Thursday, 21 May 2009

Blogging about Blogging

I wrote the following piece six weeks ago, but it has just appeared in the Western Morning News. The comments on Westminster scandals now seem even more timely. Here it is:

Several years ago Charles Clarke, the then Education Secretary, dismissed the study of medieval history as a drain on the nation’s resources: ‘I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes’, he told a university audience, ‘but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.’ In these straitened times, and with scandal after scandal seeping out of Westminster, increasing numbers of us feel the same about politicians. Certainly, they do rather less for the economy than medieval historians. Admitting that he found a belief in knowledge for its own sake ‘a bit dodgy’, Clarke overlooked the fact that the heritage and culture industries are worth billions of pounds per annum to our country. Overtly and covertly, academic scholarship sustains those industries.

Clarke’s philistinism does, nevertheless, provoke important questions: how, and to what extent, should scholars engage with the taxpayers who help to fund them? It is all very well to insist that universities are net creators of wealth, vital to the financial as well as the social and intellectual life of the nation, but that does not excuse them from the urgent job of conversing with their various constituencies. Whether we realise it or not, what goes on in universities (including sub-departments of medieval history) matters to all of us; and under this government, one challenge for academics has been to keep providing reminders of their value by finding direct and visible ways of reaching the general public. It is an admirable ambition so long as the quality of their work is not jeopardised as a result.

My own department — English at the University of Exeter — was recently ranked first (equal with York, and ahead of Oxbridge) in a major government-backed survey of ‘world-leading research’. Never mind the prestige: this has hugely beneficial funding implications. With that additional funding comes the opportunity for more conferences, public lectures, readings by prominent writers, media appearances, exhibitions, articles and books. People in the city, the region and beyond are keen to benefit from the department’s intellectual wealth, and we welcome them to our events.

However, because of a generational lag, one arena for knowledge transfer has not always been exploited to its full potential: the internet. Mid-career academics are not ‘digital natives’, and we may sometimes feel suspicious of students who find information online without ever crossing the threshold of a university library. The quality of material on the web varies wildly; but then, so does the quality of material found in books. By using the technology effectively, we can meet our students’ needs and, at the same time, the needs of other audiences. The editor of an illustrious academic press told me last month that the average print run for a new book is 400 copies, most of which will be sold to university libraries. The internet can deliver an immediate and varied readership far in excess of any but the most high-profile of publications. Rather than wringing our hands over a perceived threat to the supremacy of the printed word, we need to take advantage of new possibilities.

Possessing just about enough technological knowhow to turn a computer on and off, in January this year I started a blog about war poetry. Although I can’t be sure whether Charles Clarke would approve of it, I have a good subject. More than any other kind of verse, war poetry is a visible presence in public life, and a staple of the school curriculum. Ted Hughes called the First World War ‘our number one national ghost’, and as the centenary of its outbreak draws closer, our obsession with the war and its poetry will become even more intense. The blog began as an informal way for me to share my research and my enthusiasm, and to serve an audience which may not even have access to a university library. The majority of visitors have come from English-speaking countries: the UK, the USA, Australia and Canada, in particular. Even more satisfying are the visitors from Guatemala, Swaziland, Taiwan, Belarus, Oman, and another fifty countries. I wish I could believe that my published works have travelled as widely.

There were, of course, other reasons for starting a blog. Unsupported by the state, in Britain the blogosphere thrives without government interference. (Worryingly, Hazel Blears recently denounced political bloggers for their ‘vicious nihilism’, and regulation of critical opinions has been mooted.) The web is a democratic space, in which quality alone differentiates between the many competing voices. What has been called ‘the economics of reputation’ is increasingly determined online. The blog also allows the development, organisation and storage of research ideas; it promotes experiment and forgives errors and excesses in ways which the fixity of the printed word can never match. (How I wish I could edit out of existence some of the blunders in my books!) At the same time, it demystifies teaching and researching, and invites the blog’s audience to participate in those processes. Populous, noisy, ever-changing — the internet is no place for ivory towers.

I had initially thought of the blog as a means of handing down information. What I had not foreseen were the intellectual benefits. The best kind of blogging, I soon discovered, is collaborative. In no time at all, I had inadvertently created a network of expert correspondents with whom to test my opinions. When they don’t agree, they tell me in no uncertain terms. They have read books I have not read, speak languages I cannot speak, and their experiences are often vastly different from my own. I would not otherwise have heard from the poet who is about to join the Canadian army in Afghanistan as ‘war artist’, or the godson of a writer I had blogged about, or the American editor who has just re-discovered a long-forgotten First World War poet. Blogging has been immensely beneficial to my work. Already, after just three months, I have no idea how I managed for so long without it.

1 comment:

  1. And now Hazel Blears has gone,while your blog lives on. Hooray!