The value of blogging for part-time PhD students

One of the more elusive benefits of blogging has been the implications for my professional identity. As a part-time PhD student, without funding but committed to an academic career trajectory (albeit at times waveringly), I found myself engaged in a diverse array of short term roles within the academy. Some of these had clear relevance to my nascent identity as a researcher but most did not, requiring competencies I already possessed by virtue of my research training or helping me develop ones which might in future be beneficial to me as a researcher; though never quite reflecting the core concerns that motivated my work while nonetheless being close enough to them that I could rarely put these questions out my mind in the way that would be expected in paid work engaged in for consistently and straight-forwardly instrumental reasons. The professional socialisation that ensues from such circumstances is inherently refractory, shaping one’s professional identity in all manner of ways but without the easy unfolding of a narrative that makes sense of the occupational trajectory that is unfolding. This is far from a unique experience within the neoliberal university, as the systematic casualization of academic labour combines with the idealised notion of scholarship as a noble calling to produce an intersection of commitment and precarity with all manner of harmful consequences.

It is in this context that these new communication tools become so significant, with the possibilities afforded by them being misrepresented when conceived as something external to the everyday lives of those working within the academy. Obviously these are instruments which can function to expand the scope of dissemination activities but construing them solely in such terms misses an important set of questions concerning the implications of social media for academic identity. In my own experience personal blogging helped integrate what would have otherwise been a fragmented professional identity, perpetually divided as it has been between different roles and different institutions. Sustaining a personal blog inevitably invites reflection on one’s own experiences, though of course such a use is not dictated by the technology itself. In doing so, it helps imbue those experiences with a coherency which they might otherwise lack, addressing the perennial question of how present commitments relate to potential futures.

The process of using the blog in this way has also led to an increasing awareness of the types of use I make of it, reflected in an initially inchoate working taxonomy which has emerged in my own psyche as to the various tasks which are involved in the development of ideas and the production of academic work. The process of sustaining the blog as an ‘open notebook’ has inculcated a sensitivity to workflow and craft which I had previously lacked. The claim here is a straightforward one: a change of tools can provoke a greater awareness of the uses to which such tools can be put. However this could easily be misconstrued as postulating an untenable juxtaposition of habitual analogue practice to reflexive digital practice. Instead I wish to offer a much less contentious proposition: digital tools offer a diverse range of opportunities for rethinking the practice of research and, in doing so, unavoidably raise questions in virtue of their novelty which can lead to a newfound reflexivity about the means and ends of practice. To make sense of such a claim, it is crucial that we distinguish between the tool used and the purposes to which it is put because the former may be new but the latter manifestly is not. For instance one of the most prominent explorations of the practice of journaling can be found in the explanation by C. Wright Mills of how keeping a file or a journal,

“encourages you to capture ‘fringe-thoughts’: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience […] by keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape.”

What concerns Mills here is the cultivation of attentiveness as an aspect of intellectual craft. Through the considered adoption of specific habits of self-reflection, enacted via the medium of the ‘file’, it becomes possible to more fully and creatively engage with one’s environment and to develop the fruits of this engagement in a productive manner. On such a view, the development of ideas is seen as something which cannot be segregated into particular tracts of space and time without proving injurious to the creative faculties on which such work depends. Instead, Mills offers a view of intellectual work as dependent upon a lived engagement with the world and one which, if creativity is allowed to emerge, often overflows the conventional boundaries that society places on ‘work’. On such a view the ‘file’ cannot be adequately understood as an external record simply used to record ideas for future retrieval (though of course it does serve this purpose). Instead, it is seen as constitutive of the process through which such ideas emerge prior to being ‘recorded. For Mills the ‘file’ is the medium through which academic work becomes intellectual craft and, with this, a life encompassing academic labour becomes a life of intellectual craft which may (or may not) contingently be supported by employment within the academy.

Given that talk of ‘craft’ may divide sociological opinion, we might simply reframe this in terms of writing in the most encompassing sense of the term. Not just writing for publication but all the prior working through and recording of developing thoughts which runs prior to more formal writing. As Howard Becker succinctly observes, “by the time we come to write something, we have done a lot of thinking”. In highlighting the degree to which “[w]e have an investment in everything we have already worked out that commits us to a point of view and a way of handling the problem” Becker aims to help his readers overcome the anxieties which failing to recognise this so often provokes. Once we see writing as something intertwined with a broader process of intellectual engagement than the disabling perfectionism which can thrive in circumstances of ‘pluralistic ignorance’ (where the difficulties of similarly placed others are rendered invisible by their privatised working practices) begins to abate: it helps remove the pressure otherwise attached to the writing process by repudiating the myth of ex nihilo creation.

If we accept Becker’s diagnosis of the psychology of the writing process then we can be begin to see personal blogging as an important spur to reflexivity. It very literally serves to clarify where we stand in relation to our own work. Through regular blogging we come to register what Becker, in his discussion of free-writing, describes as “what you would like to say, what all your earlier work on the topic or project has already led you to believe”. Through the iteration which characterises engaged blogging, themes begin to emerge through repetition; some explicitly, as deliberate ways of formulating or categorising ideas, others less so, as repetition gradually reveals the convergence or overlap between superficially distinct interests or enthusiasms. Blogging of this form, as an engaged practice sustained over time, can be conducive to what we might think of as ‘non-linear creativity’: an open-ended creative process generative of emergent structure in often surprise and unpredictable ways. The humanistic psychologist Carl Roger conveys something of this in his account of the transformation experienced by a client in his creative work,

“It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outline, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

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