This question has been on my mind a lot this week. Largely because it occurred to me that I have yet to encounter a non-trivial answer to it. Sure, it’s easy to say academic blogging is blogging by academics. But what does this really tell us? Martin Weller has an interesting discussion along these lines in his book the Digital Scholar:
‘Scholarship’ is itself a rather old-fashioned term. Whenever I ask someone to think of scholarship they usually imagine a lone individual, surrounded by books (preferably dusty ones), frantically scribbling notes in a library. This is somewhat removed from the highly connected scholar, creating multimedia outputs and sharing these with a global network of peers. Scholarship is, though, a sufficiently broad term to encompass many different functions and so has the flexibility to accommodate new forms of practice. It is not only focused on teaching, or research, but also on a wide range of activities. In fact, a rather tautological definition of scholarship is that it is what scholars do. And a ‘scholar’ can be defined as a learned person or a specialist in a given branch of knowledge.
Traditionally we have tended to think of scholars as being academics, usually employed by universities. This is the main focus of this book; it is the changes to university and higher education practice that will form the main discussion and research. However, digital scholarship broadens this focus somewhat, since in a digital, networked, open world people become less defined by the institution to which they belong and more by the network and online identity they establish. Thus a well-respected digital scholar may well be someone who has no institutional affiliation. The democratisation of the online space opens up scholarship to a wider group, just as it opens up subjects that people can study beyond the curriculum defined by universities.
A simple definition of digital scholarship should probably be resisted, and below it is suggested that it is best interpreted as a shorthand term. As Wittgenstein argued with the definition of ‘game’ such tight definitions can end up excluding elements that should definitely be included or including ones that seem incongruous. A digital scholar need not be a recognised academic, and equally does not include anyone who posts something online. For now, a definition of someone who employs digital, networked and open approaches to demonstrate specialism in a field is probably sufficient to progress.
Similar ambiguities obtain with the term ‘academic blogging’. I guess my fear is that that, unless this is more widely recognised, certain possibilities about what it could be taken to entail might be foreclosed i.e. ‘academic blogging’ comes to be defined as only one of the many specific activities that are currently subsumed under this rather vague term. I think there’s a real need for empirical research into how academics are using blogging platforms – looking at their intentions behind the activity, the practical results of it and developing taxonomies to better capture how these tools are actually being used (as well as the relative frequency of these uses and their distribution across disciplines) rather than taking the categories already in circulation as being heuristically useful for understanding this emerging field of activity. My fear is that the term ‘blogging’, as well as having all sorts of negative cultural connotations, actually obscures more than it reveals when used as an interpretive category.