Berkeley scholars' adventures in the blogosphere
| 28 October 2009
BERKELEY — For Jonathan Simon, a professor at Berkeley Law, one drawback to finishing a writing project is that his thoughts continue to evolve, but his words become fixed in print. So as he was winding up his book about the war on crime and its implications for our democracy, Simon found a way to keep the flame alive while still turning in his manuscript: He launched a blog.
Titled, like the book, Governing Through Crime, the blog allows Simon to explore "new twists and spins" on crime and society, using current events — from the arrest of sex offender Phillip Garrido to legislative efforts to reform California's penal system. He now posts, as well, from the "left flank" of PrawfsBlawg, an online forum authored by lawyers around the country — and has seen his efforts there go viral. After a post in early September on the resignation of White House adviser Van Jones, under pressure from the right, his piece was quoted in The Opinionator, a New York Times "gathering of opinion from around the Web."
As chair of Berkeley's Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, Simon also uses Google's Blogger tool to publish JSP Spotlight, a website highlighting recent achievements by colleagues and students in the program, and Berkeley Jurisprude, where he offers observations on the changing field of empirical legal studies. And then, in his spare time, he plans to opine on the campus's new multi-author, multi-subject faculty forum, The Berkeley Blog.
Blogs of many flavors
As a campus participant in the blogosphere, Simon may be prolific, but he's not alone. Many Berkeley scholars, in fact, are venturing into cyberspace to use web 2.0 blogging tools in the service of their work.
Their online projects come in many flavors. Some, in format, approximate the "web logs" from which "blogs" take their name: authors writing in a personal voice, entries appearing online in reverse chronological order, people reacting and commenting freely from the anonymity of cyberspace. (To keep the conversation on track and civil, if a bit less free, some scholars opt to actively monitor readers' comments to weed out commercial material, off-topic remarks, or personal attacks.)
In other projects — such as the popular blogs of Berkeley economists Brad DeLong and Robert Reich, or China Digital Times and a handful of "hyper-local" news sites published by the School of Journalism — faculty and students are utilizing free, open-source blogging software as their publishing platform, but for writing and multimedia features less personal in tone than that of traditional blogs.
The founding idea for the campus blog Found in Translation (FIT) was to create a space for personal reflections on the use of language in everyday life. Specifically, it grew from a Freshman Seminar in which Professor Claire Kramsch asked each student to write a "linguistic autobiography" on his or her individual relationship with language — tapping into memories, say, on communicating with an immigrant parent or learning a foreign language in school. Excited by the project, students wanted to create a space for sharing these fascinating pieces online, says Found in Translation co-moderator Dave Malinowski, a PhD candidate in education.
That was in 2007. Two years later, the project lives on. Hosted by the Berkeley Language Center, an intellectual hub for those involved in language teaching and learning, the blog features not only linguistic autobiographies but reflections, by a changing cast of student and faculty bloggers, on everything from language and identity to the tongues in which we dream. For Found in Translation's core team, the blog has been an "ongoing experience and adventure," as Malinowski puts it — rewarding, time consuming, challenging.
Two of the site's most popular posts to date discuss the 10 hardest languages to learn and animal sounds in different languages. FIT co-moderator Usree Bhattacharya, a doctoral candidate in education and a self-professed "blogaholic," authored both. (The piece on animal sounds, though amusing, was not among her best, she says. "It throws me a little bit" that such posts are more popular than "deeper dialogue.")
While most FIT entries are in English, the site welcomes entries in any language, from Bengali to German to Swahili, as well as multilingual posts — such as Malinowski (a.k.a. "daveski") writing in English and Japanese on "the horror of ideograms," or "Katie_K" discussing her favorite word in Russian.
Blogging anxieties in academia
Writing about research and ideas may be second nature to scholars. But to "make the leap into blogging" as a publication vehicle requires "almost a fundamental mental shift," Bhattacharya believes. How, for instance, to encourage a critical mass of language teachers and learners to regularly post their reflections? According to Bhattacharya, even students who blog prolifically elsewhere hesitate to do so on the campus site. Why? She went so far as to conduct a research project on students' willingness to participate in the blog. One thing she learned is that the anonymity of the wider blogosphere is one of its appeals, while "the academic nature" of FIT can inhibit casual participation.
"Looking stupid" to a classmate — or worse, to a professor who grades your papers or may someday sit on your dissertation committee — "is the biggest fear," she says. The site is not, like most blogs, an online community of people who will never meet, "but very grounded in a space, UC Berkeley."
Would-be FIT contributors strugglem, as well, to reconcile "the intimate writing style" they associate with blogging and "the academic context that we're in," says Malinowski.
One student confesses as much in her first-ever post on FIT (or anywhere in the blogosphere): "I guess I am worried about finding the right pitch for an audience I have a hard time predicting. Do I write about myself, my loved ones, my experience, myself? Do I keep more of a distance? Do I write something that sounds academic? And then the pressure builds and I say, nah, never mind."
Undergrads in particular can feel intimidated, as well, "when they see their professor as the top post," Malinowski says — since any comment they submit will automatically go to the top and push down their professor's. To his surprise, this issue has been "a huge challenge" for the site.
Other Berkeley scholars, too, are struggling to come to terms with the leveling nature of cyberspace, which stands in contrast to the culture of academia — where quality control, credentials, and hierarchy are organizing principles. In the blogosphere, "your qualifications are not the thing that gets you followers," says Professor of Anthropology Rosemary Joyce, who launched the site "Honduras Coup 2009" in response to the June 28 ouster of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. There, she and her husband provide English translations of news on the Honduran political crisis, along with "opinions backed up by facts" drawing on decades as researchers in that country — hoping to shed light on what she calls "the most anti-democratic thing in modern Honduran history."
Building an online audience
Joyce has found a modest audience, as her blog gets quoted, linked to, and "tweeted" about. She is now in dialogue, she says, with a policy expert at the Soros Foundation who submitted an online comment. And she's learned, using a link-tracking tool, of a commodities trader who regularly links to her site from his blog on Latin American issues.
"I see this as a kind of realization of what we in academia say we want: we want our ideas out there; we want to connect," Joyce says.
Having access to a broader audience has prompted her to experiment with her writing style. In the scholarly publishing world, academics are rewarded for using the passive voice, employing rarefied jargon, and suppressing their personal excitement, Joyce says. But when writing for general consumption, "we need to get across the passion that we all feel about our research." In that sense the blog, for Joyce, has much in common with teaching: in both contexts, she says, it pays to "let my opinions show, use pungent examples, grab people's attention."
Professor Robin Lakoff, frustrated with writing academic papers "that only 23 people read," ventured into the blogosphere this summer — joining a host of experts and celebrities, from Robert Reich to Donatella Versace, as an author on the widely read Huffington Post.
"Language is important. It makes a difference what people say and how they're saying it," insists the Berkeley linguist. The work of social scientists "ought to be of interest to larger community," she says; she's found it frustrating to have "no natural way" to reach the public. The blogosphere has opened new possibilities for Lakoff. Now, she says, "When something comes up in the news that has a linguistic component, I think about whether I have something to say in 800 words or less. This is a good way to reach people."
Bhattacharya, who is 32 and who first encouraged her linguistics prof to write on the Huffington Post, is keenly aware of academics' misgivings about the blogosphere — but thinks blogging is destined to become an important tool for scholars. "I'm participating in a very historic moment. It's a new genre, a new medium," she says. "The best is yet to come."