Saturday, 12 February 2011

Cui bono?

My colleague in English at Monash, Dr Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozario, asks in her blog (here): "Should academics blog?" and what is "the importance of - and drawbacks of - having an online presence"? I am not a big fan of questions including the word "should" but I liked some of her answers (they bring together information relating to your research, help communicate with students, and exert some control over your online presence), but I was particularly struck by this comment: "my blog … helps me to think about what I'm doing and what it means in terms of the wider community."

It set me thinking: cui bono? (To whose benefit, or for the benefit of whom, does his blog operate?).

On my Script and Print blog (here) I explain that "Blog is the contraction universally used for weblog, a type of website where entries are made (such as in a journal or diary), displayed in a reverse chronological order"—but my understanding is that early blogs were made up of links and summaries of online content, combined with journal or diary content, which acted as an aide-mémoire to remind the blogger of where they had been online and what they had found interesting: like a reading journal. That is, a log of web activity, like a beefed up session history on your web-browser.

Obviously, blogs have evolved, but for me this is still a major function of academic blogs. They bring together material that relates to your research, specifically the material you want to share. And this is where it gets interesting. Because many academics hold their positions and get promotions based on their publications. And for the most part, you only get published when you can convince an editor that you have something new to say. So, if you have discovered a previously unknown Shakespeare play, you wouldn't blog about it. You would make damn sure you wrote an article and had it published in high-profile peer-reviewed journal before you casually mentioned it in a blog-post.

And this is where Rebecca's second point comes in: you share material you think will be of use to your students, to other students and other academics. For the most part this constitutes casual reviews of what you are reading, thought relating to doing research and teaching, information on resources for research and teaching, or thoughts on and information about research topics you have either already published on, or do not intend to publish on. Oh, and griping about administrivia. (See below.)

Rebecca's third point was that a blog helps you exert some control over your online presence. Maintaining a blog is pretty liberating when your institutional web presence is heavily mediated and restrictive, and when you have to battle to have the smallest changes made to any information relating to you or the course you run.

Unfortunately, Monash does not encourage blogging; in fact it is not too much to say that they are obstructionist: they do as much as possible to discourage staff from establish a Monash blog, and they do as little as possible to publicise blogs maintained by staff elsewhere. The blogs that they do allow—and there were very few until quite recently—have to be approved. The application for contains an endless series of questions and warnings such as

Purpose of the blog (Mandatory field)
Intended/target audience (Mandatory field)
Intended no. of bloggers (Mandatory field)
Frequency of updates (Mandatory field)
Duration of blog (Mandatory field)

A series of moderators have to be approved ("staff member who is in charge of watching and approving blog content"), fees paid ("initial setup cost of $100 and an ongoing yearly fee for technical maintenance of $70"), and waivers signed ("ensure that the blog adheres complies with relevant ITS policies, state and government laws, statutes and guidelines as outlined in the Blog guidelines")

These guidelines were extraordinary. Each faculty has a distinct colour palette "and a modified sub-brand" which must be used. Images must have the following characteristics:

1. Strong, single images—not a collage.
2. Natural light and open space.
3. Incorporate people—not clip art.
4. Convey confidence and optimism—no negative imagery.
5. Natural images—no coloured lighting, contouring and coloured backgrounds.
6. Represent the university's key attributes—international, influential, innovative, engaged, substantial, dynamic, broad, accessible and full of integrity.

Oh, and they must be approved by the Marketing Division.

In earlier versions of this document it is specified that photos are to be taken "with a long lens that allows the foreground and the background to appear blurred—the main subject matter (the people) should be sharp or in focus." Photographers are also told to "avoid cliche compositions and images that are overly posed."

So, of course, what you actually get is a series of predictable and near-identical images of carefully posed groups of happy, aesthetically-pleasing students—representative of the desired cultural diversity—in well-lit open spaces with muted fore- and back-grounds: which is, of course, corporate clip art and very, very clichéd.

Not surprisingly, few individuals either want to or are capable of complying with these restrictions, so the few sites and blogs actually undertaken by my colleagues are elsewhere: on Blogger, Wordpress etc.

Elsewhere, apparently, universities have realised that they benefit from having all the academic creativity, and the diversity of opinion and self-representation, available under their umbrella. Which brings me to Rebecca's fourth point: "my blog … helps me to think about what I'm doing and what it means in terms of the wider community."

A blog is a way of communicating with the wider community, of articulating what you are doing as an academic in an interesting and accessible way, of engaging with, and in, ever-changing international intellectual debates. It helps present and prospective students understand your position on these debates and helps model how we expect our own students to engage in intellectual debate. In keeps you in touch with others, and others in touch with you.

It is hard to see how a university can be international, influential, engaged, dynamic and accessible without embracing the sort of communication facilitated by blogs like Rebecca's and—I hope—mine.

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