Irony alert: this post will do exactly what it says not to do.
It’s even more fashionable than tweed jackets with natty leather patches, academics are jumping on the blogging train. Wherever you go, another university is jumping on the back carriage and hoping that they can say something interesting to the passing crowds.
In another delicious touch or irony, I co-edit one such blog, which I will not mention in this post so as to avoid accusations of favouritism or self-publicity. Still, it is worth realising that this trend is not accidental. Funding councils are now pushing for this thing called impact, which actually means research accessible outside of the academic bubble and public engagement, which means letting other people have a say. In a world of lower funding and higher demands, blogs make sense. They are cheap, simple to understand and just about anyone, senior professors included, can find 5 to 10 minutes to write a post. Simples.
Well, not quite. You see, there is a world of difference between writing a post and writing a post that makes an impact. Anyone can throw an abstract onto a blog and call it a post. And, with enough advertising, someone is likely to check in, even if they go out the same door in a few seconds. Posting is not impact and neither is it public engagement.
Actually, posting can be both of these things but it takes time and effort. If blogs are to actually mean something, they need to represent far more than a shift in where information is. They need to be a strong signal of a change of direction in academic thinking. They need to actually be signs that academics a) care about what the public thinks and b) know how to communicate with people outside the ivory tower.
Here I am not just talking about politicians, as important as the conversation between academic and the political set is. No, read the definitions of Impact and Public Engagement on the RCUK website and you will realise that they have a lot more to do with making a difference in people’s lives and doing so by maintaining a two-way conversation with them. Scary, huh?
If you take this definition seriously, academic blogging needs to be more about asking questions than giving answers. It’s success will have little to do with how many people visit or how many other academics like it. Instead, you will be able to measure the success of an academic blog by looking at how many people have taken the time to leave a comment. Compare, for example the LSEImpact blog with the non-academic (but much more commented) Limping Chicken blog. According to the RCUK definitions, which is making more impact?
I know, I know, it’s a bit of an unfair comparison. But still, the themes of the second blog are not a million miles away from typical themes in university research: people in society, identity, interpreting, psychology of meetings and so on. Why is the non-academic blog making much more impact, in academic terms, than the academic one?
Let’s have this discussion in public and let the public tell us the answers. This is not to say that the content of the first blog is necessarily wrong. I read it often myself. I find it incredibly interesting but I have only once felt like commenting and even then I felt like I was intruding. Why is that?
I have some ideas. But I could be wrong. I might be about to get a flurry of messages that tell me just how mistaken I am. But still, it’s surely worth thinking about the question behind all of this: how can academics help people to share our excitement over our work and get involved in it? Answer that, and you will make a lot of academics very happy, me included!
(These views are entirely my own.)