Twitter and blogs are not add-ons to research

The best academics are those that build a form of public dialogue into their work

August 28, 2014

Source: Twin Design/

“Impact is an awkward thing in British Higher Education,” writes Tim Hitchcock, professor of digital history at the University of Sussex, on his Historyonics blog.

“Most of the time it feels like just one more bludgeon used to batter hapless academics into submission,” he adds. “And yet no one spends a lifetime researching, teaching and writing about something if they don’t believe it is important – if they don’t believe that what they do contributes to a better world. We all want to have ‘impact’.” The question, the blog states, is how to achieve impact “in a way that reflects our own values”.

“This question is all the more important because our traditional assumptions about how our work affects a broader social discourse seem increasingly threadbare,” Professor Hitchcock continues.

“When the print run of most monographs number just a few hundred copies (most of which disappear in to American research libraries, never to be read or used), and when journal articles proliferate beyond [that] number because they serve the needs of big publishing, rather than academic dialogue, we need to think harder about how we do the job of the humanities.”

If scholars continue to have “small (vociferous) conversations amongst ourselves, in professional seminars and at conferences”, then they will soon “lose [their] place in the broader social dialogue”, says the blog, which is also published on the London School of Economics’ Impact of Social Sciences platform.

“If there is a ‘crisis’ in the humanities, it lies in how we have our public debates, rather than in their content.” The solution, the blog says, is “all around us”: sharing.

“The best (and most successful) academics are the ones who are so caught up in the importance of their work, so caught up with their simple passion for a subject, that they publicise it with every breath,” Professor Hitchcock says.

He praises the early career scholars who have dismissed concerns that exposing their research too early “will either open them to ridicule, or allow someone else to ‘steal’ their ideas”.

“In my experience, the most successful early career humanists have already started building a form of public dialogue in to their academic practice.”

He gives examples, including Ben Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, whose Sapping Attention blog charts his work on using modern techniques to answer questions about 19th-century America; and Helen Rogers, reader in 19th-century studies at Liverpool John Moores University, who shares excerpts from her forthcoming book, Conviction: Stories from a Nineteenth-century Prison, on her Conviction blog.

“The most impressive thing about these blogs (and the academic careers that generate them) is that there is no waste – what starts as a blog, ends as an academic output, and an output with a ready-made audience, eager to cite it,” Professor Hitchcock says.

“Between them, Twitter and blogging just make good academic sense. And while you need to avoid all the kittens and trolls, clickbait and self-promoting gits, these forms of social media are rapidly evolving in to the places where the academic community is embodied.”

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