[This is another post highlighting some of my thoughts in the build-up to the 'Transitions - changing your online persona as your real life changes' session at ScienceOnline09 this weekend. I was planning to post this a little earlier in the week, but then I got distracted - but you still have a couple of days to post your critiques of my ramblings.]
Whilst this is primarily a science-oriented blog, I do indulge in the occasional post about the trials and tribulations of academic life. This was actually one of those unplanned consequences that I talked about last week, and I did it for some of the same reasons that other academic bloggers do; to get my own thoughts straight, and to draw upon the perspectives and experiences and support of readers and other bloggers. There is, however a difference between me and a large proportion of the people who blog about academic issues in that I write under my own name. This situation does constrain me to a certain extent, both in terms of what I can write about, and how I can write about it. Things have to be a bit less personal – if someone in the lab annoys me, or my boss is being unreasonable about something. I can’t just vent my frustration about it with a quick online rant. That’s not to say that I can’t talk about actual incidents in my day-to-day life, but ideally I should be using them as a starting point for a more general discussion, and not focussing so much on the particular episode itself. Anyone who trawls through my archives will notice several examples of me probably failing to achieve this, but that’s certainly my aspiration.
However, in my experience the most effective academic bloggers are those who are willing to take a stand, and clearly state exactly what’s pissing them off, and just how pissed off they really are. That’s valuable, because it raises awareness – in the past couple of years, my eyes have been opened to problems that I had either missed or dismissed before – and also allows us all to connect the dots; it slowly becomes apparent that the incidents that have concerned you at your institution are not just one-off abberrations, but symptoms of more widespread structural problems – and that you’re not alone in noticing and being concerned about them. But here’s the issue: anonymity gives people the freedom to say things that need to be said, and might be risky to say otherwise; particularly given that the distribution of blogging academics is almost certainly strongly skewed towards the non-tenured side. Does that mean that I’m restricted from making a real contribution to the discussion of academic issues, or to working towards changing things for the better?
A couple of things encourage me to think not. Firstly, the existence of people like Kim, whose blog is full of insightful discussions of teaching and pedagogy, shows that it is possible. Secondly, one thing that struck me about the Aetogate affair was that much of the blogging about it, which was fairly critical of the way that it was handled, was by named bloggers – as can be seen if you look down Mike Taylor’s compilation. Although there was a bit of grumbling from the SVP ethics committee, I don’t think that there was too much blowback for it; it probably helped that on the whole, the discussion focussed on criticising the process, rather than getting personal.
Perhaps this provides at least a glimmering of how I can talk about issues and problems in the academic world without getting a damaging reputation as a trouble-maker. But I do wonder if that risk is over-rated; Julia has made the interesting observation that a lot of the people of our age getting involved with the running of SVP – sitting on committees, and things – are themselves bloggers. Perhaps blogging is just another outlet for people who have latent activist inclinations; in which case, even without the internet attention-whoring, I probably would have got a reputation for causing trouble anyway.
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