Inger Mewburn – Is There a New Digital Divide Brewing?

The role of blogging in academia is something I am particularly interested in. I awoke today to find a lot of blogs and bloggers writing about how and why they had value. In particular this is in response to the blog post published on the Guardian Higher Education Network yesterday – The measure of blogging: the use of different media in academic publishing. I was also musing this very issue after I was a panelist at the Royal Geographical Society Postgraduate Forum – Annual Conference Training Symposium. I felt the conversation was anti-blogging, others say it was ambiguous however, there does seem to be this deep seated dislike of blogging and that peer-reviewed publications are, and always will be, king. This may be true to an extent, but blogs offer a different mode of publishing and enable the blogger to make different sorts of ‘impact’ and facilitate different types of ‘engagement’. I believe the two should be complimentary and that early-career researchers should go forth and blog but as part of a well thought out professional development strategy. However, it still leaves us wondering why the more established members of our community are so anti. In this post Inger Mewburn, editor of the thesis whisperer,  considers whether there is a new digital divide brewing within the academy.

I graduated from architecture school in 1996 when I was 25. I was poor from 6 years of university and architectural practice did not help fill my coffers. Architecture was not as fun as I imagined it would be. I slaved away in offices for around $4 an hour – and there were many, many of these hours. Sometimes I worked all night to meet unrealistic deadlines, for which I was never paid overtime. I got through this phase of my life using booze, cigarettes, boys – anything to distract me from my inner turmoil and growing disillusionment. In the daylight hours I spent a lot of time reminding myself that I was investing in my future. I needed the experience, I rationalised to myself, in order to cut it in practice. I was lucky – I told myself – to work in ‘boutique’ practices which would look good on my resume.

I did have one thing that many others in that office did not – completely mad computer skills. I was one of only three graduates from my year to produce images entirely through rendering software. Computers back then were a lot less friendly than they are now and people found it difficult to skill up. Many in those offices seemed threatened by the slow invasion of technology  and some left the profession altogether. Age was a factor, but not the whole explanation – many of my peers gained competence, but never a love of technology. I was often patronised by my employers, who told me that my render skills were non essential ‘icing on the cake’ for their clients. I accepted this and put aside my software manuals in order to devote energy into and learning how gutters really worked. These efforts ended however when I happened upon an invoice on the printer one day.

My ‘icing’ was being charged out at $250 an hour.

This was the beginning of the end of my romance with Architecture. I started a new romance with Mr Thesis Whisperer, who encouraged me to turn my mad skills of computer into cold hard cash. Eventually I went to work for a big developer and literally doubled my income overnight. My peers, thoroughly socialised into the architectural profession, sneered at my sell out, but I celebrated by driving around in a flashy car, traveling and acquiring a mortgage on a gorgeous Art Deco apartment (to tell the truth, I became a bit obnoxious for awhile – but that’s a story for another time).

Why am I telling you all this? Well, some 15 years later I wonder if the same thing which was happening in architecture in the 1990s is happening now in academia. For a long time academia has been slowly invaded by technology. Like those architects in offices in the 1990s, most academics have acquired familiarity with technology, but I would venture to say that relatively few of us really love it. Only some of my colleagues operate blogs or engage with people on twitter. Even fewer of them seem to avail themselves of some of the amazing, free cloud apps which make managing references and documents a breeze.

What I’m pointing to here I think is another kind of ‘digital divide’, one which I think threatens to leave some people behind. Take myself as an example. I have been running a blog for a little over a year; it’s got solid niche appeal and has been much more successful than I expected. My own profile has been lifted with it. I have been in the local Australian newspaper, featured in international papers and linked to by the more progressive of the institutional players. As a result I have been invited to give keynotes, flown around the country, asked to write book chapters and articles – opportunities usually reserved for more experienced players. It would take me at least 10 years to achieve this kind of status and recognition through citations and conference attendances.

( To be completely honest – I didn’t start the blog thinking this would happen, I genuinely just love to play with new technology – but it’s been a very pleasant surprise. )

I still write academic works for journals of course – I am a pragmatist and realise that my institution, and the majority of people in my research field, won’t take me seriously if I don’t. There’s some pleasure in the difficulty of scholarly work, but I prefer writing blog posts and not just because they are easier. In my work with PhD students, blog posts just do more than papers in journals. Most PhD students will never bother to read Allison Lee’s most excellent work on research student identities – but I can translate these ideas into ‘digestible’ chunks and link through to the original texts for those who want more. I can introduce new ideas and thoughts – just like I am now – in public and work them up, helped by comments from others (which I hope you will add at the end of this post).

In short – my professional life has flourished.

But it’s not just ‘broadcast’ activities which have helped my work – my ability to do research has been turbo charged by contact with others, mostly through social media. I get very frustrated when people tell me I waste my time on twitter. This blog post was born in a conversation with @universityboy and @sarathesheepu. Their conversation and tweets sparked a connection between my own past and what I think is happening now. I wrote it on one screen of my PC at 9pm, while the Twitter conversation rolled by on the other. I was done by 10pm. Sure I was interrupted by the constant presence of others in my screen-scape, but these interruptions were fruitful. @cap_and_gown in the UK came online and kindly answered my earlier message to her about references on British university education in the ‘new world’. She then sent me a bibliography in email full of obscure references – a list I could never have had the time and patience to compile for the two paragraphs of text which would be affected by it. Along with her references she asked me a couple of astute questions, which helped my own thinking. Meanwhile @qui_qui, ‘over hearing’ this exchange, chipped in with the offer of further bibliographic help. The paper I am writing will be vastly better from their help and input.

My point is – by being connected I gain as well as give. I think I can tap an international, professional network which might rival some senior professors I know. Those professors have spent the last 20 years writing, working and flying around to conferences to develop their network; I have sat on my behind and talked to people online. I wonder if some of those senior professors are going to start to hate me? (I wonder if some of them do already?).

A lot of academics I talk to seem to be very hesitant to jump in and give this whole ‘web thing’ a try, which I think is a pity because I know what they have to offer. I realise by publishing on this blog I am preaching to the converted. I wonder if those people who aren’t reading this will be the ones who miss out on the opportunities on offer with this revolution in digital technologies. Just like the architects who could never put down their pens long enough to get their heads around a keyboard, some academics may end up bitter and disappointed. Again – I think age is a factor, but not the whole story. Some of the most connected academics I know are in their 50’s and 60’s and there’s a significant number of us rocking it out in our forties. But the real effects will be felt in that generation yet to appear in the academic scene. They are less visible because they are studying or doing their time as adjuncts, but you’d better watch out because a lot of those kids are really switched on.

And they are coming to get your job.

10 Responses to Inger Mewburn – Is There a New Digital Divide Brewing?

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  3. Kati Kuusisto says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more (and that’s not just because I am your colleague. So many others who see it the same way.

    Social media, and Twitter especially has been identified as an excellent tool to networking, teaching etc in both academia and industry.
    Boost Your Career with Social Media

    From Twater to Twaddict: using Twitter as an Early Career Researcher

    Why be an administrative Tweeter?

    Teaching with Twitter

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