Tuesday, February 12, 2008

PD(Q) from Comments to a Post: What are we blogging for?

I'd like to pull up a discussion from the comments on Alun Salt's recent post: A Blog Carnival / Journal Proposal: The Past Discussed Quarterly, because the comments bring out some really interesting issues concerning the matter of academic blogging.  This is, to me, exciting stuff!

One issue under discussion is the matter of proper citation in blogs and how to transition the various modes of citation in a blog from links or other less formal methods to something more appropriate for the scholar publication of the PD(Q). I'd like to propose two ways of looking at the matter of citation that maybe get to bigger issues in academic use of the New Media.

Blog as Genre
One is to propose that blogs are by nature a more informal genre, and therefore do not require the same kind of scholarly apparatus that a proper article would have. Newspapers, non-scholarly books, and other genres regularly tread the fine line between fair use with proper attribution and intellectual irresponsibility. In fact, I might go so far as to argue that the relative dearth of citations in blogs is inherent in their very nature. By genre a blog is more like other forms of informal scholarly production.  For example, even the most fastidious scholars might not include proper citations in an email, or a newsletter article, or a informally distributed copy of a public lecture. Thus, formal citation in a blog is good practice, but not an inherent component to the genre as it would be in a scholarly publication. In some ways the system of formal attribution is what makes a scholarly article, a scholarly article.

Blog as Medium
Another perspective would be to say that a blog is a medium (I think this is danah boyd’s point recently) and that what makes a blog a blog is that it has all the accoutrements of that medium – hypertext being among the most obvious. Many bloggers (myself included) use hypertext in mildly experimental ways that go beyond merely citation (which I am quite irregular about).  Many of the hyperlinks in my blog are there to encouraging intertextual readings both within my blog and between my blog and other blogs, traditional media sources, and things like video, podcasts, et c. elsewhere on the World Wide Net Web. Stripping those things from a blog and putting them in footnotes is sort of like offering someone a cup of decaffeinated, clear, lukewarm “coffee”. And saying, "see what you are missing by not drinking coffee?"

The Point?
The point of this is to beg for some clarity. If the goal of PD(Q) is to present in a different medium the genre of blogging, then we simply need to convert the text of the blog into the more formal medium of paper. This then begs the question of what is the value of blogging as a scholarly genre? I am not sure I’d be interested much in reading a less formal, less edited, less substantial kind of scholarly output especially as the great swells of unread scholarly articles continue to bear down on my fragile intellectual raft. That is to say, I am not sure that blogging as a genre is very compelling unless we begin to beef up the quality of a blog post into little “working papers”.  In this case we are talking about doing something like what has been done over at the PSWPC site. Or we could define blog posts more rigorously by length (<1000 words) and produce a volume full of Archaeological Notes (somewhat like those called Project Notes on the Antiquity webpage). Perhaps including comments along with the post is exciting and transparent, and this is what the Valve has done to make their book events more interesting, but these were focused moments in the blogosphere that made use of blogging as medium rather than a genre of writing.  They allowed for books to be discussed soon after their publication (see below: speed) and to capture scholarly opinion in its evolution.

As a medium, however, blogging remains quite exciting. The significance of blogging is that we have conversations like this that have flow between posts and comments in this blog, on other blogs, more formal scholarly publications, video, podcasts, the popular press. Reducing these links to footnotes strips a blog of what makes it so interesting. The best blogs, at least they sees to me, are liminal, interstitial spaces between other media, genres, and ideas. 

It also has a speed. We can comment instantly and off the cuff – like a lunchtime conversation here at the American School – on a topic, recent article, review or lecture. A call for papers or conference notice can also use a blog page to generate contributions and interest.

Finally, many blogs are good because of their scholarly coherence. David Gill’s blogs, Looting Matters and the History of the British School at Athens are great examples of that.  Any individual post from the blog is hardly as a meaningful as reading it regularly. 

What Now?
This post is not meant to be negative (I clearly owe Alun a beer sometime), but ask what seems to me to be the bigger questions, what is the goal of producing PD(Q)?  What aspect of blogging do we want to bring to the attention of our non-blogging colleagues?  Do we want to communicate the genre or the medium (or is the medium at some point really the message?).  I think our discussion of citation, which to my mind foreshadows the much more difficult question of criteria for inclusion in PD(Q), is the tip of an interesting and important iceberg bearing down on practitioners of the New Media.  As I am putting together material for my annual review, I myself find it easier to attempt to translate my blogging habit into something my more tradition-bound colleagues will understand (i.e. I got 40,000+ words over 12 months -- so whatchu got?), than sell them on the value and significance of participating in the medium itself. 


Alun said...

Bill raises several good points.

First we cannot put blogs onto paper, we can only put bits of them on and that's with varying success. Some posts can be lifted wholesale and put in PD(Q). Vodcasts obviously can't, and he's right in saying that hyperlinks occupy a big grey area. We'll need to talk over the exact mechanics, but if possible I think the PDF version should have embedded hyperlinks. They won't come out in the print version, nor will the colour photos. There's only so much can be done.

I also think I've been vague and woolly on what we put in. It's the inclusivity of weblogs which I like. When I'm reading someone else's work name and profession don't matter and anyone can comment on my site and the thing that matters is what's said, not who they are. I suspect that will change in the future and we'll have A-listers like there are in other blogging genres, but right now someone could start a weblog and be well-known within a month or two.

There's also immediacy in get something out, but that may say more than I'd like about my hedonism.

He's also right that if academics are the target audience then it's got to be meaningful to them. PD(Q) isn't going to replace weblogs and it's not meant to. It's a baited hook and for academics the bait is much more likely to be successful if it's meaningful to them rather than a video of a hamster in a wheel or a LOLSphinx.

Following Bill's comments, here's what I'd suggest.

1. Working papers. A good idea. It would be helpful to define what we mean by this for non-academics, so that it's clear that it's possible they could be writing something like this. Something which is an idea in progress and up for discussion.

2. Notes. I agree this is something we can do rapidly. Often it isn't possible to find a place for rapid publication, which many notes would benefit from.

3. Academic Commentary. This could be where we move into BPR3 territory. BPR3 is great for papers, but it's not so useful for book chapters or books. This I think is down to its science base and the scientists tend to think of books as textbooks, while the monograph is still important for historians and archaeologists. Plus not everyone can access every journal. This would be a handy way of signposting more interesting articles.

4. Commentary about Academia. It's said the AJA is going to be moved behind a paywall. If it happens, I think that would be a Bad Thing. I'm sure there's more to be said on Research Assessment Exercises and Teaching Quality Assessments in the UK. I'm sure there's similar issues elsewhere.

5. Pedagogy and Public engagement. If I write about teaching ancient history or archaeology, its been recommended I write for an Education journal. I don't see these in the Sackler when I'm there do I don't flip through them as often as I should. I like the mudbrick posts at Middle Savagery. It's an interesting idea and one I might use in the future, but if she were to develop it and publish it, where would it go? My best guess would be Public Archaeology, which isn't something every library gets, which brings us back to point 3. Whether or not she'd want to develop it is another matter. I could foresee someone wanting to take it further and cite her though.

6. Related to this I'd like to see announcements of new websites, new tools and new photos. I might want to write something that could be useful about Yahoo! Pipes, but beyond ACN, I can't think of an outlet and even then the entry may be too short to be useful. This might be best handled as a round-up. (I just tried looking up the address of the Archaeological Computing Newsletter and it seems to have vanished from Glasgow's servers)

7. Reviews. Journals tend to review once and I can fully understand why, but we don't accept one review as the definitive opinion. Space is not an issue. I'd say thoughtful reviews of anything, even if its been reviewed a dozen times before should be welcome - if the reviewer is saying something new.

8. News Commentary. We've all seen news stories where the announcement leaves a huge unanswered question. We've also seen some of these stories accepted by others who may not be as familiar with the subject matter. A short commentary on the problems might have an effect on acceptance of an idea before everyone gets entrenched in their positions.

I think Bill is spot on with asking what is it for. If it is for academics then we should initially make sure we're hitting that target. That means that we cannot transfer everything and would be foolish to try. This is a shame in that it loses some of the essence of blogging. However the method of putting it together, the CC licensing and the rapidity of publishing will mean that it will reproduce some ot its slightly subversive spirit.

David Gill said...

Can I respond with some thoughts on citations? My 'History of the British School at Athens' posting is drawing on electronic resources (e.g. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) so that the 'citation' is the formal link to the article (but only if you have access via Athens password!). Full citations will appear in the final printed version.

Archaeologyknits said...

In the case of something like that, it seems appropriate to just add a citation at the end during editing, or to just put the URL in the text for the paper version.
In the end the issue of being fair seems more important than being overly critical.