Beki Grinter

An Academic Blog

In academia, academic management on February 3, 2010 at 10:01 am

I’ve just created a new section in my Georgia Tech Vita. The Georgia Tech vita is the official format for an academic resume. It’s long and detailed, but it is a very accurate reflection of the values of the Institute (what Georgia Tech thinks matters for academics). But it has some curious admissions. There’s nowhere to put the media hits that your research gets (and mine, for example, has been on the Colbert report, it was the number 1 threat down, so pretty serious stuff) and there’s nowhere to put blog posts. And yet, both have a place in the modern University, although here I will focus solely on blogs.

So, what then is the role of an academic blog? Why do I think that they matter? I’ve been doing some thinking about what you can accomplish with an academic blog. This is based on my own experiences as well as observing those of my colleagues with blogs. Thank you Mark, Rich, Dick, Andrea, Henrik and Amy.

Like other blogs it’s a way to get the word out. Quickly, especially by academic standards!

One of my most popular posts, about facebook and social networking, was a timely (and thoughtful I hope) response to a meme that had circulated around facebook earlier in the day. You can’t get that article submitted and reviewed in a single day but you can offer an analysis via the blog. I’d like to think that even though the response is not peer reviewed, and would certainly require more if it was peer reviewed, the process of sharing any thoughts on a blog is reviewed in a different way. People don’t have to read the blog after all. And, it’s also your reputation that’s wrapped up in the blog, so what you say is a reflection of your expertise as a researcher.

And I think this matters because as a researcher, especially one employed by the State of Georgia, I feel a responsibility to communicate not just with my academic colleagues but with anyone who happens to read my blog. I’m not always sure whether I do manage to communicate broadly, but I view the blog as part of that opportunity. And I see it in my colleagues posts too, a sense of explaining why some event or discussion has more significance than it might appear to at first blush. It probably is largely colleagues, but I’d be happy if it was broader than that too. I’ve always thought that it’s a responsibility, particularly of a tenured professor, to use their knowledge derived from the research process, to help explain and inform broadly.

Blogging also helps me think, not just about my research, but about my professional experiences. I frequently think things out in my writing. So, the blog is another forum for this type of thinking. I can see my thinking reflected not just in the lots of dead text that I carry through each posting (I delete it right before I publish). It’s also visible in the number of draft postings I have. Each accretes notes as I do more thinking about what the topic of the post is going to be about. Unless I write the post very quickly. Most posts, the majority, are written over several sessions. This one, for example, has been in the works for a few months now. Each time I think about blogs, or see something going on one of my colleagues blogs I add it to the list.

And then there’s the thinking that happens as I write the post up in full text. I have found myself coming to conclusions that were different from what I initially thought. This makes for considerable time spent writing, with less to show for it. But, hey, I’m an academic, this is not an entirely unknown phenomenon. But this process, even when it ends up being contradictory, is a great way of clearing my head and getting my ideas together and clearly. I think it’s helped me with my research. I use my blog in part to write about cross-cutting themes I see in the research that my students do, to synthesize the products of other research and workshops, think out assumptions, and to examine disciplinary business.

A colleague of mine suggested that a blog might be a way to kick start the process of writing a book. I’m still not sure what book my blog is (I’ll take suggestions). But, I view that as emblematic of the thinking work that a blog can provide. And it spills out into other places. I recently gave a talk where I was asked to reflect on futures for the field of Human-Centered Computing. My blog had helped me to think through a number of the ideas that I talked about. Perhaps you should never talk about things you have not published about, but for some types of topic (such as, say, the disciplinary business of Computing, it’s not precisely clear to me what I would have published or where if I was constrained to the more traditional writing mediums).

Some of my colleagues post fairly frequently to their blogs. I find this both inspirational and vaguely terrifying (Where do they find the time? Where they always have, through discipline). But what fairly frequent postings, particularly when they are all focused on the same topical area, do is show the importance and prevalence of a topic. I’ll borrow from Mark’s blog here, to which he posts multiple times a week. Even before his blog I knew that Computing Education mattered. Can you be a professor in Computing and not know this? Anyway, what I get from Mark’s blog is not just updates on critical issues in Computing Education but a sense of how important it is, how Computing Education is connected to other worlds of education, practice, and learning, and so forth. It’s not just the content it’s the frequency of that content that communicates this to me in a profound way.

It’s also a place to have an opinion, to take a position. In the reporting of research results, it is often best to not have an opinion, beyond those supported by the facts. The blog encourages the development of ideas beyond the scope of research. This of course likely can be abused, taken to extremes. But, I think it’s useful in measure. I do have opinions, quite a lot of them. Some in no particular order are that Computing4Good problematises human-centered computing research; that I am a Computer Scientist and that discussions about who/what counts are premature in a discipline that draws on methods/theories that are philosophically contradictory; that the University is an unusual organizational entity and should not be managed with tools imported wholesale from the business world as a result; and that recognising and understanding the human-built nature of computing systems is as important as understanding the patterns of human-used systems. You can find all of these opinions in my posts, perhaps not quite so succinctly stated, and while I would like to tell you that these are all opinions I have arrived at carefully and thoughtfully (and frequently through research), the blog is a place where I find it easier to express them.

Georgia Tech is doing through the strategic planning process (I have opinions about strategy too). And clearly this is way down on the list, but if Georgia Tech claims to value things (like media) then they should make sure that it’s reflected in the GT Vita format. What better way to incent desirable behaviour than providing an appropriate reporting method, the ability to demonstrate achievement in that area. And while they’re reconsidering how the GT Vita reflects the values of the Institute, I call on them to put in a section for blogs. Highly read posts, posts that whiz around the blogosphere, demonstrate a type of reason for existence. And I can’t help thinking that the personal-professional rewards of blogging are well worth the effort.

  1. Nice piece. I agree blogs are a good way for researchers to engage in conversations that are not easy or possible with traditional publishing channels. I use my blog quite differently from yours (http://cognitivecomputing.wordpress.com) but I see some of the same value that you write about. –Ashwin.

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