digital futures, educational futures, sociological futures
7 ways to use a blog as a research journal
Recording particularly powerful extracts of texts to which I might wish to refer later. This can serve a practical purpose, constituting a form of reference management which both indexes a source amongst a heterogeneous range of other materials and foregrounds a particular extract of the text. This transforms the status of the archived source and, in my experience, increases the ease with which one is able to later connect it with other ideas and artifacts. It also serves a communicative process which can, if the extracts are posted ‘in real time’, constitute a form of live-blogging. This form of post can help others navigate the academic knowledge system, with quoted extracts constituting an alternative to abstracts. The context provided by the author of a blog having chosen to share an extract from a source can, presuming knowledge of their interests and work, help elucidate connections between disparate literatures and disciplines which might otherwise go unrecognized e.g. a sociologist of personal life introducing other sociologists to work within human geography that has a similar focus through posting extracts on a blog.
Capturing ideas and insights which occur, usually when engaging with the ideas of others. What I would have once written down in a notebook or scrawled in the margins of a book I instead record on my blog. The knowledge that others will read the ideas inculcates a desire to fully explicate it so as to leave it at least potentially comprehensible to others. My note taking otherwise tends to take the contracted and personalized form of inner speech (Archer, 2007). This limits the utility of these notes when it comes to academic writing, leaving a gap between the analogue record of the thought and the mode of articulation required in academic writing. In contrast the digital record on my blog avoids this gap by already being articulated in something approaching the manner which would be required to include the thought in an article or chapter. Furthermore, such indexed, tagged and searchable posts usually include an extract from the text which sparked the idea in question. Most of the posts that fall into this category result from an engagement with literature but by no means all. Blogging can also provide an outlet for ideas sparked by face-to-face conversation and can, in many cases, extend those conversations across contingent barriers of time and space.
Brainstorming sessions in response to particular ideas or around particular themes. The articulation of a whole sequence of connected ideas, usually in bullet point form, which have begun to emerge in my mind as a potential cluster. This has often been a result of particularly stimulating conferences or public engagement events and the blog, as an immediately available public forum to record ideas, provides a unique and valuable outlet for the sort of creative ‘buzz’ which can ensue. To use a personal example: I gave a TEDx talk a number of years ago at the University of Warwick. This is a format structured around “ideas worth spreading”, necessitating the distillation of a research agenda into the core elements that excite and concern, with the caveat that the audience members are unlikely to be familiar with either your discipline or the topic in question. This process of ‘translation’ from my own sociological language of talking and thinking about my research area of asexuality and sexual culture already proved extremely thought-provoking, allowing me to step back and detach myself from an area in which I have been deeply immersed. The talk itself and subsequent questions and post-event discussion were enormously enriching, with the effect of detaching a number of lines of inquiry from the disciplinary and cognitive structures within and through which I had been habitually approach the underlying questions. The result was to leave the ‘familiar seeming strange’ in a way which inculcated a newfound and enriching energy into my interest in the topic area. However it was the capacity the blog afforded to subsequently go home and spend an hour capturing each and every one of the thoughts now bubbling through my mind in a document (“11 random thoughts about asexuality studies”) which allowed this creative energy to find an expression which it would not have otherwise had. My contention is not that such moments of creative ‘flow’ are rare in academic life or that blogging is the only productive outlet for them (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). Instead I am arguing that the particular characteristics of a blog (e.g. freedom from institutional structures, stylistic informality and its accessibility via tablets and smart phones) render it a particular congenial medium for the expression of such creative energies, given they tend to occur in an intensely situational and contingent manner. Furthermore, the indexing function of the blog then allows these ideas to function as an open archive. Permitting easy and instant reacquaintance has obvious practical benefit for the research process but these ideas also have a life of their own (Beer, 2013a). They provoke reactions in others, stimulate dialogues and occasionally impinge upon the author’s own life via the reactions they provoke in other people. This action takes place while such notes are either ‘in storage’ waiting for further use by the author or, as often may be the case, entirely forgotten by the author. This autonomy has always been a characteristic possessed by books and journal articles, which both circulate and retain the capacity to be understood independently from their author (Archer, 1988). However blogging as ‘continuous publishing’ generalises this status from the finished ‘products’ of the research process to the continual outputs ensuing from iterative processes of knowledge production.
Longer form reflections on particular topics. These often take the form of reflections on practice (e.g. “reflections on editing books and journals”) but can sometimes be explorations of particular substantive issues. In such cases the post then sits nearer to the formal presentation of these thoughts. In this sense it could be thought of as sitting ‘between’ brainstorming or capturing ideas on the blog and formal academic writing. This might pose complications because of a potential tension between writing of a style that might be deemed suitable for more traditional forms of scholarly publishing and the question of how, if at all, it is directly reproduced in journal articles or book chapters. Does this constitute a form of ‘wasting’ the writing on a ‘mere’ blog (Mills, 1959, p. 218)? In a discussion of book reviews Beer (2013b) offers the interesting suggestion that the lack of any “describable or measurable payoff” means that the time spent on such forms of production almost constitutes a form of resistance “against the constraints and expectations of contemporary higher education”. If this point can be sustained with reference to book reviews then it is difficult to see how it could not also be extended to other forms of writing: those approached with equivalent care and exhibiting equivalent quality to that which the author might otherwise submit to a journal, which are nonetheless intended solely for a blog and will not be directly reproduced. It constitutes a form of performatively grappling with the internalised values of the audit culture which could, perhaps, be seen as a form of proto-therapy (i.e. learning to take pleasure in ‘wasting’ work on a blog) for those who feel pathologically affected by the instrumentalizing malaise of the contemporary academy (Gill, 2008).
Sharing ‘homeless’ bits of academic work that have been cut from papers. My own tendency to desire that I ‘save’ bits of writing that have been cut from papers and chapters by posting them on my blog sits uneasily with my comments in the previous section as to the subversive value of ‘wasting’ academic work through publishing outside the remit of processes of credentialisation and auditing. However I suspect a dual meaning characterises the term ‘waste’ here. On the one hand, one could ‘waste’ through self-publishing on a blog a piece of writing that could form a sizable portion of a journal article which one could leverage for instrumental gain. On the other hand, one could ‘waste’ a piece of writing that was formerly intended for public consumption by extracting it from a manuscript and saving it in a private file or, indeed, deleting it altogether. This later sense of waste seems less problematic, in so far as that it expresses an attentiveness to the autonomy of our cultural creations and a desire to let them ‘out in the world’ to take what action they may (Beer, 2013a).
Developing conference presentations. Increasingly my habitual form of preparation for conference presentations or longer talks is to produce a brainstorming blog post of the sort described above and then use this as a basis upon which to develop a set of slides. I then upload the slides via the Slideshare service and embed them into the original blog post. Having done this, I often choose not to use the slides on an OHP but instead draw on them as notes. My experience has been that the iterative method (blog post → slides → presentation) helps collate ideas in my mind in a way which is inherently structured rather than, as was my previous experience, using the format of powerpoint slides as a framework into which I attempted to ‘squeeze’ a relatively disparate and unstructured cluster of ideas.
Planning forthcoming writing projects. This is the aspect of my blogging which I suspect many would find most questionable and I have grappled with it myself. As part of a commitment to ‘openness’ I plan my future projects out in the open. I oscillate between a worry that I am being deeply naive by doing this and a belief that the processes described by Burrows (2008) have inculcated a deep sense of incipient paranoia within contemporary academic life. The truth likely lies somewhere between the two polarised views. I recognise the affordances which my own position entails for such a practice, in that I work in two relatively obscure areas which likely curtails the ability or willingness of anyone to ‘steal’ ideas from my blog. Nonetheless, I remain sceptical about the origin of such fears, at least assuming we exclude work that is commercially sensitive in some way. This may be a function of some underlying naivete on my own part but, equally, it seems important to consider the possibility of latent conflicts between academic habitus and the culture of openess (Gill, 2008; Weller, 2011).