Using Blogs for Research and Writing in the Humanities

In their article “The Transformative Potential of Blogs for Research in Higher Education,”  Jana Bouwma-Gearhart and James Bess write:

Blogging recognizes the message of social constructionism and the possibilities for new collaborative, real-time modes of information exchange that permit contributions from a vast number of potential expert collaborators from around the world. Blogging may allow for more egalitarian involvement of qualified academics on problems of interest, the establishment of more extensive-boundaried and more communicative communities of scholars, and more effective community involvement in the formative stages of research and presentation of research findings. Additionally, we would predict that with the opening up of information giving and receiving (with due recognition of needs for personal upward mobility), the academic community writ large will become, in a relatively short time, much more collaborative and collegial. (268)

Today, the blog retains the sullying image of the isolate in the basement and ‘concern-troll’ attitudes that if anyone can do it, its value is suspect. But that will change, especially in academic situations as scholars in the humanities (and elsewhere, but it is the humanities I know best) begin to discover that better work can be done through a base in the network of personal, independent blogs than through academic journals or managed websites from universities or even think-tanks. Blogs act as aggregators, and scholars look to them for sources and possibilities they might otherwise miss. I think I have discovered more through blogging over the past eight years than through any other information source–including libraries (though, I should note, much of my writing has been on the blogosphere, so that shouldn’t be a complete surprise).

There are real problems blogs must overcome if they are to reach their full academic potential. The first comes from that image of the blog as a playpen, as a place for those who can’t make it in the serious world of academic publishing. We still revere Oxford University Press; no blog can compete. The fallout from this is that blogging today has an unpleasant odor to some scholarly nostrils, especially to nostrils on hiring, re-appointment, tenure, and promotion committees. Only scholars already secure in their careers (or with nothing to lose for other reasons) can turn to blogging with confidence.

What I imagine for the future of academic blogging–in the best of all possible worlds–is something breaking down disciplinary, institutional, and ideological barriers. This goes in the opposite direction to a lot of what I am seeing these days where some scholars are trying to establish their own new bailiwicks in an unfolding digital environment, erecting barriers rather than tearing them down. Among these is the “movement” of “digital humanities,” a group that wants to define (and define things out) rather than explore. What I’m seeing as the future of blogging, instead, moves beyond the digital, subsuming it as a given, to a much wider utilization of myriad possibilities. It is a world where even academic journals have atrophied, replaced by the blogs of individual scholars, each judged by how they are used by other scholars (and even by those beyond academic communities).

Already, I find I am using a wider range of tools than ever in preparation for my next book. I have my own library, personal contacts and discussions with colleagues, the electronic possibilities I have downloaded to my Kindle Fire and carry with me, the journal articles behind firewalls that I can access through CUNY libraries, more widely available journals and articles, websites dedicated to particular topics, and blogs that not only provide new insights themselves but that also lead me to sources I might never have come across on my own–and that are considerably more recent than anything available on my bookshelves. Over the years, I have gained confidence in my ability to differentiate between the lead and the dross, no longer retreating quite so much to the safe academic imprimaturs. I can ask questions from all sorts of people, even learn from them… as I recently did from an Australian musician who has returned to school for an undergraduate degree who put an essay of his online.

Over the next few years, especially as those of us more comfortable researching within the new and expanded environment (I don’t want to call it “digital,” not wanting to be confined to that) reach positions where we are serving on promotion committees, etc., it will become safer and even easier for scholars to work openly and with the broader palate. At that time, as Bouwma-Gearhart and Bess predict, our academic pursuits really will have become “more collaborative and collegial.” And better scholarship than ever will have resulted.