Well, I think I can genuinely say this is the most interesting guest blog post I have ever had. Thank you William Owens, an English teacher currently based in the UK, for making me frown, laugh, angry and happy at the same time!

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This piece of writing is self-contradicting. It criticises blogs, both the way they are written and the way they are received. It also takes the form of a blog, written in exactly the way I mean to criticise, to be received in exactly the way I mean to criticise. I mean to use all of the devices I frown upon in this piece; they are useful, even essential methods that enhance the credibility of that which is written and lend weight and coherence to the writer’s argument. 

And this is the problem. Blogs are not intrinsically bad things; a person travelling the world sharing their experiences with family and friends, a software developer charting their trials and errors that others may benefit from them, or a bedroom philosopher, eager to share their reflections about life and the world, yet not perceiving the need to do so through established channels of extended, supervised study and publication, are all valid, helpful, worthwhile forms of blogging and merit their place on the internet. 

Or so many believe. 

I wish to highlight the third member of the above group, and differentiate them from the others. That person, as we all do, has opinions, based on information which they receive, and the processing of that information by their mind, which is itself the product of their personality, experiences, and previous information they have received. That body of previous information existing in the opinion-former’s mind is very rarely complete – the opinion-former is unlikely to undertake academic-level research in order to inform their opinions. In fact the opinion-former themself is unlikely to follow any academic guidelines: they are complex, time-consuming and painstaking (see e.g. Swales & Feak 2004 for an entire book about them), and wholly unnecessary for the context; it is, after all, only a blog. 


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“Only a blog. “

And yet, and yet. The opinion-former, guarded from academic standards by this maxim, nonetheless wants their blog to be read; and not only read, they want it to be absorbed, considered, and to become part of the information that informs the reader’s future opinions, reflections and decisions (which they in turn may blog). They want to influence people, to change minds or inspire discussions, and so they must write in a way that readers will respect. To achieve this, they borrow from the academic standards they simultaneously shield themselves from. They cite and critically analyse the body of academic literature. They conduct and report empirical research. They give a well-considered and well-structured background to their piece, highlight the flaws in their own writing, allude to alternative viewpoints and encourage the reader to consider the issue from every angle. And so the opinion-former becomes the opinion-writer, and with a few splashes of academic referencing and a sprinkling of facts and figures, the whole thing begins to look very credible.



It isn’t. 

A blog is not academically reviewed, not checked for accuracy, or logic, or adherence to academic standards; the author is free to misinterpret sources, omit vital information, make up facts and statistics and come to wildly inaccurate conclusions without ever justifying or being held to account for them, or indeed corrected (it’s only a blog). In terms of its validity as a trustworthy, reliable, citeable piece of writing a blog has a level of validity equivalent to a caps-locked, misspelt, racist youtube comment about another commenter’s mother; the difference is that it looks proper. There is, indeed, every possibility that it contains thoroughly-researched, wisely-considered, objective, critical and insightful views on the issue at hand; and there is every chance that it is a drivelling pub-rant, full of uninformed, emotional knee-jerk reactions to issues the author doesn’t fully understand, or care about enough to study. However it is far more likely, in my experience, to lie between the two, and closer to the former than the latter, which is the most dangerous position. 

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Because people think it’s real.

Despite having the credibility and extrinsic worth of an octopus predicting the results of the world cup (which happened), blogs often read like academic papers and their adherence to some, if not all, academic standards gives the impression that they should be considered as occupying a middle-ground between youtube comments and academic journal articles. This is evident from the citations of other blogs appearing in blogs, much as one academic article references another. This blog

http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/native-english-speakers-in-korean-public-schools-were-destined-to-fail/

does exactly this, sprinkling its core of academic malpractice with unfounded opinions and generalisations based on anecdotes. It is duly responded to here:

http://www.alienteachers.com/1/post/2013/06/issues-facing-the-korean-net-program.html

in which  the author painstakingly assures us – with underlines for emphasis – that the piece is based on anecdotes and opinions, and thus not generalisable to anything at all. And then, disclaimer out of the way, proceeds to write their blog like an academic essay, backing up their propositions with references to and analyses of academic literature and frankly making some very good points, interspersed with the promised anecdotes and opinions and, academically admirably, abstaining from directly implying any implications of these observations to the world at large.

It is tempting to cite these “well-written blogs” in essays. It’s even more tempting to give credence to them. If we read them without our critical, academic hat on (it’s only a blog after all… and who enjoys wearing the hat?) we could quite easily be convinced that this is a middle ground between academia and non-academia – a casual, amateur academia –with its own casual, amateuer validity. Otherwise, surely, it’s no different from the rant of a pub-dwelling oaf.

It isn’t.

I wish to make the point that academic standards and reviewing exist for a reason, so that we can trust that what we read is credible, accurate and thoroughly researched. Those standards and processes are created and enforced by experts, considerably more expert than the vast majority of us writing and reading blogs; if we presume to sidestep them and self-govern our output, that property is lost, in full. Attempting to recover it in part, by following academic standards in part, serves to give a sense of credibility and often serves to effectively make a point, but those of us reading such pieces would do well to remember that a blog is not more than, and cannot be more than, a brain-fart. It is a squash-faced, farting, slobbering, shaggy, loveable mongrel dog; it belongs in the park, not at Crufts, and putting a dress and make-up on it does not make it half a thoroughbred Shih-Tzu.

Don’t pay attention to any of this by the way. It’s only a blog.

References:

Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills (Vol. 1). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.


 


Mark
13/06/2013 07:24

Hear, hear. Whenever asked why I don't blog, I shall reference this brain fart.

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Chris
30/07/2013 19:36

Very interesting piece of writing. It definitely made me think about the value of blogs. One thing I would comment on is that teachers writing blogs aren't exactly the same as bedroom philosophers. They have professional experience, much of which may not have been adequately addressed by academic research in this rapidly changing modern world. If a professional waits until s/he has the "professional credibility" nothing may get expressed...which frankly might damper professional competence. I can say from personal experience that blogging was a profoundly useful experience to improve my teaching practice and my attitude to the challenges inherent in the teaching profession.

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