Blogging and Intellectual Curiosity

birds to fishInger Mewburn, a.k.a. the Thesis Whisperer, has an interesting post up at PhD2Published about academics and social media in which she asks a question that I have often wondered about too:

While I can understand not writing a blog (sort of) I really can’t understand people who don’t read blogs, take part in Twitter or otherwise take part in the scholarly dialogue which is happening online.

She addresses the “how do you have time for social media?” question that I expect every academic blogger (or tweeter) has encountered. (Mewburn links to this post on that specific issue.  I agree that this question always seems to express “some kind of unspoken criticism.” Like the other question I often get about “how do you have time to read so much?” it also assumes a strict distinction between “real” work and other things I do that Pat Thompson notes is hard to make for her own newspaper reading.) The bottom line is that we all have time, or make time, for the things we believe to be valuable. So the harder question is why many academics still don’t consider spending time reading blogs (or being on Twitter) to be valuable:

I don’t have to point out the benefits to the converted. The question I have for you is, how many of your colleagues are doing the same? And more importantly – why don’t they? It’s a question that is beginning to fascinate me and one which I don’t have a ready answer for.

She has a theory about the source of the resistance: “have I become the cool kid?” I don’t really have an opinion on whether that theory is plausible! I find it hard to think of myself as “cool,” that’s for sure. But I share her general puzzlement, because I am so excited and fascinated by the voices and perspectives and information I encounter day after day thanks to the time I spend reading the blogs in my RSS feed or following up on links from – or eavesdropping on, or exchanging ideas with – the diverse people I follow on Twitter. Now that I know how much of intellectual value is out there, I can’t imagine shutting myself away from it. Sure, there are risks: the only thing worse, after all, than having nothing good to read is having far, far too much good material to read than you’ll ever have time for and having to make, again and again, the conscious effort to turn away from “that tempting range of relevancies called the universe” to the one “particular web” I’m supposed to be spinning myself.

Maybe it’s just a pragmatic fear of being overwhelmed in that way that holds some academics back. That’s not the general impression I get from the derisive way some of my colleagues still talk about Twitter or blogs, though: for them, the lack of engagement does seem to bespeak contempt, disbelief that there could be any merit in spending one’s time with such frivolity. (How they don’t realize the implicit insult to me when they say such things baffles me! Do they think I’m an idiot, then, to bother with all this?) Then there are those who overestimate the technical effort involved, or who don’t know about basic tools like Google Reader that simplify the process of sorting through multiple sources. There’s also simple inertia: people have a certain way of doing things, a certain workflow, a certain relationship to their reading and their computers.

Whatever the inhibitions or prejudices involved, I think they all hint at an unfortunate lack of intellectual curiosity. Like Mewburn, “I can understand not writing a blog” (in fact, I’m on record saying I really don’t think every academic should blog), but I can’t understand not exploring the world of blogs (academic or otherwise) if only to find out if one’s skepticism is justified, or not signing up for Twitter for a while to find out how a well-curated community  there might complement or even enhance one’s other professional (or personal, or intellectual) exchanges.

Some support for my conviction that there’s plenty (indeed, too much) worth reading online comes from something else I read online today (thanks to a link I followed from Twitter), an essay by Robert Cottrell, editor of The Browser. Here’s how he describes his job:

I read all day. Were it not for the demands of sleep and family life, I would read all night. My aim is to find all the writing worth reading on the internet, and to recommend the five or six best pieces each day on my website, the Browser.

 Here’s Cottrell’s general conclusion:

The amount of good writing freely available online far exceeds what even the most dedicated consumer might have hoped to encounter a generation ago within the limits of printed media.

Cottrell estimates that only 1% of what he finds is really great stuff, material of real value to the serious general reader. Since I read only a tiny fraction of what he does, I’m not in a position to argue. I would say that of the material I read, the proportion of good stuff is (happily) much more than 1%, but that’s probably because a lot of the links I get are already filtered, either by my own curation efforts or by sources including The Browser. About that 1%, he is eloquent: “the 1 per cent of writing by and for the elite is an embarrassment of riches, a horn of plenty, a garden of delights.” And where are the “scores” of worthwhile pieces coming from?

Some of it comes from professional journalists, writing for the websites of established publications or on their own blogs. But much of it – the great new addition to our writing and reading culture – comes from professionals in other fields who find the time, the motivation and the opportunity to write for anyone who cares to read. I am sorry that the internet gifted this practice with such an ugly name, “blogging”, but it is too late to change that now.

As a gross generalisation, academics make excellent bloggers, within and beyond their specialist fields. So, too, do aid workers, lawyers, musicians, doctors, economists, poets, financiers, engineers, publishers and computer scientists. They blog for pleasure; they blog for visibility within their field; they blog to raise their value and build their markets as authors and public speakers; they blog because their peers do.

Given the skepticism with which blogging is still met within the academy (and, for that matter, outside it as well), it was gratifying to see its value acknowledged like this. Yes, “blogging” is an ugly name, and the form itself is no more a guarantee of high quality than any other. But blogs have enormously enriched our intellectual and cultural conversations as well as our academic ones.  I think Mewburn is right that it’s time to stop being defensive. She suggests asking “What do you have to give? How can you make a difference?” I would add, “What do you want to know about? What conversation would you like to have? What are you curious about?” Maybe that will help my skeptical colleagues feel excited, rather than dubious, about what they’re missing.

Do your academic colleagues read blogs? Are they on Twitter? Do you think that skepticism towards new media or social media has subsided now that blogging has been around for a while? I don’t notice much of a shift here since I started blogging in 2007. Maybe there’s a smidgen more respect for what I’ve been doing, if only because I’m still doing it.

17 thoughts on “Blogging and Intellectual Curiosity

  1. Stefanie February 22, 2013 / 5:03 pm

    I’m not an academic but I work in a university law library and can say that librarians spend a lot of time reading blogs and even writing them both personally and professionally. There is also quite a lot of legal information and news to be gleaned from blogs which the legal research librarians then pass on to the professors. As for the professors, there are one or two in the law school who blog but for the most part only read blogs.


    • Rohan February 23, 2013 / 12:00 am

      Stefanie, this is pure anecdata, but my impression has been the people in the library and information sciences are ahead of the curve in these ways. I wonder if it’s because of the mediating role you mention: mining online sources for relevant material and passing it on is really central to their mission as information specialists.


  2. Aimée Morrison (digiwonk) February 22, 2013 / 7:22 pm

    Great post, Rohan — I’m going to be including this in a workship I’m giving on being an “academic / online” in the College of Arts at UoGuelph next week. I think this is a really great defense of and advertisement for academic curiosity online.

    FWIW, I get the same reactions you do, all the time: how do you find time for that stuff, I’ve never been on Twitter but I’m pretty sure it’s awful, aren’t blogs just for lunatics ranting? Um, yeah, that’s what I DO for a living, people 😉


    • Rohan February 23, 2013 / 12:02 am

      Thanks, Aimee. I’ve been thinking about a follow-up post about the limits on my own curiosity: stay tuned!

      I wonder how our colleagues would react if we had the same reaction when they said they were heading over to the library… I really think there’s no malice in it, but that almost makes it worse.


  3. Karen February 23, 2013 / 6:02 am

    I’m not in the academic world but I get similar comments from colleagues because I regularly share with them ideas I’ve picked up by reading blogs and forums on public relations/communications. I view that kind of reading as part of my job, not as a bolt on.
    Twitter however, I have to disagree with you. It is meant to be about conversations and connections but my experience has too often been that people use it for self promotion. And the conversation seems pretty one way – as an example, I sent tweets to four leading publishers asking if they had any suggestions for novels by authors from a few African states. I was a potential customer. How many could be bothered to reply? Zero. So why do they have a Twitter account I wonder.. Sorry, rant over.


    • Rohan February 23, 2013 / 3:44 pm

      Karen, I agree that sometimes the one-way traffic on Twitter can be deadening, but I also find that’s really a function of who you follow and what you expect from them. “Leading publishers” are probably using Twitter primarily as an advertising medium. I can see the benefits to them of replying to individual queries like yours, but I can also see that it might quickly become an unmanageable task! I’ve had mixed results with getting answers from big companies online. I am certainly always impressed at the ones that do reply. For me, there is some benefit in just getting the one-way info from some accounts — I don’t expect conversations from every one of them (and couldn’t sustain them myself, either).


  4. litlove February 23, 2013 / 8:30 am

    I doubt very much that my former colleagues read blogs – they were fundamentally snooty about which publisher took your book, so I feel quite sure that non-peer-reviewed, unedited information online is way below their radar.

    However, to be fair, when I cast my mind back a zillion years to when I began blogging, I remember how hard it was to find… well, just about anybody at first. I remember a long month of trawling through what felt like an endless ocean of techie blogs, many obsessed with a thing called Linux, which I kept reading as Linus, as in Charlie Brown’s friend. It took me ages to find the book bloggers, and then it took a while after that to find the ones I really liked. Of course there weren’t so many book blogs then, not by a long way. And of course I am not naturally suited to anything that deals with modern technology. I happened to be off work sick at the time, or else I would certainly not have had the time or the patience for the quest. I honestly feel that there is mostly very little mystery about why academics don’t blog, and it’s to do with the amount of time and energy and effort you have to put in up front to get settled into a new community. As academic life gets increasingly pressurized, there’s hardly time to read the books one absolutely must read for cogent research (or even to do that cogent research!), and other potential time sinks must be avoided.

    I feel the question is really: why do academics sneer and treat with contempt the things they know very little about? I feel that one gets to the heart of what’s wrong with our profession.


    • Rohan February 23, 2013 / 3:46 pm

      Litlove, that’s a fair point about the initial investment of time and energy, especially under current working conditions. Whether it is a “time sink” or not is one question, and the answer will depend. But your second point is I think the one that tends to rankle with me: if you don’t think you have time for it, OK, but that doesn’t define the activity itself as worthless, just out of your own ken. Maybe I haven’t gotten over being defensive yet after all….


  5. Jim February 23, 2013 / 2:56 pm

    I don’t think it is so much contempt for things we know little about. Perhaps I am an outlier but my academic circle spends a great deal of time online with social media. I think the problem is 1) it is not always easy to find good material related to often very narrow specialties and 2) the quality of material found vs. the amount of time spent is often very much lower than other more established media. I find this to be the case even when using some of the best tools for searching, finding, sorting, and aggregating social content. I don’t think this will always be the case and I see signs of gradual improvement. However, with the expectation for academics to continually master a very large amount of material we have to prioritize on the most efficient means. For many of us, I don’t think social media yet lives up to its promise and potential.


  6. Rohan February 23, 2013 / 3:52 pm

    Jim, I agree that filtering is the biggest challenge, and that there’s a hit or miss aspect, at least during the start-up phase, that can seem inefficient. Academics who are already online a lot can help with this by keeping their blogrolls up to date, by steering colleagues to good sources, and so on. The issue of specialization is a provoking one to me: to some extent, I see overspecialization as a problem, at least in my own field, and one that is productively counterbalanced by a more miscellaneous experience online. In the follow-up post I’m thinking about, what I would probably talk about is the extent to which highly specialized discussions are precisely where my own curiosity now tends to come up short. I’m not touting that as a virtue: I’ve just been thinking about why, for instance, I am much less likely than I used to be to attend academic conferences or even our weekly departmental colloquium. But at least this is not because I haven’t tried a lot of them! And I don’t think people who go to them are wasting their time.


  7. Alex in Leeds February 23, 2013 / 4:05 pm

    It’s a shallow pop culture comparison but it always reminds me of the moment in Working Girl where one character has a wide range of media sources and has a great business idea based on cross-referencing those sources, another character steals the idea but then can’t explain how they came up with it because they lack the heroine’s background reading. If you don’t read blogs or at least a curation service now you miss the potential sparks, the ongoing discussion and, perhaps most importantly, you can’t riff off any of the ideas. Blogging is messier than journalism but sometimes the mess is just rather stimulating working notes… 🙂


    • Rohan February 26, 2013 / 11:56 am

      Working Girl! Great connection. 🙂

      Your point that blogging is messier makes me think that another problem for some academics might be the expectation of a more orderly experience. Blogs are typically less ‘finished’ or more preliminary than the kinds of publications academics are used to. That’s not always the case, of course: some bloggers post quite polished commentaries, whether about their work or book reviews or whatever. But if you are expecting to read academic articles online and find yourself reading blogs, you might well turn away. I think this is to miss the point, to make a kind of category error–like people who protest that Twitter is useless for sustained analysis or debate. Not every form serves every purpose. I know that I find a lot of what I read online more stimulating–and more generative for my own ideas–than most of the more polished conference or colloquium papers I’ve heard, precisely because those finished papers are so closed off and self-sufficient.


  8. Lisa Hill February 24, 2013 / 3:16 am

    Interesting to see how many of your respondents here have begun with ‘I’m not an academic’ LOL, and so indeed must I.
    We’re in transition: just as many bricks-and-mortar retailers have not yet come to grips with online retailing, so too are many academics still plodding along in the C20th. I am pleased to say however that a US university that offers Australian literature in its coursework links to my blog as do many of our prestige independent school libraries. There will be more of this as time goes by, because academics will increasingly recognise the wealth of interesting stuff that’s around, written both by academics and by specialists like me.
    BTW Wikipedia is *requesting* input from scholars and academics for some of its more obscure topics, and there are institutions that are encouraging their academics to do just this. I predict that the landscape will be vastly different in five years or so!


    • Rohan February 26, 2013 / 11:56 am

      How interesting that universities and libraries are starting to link to blogs as resources. That will be one more useful kind of filter for people new to this rather chaotic world.


  9. Katherine C. James February 25, 2013 / 11:18 pm

    This is an interesting piece, which came to me through a Twitter link. I think you’re on to something when you comment on the names being off-putting: Blogs (weB LOGS) and Twitter both have names that makes them sound trivial. I often wonder how differently Twitter would be received in academia if it simply had a more serious name. I do think there is also something to people thinking Twitter and blogs are both more technologically challenging than they really are, but I think that is of less importance since it has become relatively easy for each of us to find a technical person to guide us to any new technological offering we are interested in. I am in awe of the variety of first rate, inspiring material found on blogs and in Twitter links, I am also astonished by the rich relationships I’ve formed with writers, editors, book reviewers, librarians, and academics through Twitter since I joined in 2009. It takes work to sift through the unimpressive sites, but with a bit of effort there are real riches to be found. I have a friend who teaches literature at Stanford. When the Harry Potter books came out, and I was reading and enjoying each one as it was published, she told me that she could not even be seen reading the books because she would be mocked. I felt at the time that such an academic environment is the opposite of one that will truly encourage curiosity, learning, and growth.


    • Rohan February 26, 2013 / 11:59 am

      Katherine – thanks for reading and commenting! At one point people used to explain Twitter as ‘micro-blogging’ — somehow I doubt that really helped with the labeling problem you rightly identify. Your point about the work to sift through unimpressive sites really seems key. I don’t use Academia.Edu much but I wonder if that’s a place where academics could do some sorting, filtering, and linking to steer scholars towards the more specialized blogs that might be more immediately relevant. That said, I still believe that the messiness of blogging is a good counterweight to the hyper-specialization prevalent in many fields including my own.


  10. Donna Alexander April 8, 2013 / 10:40 am

    Thanks for writing this, and for reading my respose to Inger Mewburn’s article. Doesn’t the online conversation that has followed her piece just show the importance and usefulness of blogging and social media – that we can all discuss, compare notes and debate such an issue. I think there is some way to go before blogging becomes an accepted part of academic rhetoric, but I do think things are moving – however slowly – in that direction. In the past year or so I have noticed more and mnore of my colleagues turning to twitter and blogs as methods of dissemination and collaboration.


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