I’ve been blogging for a few months now (see my archive — I realized I had enough posts to make it worthwhile), and as I finally decided it was time pay some attention to what my site looks like (this is still a work in progress, so there will be further changes in the coming weeks), I thought it was also worth thinking about what I’m doing and why. It’s still, in my field of Russian literary studies at least, a fairly unusual thing for an academic to do, and a few people who’ve asked me about it recently have seemed rather dubious, suggesting it’s just a time-sink, or that putting ideas into the public domain rather than saving them for my published work is going to be detrimental to me in some way. But my experience of blogging tells me otherwise.
Although I’m now learning fast, I’ve never considered myself particularly tech-savvy — I probably shouldn’t admit to these things, but I don’t tweet, and I’m a still a facebook refusenik (although I waver every time one of my friends asks me about it) — but I started out with two vague, undefined feelings: 1) that having a web presence would be a good thing, allowing me to engage with a different type of audience, and probably a larger audience, and 2) that digital technologies offer academics new ways of working, and new ways of presenting research, which are potentially very exciting. I’m sure I’m not the only academic who sometimes finds the standard form of scholarly writing restricting and not entirely appropriate for the sort of things I want to talk about. Being forced to write in linear form about ideas that are associative in nature, not linear, has always been a problem for me. The most difficult aspect of my work is something I can only describe as the feeling of needing to find a way of saying everything at once, but it took me a long time to get from that to realizing the answer was to explore different ways of writing. I’m fully aware that being able to discuss an associative process in linear form is one of the skills of literary analysis, but the question has rarely been asked about whether forms of non-linear analysis might produce different or more interesting results. Starting blogging was one way of beginning an exploration of that question.
There were a couple of other things about my practice that didn’t feel quite right and which I felt blogging might address. One was the fact that I have too many ideas, and that most of them simply end up being scribbled down in a notebook, never to see the light of day again. The post I wrote on the Ashes and Diamonds’ production of Crime and Punishment is a good example — it’s obviously connected to my work on Dostoevsky, but previously I wouldn’t have any real opportunity to write about it, so would probably have eventually forgotten about it. By blogging, I found a way to develop the ideas I had beyond my initial response, which proved useful in unexpected ways. It acts as a space where I can think about things without them necessarily having to turn into full-blown research topics, it keeps them in the air, and if I do want to do some research on them at a later date, they’ve not sunk without trace. If in the mean time other people are inspired to take up some of the ideas, I don’t have a real problem with that, as long as I’m acknowledged. I’ve already got more ideas than I’ll ever be able to use myself. The notion that putting things on the internet is an invitation to intellectual theft is not, I think, valid. I use a Creative Commons license which allows fair use with attribution. Obviously there may be people out there who are prepared to ignore that, but does traditional academic practice really provide complete protection? The process of paper publication may offer some degree of security, but the whole peer review process — especially for research grant applications — is dependent on a great deal of trust. I have a nasty feeling that some of my ideas from an unsuccessful grant application a few years ago were nabbed, but I can’t prove anything, and I know I’m not the only person who’s ever been in that position. I suppose after that experience I see the visibility of the public domain as a form of protection in itself. Perhaps that’s naive, but I’m just not that precious about a lot of my ideas (though just to reiterate: I do want them acknowledged). There are, admittedly, certain things I won’t put on my website, mainly because I’m preparing them for publication elsewhere.
Another problem is that as a hard-working academic, I don’t have enough time to do my research or get any writing done, particularly during teaching terms, when my average yearly output is one or two book reviews and a couple of conference/seminar papers. Pretty much the only time I have to do any sustained work is the summer, which on the one hand I find very frustrating, and on the other means that when I finally do get time to write, it takes me ages to get back into the swing of things. One of the things I’ve found really useful about blogging is that it’s got me back into the habit of writing regularly, and so far this actually seems to have made the return to my ‘more academic’ writing much more fluent. Maybe that’s coincidence, but at the very least it’s made the process enjoyable again, and not something to be feared — and it was getting that way, after some recent blood-out-of-a-stone experiences. Nor do I view blogging as wasting time I could be using more profitably on my ‘proper’ work, as my UCL colleague Melissa Terras suggested, outlining possible arguments against academics blogging in her reply to Claire Ross’s post Is this blog damaging my academic reputation. Most of the time I spend on my blog would otherwise be dead time — that hour in the evening when I’ve got the urgent teaching/admin tasks out of the way, and I almost certainly wouldn’t be writing a few sentences of my latest article (I need sustained time for writing, I can’t do anything worthwhile in an hour, particularly when I’m exhausted), but staring at some crap on the TV or reading a distinctly unimproving book (I habitually work 6 days a week; I need a bit of down time). And today, for example, the only thing I’ve neglected to write this post is the housework (and frankly, any excuse would have done). Strangely enough, I find the times when I’m busiest are the times it’s easiest to find something to write about. Not having the opportunity to get any sustained work done seems to act as a spur to produce something useful in the time that is available. I view both thinking and writing as worthwhile processes, and my blog provides me with a chance to do both when my job seems to prevent them. I will, I think, have to be careful over the summer and make sure it doesn’t intrude on work on my current projects, but so far it’s proved a valuable addition to my term-time work practices.