Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fear the Blogs

So, my project for the summer is to restart, for about the umpteenth time, a book project about facing fear and anxiety over social media tools. Thankfully, I have two wonderful colleagues, Leslie Madsen-Brooks and Barbara Sawhill helping me out. We decided to dive in after our latest presentation on the topic and have set ourselves a fairly ambitious deadline to get something written. I suggested that we start with topics and ideas that we feel most close to, which is different for all of us, and see where that takes us. Since I wrote a whole dissertation on blogs, that's where I started.

On Monday, I was at a social event with some folks I hadn't seen in quite a while (hey, to any of you reading this!) and they, of course, asked how things are going. I told them that I'd just returned from a conference where I'd given a presentation. They asked, on what?, expecting me to say on something to do with technology in education. I said fear. They did a double take. I explained that my colleagues and I had decided that the underlying reason for much of the resistence to social software was fear. They said, oh, and I thought it was because I didn't want to share my personal life with the world. I corrected them briefly that we weren't talking about fear of setting up your Facebook profile, but of using social software in teaching and research, which can be done in a private setting or with other kinds of parameters that reduce exposure. We're talking about using these tools professionally, in learning, not to talk about what kind of pajamas we're wearing.

Only 9% of the population has created a blog, so I don't expect creating and maintaining a blog to appeal to everyone, but just as very few students continue writing or doing math or thinking about sociology after they leave college, the experience of blogging can have lasting effects. I'm sure that students exposed to sociology look at the world differently than they would have otherwise. But, given the small number of people who do blog, I decided to start by writing about reading blogs. My husband has been a consumer of blogs since the dawn of Slashdot and he reads only a handful of blogs regularly, and he *loves* them. When he spouts off about something he read on a blog and starts making connections, I tell him he needs to get his own blog, and he agrees, but then he never does it. There are many more like him.

When I gave my talk at University of Mary Washington, it was reading of blogs I started with first. When I described my argument to my husband, explaining that I wanted to dispel the myth that all blogs were stupid, he said that would be simple, just have them read Tim Burke or Janet Stemwedel and you're done. Of course, the problem is, that even showing them these blogs isn't always enough to dispel their disdain for blogs. Those are outliers, they say. The rest are rubbish. And I wanted to take the argument a bit further. I wanted to say, hey, blogs are just as good as some peer reviewed material. Heresy! And I think they are in many cases for many situations, even within academe. At the very least, we can surely say that peer review is not above reproach. (See Janet's blog for stories of cheating and tragedy in peer review.)

So I shouted out to my twitter faculty friends a question about whether they allow their students to read blogs. I got some funny responses about how much power faculty have to "allow" their students to do anything. So I rephrased it to ask if they'd let their students use blogs in academic work. Faculty on Twitter are necessarily more open to social media than many others, and so I got the expected answers. Many, in fact, required their students to read blogs, and many encouraged it, and used blogs as a way of teaching digital literacy and critical thinking skills. Which is what I usually say to the skeptics, and now I can point to actual real live faculty who use blogs in just that way.

Journalists are afraid that blogs are going to put them out of business and I started thinking, wondering, whether faculty had that fear as well. Despite my saying that blogs can be just as good as peer reviewed material, I think that unlike journalism, the audience for the two media are different people. And, I think, that students don't actually read many blogs. But the faculty who do resist, the ones who ban not just blog reading, but using the Wikipedia, they seem to not trust their students to be able to make good judgements, and rather than teaching them how to, they keep them away from "bad" material. But what else might be at work there? That seems somehow too simple. Any skeptical faculty out there, or any people who work with skeptical faculty who have thoughts?
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