comes up.  Our identity is constructed not only of the work we create and public discussions we have, but also of what others say about us (see http://RateMyProfessors.com).  Clearly, our digital identity is becoming more important, valuable, and robust.  As we well know, there is more about us online than ever before.  As we move forward into this digital millennium, we are faced with a fundamental decision: do we embrace our digital identity, or do we hide from our digital identity?


When we blog, we produce and control our digital identity by having a strong say in the matter.  Of course, what we say online reflects upon our real-world identity—and the things we say online can have real-world consequences.  Mindful of this, many academics choose to blog.  In fact, a great number of academics, and many members of the vast network of invaluable professionals that support higher education, have decided to employ blogs in a number of ways.  In doing so, this collective is changing academia.


What motivates academics to blog?  First and foremost, it might be useful to understand why blogging feels right to academics.  Blogging, in any form, is a communicative process; the ability to communicate effectively is a fundamental requirement for teaching and learning.  Blogs have been shown to be effective ways to promote literacy (Huffaker, 2005) and increase engagement in the classroom (Du & Wagner, 2005).  Many academics also see it as a responsibility not to be laggards on the information technology adoption curve–it is their duty to adopt new technologies and critically explore their uses.  The natural desire of an academic to explore and communicate drives adoption; as a result of this adoption, we have seen many different types and uses of blogs emerge.


Looking at the state of blogging on a modern university campus, one will see the fruit of this exploration.  Libraries, academic departments, and campus information technology services have all adopted blogs as ways to share information and to better engage customers.  Students have personal blogs on services like LiveJournal, Xanga, and Myspace.  Classes—from the entry-level rhetoric courses to the most advanced graduate seminars—have adopted blogs as spheres of conversation.  On many campuses, even athletic departments have blogs.  In a short amount of time, blogs have become deeply engrained in the fabric of academia.  With this remarkable adoption, one might be surprised that commentators like Tribble persist.  It might be useful to look at some ways blogs are helping academics. To do so, I will draw on personal experience.


I am currently a doctoral student in an information science program, where my research explores a currently evolving topic: online social network websites.  As social network websites are a fairly recent innovation, my school can provide me only limited internal resources.  To help bridge this gap, I have turned to the blogosphere as a way to connect with other researchers, and to “hang a shingle” for researchers who are likely in similar situations.  In doing so, I have had a transformative experience–the blogosphere has created a real-world support network of researchers and collaborators.  In fact, it is hard to imagine what my research experience would have been like without the blogosphere.  If I had relied on more traditional means for finding collaborators, it is likely that vast amounts of time would pass between meaningful connections–a troubling proposition in a fast-moving field.  Indeed, by holding my tongue and constraining my identity, it is likely that I would have missed out on a great number of opportunities that are currently enabling my studies.


Aside from using my blog to connect with other academics, I have used it to present preliminary research findings from exploratory analyses I have conducted.  Indeed, the notion of using a blog as a method for research dissemination is controversial; however, when contrasted with vast pre-print and white paper networks utilized in many fields, I wonder how different it is.  Does the blog’s form constitute something markedly different from a white paper?  Just as with white papers, it is the responsibility of the academic to provide good information.  At the same time, it is the responsibility of the audience to understand that the information does not come with a formal peer review.  However, by publishing the research, I have been able to provide comparison data points for other researchers, thereby furthering exploration.


Interestingly, in posting research, it undergoes a public review that proves tremendously valuable.  Feedback, by way of comments, provides me with new citations to track down, different ways of thinking about my data and theoretical perspective, and a general sense that I am taking part in an ongoing, geographically dispersed research conversation.  Perhaps this is the key to understanding the value of blogging in academia.  When we blog, we are conversing with an audience; in academia, this audience is often nameless and faceless (Do you know who reads your journal articles?).  However, in the blogosphere, the audience joins in to structure the conversation, making it absolutely valuable to academics creating paths of knowledge.  


Therefore, we must look at the blog as a tool.  Like any tool, it can be used properly or improperly, and the effects can be either good or bad.  A blog can help a career just as it can hurt a career.  It is up to the academic to craft their digital identity in a way that will be of greatest assistance to their ultimate goals.  Such a task is non-trivial, but as many academics are coming to find out, it is more valuable to embrace, rather than suppress, their digital identity.  We must come to look beyond the notion of blogs as “shrines of self,” but rather as the constructed identity that takes part in the collective conversation (Erwins, 2005).  This conversation accretes value, so that future academics—those who will join the conversation at a later date—will be able to take advantage of the work that preceded them. In this sense, this creation of discourse is indicative of the true scholarly nature of academic blogging, and also of the fact that academic blogging will persist.  We have come to this field because we want to connect and contribute; as blogs are a well-suited tool for meeting these goals, it only makes sense that we’ll be using them for quite some time.



References


Du, H. & Wagner, C. (2005). Learning with weblogs: An empirical investigation. Proceedings of the 38th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.  


Erwins, R. (2005). Who are you? Weblogs and academic identity. E-Learning, 2, 368-377.


Huffaker, D. (2005). The educated blogger: Using weblogs to promote literacy in the classroom. AACE Journal, 13(2), 91-98


Tribble, I. (2005, July 8). Bloggers need not apply. The Chronicle of Higher Education Online. Retrieved October 17, 2006 from http://chronicle.com/jobs/2005/07/2005070801c.htm.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 31, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12817, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 10:53:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Frederic Stutzman
    University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
    E-mail Author
    FREDERIC STUTZMAN is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
 
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