On blogging and public engagement

I spent two days this week at the Engage 2013 conference, organised by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. The meeting was packed full of excellent content, and I am planning several blog posts building on things that I heard there.

One of the sessions that I attended was on the subject of ‘academic blogging’, run by Tom Crick and Alan Winfield. As I tweeted at the time, among other things the workshop inspired me to make a commitment to start writing on my blog again, which has been quiet for a little while. Through their presentation Tom and Alan got me thinking about both why I haven’t been publishing, and what my purposes for having a blog in the first place are.

It’s very easy to use workload as an explanation for not blogging, and the last couple of months have been incredibly busy for me, with a fair bit of travel. But when I reflect on why I write it is about collecting, organising and structuring ideas, and exploring the links between them. Being busy actually generates more of those ideas and, I think, a greater need to reflect on and organise them. Ironically, when time is short there may be an even greater value in making the space to think that writing a blog post can provide.

Apart from the inspiration to blog, the Engage session also raised some interesting issues. One of them is the notion of the ‘academic blog’, which was the core of the session. There was a case made that there is a distinction between the ‘academic blog’, which is often grounded in the research interests of the writer, and other blogs. As we explored the issue, for me, it became less and less apparent that this distinction is real. Academics who blog write about their research, the process of their research, and the links their research has to policy, but this is no different from any other person blogging about their professional life. The supposed distinction raises questions about different types of expertise. While an academic might blog from the perspective of their core expertise in research, other bloggers come with other types of expertise, not grounded in academia, but equally valid. And when an academic moves from writing about their research to considering its ethical, social or commercial implications they are less experts, and more well-informed citizens. In fact one of the most interesting facets of many blogs written by academics is the way in which they handle this transition from expert to citizen.

Interesting as the session was, on reflection later I did feel that a big question, in the context of a conference about public engagement, hadn’t been addressed. Are blogs by academics an effective tool for public engagement with universities? The NCCPE defines three purposes for public engagement: to inspire, to consult, and to collaborate. My experience is that most of the blogs by academics that I read focus more on inspiring and informing than consultation, collaboration and co-creation. Of course, there are comments and discussions triggered on other fora by academics’ blog posts, but I don’t see widespread evidence of those discussions feeding back into research and scholarship. This view may not be based on a representative sample, and I don’t want to imply that engagement to inspire is less valuable that consultation or collaboration. However, I do wonder whether opportunities could be taken more often to seek the views of readers explicitly and use those views to inform and direct research. Blogs by academics are a powerful way to open up the processes of research and scholarship, both shining a light on them and also allowing other actors to take an active part in shaping them.

I don’t underestimate the challenges in doing this. And it equally applies to other professional practice. As I think about the purposes of my own online writing I wonder whether I too should be seeking to shape my work in developing research policy through conversations and discussions stimulated by posts here. The purpose I have for blogging is to help organise and articulate my own thoughts, but should I also be seeking to learn and enhance those ideas through the discussion?