While I like to think that my work has significance beyond my particular field, and outside the academy itself, the truth is that I research and teach in a pretty niche area, and my blog stats normally reflect that. Part of the remit of this blog is trying to connect contemporary concerns – often feminist in scope and frequently about academic culture and pedagogy – with our medieval past. This usually gets me a modest number of hits and some interesting conversation on twitter, which I find satisfying. Apparently, though, this week I struck a chord that resonated with more people – or perhaps I simply jumped on a topical bandwagon more readily than usual – with my post Falling in love and crying: “Professionalism”, gender and emotion. This post has been viewed 4715 times since Wednesday, which is small potatoes for big-time bloggers but is a hell of a lot for a person whose first book has been bought almost exclusively by academic libraries and may never ever be read by 4715 people, never mind in the space of a week.
Well, whoop-de-do: what has that got to do with you? Setting aside my own ego (which must be substantial, according to a reader of my last post, given that I included a selfie; I’ve provided another here from my collection for your edification), the real point of interest here isn’t that I struck a chord, but with whom I struck a chord, and what that means in broader terms for academic writers. A quick skim down the profiles of people who liked and shared my post brings up a varied, dynamic list of skills, professions and interests: historian of science, tea enthusiast, archivist, copy editor, molecular biologist, mother of two… Many of you are academics; many of you are not. The short About Me statements twitter allows lets you unfold miniature CVs, wear identity badges, pass out business cards – and maybe offer a nod to your Tinder profiles, too. So many of you are, just on the medium of twitter and wordpress, doing precisely what my post said we all do: fulfil multiple roles at once. Being categorisable, yes, but not occupying only one box at a time, or understood solely by those labels we use to frame ourselves.
I suppose part of what I’m groping around to say here is that one of the exciting things about blogging academically is not just being able to know that your work is being read and disseminated far more quickly than it would be through traditional channels (books, journals) – but also that you can much more easily glimpse your readers and communicate with them. There’s more opportunity for genuine conversation; and in a world where I can get to know what you’ve had for breakfast, why you missed your bus and what your latest article is going to be about, our discussion of my latest post can feel much more like we’re sitting down in a common room to talk, coffee in hand. There’s a lot of focus online lately about the destructive potential of social communication online, and I don’t deny that possibility is there – I’ve received my small share of aggressive messages from strangers – but I also find it incredibly rewarding to be able to build up connections with people from across the world who care about some of the same things that I do.
Which leads me to the dreaded topic of IMPACT. Having coffee with a friend (and one of my favourite bloggers) yesterday, we were talking about how beneficial the #twitterstorians world has been for our research, teaching and sense of academic community. We also wondered when the academy’s going to catch up and find a way of really measuring our impact in a digital age. Research Councils UK define “impact” as “‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy”. In the humanities, at least, the impact of social media has received remarkably little attention. There’s still a good deal of snobbery about the value of activities like blogging and tweeting. And yes, I do tweet and blog in a far more off-the-cuff way than I write an article for a print publication. And yes, my articles get peer reviewed before publication… Though one could also argue (and many people have) that peer review is a biased system, and that while a thorough reading by one or two experts might constitute useful peer review, so surely might commentary by a diverse online readership of experts and non-experts who are all happy to make their honest opinions known? There’s an irony in knowing that the article I referenced in my last blog post – which is, I think, quite a good piece of work – will probably only ever be read by a few dozen people, and will (if I’m lucky) be referenced in future publications by a handful – probably at some considerable time after it was written. Is that demonstrating more impact than a less carefully written, but no less heartfelt, blog post that has been immediately shared, referenced and responded to by a worldwide community?
I think that there’s a time and a place for both, which is why I’ve lately been trying to cautiously expand my CV into writing for more mainstream media. I think members of the academy have a duty to think about their impact – not as a drab measure of their worth that can be counted and costed, but rather as an indication of their contribution to our shared society. If we can make people think, that’s great. And if we can make them want to fall in love and cry – even better. If we learn and laugh and cry because of our ongoing conversations with those people – that’s best of all. I’m not interested in pontificating to the void; only in weeping, fainting and being #distractinglysexy with all of you.