This post follows a previous post (Beyond A4, part 1) and is based on the notes to my lecture at the White Rose Doctoral Training Centre annual Spring conference at the University of York. The lecture was entitled ‘Beyond A4: PhDs writing for multiple audiences’.
Whilst academic publishing is arguably still in the middle of its big digital disruption and overhaul, and various perspectives to this are being addressed as part of this event today, my talk is about another disruption facing academic professional work, much of which is exemplified in academics’ writing and knowledge creating activities. Academic publishing is of course one important part of this process, usually the end part, the glossed and polished written pieces of published work. But let us also not forget the messy, ephemeral, and often elided bits of work that goes into those end products.
So here I present some of my own reflections and experiences as a recent PhD graduate on the subject of writing for different audiences. I will focus on what we could describe as going ‘beyond A4’. But before I do that it is important to remind ourselves of the importance of writing in the enterprise of Higher Education and its importance in the life of a PhD student – which is a kind of apprenticeship into the academic life.
PhD researches – like many people working in academia – spend a substantial proportion of their time writing, although we may not always describe some of our activities as ‘writing’. These can include routine and everyday writing activities, as opposed to more prestigious or scholarly forms of writings. But nevertheless all these practices form part of the dynamics of our knowledge creation, and integral constituents of academic practice.
The PhD as an apprenticeship is a powerful way of becoming acquainted with the demands of writing in the academic world (proposal writing, theses, conference papers, publications, etc.), but more recently newer forms of writing and engaging through social media have emerged which have in turn changed the nature of academic work and, subsequently, the nature of the doctoral experience. As a result of social media, academics’ work has become more diverse, changing the nature of research, scholarship, teaching, and public engagement.
Since the principal role of an academic, and this includes PhDs, is to produce, shape and distribute knowledge, how social media is then incorporated into this practice becomes an important challenge. Writing of many different kinds is central to this endeavour, but one particular dimension to these practices of writing, that which I’m going to call ‘beyond A4’ (or going beyond the formal mechanisms of the academy), is what the focus is here. So I will share some my own reflections in getting to grips with ‘beyond A4’, what its affordances are, and what this can mean for the future of academic knowledge production.
We can draw upon the historical example of the coffeehouse both as an example and a metaphor for what can be described as ‘beyond A4’.
The coffeehouse, up to and during the Age of Enlightenment, provides a useful historical example of what can be achieved in the forums and arenas outside of the strictures of the academy. The coffee house helped foster a new spirit of the Enlightenment across Europe in the 17th century. This is because as people sipped on this new stimulant beverage from the Middle East within a forum such as the coffeehouse, they were thus encouraged to engage in free discussion, argue, maybe even fight about arts, politics, science, philosophy etc. away from the strictures of the academy, its seminar room, lecture theatre, etc. The point is that it was a much freer forum for people to develop networks, exchange information, and have access to ideas, not just through the range of people present from different social strata, but also the through the articles and literature present in the coffeehouse. Historians such as Dorinda Outram, situate coffeehouses of that time as part of a number of public intellectual spheres, allowing for the transfusion of enlightened ideas by bringing different social strata together to be exposed to them. Ideas were produced and marketed. There was a certain kind of assemblage of people and things: something I discuss extensively in my research on student writing. An assemblage of people (from various professions and movements) and things (coffee, as a stimulant provided an occasional alternative to the other beverage of the time, alcohol and literature), and literacy practices which ensued as a result of the new assemblage.
A similar kind of transfusion of ideas that occurred through Gutenberg and the onset of print culture, which lead to the ‘reading revolution’ and new kinds of employment, if also rendering obsolete other forms of employment (such as being a scribe). Taken together, these arenas and arrangements provided public space to ideas and debates beyond the institutions (political or academic) that had traditionally contained them.
This is because the coffeehouse provided a forum for the collision of ideas. And the link between what the coffeehouse afforded the transfusion of ideas in the Enlightenment period and what social media use offers academia is worth pondering over. That’s the link that I’m trying to make.
This brings me to the Web. The Internet as we know it was invented for scholars to communicate with one another; such was the conception of Tim Berners Lee in 1990. During that time, the kind of communication afforded by the Web was limited to the sharing of scholarly works via email. Then, by around 2005, blogging emerged as convenient way of having conversations online with minimal knowledge of HTML, and academics began to take seriously the idea of writing publicly and for an audience beyond their immediate circle of disciplinary peers. With this in mind, when Twitter was launched it was dubbed a ‘micro-blogging’ method of doing the very same thing except with fewer words, more speed, and to a wider audience. It has, therefore, and alongside other social media platforms allowed for the emergence of the ‘digitally networked scholar’ and serves for many of these digitally networked scholars as a crucial mechanism for knowledge creation and the collision of ideas – the kinds of collisions of ideas that characterised the coffeehouse centuries earlier.
Remember also that Tim Berners Lee’s original paper for the Web was rejected upon review and pushed down to the level of a poster in a 1991 conference. There are some arenas where great ideas get sidelined, and sometimes the ‘A4 space’ (i.e. academia’s formal space) is not ready to receive what you have to say. In this respect, it is in the best interests of PhDs to have a prepared mind to both communicate knowledge beyond the A4 space and to receive its good ideas. See Amy Collier’s post on ‘Not-Yetness‘.
Later, blogging became a convenient tool for public thinking, and for academics to converse and disseminate ideas beyond their immediate disciplinary peers.
Half-baked ideas can and even should be recorded. they can even be shared; take for example Charles Darwin’s notes. Darwin converged upon his theory of natural selection in October 1838. But his notebooks, which obviously predate his conclusions, are full with annotations that point to how he got to his conclusion. This is important because Darwin’s discovery in reality was a synthesis of prior ideas, some of which were seemingly unimportant in isolation. You can read more about this kind of thing from Stephen Johnson’s book ‘Where Good ideas come from‘.
Blogging is a useful platform to share those kinds of ideas and engage in a form of public thinking; a way of developing ideas and seeking engagement with others before you formalise your ideas into a more traditional academic piece. Bearing in mind the multiplicity of potential audiences you will encounter and the ways your readers can respond to the material you present.
Then you need to think about what you post, and what your posts actually represent, and whether they are a kind of working papers. You may also need to check with publishers about using and citing elements of your own public thinking in later work. One way is to use your personal website to publish an early draft of something as a working paper, and then point to the final journal version (with a DOI link) when it eventually appears. It is your stuff after all. A pre-print author version of a paper will not have page numbers and all the formatting but is still able to be cited if you want/allow. It just needs to be stated as such.
The formal mechanisms remain something that are squarely within the A4 space, but there’s a parallel space ‘beyond A4’ where it is well worth being active, and I think you can play about in both. Your blog then is like an academic honey pot: people from various social strata will flock towards it to benefit from what you have to say, your insights, etc.
And if you always remain within formal mechanisms in terms of knowledge production, you may be robbing yourself of what others are doing in those other spaces, and what people are puzzling over beyond the academy. It depends on the army of people you are following, the personal learning network that you have developed. And of course, having a prepared mind. Academia teaches us to focus – and that’s a good thing – but in focussing, we could train our minds to ignore what’s outside the academy.
To be concluded with part 3.