Beware of the blog

Anyone looking for a snapshot of the way digital communication is accepted (or not) as a viable part of the traditional scholarly process should hie, forthwith, to Ulises Ali Mejias’s discussion on his Ideant blog: “The Blog as Dissertation Literature Review?” and a followup post.

Mejias is a doctoral candidate specializing in education and technology, so it’s quite understandable that he chooses to ponder the academic value of social software on his blog. And the payoff is vivid: he draws two critical comments from the authors of the article he most engages, “Scholars Before Researchers: On the Centrality of the Dissertation Literature Review in Research Preparation” (2005).

The argument is lively enough — mercifully light on eduspeak — and I won’t spill cyberink retracing it completely. Mejias thinks about the function of that fine old ground-clearing of dissertations, the literature review, and argues for the efficacy of doing it within the framework of a blog. Why? Blogs are dynamic, flexibly tended and amended, self-catagorizable, dynamic, widely accessible, and open to (please can’t this word die?) feedback. Moreover, bibliographic lists can be interlinked with critical assessments of their worth (as Mejias demonstrates).

The responses of the two authors of the study that Mejias cites throughout the post, a librarian and a professor, are fascinating.

The librarian deplores the slippage of standards — she seems most exercised that she was not properly cited in Mejias’s post, but she also airs concerns that a digital environment is too unfixed — To fulfill the role and purpose of a dissertation, the literature review by nature is temporally bound and must reflect the work of an author at some point in time — and too open to comment and reaction from beyond the walls of academe — Who is his audience? Do they have the requisite authority to vet his work? By definition, a doctoral student’s peers are his or her fellow doctoral students, yet a doctoral candidate is writing for academicians to gain acceptance into their community. The heart of scholarly publication is review of the work by recognized authorities in the field.

What stands out for me here is this respondent’s treatment of a blog as uniquely uncontrollable — as if parameters of audience, commenting permissions, and posting timeframes were beyond anyone’s control. Sure, many a prof will resist spending the time it takes to learn about a new communication technology and how it can be adapted for traditional ends (that’s not yet what rewards professors), but this resistance to digital communication should not be confused with the defense of standards. Here is what seems like a promising recipe for dissertation literature evaluation to me: a blog bundled with citational management software, with levels of access and commentary defined, and — we’re dreaming here — integration with next-gen citation indexes and visualization tools. Who would argue that a broad discussion with a thesis advisor about core texts, pertinent categorization, and the scope and value of outside “feedback” would not be a fine way to kick off a dissertation project?

The professor respondent engages in some higher level handwringing: he rues that Mejias seems to be writing off the ‘social’ reach of traditional scholarship. As I think about my own graduate education and beyond, I see much of the same activity you claim to be novel on your blog – I drafted and circulated manuscripts for classes and colloquia, I presented papers at conferences large and small, I sent my papers to experts in my fields, and I submitted them to journals for review. Along the way I developed my ideas and, if I was lucky, got critical feedback on them. (Technologies come and go, but it seems we’re forever stuck with feedback. ) It’s a shame, this professor suggests, that grad students only imagine themselves as writing just for a dissertation committee, rather than contributing to broader endeavors, and squandering whatever faith they may have in social dynamics into blogs: I accept the possibility that blogging may help novice scholars and researchers as they seek to become socialized in their field. But I will assert that blogging, by itself, is nowhere near sufficient for this purpose.

Of course, Microsoft Word (or, to frame this in parallel, word processing) is nowhere near sufficient for that purpose either — yet I suspect many poor grad students use this tool to assemble elements of their dissertation. I fail to understand how an advance in organization and dissemination — in content management — turns into a true threat to scholarly standards. I’m under 40 (not by much, but still), yet I can remember typing college papers (now mouldering in some box) by hand, and researching my dissertation by writing reams of notes (now mouldering in some box) by hand. I can also remember the long lines outside a superstar professor’s office — the hurried and sometimes random consultations — the way one’s fate is held hostage by overloaded advisors.

Who would seriously begrudge a better way to store, retrieve, and air ideas? Is the process of writing a dissertation not bolstered by reaction from other scholars online, from peers at one’s stage of development, from Aunt Tillie in Florida who is the world’s last opponent of the dangling participle? Do advisors really believe that their hold on students is so tenuous that mere statistics — page views, machine-counted citations — and outside exposure will debilitate their control of a project? Is the portability of a student’s research into future assemblages of material for teaching and beyond-the-diss projects not worth consideration? Distributed learning and evaluation is barreling down the pike (see, for example, Biology Direct interesting peer review process – the subject of a future post). Do we really want to discourage students from acclimating to such an environment?

I’ll climb off today’s soapbox with a nod to that workhorse library term, the “crosswalk.” Just as efforts like METS tries to usher MARC bibliographic standards into a more digital friendly metadata scheme like DC, educational technologists, professors, and librarians need to define certified crosswalks between the traditional apparatus of scholarship and the blessings of digital publication.

Will Mejias get credit for sparking a dialogue so intrinsic to scholarship? Only if the credit-givers look at blogs — and accept the possibility.

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