The role of communication in governance – Universities and (new) media

I’ve had a short essay published in the Journal of Professional Communication. The essay is about the role of communication in organizational governance, and takes the university as an example of how new media are affecting organizations’ public relations practices and the kind of work that must be done by/through communication.

The journal home page is here, and my essay is in Volume 2, Issue 2.

The link to a PDF of my piece is here.

More than a storm in a teacup – the debate on academic blogging

This was a follow-up post that I wrote (published on October 21, 2011) after a briefer article of mine on academic blogging was published in University Affairs. I wanted to get into some more of the reasons why blogging is still considered a lesser form of communication, and therefore isn’t something that usually contributes to building an academic career. Here is a link to the original post from October 21, 2011: More than a storm in a teacup – the debate on academic blogging.

Last week an article I wrote about academic blogging was published in the print and online editions of University Affairs. I decided to provide a follow-up to the article, because there were so many interesting comments from bloggers that couldn’t be included in the scope of the original post.

I also want to take time to link their points to those from another discussion over at The Guardian, involving the critique of academic publishing and the call for its reform. Many of the issues mentioned by bloggers were clearly entwined with this recent thread of criticism that targets academic journals and their business model, one that is described by its current critics as restrictive, exploitative and out-dated.

A benefit of blogging cited by most of those who commented was the development of a public profile independent of the regular channels of academic validation. This visibility tended to lead to more (and diverse) opportunities because of exposure to different audiences. Having a public “face” meant being recognizable as an expert on a particular topic, and PhD student Chris Parsons (UVic) explained that “this is important for graduate students, in particular, given that most of us lack established publishing records.” Because of his active construction of a body of “alternative” online work, Parsons has been invited to contribute to more traditional peer-reviewed publications, the accepted signifiers of academic success.

The bloggers also described using social media for professional networking and collaboration. Blogging sparked dialogues and exchanges across disciplines, facilitated by what David Phipps (of York University) describes as “enhanced reach and two-way communication,” enabling new connections that were unexpected, serendipitous, and productive. Blogs were also viewed by students as more inviting and accessible than traditional publications; UVic professor Janni Aragon discussed how students have become engaged with her online work, many of them reading and responding to her posts.

A related theme was that of the benefit of gaining access to different audiences. Academic publications are associated with specialized audiences confined not only to the academic realm but also to disciplinary areas. Professor Marie-Claire Shanahan (U of Alberta) discussed how blogging has helped her to build a research community, allowing her to “meet people with similar interests who work in different areas” and also to reach out to audiences for whom the research is relevant but who don’t normally have access to it. All the bloggers who sent me comments made mention of this relationship between development of a public profile, and the ways in which “blogging extends our ability to communicate our research beyond academic circles in an accessible and timely manner” (Alfred Hermida, UBC).

Several bloggers expressed their frustration with traditional academic publishing, including complaints that the regular publication process takes too long and that the resulting publications are inaccessible to non-academic audiences. Sharing ideas through accessible online sources is more efficient because it isn’t hindered by the gatekeeping function of peer review (part of what validates academic knowledge). Chris Parsons described how his work has been cited in “government filings, academic papers, news sites, and so forth […] none of that would have happened if I was constrained to the slow process of peer-review or forced to utilize traditional media outlets.”

The publishing model that currently dominates renders research inaccessible to the publiceven though much of the research done in universities is publicly funded, and the journals technically acquire their content for free. Parsons argues that his work “is publicly funded, so it should be available to the public” and blogging is a part of this. The current model reflectsthe concept of knowledge as a “private good” rather than a “public good” (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004, p.28). A private-good model goes against an ethic and practice of sharing as discussed by PhD student Rebecca Hogue who explained, “I like to get my ideas out there, and by sharing them (and writing them down) they become more solid […] I hate to hold stuff back because someday it might be published.” In spite of the myth of the lone scholar, collaboration has been an essential feature of academe in the past. How does an increasingly proprietary, private model of knowledge affect collegial work?

Those academics involved in blogging are engaging with new modes of communication and new models of scholarly collaboration and research dissemination. The vehemency with which this practice is debated by bloggers and non-bloggers alike speaks to the deep roots of the issue; because academic publishing is key to professional advancement in academe, everyone has something at stake. This debate touches on the heart of the university’s mission, and what accompanies it — a continued struggle over the definition of authoritative knowledge.

Should you enter the academic blogosphere?

This article appeared in both the print and online versions of University Affairs; it addresses the pros and cons of engaging in blogging, for academics. 

The article was re-published on the LSE Impact Blog site on November 30, 2011. I also wrote a follow-up blog post dealing with some of the issues I couldn’t include in the original post (due to lack of space). Here is a link to the original article from October 11, 2011: Should you enter the academic blogosphere?

Blogging, the practice of updating a personal website with “posts” or short articles including news, commentary and journal-like content, is making inroads into Canadian academia. While the “blogosphere” has always included sites by students, professors, librarians, administrators and other university members, more scholars are now tying their blogs to their work-related activities and making the connection between online presence and career development.

Academic blogs by definition tend to focus on professional rather than personal topics, showing explicit connections between blog content, research issues and academic life. However, blogging is not viewed positively by all members of the academic community, and recent exchanges online – including on the Guardian UK and London School of Economics websites – reflect the controversial position of blogging in a new debate emerging around the issues of open access to research, public scholarship and expert knowledge.

Peer-reviewed articles are still the benchmark for academic professionalization, and some graduate students and early-career academics feel that blogging is a waste of precious time that could be spent on “legitimate” publishing. Because it’s a form of self-publishing that lacks peer review, blogging isn’t usually viewed as a legitimate form of scholarship. Chris Parsons, a PhD student in political science at the University of Victoria who writes the blog Technology, Thoughts, and Trinkets, has experienced “dismissal of my work because it’s online [and] criticisms that my work isn’t good enough to be published anywhere else.” Sometimes blogging is even seen as disseminating one’s ideas too freely. In a competitive academic field, research ideas could be “scooped” from a blog, while established journals may not want to publish work that’s available in some form online.

Yet, for a growing number of academics the benefits of blogging outweigh the drawbacks. Those who blog – including me – agree there are positive outcomes, such as networking and collaborating, finding new audiences and opportunities, disseminating research more widely, and building one’s reputation. Bloggers argue that far from diluting scholarly success, online writing can be a serious tool for academic practice.

David Phipps, director of the office of research services at York University and co-author of the ResearchImpact blog, explains that “rather than replacing traditional scholarly activity, blogging amplifies the reach and thus the impact of those messages derived from your research.” Academics can use blogs alongside formal research to form collaborative networks and to disseminate their work to different interest groups in new ways.

For example, Marie-Claire Shanahan, a professor from the University of Alberta, uses her Boundary Vision blog “primarily for outreach. I work in science education and there are lots of people (including scientists, science writers, museum staff and parents) that have an interest in science education, especially in schools.” The public, collaborative nature of blogging has helped writers to develop new relationships with students, peers and other audiences and to build new partnerships across disciplines.

Another benefit of blogging is that accessibility and exposure to different audiences tend to broaden academics’ reputations, which opens up new professional possibilities. Blogging can lead to contract and consulting work, public presentations and interviews, as well as invitations to write for academic publications. “This kind of exposure is important for graduate students … given that most of us lack established publishing records,” says Mr. Parsons, the PhD student at UVic.

Most academic departments don’t yet recognize blogging in any formal way – though this could change. Alfred Hermida, newly tenured at the University of British Columbia graduate school of journalism, saw his blog recognized as Best Blog at the 2010 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. Because of the blog’s success and the close relationship between his research, teaching and online work, Mr. Hermida included social media materials (including blog and Twitter statistics) in his tenure portfolio.

More formal recognition may come when academic administrators and established scholars begin to take more seriously the importance of engaging with publics in ways that show what academics do. This kind of transparency helps counter the assumptions that can circulate in the media and highlights the notion of knowledge as a public good, as something that shouldn’t be confined within university walls.

The Public Intellectuals Project at McMaster University: A case study in social media use

I presented at this conference last Friday with Dr. Grace Pollock, Alexandra Epp, and Danielle Martak. Our presentation was titled, “The Public Intellectuals Project at McMaster University: A Case Study in Social Media Use”. Here is a link to the Prezi we presented.

Shameful self-promotion vs. meritocracy

Meritocracy is a theme to which I keep returning in my blog, mostly because as a core feature of academic culture it never seems to lose relevance. In this post I discuss the relationship between the academic disdain for (certain forms of) self-promotion, particularly social media, and how this is related to assumptions about “merit” and the intrinsic worth of one’s research. Here is a link to the original post, from August 16, 2011: Shameful self-promotion vs. meritocracy.

On August 4th, an article titled “How not to get left on the shelf” by Dale Sawak was posted on the Times Higher Education web site. In it, the author argued that if academic authors want their books to be read by a wider audience (or at all), they’ll need to engage in some self-promotion.

The article produced an incensed response from some readers. In order to understand why, we need to translate its thesis into Stereotypical Academic Logic. Once translated, the argument looks something like this: Sawak tells researchers who already see themselves as successful (i.e., they have written and published books), that their success is actually limited (by audience, no less; practically an accusation of elitism). He also suggests that in order to achieve “real” success, authors should engage in an activity that’s disdained in academe–advertising oneself.

A disclaimer here: part of my research is about the spread of entrepreneurialism and promotionalism in university governance and practice; I wrote my MA thesis in sociolinguistics, and it was a critique of internal public relations at a university. I’m not particularly keen on the idea of having to be a competitive, “marketable” academic, or that we should be forced to participate in phoney promotional activities (I don’t think they work anyway) or in the kinds of performance assessments that measure “impact” with a variety of suspect statistics. But as with so many issues, there are elements of self-promotion that relate positively to doing a good job as an academic, rather than buying in to neo-liberal market-oriented self-reformation.

In all fairness there’s an underlying critical point in Sawak’s article, which is that self-promotion is something that all very successful academics engage in–whether or not they acknowledge it. No-one can argue that Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky don’t “put themselves out there” (though usually the term public intellectual is applied). The suspicion of self-promotion is also part of the reason that blogging and other social media activities are often dismissed by academic colleagues and peers.

Not only are self-promoters more successful, but so are graduate students whose supervisors “push” their students’ work actively. Ever wonder how so-and-so managed to get that article published in a good journal, or a helpful research assistant job, or an item that showcases their work on the faculty web page? Committee members and supervisors can help with this too, behind the scenes, and it’s in their interests because your success reflects back upon them.

While the necessity of at least some degree of self-promotion may seem obvious, given the academic fear and loathing of public relations (where PR is often conflated with advertising and/or marketing or even lying and propaganda) it’s actually a tough admission for professors to make.

The admission needs to be made, though, because it further disrupts the assumption made by many that meritocracy is the (only) engine powering the university. Passing on advice about appropriate networking and promotional skills should be a part of mentoring undergraduate and graduate students: one needs to know how to put one’s best foot forward, simply because it opens up opportunities. As frustrating as this may seem, it’s true that ideas don’t tend to be recognised due to “merit” and nothing else, just as great scholarly partnerships and collaborations don’t develop out of thin air. You need to meet people and they need to see your work.

Female academics, in particular, are vulnerable to the trap in which they remain silent about their own work and its value–as Lee Skallerup Bessette writes in her blog post, “Shameless self promotion”. Women in general are less likely to claim expertise, which can be a detriment when it comes to succeeding in an academic career and a public profile. Female graduate students are more likely to suffer from “Imposter Syndrome” and to lack the sense of self-value that helps them develop crucial professional networks.

Granted, there’s definitely some promotion-related career advice I would consider to be cynical and unproductive. For example in this article the authors assert that early-career academics must cite important scholars in the field even when their work is only “tangentially” related. I doubt this is necessary for every paper, and I’d agree with some commenters that most authors can see through a meaningless reference and many will dismiss it. Then again it’s also true that we don’t live in an academic utopia; some scholars do want their egos stroked. If you’re willing to engage in that, then take the advice.

If you still find distasteful the idea of engaging in some form of self-promotion, think of it this way: no-one can assess the “merit” of your work unless they have some exposure to it and to you.

Another reason is that you’re already producing PR about yourself. You re-write your own CV and cover letters, send copies of your papers for review and revision, organise and/or participate in conferences; you’re concerned about your reputation and the impression you make on peers because it affects your work prospects. There’s nothing wrong with all this–it’s not “beneath you” to consider and engage in these things and and there’s no professional penalty for it (quite the opposite). Expand your idea of “public relations” to focus on the broader idea of “relations”, relationships, and it’s clear that much of our communication is a part of that process; stop assuming that PR is “evil”, and you’ll realise it’s necessary (as well as omnipresent).

As a final note, I’ll talk a little bit about this blog. Did I set out to “self-promote” by writing it? Frankly, no, that wasn’t the goal; I didn’t start blogging because I thought it would be “good for my career”. I wanted the other benefits of blogging such as dialogue with peers, sharing of thoughts and commentary, and a space to “mess around” with ideas that haven’t yet made it into my formal academic writing.

The blog has led to many great conversations and connections, but it’s also had a much wider readership than I ever imagined (though still fairly narrow-!). Blogging here led to guests post at University of Venus on the Inside Higher Ed site (I’m now a regular contributing writer there); it led to one of my posts appearing in the Guardian UK online, and to another post receiving attention in the Times Higher Education. While those aren’t the peer-reviewed academic publications that are required for a career as a professor, they’re valuable for me especially in that they relate directly to my field of research, and will reach much broader audiences than my own blog.

Let’s try to avoid allowing self-promotion to be one of the “dirty secrets” of the academy, something to be sneered at or reserved for the egotistical and vainglorious, something that “real” academics don’t do; after all, what’s a book launch for?

Social media – Implications for the university

I’ll be at this conference on social media and the university, in May at York University. I’m presenting with Grace Pollock, Alex Epp, and Danielle Martak, and we’re discussiong the Public Intellectuals Project as a case study of use of social media in universities’ engagement with different publics.

Here is the title of our talk, which is on May 3 at 3:30:
“A case study of social media use: the Public Intellectuals Project at McMaster University.”

Registration for graduate and undergraduate students is free.

For other information, the Public Intellectuals Project Twitter profile is here, and our Facebook page is here.