Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Blogging and the Academy

I've been thinking about this post for a couple weeks now, and have finally decided to just bang it out, stream-of-consciousness style, in homage to my bloggy forerunners.

The whole blog aspect of this seminar has been eating at me this we started using it. Despite feeling comfortable discussing the material in class (and I should that this is probably the best seminar I've been in here, discussion-wise), posting about it to the blog has me travelling sideways on a two-way street. My perceptions of blogging (or of "informal, online discussion," whatever) and of academic discourse are operating at cross purposes. My primary intent when posting to the blog is to further understanding (either my own or that of others) in an academic sense. This brings to bear all sorts of Postmanian issues of the nature of the written word and of information processing, etc., which don't connect with my notions of how blogging is produced.

As an example, I just wrote a post to my own blog comparing Jeb Bush's Presidential prospects in 2008 with the portrayal of Ted Kennedy in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. It's relatively well written, I think, but was certainly not labored over, rigorously edited or researched in any way more than cursory. (And a sidenote, I didn't type out the full title of the book in my original post, but felt compelled to do so here.) It's full of snarky language, partisan broadsides and a bit of profanity; it is representative of the kind of language I find on blogs writ large, but not the kind of writing I would feel good about posting here.

I think that, for me, this is exacerbated by the fact that I'm very unfamiliar with the material being covered in this course. (I wonder, actually, if this unfamiliarity contributes to the liveliness of our discussions.) I'm much less able to make explicit connections to my existing knowledge with this type of new terrain than I am with, say, the material from the party system seminar I took last fall. This is partly due, I suspect, to the quasi-academic nature of the setting -- we all know "there are no stupid questions," etc., but let's be honest, none of us want to post something we think is brilliant, only to realize it's based entirely on a misreading of what "GIS" stands for. I seeing the connections more and more as the semester moves forward, but generally speaking, there's a negative correlation between the extent to which a piece focuses on geography and how much I think I can do with it before we discuss it in class.

Finally, I think that we, as a group, are not really sure what to do with this blog as of yet -- there's a code to it that we haven't cracked. Each week, we see a flurry of activity on Tuesday and Wednesday, a handful of comments, maybe a follow-up, and then five days of nothing much. Because we're mostly new to this method of discussion, we don't know how to most optimally use it. (This is kind of a deja vu thing for me -- back when I was taking Intro to Graphic Design about 10 years ago, we did an online class discussion experiment with something called Daedelus, which was a complete disaster.) I think that we should really think about better ways to utilize the blog, especially since our class discussions are so fruitful and give us so much to build on.

My proposal is a two-parter, one short-term and one long. First, I think we might be well served to focus some of our weekly posting energy on post-class discussion, rather than pre-class point-raising. I think that we take the ideas raised in class, which will already have undergone an organic discussion and extension, and spend some time afterwards applying our existing knowledge, we will come up with some interesting things that we can discuss further on the blog, but which would get short shrift if brought up in the next class session. Our Tues/Weds posts are good, but given the thorough intros by Greg and the week's presenter(s), it seems a little unwieldly to have a partial agenda laid out by the blog, which we don't always wind up addressing completely.

The long-term is a switch away from Blogger. I suspect one reason blog activity is so temporally limited is that Blogger can be kind of a pain to deal with. The dashboard site decides not to load, posts and comments sometimes disappear, we lack features like post truncation on the first page (which would be really nice for this post), and so on. Given that class-oriented blogs are probably on the wax, rather than the wane, maybe we ought to talk to Brian about setting up a server with Movable Type somewhere in the department. MT is only one option, but it's one that's easy to install, configure and maintain, and version 2.661 (not the latest, but still quite effective) is 100% free. I use it to run my site, and my wife just launched a site for her business that's run through MT as well. However, any locally operated option would take care of Blogger's major problems.

If blogging's major defining characteristic is self-reference (and I tend to think it is), this is probably as good a time and place as any to discuss this stuff. Comments?


Greg D. said...

Aaron, I think you raise some really great points about both the technical/interface limits of Blogger and about our collective willingness/familiarity with blogging as a productive sidebar to an interdisciplinary graduate seminar. I'm careful with that description because I think, as you suggest, things would unfold both on blog and in class a bit differently if, say, ours was a more "straightforward" mass comm seminar (with more familiar topics, authors, theories, concepts, whatever) or if it was an undergraduate seminar where students (and faculty) held different expectations about the level at which we wrestle with the material (and the amount of work we put into the effort). I'll add one more: I'm still figuring out at what level I should be chiming in on the blog as the instructor/mentor/guide/authority person. You'll notice I've been keeping to the background here; in my J201 blogging days I was right out in the forefront, by contrast.

I'd be delighted to help sponsor an effort to set up our own J-School Moveable Type. My only advice (I just said this in class but I'll reiterate) is that, if you gather a posse of graduate students gung-ho to do this, we get you some official funding and recognition and power for putting together a shared resource that will have clear pedagogical and research benefits unique to a mass comm department. (You just KNOW there's ample unused funding out there for smart technology projects that we can find, right?)

Greg D. said...

Well, speak of the Devil!

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