Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Doing it in public: Impact, blogging, social media and the academy

The text below is derived from a short talk I gave in February for the Library at the University of Sussex.  At the time (and in the text) I promised to post it as a blog, but never quite found the time. 

Impact is an awkward thing in British Higher Education.  Most of the time it feels like just one more bludgeon used to batter hapless academics into submission.  It is frequently shorthand for an agenda handed down from on high, privileging near-market research and the agendas of government.  And yet no one spends a lifetime researching, teaching and writing about something if they don't believe it is important - if they don't believe that what they do contributes to a better world. We all want to have 'impact'.  The question is how can we do so in a way that reflects our own values, rather than those of whatever government happens to be in power this week?

This question is all the more important because our traditional assumptions about how our work effects a broader social discourse seem increasingly threadbare.  When the print run of most monographs number just a few hundred copies (most of which disappear in to American research libraries, never to be read or used), and when journal articles proliferate beyond number because they serve the needs of big publishing, rather than academic dialogue - we need to think harder about how we do the job of the humanities.  If we simply continue in an older vein - having small (vociferous) conversations amongst ourselves, in professional seminars and at conferences, through book reviews and in the specialist hard copy press - we will lose our place in the broader social dialog. If there is a 'crisis' in the humanities, it lies in how we have our public debates, rather than in their content. 

It seems to me that the solution to this problem is all around us, and that in order to address it, we need to remember that the role of the academic humanist has always been a public one - however mediated through teaching and publication.   By building blogging, and twitter, flickr, and shared libraries in Zotero, in to our research programmes - into the way we work anyway - we both get more research done, and build a community of engaged readers for the work itself.  We can do what we have always done, but do it better; as a public performance, in dialog amongst ourselves, and with a wider public.

The best (and most successful) academics  are the ones who are so caught up in the importance of their work, so caught up with their simple passion for a subject, that they publicise it with every breadth. Twitter and blogs, and embarrassingly enthusiastic drunken conversations at parties, are not add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion that underpins it.  

A lot of early career scholars, in particular, worry that exposing their research too early, in too public a manner, will either open them to ridicule, or allow someone else to 'steal' their ideas.  But in my experience, the most successful early career humanists have already started building a form of public dialog in to their academic practise - building an audience for their work, in the process of doing the work itself.  

Perhaps the best example of this is Ben Schmidt, and his hugely influential blog: Sapping Attention.  His blog posts contributed to his doctorate, and will form part of his first book.  In doing this, he has crafted one of the most successful academic careers of his generation - not to mention the television consultation business, and world-wide intellectual network.

Or Helen Rogers, whose maintains two blogs: Conviction: Stories from a Nineteenth-Century Prison - on her own research; and also the collaborative blog, Writing Lives, created as an outlet for the work of her undergraduates. They bring together research and teaching, and in the process are building a substantial community of interest.

Or Adam Crymble and his blog - Thoughts on Public & Digital History - where he melds practical posts addressing straightforward DH problems, with substantial interventions in policy.  Crymble's recent appointment to a lectureship in digital history rested in large measure on his blog.  

The list could go on.  The Many Headed Monster, the collective blog authored by Brodie Waddell, Mark Hailwood,  Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis, is rapidly emerging as one of the sites where 17th century British history is being re-written.   While Jennifer Evans is writing her next book via her blog, Early Modern Medicine.

The most impressive thing about these blogs (and the academic careers that generate them), is that there is no waste - what starts as a blog, ends as an academic output, and an output with a ready-made audience, eager to cite it.

For myself the point is that these scholars don't waste text, and neither do I.  If I give a talk, I turn it into a blog. Not everything is blogged, but the vast majority of the public presentations I make as part of my job, will be.  And while many of these texts will never contribute to an academic article, about half of them do.   As a result blogging has become part of my own contribution to what I think of as an academic public sphere.  It becomes a way of thinking in public and revising ones work, to make it better, in public.  And knowing that there is an audience (whatever its size), changes how one does it - forcing you to think a little harder about the reader, and to think a little harder about the standards of record keeping and attribution that underpin your research.  

One of my favourite blogging experiences involves embedding blogs in undergraduate assessment.  By forcing students to write 'publicly', their writing rapidly improves.  From being characterized by the worst kind of bad academic prose - all passive voice pomposity - undergraduate writing in blogs is frequently transformed in to something more engaging, simply written, and to the point.  From writing for the eyes of an academic or two,  students are forced to imagine (or actually confront) a real audience.  Blogging has the same effect on more professional academic writers - many of whom assume that if the content is good, the writing somehow doesn't matter.

But as importantly, blogs are part of establishing a public position, and contributing to a debate.  

Twitter is in some ways the same - or at least, like blogging, twitter is good for making communities, and finding collaborators; and letting other people know what you are doing.  But, it also has another purpose.  

Dan Cohen - the director of the Digital Public Library of America - always says about Twitter that the important thing is that at the end of the week, it makes you aware of all the publications  and developments, calls for papers, and conferences, you need to know about in order to keep up with your corner of the academy. It is not about what you had for breakfast.  It is about being on top of your field.

Between them, twitter and blogging just make good academic sense.  And while you need to avoid all the kittens and trolls, click bate and self-promoting gits, these forms of social media are rapidly evolving in to the places where the academic community is embodied.  They are doing the job of the seminar, and the letters page.  They are where our conversation is happening.

And on participating in this 'academic public sphere', there are only a few rules.  First - be yourself.  If you want credit, you have to own your material.  In other words, never be anonymous.  And second, remember that everything from Academia.edu, to Twitter, to Facebook and Flickr, is a form of publication, and should be taken seriously as such.  If you would not say it in an academic review, or in the questions following a public lecture, don't say it on Twitter.

And finally, keep track of it.  Use GoogleAnalytics, or something similar.  Know who you are talking to.  This involves nothing more challenging than cutting and pasting four lines of code, but provides more data, at a more granular level than you can possibly need.  

All of which is simply to say, that social media are building in to what feels like an increasingly coherent environment reflecting communities of interest - allowing us, online, to be just what we claim to be the rest of the time - a community of scholars.  The objections - which usually come down to the fear that someone will steal your ideas, your work, your credit - are best addressed by doing it in public.  And in the process there is every hope that we can rebuild the humanities as a wider public discussion, able to more effectively reach beyond the academy - to have 'impact'.