All entries for Sunday 17 July 2005

July 17, 2005

Research Methods Overview: Academic blogging, the evolution of a style

I was recently asked to write a short description of why and how I use Warwick Blogs for my academic work (a PhD in Philosophy as well as related research in e-learning). This led me to consider the various types of interaction that my academic blogging seeks to provoke, and the blogging style that I have evolved to encourage these interactions. In over two years of academic blogging, I have learnt that style is very important.

To start of with, lets ignore the technology and consider the interactions that I am after as a researcher, along with some of those that I wish to avoid. Given that the time that I can spend on research is limited, ensuring that these interactions are productive and of the right kind is paramount. I do not want to risk getting involved with interactions that detract from my precious research time. I'm sure that most lecturers would say the same. Even as I write this entry, I am all the time worried that the use of the term 'originality' below may open up an engagement, a debate, that I really don't want to get into right now.

However, I also do not want to have to spend much time managing these interactions. There is therefore a tricky balance to be found between, on the one hand gaining valuable insight through engaging with others, and on the other hand spending time developing my own ideas and arguments. The low risk option is simply to go into hiding and bury myself in a copy of Difference and Repetition.

The problem, to reiterate, is this:

  • to avoid isolation, with my research becoming irrelevant and obscure;
  • to avoid getting involved in debates and misunderstandings that detract from my own research development.

In a subject like philosophy, the tendency towards isolation is a common side effect of the high degree of specialization and creativity required to develop the necessary level of 'originality' and 'individuality' for a PhD or publication. Again it is a difficult balancing act. What I have learnt is this. I need to have interactions with other philosophers in which we can share concepts, terminology, interests, entities, but without always directly engaging in a debate. We need to know each others territories and directions of movement, and know how to connect with them when required. We need to be able to pass around, try out and develop new concepts, without always having a direct debate about them. In short, we need to constitute a collective 'milieu' in which our own individual developments may occur.

Much of my blogging activity is concerned with the consitution of a milieu, and its use as a means to position myself and my concepts. It certainly works, as I have a constant stream of contacts from that milieu. And there are other blogs that I can read to get an idea of where others are at, although very few of them are by people at Warwick. It may even be that the actual number of people reading my blog is irrelevant. The way in which it forces me to position and explain my concepts is in itself a positive effect. However, it is always good to get a response from someone else who is working in a related area, saying that they find my blog to be interesting, and offering some insight into how there work relates to it.

In the past I have always set the comment permissions on my entries so that anyone on the web can comment. This has sometimes resulted in valuable responses ( example ). And on occassion, really good debates have opened up. However, often I find that I recieve irrelevant, uninformed and just plain stupid comments from people who have only a vague notion of what I am writing about. One would imagine that anyone who hasn't spent a lot of time reading Deleuze and Guattari would realise that they have nothing to contribute, but unfortunately the attitude seems to be that in the world of blogs everyone is invited to comment on everything that is written. For most researchers this would be unacceptable. They do not want to feel committed to managing debates that they have no interest in. And they certainly do not ever want their writings to be associated with stupid comments. It seems that the overhead of this extra commitment outweighs the milieu building power of blogs.

So should i retreat back into isolation? That is the response of some of the researchers who I know have tried blogs. However, I have instead started to evolve my own style of blogging that should allow me to continue to use Warwick Blogs effectively. Firstly, I make a distinction between:

  1. entries that I have written simply to position myself within the milieu;
  2. and those in which I am looking for a more direct response.

Entry type 1 ( example ) is given commenting permissions that prevent other people from commenting. However, I will also end the entry with an invitation to anyone with something interesting to say to contact me (via the a link to the 'contact me' form that sends a message to me via email). I have actually found that most of my academic contacts have come through people using this form rather than them writing comments.

Entry type 2 is given open comment permissions, but ends with definite guidance as to what kind of response is required (see the advice at the end of this entry).

To give more of a firm guidance of what each entry is about, and by implication what kind of response i want, I now always start an entry with a short overview paragraph in bold. I am also considering whether I should include set phrases in the title that state what kind of entry each is (as i have recently done with the Warwick E-learning blog). This also allows me to do clever filtering with the RSS to HTML servlet that I have written.

Invitation to comment:

I would be happy to recieve comments on this entry from others who are using blogs for academic research. I would be keen to hear of suggestions for blogging styles and for developments in the technology.