Hey all. Today I’m going to use this space for something that’s (hopefully) more edifying than complaining about my life. As is obvious, I’m a blogger. For me, blogging is an essential part of my thinking process and one way by which I construct my identity. As the world moves forward with technology and it becomes an even more intrinsic part of our lives, we encounter new ways of interfacing with the world, ways that tend to cross boundaries that we unconsciously held. We have Members of Parliament who tweet, for instance, and many academics, the stodgiest of the stodgies, are embracing blogs as tools to draw their professional and personal lives together in a way that is both personally meaningful and academically constructive. I began to explore the concept of the blog as a a professional/personal tool in a paper for a comp. theory class. It’s not my most shining moment, but a decent outline of my thoughts on the topic. Enjoy!
The Scholarly Writer/Blogger: A New Discursive Space
The challenge of blogademia is to focus on this translation process of scholarship and knowledge into the currently disparaged and debased sociopoetic form of blogs. Beyond apprehending the issues at stake in using this form, one can begin to articulate the advantages of research that uses the blog, not as an object of study, but as a vehicle to comprehend mood, atmosphere, personal sensibility, and the possibilities of knowledge outside the ego’s conscious thought. (Saper 12)
Blogs, like any technology, have evolved greatly since their first inception. A new wave of Internet users have begun to expand the work of the blog from its original incarnations as a weblog or online journal into a more complex, dynamic community space that is capable of functioning as not only a personal sphere but an academic one. For skilled writers, blogs provide an ideal space for investigation of academic ideas and experimentation with how they play out in a non-academic setting. Blogs are a discursive space where writers share ideas, not knowledge. ‘Knowledge’ is formed when facts are collectively agreed upon as such. However, before a fact can be a fact, it must first be proposed as an idea. For the 21st century intellectual writer, blogs are the space where these ideas can be proposed and discussed with peers, leading to the collaborative construction of knowledge.
Danah Boyd defines ‘blog’ as a verb, describing it by saying:
The practice…involves producing digital content with the intention of sharing it asynchronously with a conceptualized audience…. a practice where some discrete number of bloggers share with a unknown number of readers. The practice of blogging is an active one, where the blogger produces semi-regular expressions that build on top of each other under the same digital roof. Each new expression is connected with earlier expressions. The collection of these expressions is captured by the blog. (28-29)
In its annual “State of the Blogosphere” report, Technorati reported that it has indexed 133 million blog records created since 2002, with nearly one million new entries being posted globally every twenty-four hours (“Introduction”). It is the blog that evolved into social networking hubs such as Facebook and MySpace. Prompted to develop in order to serve a more diversely skilled user group, blogging has become more user-friendly with common templates that allow anyone with basic computing skills to become a part of this online community.
As a result of its increased navigability, blogging has become more prevalent in academic settings, a trend that has not been missed by industry watchdogs. In its annual report, Technorati found that the blog is particularly popular among educated individuals, citing that, “three out of four U.S. bloggers are college graduates, and 42% have attended graduate school” (“Who”). These statistics indicate that the blog format holds some sort of appeal for educated critical thinkers. This paper will argue that the appeal of blogging for intellectual writers lies in the fact that writers are able to use the public-meets-private discursive space of a blog to connect their personal lives to their more critical academic thinking, creating a web-like thinking process ideally suited to our increasingly technological world.
I will look at bloggers who are skilled writers involved in the academy as students, a group whose members often evolve into academics themselves, and are actively re-imagining the blog as a new arena for intellectual conversation in a personal setting. These writers engage in critical thinking both within and outside of the classroom. Rather than being made up of simple pairings of personal and academic topics, these writers’ blogs feature an intricate intertwining of personal experience and academic conversations, creating tapestries of thought that complexly interweave the two discourses. These thought tapestries creating a third form of intellectual discourse that favors inclusion of all ways of speaking, rather than preferring intellectual or personal narrative modes.
This third discourse, which I am calling comprehensive critical engagement, features certain elements of personal writing (use of ‘I’, examples from life experience) and other conventions of academic discourse (citing of authoritative sources, engagement in ongoing intellectual debates). In comprehensive critical engagement, arguments are made based on personal experience in light of ongoing academic discourse on the topic, allowing academic discourse to emerge from the protected space of the university classroom in order to be realized in everyday life, forcing intellectual theories to be exercised to their farthest possible conclusions. Often, the personal becomes a useful tool for writers’ thinking about the implications of academic theories.
This essay will look at two specific cases of skilled intellectual writers’ blogs. The first skilled writer/blogger is Kim Clune. Kim currently holds a Bachelor’s degree in English, having graduated at the top of her class in May of 2008. The second blogger I will look at is Jay Jay, who recently completed a Master’s degree in New Media and will begin a Ph.D. program in the same field at the beginning of next year. Both of these writers have established their credentials as skilled academic writers in the classroom. I will be examining their blogs as sites which allow them the opportunity to engage in conversation with intellectual peers in an environment where the personal to allowed to inform their scholarly work, leading to the expansion of ideas about what can be considered academic and scholarly modes of expression.
Much to blogging’s detriment, one of the most common connections drawn between blogs and a more standard print-based media is the personal diary or journal. There are a number of similarities that encourage this association; dated entries, confidential tone, and personal subject matter all lead to a diary-like appearance of many blogs. Laurie McNeill expands this understanding of the diary to allow for the changes imposed by Internet access:
diarists also expand the form to fit new uses and users, adding counters, email addresses, link, and discussion boards, supplementing the solo voice of the diarist with a chorus of respondents in conversation. For online readers and writers, the diary becomes a site for communities to work out their values, language, and membership, by reading, writing, or responding. Participating in these conversations that she has initiated or entered, the online diarist creates a text that is at once both personal and public. (McNeill 45)
Once the blog has become a node for discussion, it loses its diary façade, since one cannot pretend to be composing a monologic narrative when there is clear evidence (in comments posted by others) that a conversation is taking place. While blogs should not be conceived of solely as diaries, McNeill is pointing out a very important aspect of the way that blogs function today; they can be more than just places for individuals to post their ideas, they can act as discursive spaces where thought communities are fashioned through collaboration and participation from a variety of individuals who were previously separated by geographical space.
One aspect of blogging that allows it to function differently than traditional pen and paper writing is its multimedia capabilities. Blogs require a different way of reading than diaries or scholarly papers do, since they often feature not only a greater quantity of information all at once, but they also showcase that information in a flurry of colors, fonts, and sometimes even movement. For this reason, the aesthetic makeup of a blog often demands as much consideration as anything that is written in it.
Both Kim and Jay Jay have blogs that require readers to be able to absorb a great deal of information simultaneously and in a non-traditional, non-linear manner. Kim’s blog is arranged as a four-column page:
and Jay’s consists of three columns (original image unavailable, image below reflects 1/24/09 image of the blog).
Both blogs have a top banner, which serves to identify the blog’s title and provide links to particularly popular areas of interest, such as the “Home” page or the “About” page. Both blogs feature a base color scheme—Kim’s is black and red while Jay Jay sticks to white and blue—and Kim further expands the palette by utilizing colored fonts and including colorful pictures. Kim’s use of colors can feel a bit overwhelming for the viewer, so she often compensates by breaking her paragraphs into small segments in order to create more blank space and give the reader a visual pause. Jay Jay, on the other hand, is able to maintain much longer paragraph lengths, since she is employing a much more streamlined color palette.
In addition to the variety of chromatic choices Kim and Jay Jay are able to make, their blogs are further personalized through including other columns (besides their primary blogging space) that extend the number of ways in which readers can get to ‘know’ the writers. Kim’s sidebar provides the reader with a visitor counter followed by a blogroll. A blogroll is a series of hyperlinks to other blogs that the author is a follower of. Below the blogroll Kim provides a series of hyperlinks she titles “Notable Nuggets.” These link readers to the websites of different organizations that Kim supports. She also includes a variety of tools to help readers navigate her site, including a list (with hyperlinks) to her top posts, a “search” tool, links to archived posts, and a tag cloud. While Kim does provide a link to her Facebook profile (which you can only see if you have been accepted as her friend), she limits the level of personal information readily available on her main page to what is published in blog posts.
Jay Jay’s blog immediately presents a great deal more personal information about the author to readers. At the top of the page, sandwiched in the middle between the blog and another column, Jay Jay features a short blurb about the author, followed by a list of her del.icio.us tags, her Delicious username, a feed about what the author has been listening to on last.fm, and links to the author’s Flickr photopage. In the second side column, she provides a Twitter space, where she posts short updates on her activities and others post short responses, followed by a list of recent Seesmic responses to her posts (Seesmic allows respondents to respond via video rather than text), a blogroll linking to other bloggers at her university, a list of (and hyperlinks to) recent posts, followed by a similar list of recent comments by others, followed by a tag cloud (see image below) and finally a “Meta” section, where readers can create RSS feeds for the site.
In investigating what the blog allows scholars that other forms of media do not, I am particularly struck by Jay Jay’s use of Seesmic. a video blogging tool. Seesmic allows Jay Jay to post short videos of herself—the most popular topics being her upcoming Master’s dissertation and Ph.D. proposal—and anyone who has a webcam is able to post video responses. While technically anyone could respond to Jay Jay’s Seesmic videos, the respondents tend to be those who know her well enough to feel comfortable having the virtual version of a face-to-face meeting, a group which includes friends, classmates, and professors. Through using both Seesmic and more traditional text comments, Jay Jay, and those who respond, are creating an online conversation that simulates a real-life interaction that falls just short of a real-time videoconference.
This type of intellectual conversation allows for the different schedules of its participants (judging by the different dates and times videos were posted), and it gathers together a group of people who, while all interested in the topic, would not necessarily be likely to get together in person for the purpose of discussing the topic. Through Seesmic, on Jay Jay’s blog, individuals are able to create this intellectual conversation, which allows them the opportunity to work with a group of like-minded peers while challenging both their own and Jay Jay’s analysis of events, collectively furthering the discourse on the topic being discussed.
The ability for blogs to act as conversation generators between intellectual peers is not a feature that is limited to Jay Jay’s blog. Other academics have noted the usefulness of blogging as a way of generating intellectual conversation. Michael Benton, a self-described academic and the editor of Reconstructions, an online journal dedicated to contemporary culture, noted that with blogging he, “was beginning to reach beyond my local region on a daily basis, talking to other questing intellectuals, developing a very loose-based community of bloggers, sharing ideas and asking questions” (2). Academics who have taken the risk of putting their intellectual property in a raw, unpolished form on the internet in the form of a blog generally share similarly positive stories about how it both made them feel less isolated in terms of academic interests and also provided the appropriate community for discussing and thereby expanding the discourse that they are invested in.
This expansion of the intellectual discourse through conversation between intellectual peers could be described as collaborative learning. Collaborative learning is a concept that far predates the online blog. In a 1981 article, Kenneth Bruffee describes the purpose of collaborative learning as:
to help students test the quality of what they know by trying to make sense of it to other people like themselves—their peers…. Collaborative learning personalizes knowledge by socializing it, providing students with a social context of learning peers with whom they are engaged on conceptual issues. (745)
In other words, collaborative learning works by allowing students to engage in conversation with their peers as a means of actively challenging the knowledge they have on a topic. The connections between the process of collaborative learning and the uses of the blog cannot be missed here. Blogs are an ideal space for individual thinkers to put forth their ideas (knowledge), providing access for their peers (the group of readers who are interested in the topic), and encouraging feedback and discussion through participation in the ‘comments’ portion and publishing new blog entries. The blog is the ultimate social knowledge-building collaborative learning process.
Jay Jay’s blog reserves the largest amount of space for her academic writing, a topic that occupied much of her time as she worked to finish her Master’s dissertation. She is an active blogger, usually posting once per week, and her posts, like Kim’s rarely run under 1,000 words. Jay’s blog serves as a forum where she discusses how her academic theories and thought process are filtered through her own life and simultaneously influence how she approaches her own life. In addition to her formal blog, Jay’s website provides readers with a Twitter feed, as well as links to various parts of her blog and links to other aspects of Jay’s life.
Jay Jay’s blog appears to serve the primary function of creating a space where she can consider the ways in which her academic theories function in her life, as well as consideration of the ways that the two inform each other. Jay Jay has commented upon the usefulness of her personal blog for academic thinking, admitting, “Although, to be fair, blogging about the work I have to do has got to have helped me into to getting 75 percent in every assignment I’ve done this semester. :-)” (26 June 2008 “Writing an MA dissertation. Part one.”). Here, Jay Jay is pointing towards the fact that she does not consider the writing she does in her blog as a finished academic product. Instead it is the tool she uses as a means of beginning analytical thought.
One of the most common misperceptions of the blog format is that it is used almost solely by angsty teens who only complain about their lives and share banal details about their day. In short, “for the most part, the medium seems to exist to encourage nitwits and crackpots to believe that somebody out there truly cares about their opinion” (Savage 49). This opinion, besides being dismissive, fails to acknowledge the vast multitude of other reasons that people might blog, or the number of bloggers who are well out of their teen years. Globally, blogging has been popular across a variety of age groups, with 63% of bloggers being aged 25-44 (Technorati “Who”).
Certainly, there is room on the critical thinker’s blog for angst and banality. After ranting for a bit about her distaste for the small town she grew up in, Jay asks herself, “The reason I’m sharing this piece of personal, trivial (almost angst ridden) nonsense?” (16 June 2008 “In context of my location…”). The distinction, then, that elevates her post from a simply diary-like whine entry is the asking and answering of this question. Jay goes on to provide an analysis of her own feelings, situating herself in the context of a larger society of people who have moved from one small town to another, and links it back to her academic pursuits, concluding that, “I think these sort of thoughts inspire my research. I’m totally and utterly obsessed with trying to articulate why people are the way they are with other people” (16 June 2008 “In context of my location…”). This connection between her personal feelings and the larger context of human sociological interaction is a key element of the comprehensive critical engagement that blogs allow for. In traditional academic writing, such emphasis on feelings would generally be unacceptable, but here, in the blog, Jay is able to use those feelings as a way of analyzing herself in order to understand the ways in which individuals function as part of larger societies.
Similar to Jay Jay, Kim uses personal experiences in her blog as a means of situating herself in relation to the society surrounding her, as well as in relation to the academic discourse to which she is being introduced. Kim’s blog covers a wide range of topics, reflecting her own variety of interests. Kim is a regular blogger, usually posting at least once per month, and her entries tend to be lengthy, rarely running under 1,000 words. I will focus primarily on blog entries from a period in which Kim was taking a class where the professor built blog use into the class syllabus, essentially forcing students to use the blog as a space for thinking through the material and sharing one’s ideas with the class as a whole.
Kim, unlike most of the class, was not a novice blogger when she began the course. According to Technorati, Kim’s previous experience as a blogger is not unusual, since “Bloggers have been at it an average of three years and are collectively creating close to one million posts every day” (Technorati “Introduction”). As an international flight attendent from 1997-2001, Kim had used an early HTML-based site to create “a blog of sorts” (Clune “Questionnairre” 1). Here, she’d share scanned photos from layovers in an attempt to keep her family and friends updated on her activities. After a hiatus of several years, Kim officially returned to blogging in January of 2007, writing as a requirement for a college literary theory class. Kim discovered that blogging had changed dramatically in the six years she had been absent, and was at first unsure about what the most recent blogging conventions were. She was soon attracted to the idea of comprehensive critical engagement, commenting:
I thought, initially, that the informal style I used to record thoughts and feelings about places I had visited would not translate well to academic theory analysis. I was wrong. I quickly realized that it was the perfect tool to express my frustration with my lack of quick and easy understanding. (Clune “Questionnairre” 1)
The appreciation of blogging’s allowance of personal narrative is a theme that is often repeated. As Kim admits, “to talk of academic writing alone would only portray half of the story” (Clune “Questionairre” 2).
Like Jay Jay, Kim often finds that the academic projects she is involved in inspire an upheaval of her personal consciousness. After completing Richard Powers’ novel, Galatea 2.2, Kim finds herself asking:
* What value does the study of literature hold?
* Is meaning inherent within a text or do we make meaning as we back-propagate new data through the filters of lived and learned experience?
* Does the difference of inherent or made meaning ultimately matter as we struggle to understand the point of our existence? (2 November 2007 “Galatea 2.2 .4”)
Kim is quick to point out, however, that these questions are not just questions that she wants to answer using the lens provided by the novel, but that these are personal questions that she must answer because not knowing “has gummed up [her] works” (2 November 2007 “Galatea 2.2 .4”). Of the three comments this post generated from Kim’s classmates, only one addressed these three questions directly. The commenter discussed that his answers to them changed after the class, and began to embark on his own existential journey in an attempt to answer these questions for himself as a means of assisting Kim, calling into question some of her assertions and providing his own reading of the novel. After engaging in intellectual e-conversation with Kim, the commenter closes by saying, “Great post. I hope some of my comments were coherent. See ya” (bastionm). This casual good-bye is a perfect illustration of the flexibility of blogs as a discursive space for intellectual writers and thinkers.
Not all of academia is prepared to allow space for the academic blogger to reform the way ideas are constructed, examined and exchanged. Blogging, as a free tool available to anyone with Internet access, faces a great deal of suspicion from established academics. William Savage, a history professor in Oklahoma, asserts that “blogging suggests the absence of rigour [sic] and does not inspire confidence” (49). What Mr. Savage is forgetting when he makes such a statement is the fact that blogs, as public, invite any number of referees who are eager to point out when a blogger has made a mistake or has his/her facts wrong. Kim Clune, returning to blogging after a absence of a few years, came to realize that it was important, “when presenting interpretations publicly, to ensure accuracy,” since:
To get sloppy is to risk public humiliation on the world stage. This is the additional pressure of academia in the blogosphere, a place where unknown professors are looking for lesson plans, students are looking for clues in order to grasp difficult topics, and…editors are looking for material to publish. (Clune “Questionnairre” 2)
Using the blog-hosting site, WordPress, Kim is able to know not only how many visits her blog receives, but also what search terms lead people to her blog, and which posts are the most popular. Kim’s adherence to the requirement of any scholarly work—accuracy—paid off, one of her blog posts for the postmodernism course was selected for publication in the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (“May Paradise”).
Both Kim and Jay blur boundaries between what is personal and what is public or in some way separate from the personal in their blogs. Besides having links to biographical pages, both writers include personal moments in their narratives as ways of understanding ideas they are trying to work through. The personal nature of these narratives cannot be denied; “I” is the most commonly used pronoun, often appearing in every paragraph.
Despite the personal tone of the narrative, it is rare that the author does not cite other sources for validation or as proof of the veracity of her words. Both bloggers use hyperlinks in their posts in order to expand their blog posts beyond the parameters of their individual sites, thereby inserting them in conversation with other members of a particular discourse community. Jay Jay, for example, has a series of hyperlinks that provide the reader further information about a New Media conference that she attended, including links to information about the presenters, presentations, and ongoing projects the groups are involved in. These hyperlinks (highlighted by their light blue font) are building upon the multi-media presentation Jay Jay is already using in her blog, notably the inclusion of pictures as a means of illustrating and expanding her conversation.
Kim engages in a similar move towards hyperlinking-as-conversation-networking. Interestingly, her hyperlinks, linked not only to online authorities on a topic (official biographies, etc.), but also links to classmate’s blogs, such as her post entitled “Self Analysis” (15 October 2007), in which she tracked some of her comments and readings of classmates’ blogs and meditated on how the blogs challenged her thinking and encouraged her own writing. This virtual networking of ideas creates a discourse community in of itself that, while not exclusive, is expansive. Like any good intellectual conversation, this only conversation is mutually beneficial for the individual blogger and the discourse community as a whole, since it requires participants to think critically and expand the established boundaries of thought in place.
These citations, seamlessly integrated into the narrative as hyperlinks, can be easily overlooked, since they require no extra narrative to make clear their purpose in the writing and do not impose themselves upon the reader unless the reader is interested in discovering more about what the writer is saying. Often, these hyperlinks are available to fill the reader in on information that is relevant to the argument, but that the author does not want to take the time to explicitly cover. Because the hyperlinks decrease the amount of information included in each blog post, they make the post easier to read since it is shorter. However, by providing instant access to further information, these hyperlinks expand the conversation well beyond the boundaries of the individual site, a technique that more traditional forms of media have difficulty competing with. The multi-media advantage of blogs appeal to new generations of scholarly thinkers, who have grown up in a world where information is literally at one’s fingertips.
In blogging, writers are granting themselves the right to speak. Setting yourself apart in a conversation which allows anyone with Internet access to participate can be challenging. Bloggers, then, are often compelled to assert their authority, and therefore right to speak, on their topics. Kim, for example, begins one blog by outlining her position as an individual of authority on a particular political topic, “I have CNN on all day every single day, I voraciously read political blogs, and am in contact with several journalists and, editors from the Washington Post…” (22 October 2008 “Stop the Madness, Please”). Jay Jay instead provides her academic credentials at the top of her page in her biography. These assertions of authority, combined with consistently entertaining and thought-provoking posts help bloggers to establish their unique presence in the vast online community. Bloggers, like any other form of writers, become popular over time, slowly growing a fan base that relies primarily on word-of-mouth promotion. It would appear that Kim’s readers are as interested in her topic as she is, despite its personal aspect; her readership nearly quadrupled from 2007 until today. What the popularity of Kim’s blog, and of blogs like hers, suggests is that this type of intellectual discourse is one that others are interested in. Communities are growing, people are engaging with one another, and new hierarchies of knowledge and understandings of knowledge-production are being established.
While Kim and Jay Jay are still considered ‘students’ of academia, they are already establishing their voice as knowledgeable members of intellectual discourse communities. Not isolated cases, Kim and Jay Jay are part of a new trend in scholarly thinking that recognizes the use value of ideas that have not yet been ‘fully refereed’ and legitimized by publication in academic journals. These current students are perhaps the future academics that will populate the collegiate departments in their respective fields, and there is a chance that they will continue engaging in public critical discourse such as blogs, thereby expanding the definition of ‘scholarly writing’ and allowing a variety of narrative modes to investigate the links between their intellectual and personal lives.