Blogging: “Public Thinking” as “Digital Scholarship”?

If a scholar blogs, is it scholarship?

Blogging for DummiesWhen I started this enterprise in the summer of 2011, it never occurred to me to think of blogging as a form of scholarship. “A good way to cultivate the discipline of writing,” to implement the commonplace advice “that the best way to learn writing is to write”? Absolutely. But while that might serve the ends of scholarship in in helping me more effectively to communicate my findings, self-improvement as a writer certainly doesn’t seem like scholarship itself. (Especially when you look at my tag cloud and find things like baseball, football, and Sherlock Holmes.)

Go back to that first post (and its Cracker reference, of all things!) and only one of my stated motives for blogging sounds anything like “scholarly”:

…sharing research findings or teaching methods that might not be ready for peer review but still find an interested audience eager to converse.

Unknowingly, I stumbled into a conversation about digital scholarship that seems to have gained substantial momentum in the past year. Consider this from media studies professor Kathleen Fitzpatrick (author of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy), part of a prominent talk she gave this past January at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA):

Fitzpatrick, Planned ObsolescenceThe horror that greets the idea of taking a blog seriously as a locus of scholarly writing – or even more, the idea of taking Twitter seriously as a form of scholarly communication – reveals a serious misunderstanding of the nature of those forms: what they are, and what can be done with them….

…Many scholars today are publishing significant chunks of their writing in informal venues online, whether as a means of getting feedback on work in progress or as an alternative channel through which an author can reach an audience more quickly and directly. There may be work that cannot be done in the form of blog posts – there may be times when a scholar can benefit from the format of the journal article or the discipline of the book – but that the blog might not be everything does not mean that it is nothing. It is a mode of communication, of engaging with an audience, that must be taken seriously on its own terms. The blog has never been just a forum in which one can gripe about the travails of day-to-day life, whatever the conventional assumptions about it might suggest; the blog instead provides an arena in which scholars can work through ideas in an ongoing process of engagement with their peers….

…imagine for the moment what our writing lives might be like if we did each have our own platform. What if you were able to subscribe to a particular scholar, following her work over time and engaging with her as it comes into being? What if she followed your work as well, and the conversations you had around your shared work were able to produce more new collaborative projects? What if others were able to follow those conversations in process, providing additional input as you worked? What if those conversations produced a community of scholars that you trusted, a community that you could rely on to alert you to new work by new scholars to whom you ought to start paying attention? What if communities of scholars like this were able to say to one another the academic equivalent of hey, I’ve got a trunk of costumes, and we can use my uncle’s barn: let’s put on a show!? What kinds of performances might we develop on such a flexible, dynamic communication platform?

And that does sound promising — and scary — to me. This and related talks at the MLA led Adeline Koh to muse about a scholarly world in which junior scholars might introduce their ideas through blogging and receive a more open form of peer review (“post-publication review”) that shapes the revision that culminates in a more traditionally published product. (She noted examples of journals and publishers already experimenting with this system, including NYU Press, which published Fitzpatrick’s book online before releasing it in hardcover.)

Tracy McKenzie

At the same time, I’m not all that eager to replace one kind of niche-publishing with another, to develop an early 21st century version of the late 20th century academy fracturing into scholars publishing for ever shrinking circles of fellow scholars. That’s why I resonated so strongly with Tracy McKenzie’s presidential address to the Conference on Faith and History, which called for Christian historians to do a better job serving the Church and the general public, and therefore (in the words of an earlier essay of his) to “recognize and repudiate the pervasive assumption that the only scholarship that matters is the scholarship for other scholars.”

Here too, I think blogging offers “an arena in which scholars can work through ideas in an ongoing process of engagement with” the public, not just Fitzpatrick’s “peers.” And that idea, too, has been present since the creation of this blog, though it’s taken me a while to articulate that in terms of service to others outside the academy.

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