Cyberspace, the ‘Blog’ and Research Writing

Post by Rae Dufty-Jones

Writing and Space Series: Post 3/3

… ‘our writing equipment takes part of the forming of our thoughts’ (Nietzsche, 2005 in Kitchin et al., 2013: 68).

I like the above quote from Nietzche (and I suspect that the reason why Kitchin et al. selected it as quote in their paper) is that it argues that what we write with (pen and paper or word processor) and what we disseminate our writing through (paper or a computer screen) are not passive mediums through which our writing is produced and received but are instead significant actants that play an integral role in influencing how our ideas develop and are understood by our readers. As Isin and Ruppert (2015: 2) succinctly put it ‘we not only do things with words but do words with things’. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of how the Internet and ‘cyberspace’ are changing research writing practices and products. Of particular interest to this series on writing and space is the way the various technologies associated with cyberspace have been variously heralded as a means of overcoming space-time barriers to how ideas/knowledge are disseminated.

In this last post I want to consider how cyberspace is changing the relationship between space and research writing and how best to approach and understand these changes. I approach this through the example of the ‘blog’ in academia (where much has already been written) and then more widely consider how space is understood in these reflections before arguing that space needs be better theorised and accounted for.

What are blogs?

In finding a definition for what a blog is Wikipedia has once again come to the rescue. A truncation of ‘weblog’, a blog is an informal/conversational discussion, made up of discreet entries called posts, published on the Internet. Developed in the late 1990s (made possible with the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies that facilitated user-generated content on the Internet) blogs have rapidly evolved from being the work of mostly single authors or small groups of authors to the more recent manifestation of the “multi-author blogs” (or MABs) which involve posts being written by large numbers of authors and professionally edited (The Conversation is an example of a MAB). So pervasive has the practice of this genre of writing become that the word ‘blog’ is not only employed as a noun (e.g. ‘This is my blog’) but also as a verb (e.g. ‘I have been blogging about …’).

Rae blogAcademics have been early adopters of the blog as a medium and genre of writing and there is an emerging critical literature around how we use blogs in our academic lives. Academic blogging ranges from the private blog of an individual academic who may be writing under a pseudonym to the MABs now being pursued by institutions and publishing houses. Regardless of who writes them, how they are written, and for what purposes, blogs are an increasingly important academic practice. Blogs also offer a window onto how the Internet and ‘cyberspace’ are changing how we form our scholarly identities, produce knowledges and engage with audiences (Kitchin et al., 2013; Kirkup, 2010).

The pros and the cons of academic blogging

There are a variety of arguments put forward for why academics do or should blog. One of the most pervasive is that blogging provides access to new audiences (Mewburn and Thomson, 2013; Kitchin et al., 2013; Gregg, 2006). While this is certainly true, the extent to which academic blogging is directed to new audiences remains questionable. As Mewburn and Thomson (2013) found in their assessment of 100 academic blogs, most academic bloggers were writing primarily for other academics, followed by researchers, students, professionals and finally the ‘educated public’.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. By blogging (however regularly or irregularly that may be) we are at least practicing to write in new, concise, conversational, and (hopefully) accessible ways. We may also be using blogs to simply develop a more regular/habitual writing practice (Walker, 2006). Indeed as Kirkup (2010: 82) found through a series of interviews with academic bloggers ‘the idea of an audience is more important … than an actual audience, and practicing a blogging identity, or voice for themselves [the academic bloggers] was more important than having others listen’. This is especially the case for graduate students and early career researchers. Blogging offers a (relatively) low-risk opportunity to practice their scholarly identities in an informal, but accessible, outlet that doesn’t subscribe to the same academic hierarchies of more traditional modes of publication (Gregg, 2006). While this cohort of academics should always be wary of investing too much time into blogging Kirkup (2010) found that there was a strong indirect relationship between the writing people did in their blogs and other professional academic writing. Similarly Kamler and Thomson (2004: 196) also recommend that graduate students and early career researchers ‘write outside of the dissertation structure’ as this ‘helps in the process of clarifying argument, as well as doing important reputation work’.

Gregg (2009) makes the argument that writing blogs designed for academic audiences is particularly important for graduate students and early career researchers as blogs allow for this academic cohort to organise against some of the less desirable aspects of a neoliberal higher education sector. According to Gregg (2009: 480)

By virtue of their position, junior faculty and PhD bloggers are structurally prevented from influencing many of the decisions immediately affecting their work lives. In this situation, their readership communities offer a form of solace and support as they struggle up the career ladder, while the blogs themselves provide resources for others considering a similar move. This collegiality and solidarity in virtual space may yet translate offline to form the basis for real institutional pressure, to create better working conditions for junior faculty.

Even if academic blogs are not reaching significantly wider audiences the mere practice of blogging allows academics to make genuine efforts to bridge the ‘linguistic apartheid’ of academia; responding to wider criticisms of ‘the apoliticizing effects of [academic] professionalism’ that laments both the decline of public intellectualism and the quality of academic writing (Gregg, 2006: 154 and 149; see also Castree, 1999).

However, there are also a number of risks associated with blog writing. First, this kind of writing, while having low barriers to entry does not mean that it is ‘easy’. Because of their public nature blogs are not suitable for writing drafts – they demand care and effort to produce a quality you will be prepared to have remain as part of your digital profile. This is especially the case where academics (particularly doctoral candidates and junior faculty) are writing posts that are critical of their institutional circumstances. The airing of complaints around the higher education sector may be cathartic, build collegiality and may even produce further action around such issues but Halavais (2006) argues that this should be pursued carefully and be balanced against the risk of the potential for a post to damage reputations and careers. While universities currently have very limited control over what academics blog about, this situation is being challenged and is, concomitantly, changing rapidly (Mewburn and Thomson, 2013). Gregg (2009: 480) also cautions about being too optimistic about the political potential of blogs arguing that academic bloggers ‘who are content to leave their work-related complaints in a virtual realm, disconnected from the agents responsible for their plight, only have themselves to blame for a lack of structural change’.

The ‘risks’ of blogging also exist in how this type of writing is valued by colleagues and institutions. A number of authors have pointed to the fact that blogs do not (currently) replace the traditional publication. As Graham (2013: 79) sagely points out ‘while our tools have changed, and the links between academic knowledge and broader publics are simultaneously being reconfigured, the core governance mechanisms of academia haven’t’. Blogs are argued to not be rigorous enough, to encourage fast – rather than deep and reflective – writing and to not be as durable or as accessible as more traditional academic publication outlets (Walker, 2006). For the doctoral student and early career researcher the blog can consume both ideas and time that might be better used in the pursuit of those writing products that are ‘peer reviewed’ and thus recognised as ‘excellent’ in university and government auditing systems (Gregg, 2006; Kirkup, 2010). This presents a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation: where you’re either succumbing to the strictures and expectations of the neoliberal university or you’re irreparably damaging your career by not giving sufficient attention and time to doing writing that counts.

Regardless of the risks and uncertainties, blogs should be regarded as one of the future tools of academia, presenting academics with new opportunities as well as new disruptions to how our writing is done and valued (Kitchin et al., 2013; Kirkup, 2010). What I would like to do with this discussion however is consider the role of space in this type of writing. Does space become less relevant in writing published on the Internet? If not, how do we understand the relationship between space, cyberspace and research writing?

Does cyberspace annihilate the spatial from the practice and production of our research writing?

In the analyses of the effects that cyberspace is having on the practice and production of research writing little consideration has been given to the way we understand the spatial in these practices. Like pedagogies of research writing, at best the spatial sometimes sits on the periphery of these analyses but is never theorised extensively. In many of the critical analyses around academic blogging cyberspace is accounted for and approached as a space that exists separately and independently of the physical world in which we occupy. For example Halavais (2006: 124) describes blogging as offering a ‘third place’ for academic discourse; an ‘electronic version of the coffee house and the academic conference’. Similarly both Gregg (2009) and Mewburn and Thomson (2013) point to the way that blogging creates a space outside of the traditional university. Mewburn and Thomson (2013: 1116) describe this as a type of ‘outstitutional space/time’. Related to the idea that blogging creates a new space, is that cyberspace generally, and blogging specifically, offers academics and their writing a way of overcoming the frictions of space and time. For instance Mewburn and Thomson (2013: 1116) describe academic communities of blogging practice as representing a ‘virtual staff room’. However, ‘Unlike actual staff rooms, blogging is of course asynchronous, global and not confined to one location, and also available 24 hours a day’ (Mewburn and Thomson, 2013: 1116). Similarly, Walker (2006: 127) argued that her blog allowed her to ‘circumvent the power structures of academia and geography’.

However, a number of authors are critical of this bifurcated way of approaching cyberspace and physical space (Isin and Ruppert, 2015; Graham, 1998; Graham, 2008). For Isin and Ruppert (2015: 28) the pervasiveness of the separation between ‘real’ space and cyberspace carries a baggage that urgently requires questioning. Problematically, the binary distinction between space and cyberspace produces notions of cyberspace as being both spaceless and/or unaffected by space. In doing so, this binary division actually serves to conceal the complex relations between cyberspace and space, place and society (Graham, 1998), while also presenting issues – such as bridging the ‘digital divide’ – as being simply a matter of placing people in ‘front of connected terminals’ (Graham, 2011: 221).

These authors instead argue for cyberspace to be understood as relational. Such an approach allows us to recognise that when we engage with the Internet we remain subjects with histories and geographies. It is these histories and geographies that determine in innumerable ways our access to and visibility in cyberspace. For Isin and Ruppert (2015) cyberspace should be understood as a space of relations between and among bodies acting through the Internet.

Cyberspace is a space like social space, cultural space, economic space, or psychological space. … Acting through the Internet, making connections with others, is a new condition of our lives that adds to but does not displace or supplant other ways of acting in social or cultural spaces in which we are embedded (Isin and Ruppert, 2015: 41).

So what does this mean for how we approach the relationship between cyberspace, space and research writing? First we need to recognise that as academic bloggers we do not simply leave our geographies (and histories) behind as we enter the blogosphere. Indeed, those who have critically reflected on the role of the academic blog have begun to expressed a sensibility about this. For instance Gregg (2006: 156) found that her geographical positioning resulted in those blogging from ‘less peripheral/parochial locations’ giving her unsolicited ‘guidance or correction’ or assuming that she needed ‘encouragement and support for the same reasons’. Gregg (2006) also found that her Australian training in Gender Studies provided her with a different feminist perspective and politics in her blog posts than if she had studied elsewhere in the world. Likewise, in their review of academic bloggers Mewburn and Thomson (2013: 1107-1108) reflected that when watching the blog map ‘tiny points of light flicker across the continents – yet some of them notably Africa, South America and parts of Asia, remain almost completely dark’ forcefully reminding them of the histories and geographies that determine individuals’ access and visibility on the academic blogosphere.

These are important insights, but as with the case of pedagogies of research writing, I believe that we need to give the spatial much more serious consideration when critical engaging with the way that cyberspace is changing our how we practice, produce and consume research writing. I agree with Graham (2013) regarding the need to be both cautious as well as challenge representations of academic blogging as ‘deterritorialised’. While there are indeed many more people with access to the Internet and engaged in new relationships that are only made possible through cyberspace, it is important to be aware that these are mediated by those individuals’ histories and geographies. For Graham (2013: 79)

A range of social, economic, political and technological factors conspire to allow some voices to be much louder, present and visible than others. The gatekeepers may therefore have changed, but it remains that the creation and dissemination of information are highly socially and spatially uneven.

In addition, I think it would also be worth being more mindful of how cyberspace can enhance those more proximate academic social relations. The scale of focus on the impacts of academic blogging is often directed to an ever expanding, global one. Yet Gibson and Gibbs (2013) point out that while international connections were an objective of their group’s engagement with the academic blog they also pointed to the proximate collegial connections that blogging had produced for postgraduates, ECRs and more established academics.

The need for a spatial understanding to be integrated into our reflections around cyberspace and research writing.

Writing this series of three blog posts has been revelatory in terms of my own research writing practice. The opportunity to write about ideas and concepts without the constraints (principally my internal editor) that come with writing for more formal publishing outlets has allowed me to experience a creativity and pleasure in my writing that, if I am honest, I haven’t experienced for some time. Blogging around the topic of research writing and space has also given me a different perspective on how to approach this topic. This series started out as one blog (the second one) but as I started to write it I realised it was really three (and given the length of #2 and #3 I wonder whether I could have broken it down further). The technology of the blog (and I mean this broadly not just the computer technology that allows blogs but also the blog as a writing ‘technology’ in the Foucaultian sense) has been immensely useful to how I have practiced my research writing and my scholarly identity.

However I would not want my representation of my experience of blogging to suggest that somehow my cyber research writing practices are aspatial. They’re not. Multiple places and social relations have come into play. For example, the requirement of my study leave to not be on my home campus (or at least keep my presence there to a minimum) has meant that my research writing practices have been taken into new spaces and new scholarly social relations. Accessing one of my study leave hosts, the University of Wollongong, has involved taking a 2-hour train ride to and from the coastal regional city of Wollongong. While skirting the coastline between Sydney and Wollongong, I would use these two-hour train rides to read, write and talk around this topic (many thanks to Chris Gibson for spending some of those journeys talking through and nutting out different aspects of my ideas around this). Similarly, my notions around this particular research project on ‘writing and space’ relied on the enthusiastic and constructively critical engagement of the University of Wollongong AUSCCER members when I first floated these ideas in a seminar I presented in August this year.

It often goes with out saying that cyberspace has, and continues to, radically change how we do and produce research writing. We need critical reflections on how cyberspace not only mediates but also constitutes our research writing and academic knowledges. However, these understandings of cyberspace and research writing need to extend to the role of space and place in these relations. If we fail to do this our reflections on and potential responses to this new way of performing our academic identities are likely to become ‘reductionist, deterministic, over simplistic and stale’ (Graham, 1998: 167; Isin and Ruppert, 2015). The academic social relations and scholarly identities that are constituted through cyberspace and the new forms of research writing made possible through information technologies remain deeply connected to the histories and geographies of individuals and institutions. When it comes to cyberspace and research writing, space (still) matters.



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