Academic blogging: pleasure and credit

I was asked a question a few months ago about how we could go about giving academics more scholarly recognition and credit for blogging, and I realised how ambivalent I feel about this.

On the one hand, I would love to see quality blogging given the credit it deserves; I’d love to see young academics encouraged to blog, to network and support each other, and to engage with audiences that don’t just consist of other academics.

But on the other hand, it seems to me there’s a huge danger that blogging would simply be added on to the existing systems for awarding and measuring academic credit.

Imagine that for REF2026 (or for your tenure in a US university), on top of all the conventional published ‘outputs’, academics must also submit a set number of research blog posts. And that most historians deal with this by copying & pasting the texts of their conference papers into a blog and hitting the Publish button a few times a year.

Of course, there are blogs already that mainly consist of that kind of material and it can make for a very good blog if the material is well chosen and written in the first place. And sharing good talks and presentations with wider audiences is a good thing to do.

But imagine the bland soul-numbing horror of hundreds or thousands of ‘blogs’ which exist purely to fulfil the requirements of a bureaucratic exercise and contain nothing but slabs of text that were dull when they were first read out to six people including the session panel, and will still be dull when they end up in their final article/monograph form to be read by reviewers and bored students in university libraries.

Just because some written online content uses blog software doesn’t make it blogging

And how much harder would it become to find the good academic blogging, where scholars want to communicate what they know and love, and where they engage and debate? How on earth would we persuade new academics that blogging is something you can do for enjoyment, if it becomes just another mandatory task?

Is compulsion and institutionalisation an inevitable outcome – the Satanic pact – of gaining scholarly credit in the corporate, bureaucratic academy?

To be honest, I’m not optimistic that there’s a way to gain the recognition that many academic bloggers have longed for without destroying what I believe is the real value of academic blogging, which is in many ways about pleasing yourself, escaping the targets and the quotas and the faceless bean-counters; about communicating and sharing through spontaneity and idiosyncratic self-expression. (So, I don’t blog for weeks at a time; and then I’ll write five posts in a weekend. Because I want to, and because I can, dammit.)

This personal self-indulgence doesn’t just happen to serve a wider, public purpose: it serves that purpose because it’s personal and indulgent and risky, because academic bloggers are willingly choosing to share the learning and understanding earned through those long, long hours in libraries and archives, and because they give something more of themselves than ‘mere’ knowledge.


13 thoughts on “Academic blogging: pleasure and credit”

  1. Isn’t that why we give blogging awards?

    Anyway, I don’t imagine that anyone’s going to treat blogging as research *publication*, unless the whole academic publishing system breaks down compeletely.

    That said, I do think it can be considered “scholarly activity” in much the same way that writing book reviews and popular press articles (or writing for HNN, etc.) and I do think it can be considered a form of teaching, if done right, and a form of service to the discipline.

    It’s not one thing, though, as you know. It’s community-building, debunking, public history, continuing education. It’s being a scholar, in public. There’s value in that, but the metrics are going to be hard to define for people who don’t get it.

  2. What I’m worrying away at isn’t really a question of exactly what blogging is defined as, but about it becoming mandatory, yet another hoop that academics have to jump through in order to count as academics.

    The Twitter discussions among US academics have reminded me that you have in many ways a more varied and flexible environment for academic credit; blogging could get credit for T&P in various ways without necessarily becoming required for any of them. (I mentioned tenure in passing in the post without really thinking through the differences.) But what we have in the UK is the grotesque mechanistic bureaucracy of the REF. The REF does not do choice or diversity. Everything must be counted and measured and *uniform*. Academics must churn out their four outputs every six years. Departments must submit their quota of impact case studies. That is what blogging would have to be shoehorned into to ‘count’.

  3. I hear you. No one wants to be a blogger Stakhanovite, increasing the piece-work quota for all. And yet, your post is surprisingly similar to sentiments from members of my own department (who seem to have a very different view about blogging than present company) in response to my dept. colloquium paper (another of those many written products between scholarly tome and email) in which I suggested why academic historians should consider blogging. They, too, had this absolute division between dry-as-dust proper academic history and personal, exciting blogging (although they didn’t quite put the difference in those terms, viewing blogging as some bizarre region where one argues whether Hitler had Jewish ancestors, i suppose).

    In helping to rewrite of our department criteria for retention/promo/tenure, I borrowed from Michael Nentwich, Cyberscience 2.0 to define scholarship: “The History Department seeks to promote scholarship in history, broadly defined: history in the scholar’s specialist field, public history, teaching history, historiography/history theory, and popular history. Scholarship includes the production, processing, and distribution of knowledge.” I also added blogging not as something that one must include, but that one could conceivably include.

    If one defines scholarship in terms of producing, processing, and distributing knowledge, there is a difference, but not an absolute divide between blogging and university press books/academic articles, And there is the grey area in between of working papers, public talks, open access papers in progress (and blog posts on all of these).

    Many of us are not at R1 research universities. At regional universities we wish to encourage colleagues producing and distributing knowledge (and being in networks of the same) at a variety of scholarship levels. And many more are not at universities at all. Wouldn’t my university be remiss to ignore the blog posts of, say, the next Nick Poyntz or Sharon Howard should they apply?

    1. Yes, I agree – I didn’t mean it to come across as an absolute distinction. There was a paragraph I started to write but couldn’t quite articulate that wanted to be more positive about how blogging (and the digital transformations blogging is part of) represent a great opportunity for ideas of scholarship as engaged, multi-faceted process rather than being focused on final product. (I’m still struggling to articulate it, largely because I don’t really *feel* that positive.)

  4. Sometimes “varied and flexible” is a euphemism for “arbitrary and capricious”: I’ve included my blogging in every dossier since I started, and nobody’s ever been able to figure out what it should count towards or given me credit for it, as near as I can tell. It’s helped open some doors on jobs, though, and enhanced my life in many other ways; wasn’t doing it for the money, anyway.

    That said, I wouldn’t think it overwhelmingly hard to develop a measure by which a certain mass of blogging (by word count, perhaps, with some measure of impact through linkage and comment volume?) could be considered a “unit of output.”

    Now when you get to the kind of DH stuff you’re doing, that’s a whole other mess…

  5. I wonder if ‘recognition’ is something which could be achieved without ‘credit’. I worry that if blogs are ‘REF’d’ or otherwise measured officially, not only would it endanger the appealingly relaxed and conversational style of many blogs, it would discourage academics from blogging at all through worry that they might get it ‘wrong’ and damage their own prospects.

  6. One small addendum: as for blocking required blogging, that ship has sailed. How many authors are urged by their publishers, how many large grant recipients are required by their institutional funders to add a blog to the mix? And some of those (on networks, etc.) are pretty interesting. If we were really worried about blotting our own copy book with blogging, we wouldn’t use our own names on our blogs would we? Instead, whether it “counts” or not, academic bloggers have decided for better or worse to define their own image/brand as marketers would have it.

  7. Mandated project blogs are an interesting phenomenon – I’ve set up a few now and it’s been hit and miss. (The most interesting, or least boring, one was used mainly for drafts of background material on the final website, and the most recent one turned into a repository for project documents which I’m pretty sure no one but us will ever read.)

    I don’t think of them in the same category as personal blogs, and how well they work is still really dependent on personal engagement; but good ones – like some of the departmental group blogs that are popping up over here because universities are looking for ways to raise their profile for student recruitment – do possibly show a more creative way ahead than my nightmare scenario.

    I could easily approach what I’m prodding away at in a rather different way, on reflection. How much of the worth of academic blogging is dependent simply on scarcity, the fact that only a minority of academics do it and therefore it stands out (good or bad)? Conversely, how many of the problems with academic publishing are the result, basically, of mandation and over-supply?

    I argued up top that making blogging mandatory for all academics (and I do genuinely worry that’s where we’ll end up, in the UK at least) would destroy much of what makes it valuable. But you could also argue that making serial publishing compulsory for all academics, turning scholarship into a mass production line, destroyed much of the intellectual value of publishing. Because the people pulling the purse strings and making policy decisions don’t ‘get’ scholarship any more than they ‘get’ blogging.

    (I say all of this as someone who has essentially stepped off the production line. I don’t believe I would still be working in a university if I hadn’t had that option. But it puts me in a decidedly marginal position; one day the projects may run out and then I’ll be a bit screwed.)

  8. I found this post (and the discussion) really interesting because I have no familiarity with the REF or its US equivalents. Having never got further than postgraduate study, I’ve never had to experience that world – it may be my naivety but is that the REF really that blunt an instrument when it comes to the metrics it collects? (shakes head in horror). I can certainly see the concern that blogging as a form or genre (or in practice, forms and genres) would get confused with blogging as a medium, and that you’d simply get measured on whether you’d set up a WordPress account and posted a certain number of times a year.

    I wondered what had prompted the question at the start of your post – that is, how to ensure academics got more credit for blogging? Is it to try to encourage more academics to blog? Or to ensure that those who are already blogging get more recognition for it? My own experience isn’t really that generalisable given that I’m not an academic, but from my perspective I have found that blogging brings rewards outside the context you’d expect. For example I have ended up doing periodic reviews for History Today as a result of reviewing books on my blog. I also got an approach from an agent to develop a book proposal, although that came to nothing in the end. But I think that sort of recognition outside academia is something that blogs can definitely generate, and which would provide a means of recognition for some.

    Generally though I think the best two outcomes I’ve got from blogging have been having an outlet to write for myself (nobody tells me to post, even though people do read it, which is in sharp opposition to the writing I do for my day job) – and also meeting lots of like-minded people (mostly virtually but a few in real life). While not recognition as such, they are an alternative reason to blog and one that I can see early-career academics, who have perhaps got bogged down in writing for others or ploughing quite a narrow scholarly furrow, finding attractive. Whether that’s enough, given the demands of the REF and the pressure to allocate one’s limited time to activities that generate a more corporate reward, I don’t know though.

    While I am commenting I wonder if I might expand Sharon’s question to cover undergraduates and postgraduates? I think it’s still the case that most of the history blogs I see are written by people with PhDs or other postgrad qualifications. I can see how you might be put off from starting a blog altogether if you were just embarking on studying history. Have any of you used blogs in your teaching – that is, encouraged students to start them? Or have you come across students who started them independently? I started my own just before I began a Masters, but was in a slightly different position in that I was doing it part-time and returning to study after a number of years away from university. In that sense I had little to lose by blogging, but I was still careful to keep my name off it for at least a year or two. I think it was the Mercurius Rusticus affair which made me think I ought to be honest about attributing the views I was expressing. But it still felt like a risk – like one of my tutors might see it and criticise it, or that proper academics would be dismissive of it. Anyway that’s a very long-winded way of asking – what credit and recognition should students get for blogging, and what might be done to reduce the barriers to them starting in the first place/

    1. I don’t know if he’ll drop by here, but Tim Hitchcock mentioned on Twitter the other day that he makes his students blog their assessed work, and his justification to them for making them do it is that even as undergraduates they’re part of a scholarly community.

      I think there’s a handful of independent student (other than PhD student) blogs in Early Modern Commons, and there’s recently been a good students’ course blog (from an English dept rather than History) on 18th-century women writers.

      Some universities have set up blogging platforms for their students, though I don’t know how common this is. Warwick was one of the first I encountered for a British university, some years ago, and it seems reasonably well thought out and quite active:

      Sheffield have one of sorts too, but they insist on putting it all under university branding and it’s part of some over-elaborate social platform thing (which I think they actually *paid* for). What student wants to have a blog that looks like an official University webpage, ffs? (So, a couple of ways *not* to reduce the barriers.)

  9. Just because you invited me to… I have very much enjoyed the blog and conversation. And the only thing I really want to add is that my experience of asking undergraduates to blog their assessed work has been entirely positive (so far). Their writing becomes clearer and less prone to ‘academese’; and the public nature of blogging ensures that they generally take the process more seriously than if there was no possibility of any one but me reading the piece.

    I will always remember the first time a student posted a critique of a big historical website as an assessed bit of coursework, only to be contacted (in the nicest way) by the team responsible for it. The student was flattered, and immediately engaged in a long conversation with the developers about what worked and what didn’t and how the student had experienced the site. In subesquent weeks, I saw the student’s work change – become more serious, thoughtful and generally just better. The particular course involved is really an exercise in encouraging students to become what I think of as aggressive and critical users of online historical resources – and blogging is a big part of it.

    The one other point I would make about this, is that a traditional essay is designed to give students the skills of researching and presenting an argument in a way that is transferrable and relevant for a broader range of activities (even getting a job). As the process of running stuff changes, I just don’t see any downside in asking our students to practise a bit at what we all are increasingly called upon to do – to work in public and to show our research process.

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