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On blogging

Author: joe

Thursday, 12 February, 2009 - 16:39

I was recently invited to say a few brief words about the value of blogging. The event was a conference of uni staff who are taking part in a 'research-enhancement' programme of activities with a view to developing their research careers.

Not that I know much about research careers - I have cunningly managed to avoid disturbing anyone at the uni who keeps track of people's research activity. No journal papers, no conference papers, nothing that carries any esteem indicators whatsoever. I earn no esteem.

But anyway, I do write a blog, but more importantly have used blogging in teaching for four years now, so did have a couple of things to say about it. We ask students to start a blog when they begin the course, though we don't make it compulsory via assessment. I think it is important to make things elective, since incentivisation usually encourages instrumentality. (And only a cynic would note that this is the story of HE generally...)

Since the blogs aren't compulsory, you quickly find that the 'participation pyramid' (the imbalance between contributors and lurkers) which we see on sites like Wikipedia also characterises student participation. I increasingly think it is important to accept and allow such inequalities in uptake. By making things compulsory you infantilise the activities and the participants, and so those who would have contributed anyway get less benefit (who benefits from being infantilised?) and those who are compelled to join in do so in a tokenistic way. Ultimately, we want to encourage responsibility and independence, and micro-managing everyone's participation in various activities undermines that very aim.

Those who do participate voluntarily go on to experience many of the useful outcomes of writing in public. Of course, sometimes the writing is a whinging stream of consciousness, but actually this is a tiny part of it. More often, students write about the progress of their group work, or they articulate their desire to be better organised; sometimes they mull over the consequences of postmodern thought on their own dearly-held beliefs. I have read students link their own ideas to the Zapatistas, or share design ideas with clients. They write commentaries on oddities they have found in the wilds of the web, or they talk about the distresses and calamities of everyday life in eloquent ways. The range of subjects are fantastically kaleidoscopic, and it is, dare I say it, a little patronising to suggest it is simply an opportunity to whinge.

Just the act of writing (and especially in public) has many meta-cognitive benefits. Formless ideas are given form through writing. Feelings find expression. Thoughts which struggle to make sense become more sensible when we force ourselves to interpret them through language. There is something transformative and risky about writing ideas down and sharing them with others.

Jeremy Crampton, a Foucault scholar who keeps a blog, writes about Levy Bryant, a philosopher and author, and his blog, Larval Subjects, a blog I enjoy hugely. These thoughts capture the relationship between articulation and actualisation.

Larval subjects. Larvae are creatures in a process of becoming or development that have not yet actualized themselves in a specific form. This space is a space for the incubation of philosophical larvae that are yet without determinate positions or commitments but which are in a process of unfolding.

Larval Subjects


This captures the spirit of not knowing where you're going when you set out, a kind of lostness. [...] But there is something experimental to blogging, as a technology of the self. recall Foucault's comments about the pointlessness of writing a book if you already know what you're going to say.

Foucault Blog


Writing moves our ideas along, and develops them, determines and exposes their form and offers the potential for them to be further shaped and worked. This is true even if you write your diary in an underground cave, burn it and lock the ashes in an iron vault which you sink in an abyss (or write it in Blackboard). It is even more true if you do it in the open, out in the wild, and use the writing of your ideas to send out taproots seeking out people with similar interests, who can respond to you constructively, or people who couldn't disagree more, who will tell you exactly why your ideas stink. It is the ultimate in peer-review.

The objection raised to this is often that you shouldn't write about your research publicly in a blog because people will steal ideas from you, or you'll struggle to publish it in a journal later because it will already be in the public domain. I think both of these objections highlight the two main things that are wrong with academia. There are no ideas that can't be improved by being exposed to criticism, and the desperate need to retain ownership and exclusivity over ideas is, it seems to me, antithetical to the premise of education.

So, in the 30-or-so seconds I spoke at the mini-conference, I didn't manage to say quite all of those things, but those are the things I meant.

Categories: blogging, writing, meta-cognitive, articulation, learning, education, research, pedagogy,
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